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Rob Ashcom is a Web designer, songwriter, audio engineering, and writer who lives and works in San Jose, CA.

Image by Gia Bianchi. Gia has been creating visual compositions describing dreams, states of being, and social commentary since 1966.


Dark Planet is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments, please contact her at lusnyde@cyberus.ca.

All materials copyright 1996-1999 by their respective creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).

Happy Hour

by Rob Ashcom

 

Image of Eleanor      Fifteen minutes ago, according to her watch, Eleanor had stumbled into Corgan's on stick legs, hollow with fear, her nostrils clogged with the nauseating smell of blood. And still she felt unable to stop and take a deep breath, unable to stop this feeling of falling.
     Now she shivered in her chair at the table, her whole body minutely convulsing as uncontrollably as a hiccup, praying the others didn't notice her shivering or the lighter shade of pale on her usually pale face. Why had she come here? It suddenly seemed like a colossally bad idea to be sitting with her associates (friends?) in the subdued clinking of glasses while blood and death and ruin hid behind every face, every corner and closed door.

     "Who's got the good gossip?" Dave Gast asked everyone at the table. His wrinkled button-down shirt had both collar buttons undone. Jeans and tennis shoes. Classic nerd, Eleanor thought. At least her brain was thawing enough to be condescending.
     "Why don't you just tell them and get it over with," Kay Sugharo said as she twirled her glass of emerald green liqueur, staring cat-like off at things they couldn't see. Kay's hair looked like a perfect frozen waterfall of pitch-black oil. Her beautiful face stayed poised on the edge of anger or disdain.
     Don Tyson, the fourth and oldest person at the table, cocked his graying head expectantly, and that must have been enough for Dave.
     "Just fooling around," Dave began, "I intercepted some cool rumors from net traffic. A lab on the west coast or maybe the Pacific Rim found the exact pheromone that causes love."
     No one said anything. Dave's words were like a cold spike driven through Eleanor's chest. Her vision speckled with black until she forced her constricted lungs to breath.
     "Well, that's the rumor," Dave said.
     "'Causes love,'" Don repeated. "So it's a certain ripeness, is it? I always wondered why I was so clean and still so alone."
     Despite the fear which had blown her to Corgan's and still tickled the fine hairs like disaster antennae all over her body, Eleanor squeezed Don's upper arm with her strong grip. "You work too much," she said.
     Dave didn't rise to Don's jibe. He stood up for his nerd honor. "Excuse me, but it seems legit. It's a pheromone that triggers neuro-chemical responses in your brain...."
     "Not my brain," Kay inserted.
     "Things like the feelings between parents and children...."
     "Some children, maybe," Kay said, and no one laughed. None of them had children; none of them ever talked about parents.
     "As well as, " Dave continued doggedly, checking off the points on his fingers, "love and affection between friends, sexual attraction, and a sort of pure love."
     "Courtly love," Don observed.
     "Corroboration?" Kay asked disinterestedly, still looking away from the rest of them.
     "Hey, you never ask me for corroboration when I give you information," Dave complained.
     "We buy your information, Dave," Kay said, "and it's never this screwy or we wouldn't pay."
     "Okay, how about heavy grumbling inside Lily Pharmaceuticals?" Dave asked, frowning. "Or Sandoz?"
     "And what were the plans for this revolutionary elixir?" Don asked in his deep, quiet voice.
     "I don't know," Dave said. "One thing for sure, it'd shake up a lot of businesses if love came in a bottle."
     Kay turned and faced the table, her eyes inseeing. "Cosmetics and clothes and hair care," she listed as if she were alone.
     "Exercise and dieting," Dave said.
     "Psychotherapy," Don said.
     "Billions of dollars," Eleanor concluded. Why not? And another shiver sucked her back to the scene at the Palace of Fine Arts less than an hour ago:

 

     An old man--frail and wrinkled--dressed in dark winter clothes though the summer sun heated his outdoor bench here in the Marina district; detached gigantic walls and arches and domes of brown rock dwarfing the small, gray/black figure; her cautious approach and the vacant stare of the courier, his unresponsiveness; the exquisitely unique sensation as she touched his coat of a large sponge and the track of red down the side of his throat, already darkening, drying; the wound--the incision really, she thought now--pale and puckered; the air around him reeking of rust and something nasty and sweet--something bad; then her running to Corgan's like an animal to its den, mindless and shattered. God, she hated all these lies.

