As you probably know, we've just published the 2nd volume of our very cool TETE BECHE series of flippable books.
And now we've released the 2nd in the series featuring Fahrenheit superstar authors Jo Perry and Derek Farrell...
Today we're treating you to exclusive extracts from BOTH books - kicking off with Jo...
EVERYTHING HAPPENS by JO PERRY
Jennifer pushes the warm gas pedal with her freshly French-manicured big toe, prodding the pumpkin-colored Subaru she and Jake leased right after they eloped––well, all the paperwork is in her name––past eighty-five––then holds her breath and wonders if it was a good idea to speed up right where Interstate 15 drops and bends into the Martian-crimson expanse of sand near the exit for Searchlight––birthplace of Senator Harry Reid whose father worked its now defunct Duplex gold mine––a ‘living ghost town’––according to Wikipedia’s anonymous content providers––inhabited by maybe a hundred or so invisible residents a few Mojave-scorched, mirage-shimmering feet above sea level.
Jennifer swallows a gritty meatball-sized gulp of hot yellow highway air from the open window, squeezes the steering wheel to steady herself, watches the speedometer reach ninety while speaking her newly-adopted mantra out loud––Do the thing you fear––a wisdom-nugget from Ralph Waldo Emerson that serendipitously appeared at end of a scam email that somehow found its way to her inbox from a pastor in Shanghai who desperately needed her assistance with a small financial transaction––“Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain,” he’d said, then lavished his and God’s blessings upon her.
The Shanghai pastor’s benediction and Emerson’s exhortation had landed upon Jennifer’s consciousness like a shower of meteors, smoldered there, then made her cry.
Her dull eyes shone––not because what of that piece of shit Jake had done or not done––but because the words were so true and beautiful and seemed meant for her––only her.
Sometimes the universe organizes itself just so––like a spring rose at peak bloom. A butterfly just freed from its chrysalis. Or hitting one green light after another when you’re really late. Perfect.
Jennifer remembered the tingly, buoyant butterfly-new-rose flutter that replaced being leaden and scared shitless of being alone.
What a gift for wisdom to arrive when she’d needed it the most. What a miracle to have everything fall into place––a place completely different from the one Jennifer had dutifully inhabited for thirty-two years, the last one in the beige one-bedroom apartment off Sherman Way she’d shared with Jake––although he’d insisted that the lease and utilities be in her name.
That revelation was like the ornate black and white posters behind the welcome desk in the Happiness Manor lobby that she must have walked past––or pushed wheelchairs past or directed patients in walkers past––a thousand times––but that one day the images totally flipped––day became night, out became in, the upward staircase swirled downward, the reflecting globe became a window and the flock of blackbirds flashed and became white doves against a night sky.
Jennifer averts her eyes from what appears to be a shallow sea of boiling silver west of the highway––the scalding glare from the thermal power plant receiving and rejecting sunlight––and marvels gratefully at the truth that was there all along but that she could not see and which she has commemorated with the tattoo flowing in navy blue flourishing above her ass––Everything Happens over her left buttock, For A Reason above the right.
Because today is her first wedding anniversary for which the traditional gift is paper, Jennifer streaks toward Las Vegas to sign papers divorcing her from that lying, total dick sociopath of a “husband” Jake.
Do the thing you fear means that there’s nothing to fear.
Jennifer was flossing her teeth a few days after receiving the email when the toothpaste-speckled bathroom mirror delivered the climacteric epiphany––right there in her faded Costco flannel pajamas, her stringy brown hair in need of a shampoo pulled back with a rubber band, her too flat, too round, face without the makeup required to brighten her or to enhance the washed-out brown eyes that always looked sleepy.
Stupid. Fat. Slow––that’s what Jake always said about her when he got angry.
A fucking cow.
Shit happens––Jake said that a lot, too.
But if there’s nothing to fear, then the shit that happens is supposed to happen, right?
Jennifer questioned the image in the dingy mirror.
A fucking cow.
What was that quote from Barack Obama?
Jennifer gargled pale blue mouthwash, spit it into the sink and tried to remember the writing prompt the teaching assistant had printed on the board right before she dropped out of Valley College to marry Jake and started working as a direct patient care assistant at Happiness Manor: Worry-Free Alzheimer’s and Hospice Care.
The arc of the blah, blah, blah universe is long, but it bends toward justice––that’s it––now give three examples to support your thesis.
Well, I’m going to bend the fucking universe, starting now, Jennifer resolved.
She opened the medicine cabinet’s mirrored door and removed Jake’s aftershave, his tube of KY jelly, his box of condoms, the expensive Brookstone nose hair trimmer with an LED light she’d bought him for his birthday, then lifted his square hairbrush, electric razor, extra-large stick of Old Spice deodorant, his hair-thickening shampoo and gel from the drawer and swept it all the into the plastic bag lining the pink plastic trash container, shut the cabinet and looked at her plain, wide pancake face in the mirror.
Do the thing you fear.
Maybe she should have taken the turnoff to Searchlight, found the mine, stood over its crumbling edge and stared into the goddamned abyss. Jennifer––who fears heights and depths––shudders.
Maybe on the drive back––not now, Jennifer calms herself. Keep your mind on the prize.
She’s completed the online the questionnaire, coughed up the three hundred and fifty dollars to PayPal that the Vegas Value Divorce website required up front, and this morning received the email summoning her to their office to sign the documents.
Jennifer pulls a thick, hard slab of the Alien Fresh Beef Jerky she bought in Baker from the paper bag on the passenger seat, breaks off a choking-hazard-sized piece, and tries to chew it.
Living ghost town, Jennifer remembers reading about Searchlight. How can a ghost be ‘living’?
Well, I’m a ghost, aren’t I?
Jake ghosted me and here I am. Invisible but here.
Well, not invisible but maybe a haze––the smudge left over when you try to erase something. The scrapes and dings left on the living room wall after Jake ripped out the big screen TV, the tangle of hangers inside the blur of dry cleaners’ plastic bags on Jake’s side their closet––or the way Jennifer’s movements clanged against the hard, just-emptied-of-Jake’s-belongings surfaces in the apartment.
Jennifer scans the traffic ahead and her bottom lip wobbles.
Everything happens for a reason, Jennifer tries to psych herself.
Even a thing like Jake.
Fuck fear! Jennifer pokes her head out of the open window as the Subaru surges alongside Jean, the “town” after Primm.
A thermal transports the expletive and Jennifer’s soon-to-be ex-husband’s name southwest toward the Mojave where it will become part of a gust that scatters the chalk-dry bones of a once-thirsting cottontail.
Jennifer looks for the ‘Southern Nevada Correctional Center’ sign, then for the prison behind Terrible’s Hotel and Casino––which is not as stupid-looking as the one in Primm, she thinks, with that fucking rollercoaster and the oversized neon Buffalo wearing an Indian headdress. Who thought it was cute to have a hotel called Terrible’s right near a jail for psychos and sex offenders and without as much a rock or shrub between it and the casino?
Jennifer fights off a the sensation that she’s dreaming, that the lava-orange Ozymandian expanse isn’t the same desert as the one in the slightly blurry, oversaturated postcard of a skeleton leaning against a saguaro beneath the words, ‘BUT IT’S A DRY HEAT’ for sale in the gas station food mart in Baker––home of the World’s Tallest Thermometer––broken––where she stopped to pee.
Jennifer didn’t buy the postcard because she had no one to buy it for now that Jake had done what he’d done.
Clark Mountain purples on her left and Primm’s glow marks the invisible Nevada state line in the rear-view mirror. Jennifer remembers the afternoon one year ago when Primm meant “almost married,” when Jake told her about the sex offenders and the psychos in the little prison and the dry wind slapped her cheeks, and electrified and frizzed her salon-smoothed hair.
Jennifer takes an eight-beat-long cleansing breath as recommended by the actress/lifestyle guru she follows on Instagram and attempts to live––or at least drive––in the moment.
Jennifer’s Do What You Fear plan requires that she drive alone to Vegas, complete the divorce paperwork this afternoon, spend the rest of the Jake-free weekend in Vegas scaring herself shitless, then return to Van Nuys and the warehouse full of demented geriatric cases where she works a freshly-empowered, eager-to-live-each-moment-to its terrifying-fullest on the first Monday of what will be the rest of Jennifer 2.0’s exciting, meaningful, fulfilling and totally kick-ass and invigorated-without-Jake life.
But pushing beyond the speed limit and executing a series of abrupt and risky lane-changes cannot save Jennifer from being swallowed by the thickening Friday afternoon bumper-to-bumper traffic oozing toward the Strip.
Jennifer takes a sip from the now-warm plastic bottle of water from Baker, then sucks on a speckled jawbreaker as the Subaru creeps over the superheated highway past billboards advertising buffets, slots and skin until the rose gold towers of Mandalay Bay levitate into sky.
Jennifer wonders which of the thousands of blank mirrored windows on the thirty-second floor are the ones that man shattered and from which he opened fire on concertgoers below.
Why would anyone do such a thing to people he didn’t even know?
How could something so horrible happen for a reason?
A refrigerator truck with a leering, upright shrimp dancing with a demon-eyed lobster painted on the side swerves into Jennifer’s lane, almost touching the Subaru’s bumper.
“Watch where you’re going!”
The truck driver, a red-haired man pink from the heat, leans out of his window and gives her the finger. “Drop dead. Go die!”
Jennifer closes the window, adjusts the air conditioner and fan to maximum and coldest just as the dashboard digital clock slips from 5:14 to 5:15, then 5:16.
The Vegas Value Divorce website homepage had a yellow box saying that the office closed promptly at 6:00 p.m. on Fridays.
The cartoon highway on Jennifer’s cell phone WAZE map has morphed from orange to cherry red and is cluttered with automobile and police car icons. The ETA for her destination––a law office in a sickly green three-story office building near a MacDonald’s and the State of Nevada Division of Welfare and Supportive Services––is now forty minutes away from her current location.
Then the female voice warns, “Accident ahead.”
The traffic stalls and coagulates parallel to the Luxor where last year to the day, maybe to the hour, Jake and Jennifer posed for just-married selfies with the fake Sphinx behind them.