 

     She looked around the table at her friends and began to feel a new fear like another layer of ice coating her arms and legs, dragging at the expansion of her lungs. Since seeing the dead man--the murdered man--Eleanor knew in her bones there was no limit to how bad things could get, no universal law which made killers wear a sign around their necks so the innocents could avoid them. As if she herself were an innocent. They were all liars at this table and anyone here could be hiding anything.

 

     "Tell me more, Dave," Kay requested.
     Dave swelled under Kay's attention. "There really isn't anything else," he replied, looking like he'd make something up for Kay's intense dark eyes if he could.
     Eleanor forced herself to take a deep breath and focused on it completely, willing the tightness out of her shoulders, the ice out of her stomach. Don said something about cold-fusion and cures for cancer that she didn't catch, and Dave laughed, though he looked worried over his failure to produce more information for Kay.
     In bitchy moments, Eleanor thought Kay probably paid him for his expensive hacked information in bed. She wondered about the others' methods. She employed her own brand of girlish seduction in the course of business, but never actually bartered sex for secrets. She wasn't sure about Kay. They didn't talk about specifics much at these monthly happy hours, and their usual feeling of camaraderie, which she liked, actually only dated back three years. And it only came from these evenings at Corgan's--Eleanor had never met Kay or Dave or Don outside of this bar except on the Net.
     "Twelve billion dollars," Kay said abruptly, bringing Eleanor's attention back to the table.
     "Yes, Kay?" Don asked.
     "The cosmetics industry last year," Kay said. Eleanor didn't like the narrowed expression on Kay's face. Some Shakespeare line about lean and hungry looks crossed her mind. Kay's thoughts could be dangerous to her.
     "Yeah, that's what I'm saying," Dave said. "Sliced bread is nothing to this. Cold fusion and a cure for cancer are, like, extraneous. Put on a little scent and suddenly everyone loves you. Imagine that."
     "But you got to admit, Dave," Eleanor said, "It's probably a hoax like all those end of the world virus stories you keep e-mailing us."
     "Maybe." He tilted back the rest of his beer. "But think of the shakeup in the stock market from even one solid rumor. All the affected companies."
     "Are you planning something, David?" Don asked.
     Dave frowned and blinked a few times. "Who? Me? I'm just talking here, Don."
     "Because you realize this would affect us all."
     "Yeah sure," Dave said
     "We four are the only really effective industrial spies on the west coast."
     Eleanor cringed at Don saying this out loud, though no one could overhear their conversation. And she started worrying about eavesdropping devices under the tables, in the lamps. Didn't it make sense that someone should spy on the spies? The walls began to feel too close, and Eleanor had to suppress an urge to jump up and run out of the bar ... out into what, was the problem.
     "We agreed not to interfere with each other," Don finished.
     "Don't worry about me," Dave said, darting glances around the table.
     Eleanor wondered how much of Dave's exterior to believe. What about Don? Or even Kay with all her questioning? Was this all lies? Questioning was not her strength. She had thought that simplicity was the essence of her strength until a half hour ago--the simplicity of climbing rock faces free of entangling ropes, swinging by the strength of her fingers; the simplicity of the anonymous con, the soft breaking and entering during business hours, and later, delivering the precious data she never tried to understand for money in her bank account which further simplified her life.
     "Maybe we should all be thinking about Dave's rumor seriously," Kay said, finally looking at the three of them. Her directness, the absence of her usual disdain, focused the tense sickness in Eleanor's stomach. She felt another cold draft blowing across those fine hairs.
     "Hey," Dave said, "I know we've never worked together on anything, but...."
     "Because it's a bad idea," Don interrupted. His hands rested unmoving on the tabletop. "Predators work best alone. Get too many together and they end up competing with each other. That's what we've avoided for all these years, Dave."
     Don stared at a spot in the center of the table and his eyebrows drew together. "I remember when it was different, and people got killed." He stood up and went for more drinks.

 