Jennifer had held her wedding chapel bouquet of pink carnations sideways so it wouldn’t block her white lace, cleavage-enhancing mini-dress. Her peachy, glossed smile had been real, not a pose. Jake said she looked smoking hot and posted the pictures on Instagram right away with ‘My ball and chain’ on one, and ‘My old lady’ with a smiley face emoticon on the other.
They’d stuffed themselves at the Excalibur buffet because Jennifer wore her crazy high heels and the Excalibur wasn’t too far away. Then they’d returned to their room, made love, drank champagne poured from green glass bottles in a silver ice bucket, made love again then watched the bats swirling like stars swallowing smaller stars––clouds of moths––drifting through the column of blue light streaming from the apex of the glittering black pyramid below.
The falling sun cooks the highway, the orange Subaru and Jennifer inside it, transforming automobile and truck windows, side mirrors, and chrome into blobs of fire.
This traffic is total bullshit, Jennifer says––then corrects herself. Shit happens. And everything happens for a reason.
Who the fuck is she to presume to comprehend the workings of eternity? Of Time? Of the goddamned universe?
All that matters is that the universe isn’t a flat, endless empty road to fucking nowhere.
No––Jennifer reminds herself––it bends toward the just and the good––even if the curve is too slight for human beings to feel or to see.
Ten more minutes and the Subaru has advanced beyond the Luxor to a ten-story parking structure behind New York, New York with a ‘Criss Angel Mindfreak at Caesar’s’ billboard across it. The glowering magician’s massive photo-shopped abs ripple across the sign like rows of mountains seen from an airplane and make Jennifer feel small.
The day after the wedding night Jennifer wanted to see the Blue Man Group show but Jake––who’d visited the casino while Jennifer slept––said it was way too expensive so they walked along the Strip instead. Jennifer loved the computerized fountains outside the Bellagio and the half-sized Eiffel Tower replica at Paris.
The hot-to-the-touch driver’s side of the Subaru reminds Jennifer of what it felt like to walk in rubber flip-flops along the crowded Strip with Jake, how quickly her feet got filthy, how her soles ached, and how much farther away everything was than it looked. And every few feet a man would dart toward them, snap a handful of cards advertising a whore house or strip club, and slide one into Jake’s open palm.
How gross, Jennifer had thought. How disgusting.
But then they entered the Venetian’s lobby.
Frescoed Renaissance angels and cherubs cavorted over their heads and a real gold exact replica of something called the Venetian Armillary Sphere shone under the magnificent ceiling that was like the roof of some sort of church.
Oh my God.
The air smelled just like that really expensive perfume––Joy––she’d sampled at Macy’s and the marbled floors and walls gave off coolness as if the whole place had been built of ice cream.
Then at the bottom of the escalator glowed a trompe l’oeil cloud-filled sky tinged peach and honey from a perpetual and invisible sunset, white-robed human statues posing unblinking, unmoving, and gondolas drifting along the Venetian’s basement shopping mall canal below her and Jake as they ate their double scoop gelatos.
It was perfect.
Until the long walk back on the sticky sidewalk in the hundred-plus degree heat. Jennifer hurt from the bottoms of her feet right up to her sunburned neck and face and her champagne headache burned as she tramped through clouds of mist and smoke. Jake had been pissed when she asked to take a cab back to the Luxor and quickened his pace every time she slowed––and he never stopped sucking on the plastic straw of the fucking three-foot high margarita slushy with three extra shots he’d bought with the cash they’d had left.
“Hurry up, Jell-O Jen.” Jake kept making his favorite dig about her weight, but Jennifer had laughed, too.
Why the fuck did you laugh when Jake mocked you, shit for brains? demands the cruel, interrogating voice inside Jennifer’s head that sounds just like Jake’s.
Sirens screech though the closed windows from both sides of the divided highway, Jennifer really, really needs to pee, and the dashboard display flashes one hundred and eight degrees, 5:46 p.m.
It’s too late for Jennifer to complete item Numero Uno on her Do What You Fear list.
It is too late to sign the papers––too late to comply with the existential imperative that will deliver her from Jake’s contempt, resentments and lies––it is too late to do the only fucking thing that matters and upon which every other important thing depends.
The step she absolutely has to take if she ever is to have a shot at controlling her own life, fixing her finances or possessing even a sliver of dignity has been officially cancelled or postponed indefinitely by an unbending, goddamned asshole of a universe.
Jennifer née Livingstone has blown it once again.
Jennifer is doomed to walk the earth as Jake’s wife for another twenty-four, forty-eight, or seventy-two hours––maybe more if there was some official document deadline she’d missed in the Vegas Value Divorce website’s fine print. Jennifer will lose the pay she desperately needs after missing another day or two of work, will be forced to pay for an extra night or two in the motel with her already maxed-out Visa card because the dumbass that she is decided to splurge on the ass tattoo nobody can fucking see while she was in debt up to her just-threaded eyebrows––another splurge––and while she’s been living on ramen and goddamn fumes.
The magnitude of her stupidity and the bottomlessness of her totally unfounded optimism makes Jennifer’s world tremble and spin.
Everything happens for a reason my fat ass.
I did this, Jennifer thinks.
Jake leaving me was my fault––not his.
My being stuck here is on me.
Why couldn’t I lose the weight?
Why couldn’t I stop stuffing my fat face?
Why didn’t I leave L.A. earlier today?
What the hell was I thinking?
Do I even think at all?
Why do I ruin every goddamned thing I touch?
Fail at everything I try?
A siren’s whoop, flashing lights, then a City of Las Vegas Fire and Rescue paramedic truck roars along the highway shoulder so close to the passenger window that Jennifer’s narrow wedding band and the minute diamond in her matching engagement ring glow red.
What the actual fuck is wrong with you, you loser moron? Jennifer punches the steering wheel hard enough to make her hand sting.
The pressure from her bladder is unrelenting. Despite the Subaru’s air conditioning, sweat rises on Jennifer’s pink scalp, slides down her flat face, drips from her weak chin and into her cleavage.
Jesus Christ. How stupid can one fucking person be?
A trio of police cars and a fire truck rumble past––a gray and red blur along the highway shoulder.
Jennifer’s question hangs there like a speech bubble filled with poison gas, swelling and blackening until it’s something solid that eats light, then drops against Jennifer’s chest like a boulder, pushing out the air and sending blotches of green across the Subaru’s night-dark and freezing interior.
Jennifer feels for the Alien Fresh Jerky bag on the seat, shakes out the crumbs, melted Hershey’s kisses and the remaining jawbreakers, twists the neck and covers her mouth and nose with it, gasps into it, then re-breathes her own carbon dioxide and begs God and the indifferent universe she’s somehow really pissed off to save her from whatever catastrophic, suffocating bodily failure is sending the shattering, knife-like pain radiating from behind her left breast and down her left arm.
The relentless hammering––more insistent than the noise her of the Jake-bruised heart fluttering too fast inside her chest––each weighted thump thundering louder than the last––penetrates Jennifer’s spongy unconsciousness and forces her dreamless eyes to open.
Emerging from her thickening panic and the blur of honking horns and sirens is male voice shouting, “Open the fucking door or I’ll blow your head off.”
A big, red-smeared fist is responsible for the pounding––the skin whitening each time it strikes the glass of the driver’s side window against which Jennifer has been slumping––then a second hand battering the window with something metal.
Between the hands is a face––if raw ground meat with eyes can be called a face.
Jennifer screams, leans on the horn and hopes for rescue, but the Subaru’s bleat is lost inside the grinding of hundreds of engines, the honking of hundreds of horns. The pliable universe is currently handling the complaints of other customers and the drivers behind and in front of Jennifer’s Subaru do not look up even once from the glowing screens of their cell phones.
More fist pounding and clacking of what looks like a gun against window, then the uncooked beef patty opens its mouth. “Let me the fuck in or I’ll shoot you in the face.”
The rhinestone-bling-manicured finger pressing the button that releases the locks trembles.
All four sun-baked doors click and release at once, the door behind the driver’s seat opens with a whoosh of male sweat and hot rust-scented air, the door slams shut and something metal digs into the back of Jennifer’s head.
“Give me your phone.”
Jennifer relinquishes her cell phone to the big hand on her shoulder. The man opens the door briefly while he tosses Jennifer’s cell phone onto the highway, then shuts the door and locks it.
“Drive, bitch. Now.”
“How?” Jennifer employs the chirpy singsong that she uses with combative dementia patients at the care facility and that sometimes worked on Jake when he was ready to blow up––he was ready more and more often––which she hopes will defuse the nut job with the high, bloodied forehead, black hair flecked with dust and grit, and two wild black eyes above scraped-raw cheekbones in her rear-view mirror. “I’ve been stuck here for like over an hour. There’s a big accident up ahead. Maybe a fatality.”
“Tell me the fuck about it.” The man’s voice is mean and gravelly. He pushes the gun into the tender spot above her right ear so hard that Jennifer can feel barrel’s heat. “Don’t be a smartass or they’ll be another ‘fatality.’ Drive the fuck out of here.”
“Okay. I will. But how?”
“What? Are you a fucking retard? Jesus Christ. Just my luck to pick the car driven by a moron. Orange car. I should have fucking known.”
His flashing black eyes meet the reflection of her terrorized dull brown ones. “Just drive on the shoulder to the exit––Tropicana Avenue, Frank Sinatra Drive.” The man hits the top of Jennifer’s head hard with the gun butt. “Now, dumbass. Go.”
And now imagine you've flipped your screen over and get started on this extract from Derek's book...
DEATH OF A SINNER by DEREK FARRELL
Sylvia Plath Academy, Colchester, Essex, 2012
The shove sent her staggering forward, her hands reaching blindly out for something – anything – to stop the fall, but there was nothing within reach and so she was left sprawling on the floor, the contents of her school bag scattering around her.
Emily, her face already flaming in shame, staggered around so that she was sitting on the ground, looking up at her attacker.
“What did you say about Niki Minaj, you bitch?” Chrissie Cobb sneered down at the girl who was now scrambling around trying to get back on her feet.