     "You're not saying much, Eleanor," Kay said. "Cat got your tongue?"
     "It still seems pretty out there to me," Eleanor said, trying to imitate Kay's angry serenity.
     "Come on," Kay urged, "everyone wants to be loved, or at least wanted. Can't you imagine all the slobs out there exercising, getting three hundred dollar haircuts, just to get a reaction out of someone else? Damn! Cosmetic surgery! That's a few billion, just in California."
     "I get it," Eleanor said, "but I agree with Don. This is supposed to be a friendly meeting. I don't want to screw that up."
     She couldn't even talk about her work with anyone else. To lose this outlet would be unbearable. That extra level of loss barely registered on her, still numb with shock, but she knew it could haunt her tomorrows. She swiveled in her chair to look around the bar and avoid Kay's eyes.
     Four tables smaller than theirs circled the bar itself, the light-grained wood of each one lit by a green-shaded banker's lamp. A pair of businessmen in black suits hunched over scotch and sodas at one table. A well-dressed man and woman sat at another, intent on each other. The rest of the tables and most of the bar stools remained unoccupied.
     Their table sat back in the corner, shadowed rather than lit by a black steel torchiere lamp at the intersection of the two brick walls-walls which had survived the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes, making them some of the oldest walls in San Francisco. They'll make it through one more night, Eleanor thought.
     Kay was silent as Don came back with fresh drinks. Only her eyes moved, briefly staring at Dave next to her, across the table at Eleanor who felt the gaze in her abused stomach, then resting at last on Don. When she spoke, she spoke to Eleanor and Don.
     "Dave's too dumb to fool me," she said thoughtfully. Dave frowned thoughtfully as if trying to equate this statement with himself and failing to find a match. "But you two don't seem very excited about all this. If I was suspicious, I'd say you were too casual."
     "It's just a silly rumor, Kay." Don took a sip of his whiskey and soda and grinned. "Don't get paranoid right out of the gate."
     "What Dave said about this pheromone stuff is true," Kay replied, louder than before, her nostrils flaring. "Someone'd pay one of us millions for a blank bubble chip on the off chance it had the formula or whatever on it. Don, maybe."
     Kay skewered Don with her eyes. "He might just trade in his reputation for a nice retirement in hiding."
     Don, disconcertingly, began to chuckle. The chuckle turned into a laugh. "Kay! You're the best. With an imagination like that, you should be writing thrillers, not stealing secrets."
     Eleanor felt naked, her chest constricting again until she only breathed in small gasps. She should never have come. It had been dumb to schedule the delivery so close to this meeting, and dumber still to come after it turned into a fiasco. Kay looked obsessed with the idea of the 'love drug'. Dave glanced around nervously--he probably thought this unsociable atmosphere was all his doing. Next to her, only Don seemed completely relaxed, unchanged by Kay's sudden flight of fancy.
     "Look, say it's true," Eleanor said, speaking in a desperate reflex to turn the flow of this conversation. "They isolate the human attractive pheromone, someone makes a bundle initially, then the formula gets out, and patents or not, everyone's selling it on the street corner. What I'm saying, Kay, is it's not going to make us millions unless you want to turn into a scam artist. So why are you getting so intense about it?"
     "Human attractive pheromone?" Kay said, her head cocked like a hawk.
     "That's what they're calling it," Dave chimed in. "HAP."
     "How the hell you know that?" Kay snapped at Eleanor, making her jump.
     "Kay!" Don snapped back, "Why don't you leave her alone!?"
     "Tell me what to do, gwai lo?"
     Kay's eyes narrowed; the broken English hissed out of her mouth like viper breath. "You think I stupid? You two acting funny, suddenly don't care about money? Bullshit!"
     She turned to Eleanor abruptly. "You got it, don't you?!"
     "Kay ... I ...."
     "Don't lie!"
     Kay lifted her left knee, putting her foot on the chair, her short skirt pulling back to expose the flat white thigh-flesh above the sheen of her stocking. Instead of a garter belt, Eleanor saw a tiny holster, and suddenly she was looking at a small, square automatic pistol in Kay's hand. She thought instantly of cigarette lighters, and then the realization came over her: Kay was going to shoot her.
     A group of businessmen boiled into the bar at that moment, yelling drink orders and laughing uproariously. Eleanor turned to look at the bar, then back at Kay.
     "What do you--" she started to say.
     "Shut up!" Kay yelled over the sudden increase in noise. Then jazz burst out of the speaker above their table--bee-bop horns and crashing drums. Kay's eyes rolled like a wild horse seeing the corral for the first time.
     Dave stood up.
     "I'm leaving," Eleanor thought she read from his lips. The music hurt, it was so loud. He started to move around behind Kay, the only way out of the corner.