“Fat cow,” Chrissie snarled, placing her foot deliberately and firmly on the textbook Emily was reaching for. “Look at her.” She addressed the trio of teenaged goons who were hanging back, each checking a different direction, ready to give the warning if a teacher appeared in the distance.
For a second they focused their attention on the girl on the floor, her eyes already filling with tears.
One of them giggled. Another sucked her teeth in disgust.
“You wanna lay off the pies, Em,” Chrissie said, voice dripping in obviously fake solicitude.
Emily’s face blushed furiously again as she snatched at her pencil case, shoving it into her bag.
“So go on,” Chrissie demanded, eyes glittering with malice, “say it to my face. Say what you said about Niki Minaj again, you fat cow.”
“I didn’t say nothing,” Emily said, abandoning the geography textbook that was still trapped beneath Chrissie’s absolutely non-uniform Adidas and clambering to her feet.
“Oh look,” Chrissie, reached out and grabbed Emily’s chin, pushing the frightened girl back against the wall, “she’s crying.” She paused, then hissed a demand. “Say. What. You. Said.”
“I’m not crying,” Emily insisted, trying to pull away from the taller girl’s grip. “And all I said was that her voice isn’t as good as Adele’s.”
“You what?” Chrissie pursed her lips. Her eyes glittered furiously, stoked by the heresy that had been repeated in front of her.
“Well it’s true,” Emily said. “She’s not a singer. She doesn’t have the voice of an Adele.”
“You know what else she doesn’t have?” Chrissie sneered, glancing down at the slightly too-tight grey skirt stretched over Emily’s hips. “She doesn’t have the blubber neither. You ever think of losing a few pounds, Em? People might like you better if you did. Cos nobody likes a sweaty, smelly fatty. Especially one who can’t tell quality music from the Radio Two pap that fat bitch sings.”
“Adele’s got talent,” Emily answered, receiving a punch on the shoulder for her nerve.
That was it. She’d had enough. She knew that Chrissie Cobb and her gang would string her up for what she was about to say, but for that millisecond Emily didn’t care. She was sick of being pushed around and bullied by these bitches.
“Adele’s got more talent than that crappy rapper, and more talent than you,” she said, paling as she heard the words coming from her mouth.
“More talent than–” Chrissie was almost speechless, her fury at this outrage leaving her goggling at the girl who’d had the nerve to speak to her this way.
The others, all giggling now ceased, looked at one other in shock.
“I heard you at the Christmas concert last year,” Emily went on. “We all did. You couldn’t carry a tune in a Tesco bag.”
“I couldn’t–” Chrissie boggled, then grabbed at Emily’s shirtfront and dragged her across the hall and into the toilets, the goonettes in tow. “I’m gonna fucking kill you,” she snarled as Emily struggled to escape the circle of girls.
Chrissie kicked open a stall door. “Bring her over here,” she ordered the others and Emily, realising something terrible was about to happen, finally made a mad, panicked rush for the exit, only for the taller of the three to shove her once again and send her sprawling to the floor.
“Vanity.” Chrissie ordered another of the girls – this one smaller and with weaselly little eyes above a pronounced underbite, “Watch the door. You two, bring her over here.”
Emily struggled as the other two grabbed her by the wrists and ankles, she opened her mouth to scream and choked as Chrissie stuffed a wad of toilet paper into it, gagging her.
“Now listen up you fat bitch,” Chrissie bent down so her lips were close to Emily’s ear, her voice hard and dripping with disgust. “Niki Minaj is an artiste. A proper musician. Adele makes music for fucking lifts and is a fat, disgusting pig. Just like you.”
She glanced into the stall and nodded at the other two, who giggled again and dragged the still-struggling girl over to the toilet, forcing her head down into it as Chrissie reached across and pressed the flush button.
“And as for talent?” Chrissie said, though the roar of water rushing over her head meant that Emily failed to hear a word. “My name’s Chrissie Cobb, and I’m gonna be a STAR!”
Las Vegas, Nevada, 2018
The sign said, ‘Twenty-Four Hours,’ but Lurleen Armstrong had been sitting in the empty office since four that afternoon, and she was so hungry she was fixing to eat her own hand.
Freemont had called in sick and Lurleen was savvy enough to know that, in Freemont’s case, ‘sick’ was normally shorthand for hungover, still shitfaced or knee-deep in a poker game that he couldn’t afford to leave because he was either winning and wanted to keep the streak going or he was so far in the hole he couldn’t walk away without losing a leg or two.
And, on top of that, the air con had finally decided, at about six fifteen, that it had had enough, and the temperature in the office had been slowly building ever since.
Then Mona, who was supposed to be taking over from Lurleen when her shift ended at midnight, had called at about eight o clock to tell her that she wasn’t gonna be in cos her kid had been puking since lunchtime, and she was gonna have to stay home and watch her.
Lurleen had called the chapel’s owner, a morbidly obese man called Ferrante, who was supposed to be joining Mona on the night shift.
When she’d told him that Mona wasn’t coming in he’d coughed, clearing his throat as though about to make an important speech, then dropped the bomb.
“Ah, Lurleen,” he’d said, “we may have a problem.”
“A problem?” Lurleen had asked, flapping the front of her blouse in an attempt to get some cool air inside so she’d be less likely to resemble a middle-aged wet t-shirt contest.
“Thing is, Lurleen, I’m currently flat on my back.”
The mental picture – of all three hundred and fifty pounds of Ferrante prone while one of his girls straddled him – came unbidden to Lurleen’s head, and she closed her eyes tight, willing it to vanish.
“I pulled something,” the voice on the end of the line said. “This mornin’. Gettin’ out of the shower. It’s happened before. It usually fixes itself overnight.”
“Overnight?” Lurleen couldn’t keep the note of panic from her voice.
“Well, usually,” he replied.
“So what am I s’posed to do tonight?” she demanded, and Ferrante issued a groan that could have been discomfort, but could equally have been approaching ecstasy.
And said nothing.
“Look, Mr Ferrante,” Lurleen finally said, “I’m more than happy to spend my shift here on my own with no Freemont, but I can’t do an all-nighter.”
“I could make it worth your while,” Ferrante offered in a voice that suggested it would bankrupt him to do so. “Say an extra twenty dollars.”
“Mr Ferrante, it’s not the money,” she said (though for an offer of twenty dollars, it most definitely was the money).
“Okay,” he sighed, the exhalation ending in a squeak of sudden pain or surprise, “call it fifty, but you’re killing me.”
“Look,” she sighed, picking up a copy of The Enquirer from the desk and half-heartedly fanning herself, “it’s like this, Mr Ferrante. I got stuff to do tomorrow, and that means sleeping tonight. So unless you want the Non-Stop-Wedding-Shoppe,” she glanced at the sign in the window, the words ‘Marrying Relentlessly since 1984’ strobing slightly, “to have a Closed sign stuck up in the window, you’re gonna need to get someone to come here and cover.”
There was silence from the other end, then another cough, another clearing of the throat.
“Fine,” he said coldly. “I’ll have someone come around from the Tiki Room Chapel of Love to cover before you finish your shift. But I won’t forget this, Lurleen.”
Forget this? She’d struggled not to laugh at him. Like that fat fuck would do anything to her. This shitty job paid minimum and Ferrante, when he wasn’t letching at her or Mona, was in his own office eating his body weight in barbecue.
“I’m sorry, Mr Ferrante, but you know how it is,” she had deadpanned back and – assured that someone would be round as soon as was possible – had hung up.
Lurleen eyed the clock and shifted in her seat, feeling a trickle of sweat drip from her damp hair and run down the nape of her neck, under her white viscous blouse and on down the line of her spine.
Where the hell was the replacement? There were supposed to be two of them here at all times and she hadn’t eaten since breakfast, afraid even to run out to the MacDonald’s on Bonita in case anyone had turned up in her absence and word had gotten round that the Non-Stop Wedding Shoppe had, well, stopped.
But she had fifteen minutes left and as soon as that clock hit midnight she was – fuck Ferrante – locking up and heading downtown to the all-night diner on Paradise Road for fried chicken and grits.
Or maybe waffles. Her stomach grumbled in anticipation.
Yeah, waffles. Chicken and waffles.
She reached for a sheet of paper, pulling open the desk drawer and rooting around inside it for a Sharpie as the thought hit her: What if Freemont and Mona weren’t sick or dealing with a sick kid?
She’d seen them giggling a few times lately, flirting, Freemont making comments about Mona that elicited giggles and half-hearted slap-downs from the woman.
“Oh Freemont,” Mona would giggle, before batting her eyes at him as though asking him to go on, “you’re terrible.”
She found the Sharpie and uncapped it, anger flaring as her gut growled again.
Or what if – her stomach lurched – Mona and Ferrante were otherwise engaged and poor Freemont was genuinely unwell.
Lurleen sighed, shook her head, glanced again at the clock.
Fuck Freemont. Fuck Mona. And fuck, she decided, Ferrante, who quite clearly had nobody coming to take over from her.
She was done.
He could fire her if he wanted. Since starting her shift eight hours ago, she had had two walk-ins: a couple from Hawaii and one from Vermont, the first shy and unnecessarily sombre for a ceremony in a walk-in wedding chapel, the latter so unable to keep their hands off each other that Lurleen had feared at one point they’d consummate the marriage before she could complete the vows.
And the tips from the two couples – which were supposed to be shared evenly amongst the whole Non-Stop Wedding Shop team – totalled fifty-eight dollars and seventy-six cents – the horned-up Vermonters having basically emptied their pockets into the tip jar as they fled from the chapel back to wherever they were planning on banging one others’ brains out.
For minimum wage and an average tip of just under two dollars an hour, Ferrante could stick this job somewhere that would leave him flat on his back for weeks.
Hauling herself out of the chair, noticing how the trouser part of her trouser suit stuck to the back of her legs, Lurleen lumbered over to the window and was just about to tape the Closed sign in the window when a car pulled up outside, headlights shining straight in her eyes.