     "You sit down!" Kay yelled at Dave, turning the pistol away from Eleanor and towards him. Eleanor's tunnel vision suddenly expanded as the cold eye of the muzzle left her. Peripherally, she saw the dark quiet of Corgan's flare into chaotic movement and sound. The couple tried to pay their bill and leave. The invading businessmen rearranged furniture, told jokes, yelled secrets to each other down the length of the bar, and harangued Holgrave, the ancient, imperturbable bartender. Nobody seemed to notice Kay and her gun. The music blared.
     Dave was so close that Kay actually poked him in the stomach with the pistol. He reached down as if to brush it away, and Eleanor heard a firecracker pop somewhere within the roil of sound. Dave put one hand to his stomach and one on the back of his chair. His eyes became serious, staring down at the tableau of glasses and coasters. His mouth and face tightened as if he concentrated on something beyond the simple surface of the table. Then he slumped down into his chair. Eleanor watched what little color he had drain out of his face, leaving him ashen, gaunt. As unexpectedly as it began, the music cut off.
     "Oh my god." Kay's voice was loud in the sudden silence. Her face sagged. The gun shook in her hand. She looked at it without any sign of recognition, then made it disappear back under her skirt. "We need to get help for Dave," she said, imploring Eleanor and Don with her eyes.
     "I'll go," Eleanor said quickly, suddenly seeing her escape route. She began to stand up from her chair, when Don shoved her back down with one hand. Eleanor heard a snicking sound and saw a flash of orange as Don extended the blade of a packing knife and held it to her throat.
     "Just give me the HAP, Eleanor," he said in the same comfortable voice as always, "then you can go."
     "Don?"
     "Yes. I killed the courier, sweet little Eleanor," Don said, and something nasty crept into his voice. "But you left so fast all I could do was follow you here."
     "But why are you ...?" Eleanor tried to turn and see his face, but the knife stopped her.
     "Just wait until you're old," Don said. "No real life, no real friends.
     Eleanor saw Kay go for her gun without any feeling of hope that she'd be rescued. It was if she had really become an animal since seeing the dead courier--reacting on instincts which were unprepared for the nuance of the present ordeal. The only way out--she suddenly knew with a clarity that melted one thick layer of ice from her--was to take control.
     As Kay reached beneath her skirt for the gun, Don slipped out of his chair, around behind Eleanor, holding her tight with his left arm around her upper body and the knife-point tickling the rapid pulse in her neck. Eleanor cringed to see the gun wavering in her direction again. Tears diluted the makeup around Kay's eyes; a glistening black line spilled down one white cheek as she tried to aim at Don.
     Kay started to stand up, get a better angle, and Don jerked his arm tighter around Eleanor.
     "Stay in your seat, Kay." Don's voice growled with menace.
     Everyone's gone completely insane, Eleanor thought. Don's arm bruised her breasts, and she felt a cool wetness spread out from the pocket of her denim shirt. She had a brief moment to think that it felt like rubbing alcohol against her skin, then she thought, no, it's perfume.
     But it didn't have any one single odor.
     She smelled sweet marijuana and felt the hands of her first real boyfriend unbearably alive on her hungry skin. She smelled Don's mature, masculine scents of cologne and talcum and irrationally drew comfort from his arm around her, a little girl again, daddy still alive. She saw Kay crying, destroying her careful makeup, and smelled the menagerie of makeup and perfumes on her dressing table in high school, feeling the desperate bonds of adolescent friendship reach across the table and the gulf of time to this moment and Kay who sat across from her torn by a pain she couldn't bully or bluff her way out of. Behind her, Eleanor heard Don gasp.
     "Oh my God!" he said quietly.
     Slumped over in his chair, Dave opened his eyes. As he noticed Eleanor looking at him, he smiled weakly, and Eleanor felt the hot tears well out of her eyes. She felt his love for her and his pain like a stab larger than any deadly little knife. She smelled flowers and wet dogs and campfires, her grandmother's perfume--Jungle Gardenia; and rainstorms, stale beer, new car, fresh laundry, breakfast at home, and the salty tang of the ocean.
     It's all true, she thought, and didn't separate the impressions from this strange perfume eliciting them. It was all true.
     Reaching across Don's encircling arm with her strong left hand, Eleanor peeled away his fingers, bending them back painfully and twisting, forcing his arm out straight--Don helping with his natural reaction to ease the tension. The knife disappeared from her neck. She turned and stood up from the chair as she spun Don around. And then he was kneeling in front of her, penitent, his arm locked out straight in her determined, irresistible grip. And she perceived just a blur of motion as the bartender, Holgrave, snapped a shiny wooden truncheon against the side of Don's head. Holgrave paused to eye Don slumping to the floor, then looked up quickly with a startled expression. And a huge smile broke out on his face. He opened his arms wide, and Eleanor stepped around Don, into Holgrave's embrace.
     I wonder how long this stuff lasts, she wondered.

THE END