“Goddamit,” she muttered through gritted teeth, the sign dropping from her hands as she hoped against hope that they were parking up to go to one of the other stores in the strip mall.
But of course they weren’t, because hers was the only store still open at this time of night.
The headlights went off and, in the pool of pink light cast by the neon sign, she saw the doors open and a couple half fall from the car, their laughs audible even from where she stood.
Sighing resignedly, Lurleen went back behind the desk, slipping on her jacket and resuming her seat as she waited for them to make their way to the door and open it, triggering the tape that played a tinny recording of ‘Chapel of Love.’
The woman – surprised by the musical welcome – giggled uncontrollably, while he – a sappy smile glued to his face – shushed her.
Lurleen banished any hopes of an early finish, of chicken and waffles or of being rescued by Ferrante’s fictional back-up, and turned to face the couple. She could smell the liquor from where she sat, and briefly contemplated telling them to come back when they were sober.
Then she remembered that the drunk ones normally tipped well, and she plastered a welcoming smile on her face.
But her heart was murderous.
“There’ve been some fucking awful allegations going around, and if I find out who the alligators are, there’s gonna be murders!”
“Did she just say ‘alligators’?” Caz, her Tom Collins halfway to her mouth, raised an eyebrow at me.
I glanced at the blimp-like blonde in the middle of the room, everything from her lacquered-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life blonde beehive past her obviously surgically-enhanced frontage and on down to her Louboutin trainers seeming to radiate outrage, and shrugged.
“I would not,” I said flatly, “be remotely surprised.”
Then I went back to polishing the glass in my hand.
“Polish that any more, you’ll get RSI,” Caz observed dryly, swivelling on her bar stool so she could get a better look at the furious blonde.
“First off,” the furious blonde announced to the small circle around her, “the factory making my magnolia and peppermint body spray has not been closed down because the health people found anthrax in the machinery. Second, I have not been offered a permanent slot on Wicked Women. After what happened yesterday, I doubt I’ll ever be asked back there again – or would wanna. And lastly – and if I find out what motherfucker started this one I will gut them like a fucking trout – I did not send Cheryl Cole a shit in a Jiffy bag. The rozzers have the offending article and I’ve offered to undergo a DNA test to prove that the poo in question is not mine.”
“That means she got someone else to shit in a Jiffy bag for her,” I muttered under my breath, receiving from Caz a dismissive wave that said, ‘We know. Shut up.’
“Oh, and while I’m at it,” Cartier Cobb announced to the assembled, “I have not made a sex tape.”
“This week,” I said, realising as the blonde shot me a look of pure filth that I’d said it a bit louder than I’d intended.
“All these lies have been in the papers since Sunday, and if I find out which of you fuckers is selling these stories about me, there will – like I said – be murders. Are we clear?”
The room filled with a general mumble of acknowledgement, and Cartier glared around the room “And where’s my fucking falafel?” she demanded.
“I’m not sure how much more of this I can take,” Ali Carter – the bar manager of the pub we were in – sidled up to me and fixed me with the sort of doleful tragic look that Eeyore might use if he was off his medicine and discovered everyone in the Hundred Acre Woods was, after all, a complete and utter bastard.
“You don’t think you can take it?” I laughed mirthlessly and put the glass on the shelf with a little too much force before reaching into the dishwasher and removing another.
“Well she’s funny on the telly,” Ali said, watching as a small woman – her auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail, her jeans and indigo shirt testament to the fact that double denim was clearly still a thing in some places – ran from the kitchen behind us, a polystyrene box in her outstretched hand and charged over to the glowering blonde.
“Sorry,” the denim woman said quietly, “it was a bit fiddly getting them all identical sizes.”
The blonde snatched the box, flipped open the lid and surveyed the contents. Her lips moved soundlessly, as though praying for a world where stupidity and inconsistently-sized chickpea fritters were consigned to the past forever. At length, a falafel was chosen and nibbled.
She pulled the sort of face I’m assuming Plato pulled when he downed his final cocktail, spat the mouthful of falafel back into the box and beckoned the woman closer.
“Are you trying to poison me?” she asked, holding the box at arm’s length under the nose of the denim woman.
“Poison you?” The woman paused, blushed, stammered and said, “I don’t understand. Don’t you like them?”
Denim Woman shook her head slightly. “I can’t, Cartier. I’m on medication. For my blood pressure. Really good stuff but one of the side effects is that I can’t really taste anything.”
“C’mere.” Cartier moved her head as though calling the woman closer and, when she had come within arm’s reach, moved a hand to grasp her by the chin, lifting her head so she was able to lock eyes with her.
“When I ask for falafel, I want some crunchy chickpea fritters. Bit of pitta. Maybe some salad and a yoghurt sauce. Not too much garlic and – are you listening Di – not two fucking fistfuls of salt in the bloody things. Christ, I’m not surprised you’ve got blood pressure problems if you eat shit like this. Now,” she dropped her hand, smirked at the other woman and held the offending meal at arm’s length, “take these back, and go make twelve more that don’t have a shit-tonne of salt on them.”
And so saying, she dropped the box of falafel on the floor.
Upside down, so that the contents went all over the place.
“Little bitch,” Ali snarled, rolling up her sleeves as though she were about to go for her.
I held out a hand to delay her. “They paid a deposit. Which we’ll now use to have the whole carpet cleaned. And can I just remind you, I didn’t want this lot here.”
So let’s get this out of the way right up front: none of this was my fault. None of it.
SINners Palace wasn’t a show I watched. Oh, I’m not one of those sniffy types who bangs on about how ‘Reality TV is nothing more than a bunch of no-marks being told what to shriek at each other as they run around the set in their pants.’
No, that’s not me. But here’s the thing: the premise of SINners Palace – a bunch of fit sexy young things are ‘forced’ to live together in a luxury apartment in London and couple up for our entertainment – sounds less like a TV show premise and more like a living hell. If I want to watch straight twenty-somethings drunkenly snogging each other I’ll head on down to my nearest Wetherspoon’s where at least I can get a pie and a pint at the same time.
And what turned me off the show the few times I watched it (usually late-night re-runs after I’d locked up the pub I supposedly ran) was how combative it was. Nobody was allowed to just meet someone and like them; there had to be a jealous ex to verbally assault first, or a screaming fit with the putative new boy/girlfriend to navigate before they could be allowed to settle down into spooning, snogging and domestic bliss broken only occasionally for a spot of infidelity and/or a round of Lovers’ Tiff.
The Lovers’ Tiffs usually – from the half hour or so I’d seen – bordered on physical assault and ended, invariably, in sex which – as it was filmed using a night vision camera set up in the appropriate bedroom – resembled nothing so much as a documentary on the mating habits of the urban badger.
The queen bee of the SINners Palace mob was one Cartier Cobb, her bulky blondeness – all line-backer shoulders and tangerine blusher – making her resemble some sort of carb-obsessed Nordic Goddess; overweight Freya, perhaps, in a velour onesie.
And that image tended to remain until a millisecond after Ms Cobb opened her gob, at which she was less Freya, more Fishwife. Her foul-mouthed tirades and bullying temperament had gained her a veritable Who’s Who of columnists happy to describe her in terms that made it sound like the collapse of Western Society, the end of the Gold Standard, the evaporation of faith in God, Commerce and the institutions that constituted culture – and possibly rickets too – were all down to this mouthy Essex girl, while another long line of columnists lined up to tell us that the antagonism shown towards her was evidence that our society could stand anything but a woman who had an opinion and a confident grasp of her own sexuality.
This godlike sex-possessing creature was now smirking down on the double-denim woman who was desperately trying to scoop the falafel and hummus dip back into the polystyrene box with her bare hands.
Cartier – like one of those creatures that eats its own siblings in the nest – was the sole remaining member of the first season’s cast of SINners.
The producers of the show – of whom, more anon – had twigged by about week three of the first season that they had a glorious monster on their hands and that all anyone – journalists, people on Twitter, people at water coolers who hadn’t even seen the show – were talking about was Cartier Cobb and her non-stop Gob, and they’d consequently tweaked the remaining episodes, upping the amount of Cartier in the mix and bringing various secondary characters into her orbit in order to give her things to do, people to bang and violent arguments to enact on screen.
And the rest of the original cast had been axed and replaced with ‘Newer,’ ‘Hotter,’ ‘More SINful’ ‘Characters.’
Which made it all sound a bit like Game of Thrones in an Ikea duplex.
Which, to be honest, is exactly what it was.
So: I hadn’t wanted the SINner crowd in my pub.
My best friend Caz – Lady Caroline Victoria Genevieve Jane de Montfort, only daughter of the thirteenth earl of Holloway – was entirely responsible for the fact that Cartier Cobb was now threatening to, ‘slap the shit’ out of a makeup girl who was trying to apply, ‘blusher what makes me look like a Victorian tart’ to the deranged giantess.
She (Caz, that is) had a friend – one Alice Galbraith – who was, apparently, “Rather sweet on Leelee.”
“Okay.” I’d frowned, poking the shepherd’s pie I’d been just about to put into the oven and trying to remember if I’d put the rosemary into the sauce. “I’m hearing words, but none of them are actually making sense. Have I had a stroke? Only I didn’t smell toast.”
“That’s because you’ve put so much garlic in that lamb that it’s destroyed your sense of smell,” Caz said, reaching over and picking at a piece of shredded lamb I’d missed. “Alice is a sweet girl. Loaded beyond the dreams of avarice, but not that bright.”
“There’s a lot of it about,” I muttered, sliding the pie into the oven and trying not to burn myself on the shelves. “So,” I nodded, spotting another missed bit of lamb and diving for it too slowly, “got Alice. Who’s Leelee?”
“Leelee is Alice’s pet name for her new boyfriend,” Caz answered, a victorious look in her eyes as she popped the bit of shredded lamb she’d nabbed into her mouth. “Oh it’s all terribly hush hush because daddy would go absolutely ballistic if he got wind of it – Alice’s daddy, that is; I’m not sure what Leelee’s dear old dad would think of it all.”
“So,” I was trying to get this straight in my head, “we can’t let Alice’s daddy know about Leelee cos he’d what? Cut her off without a penny?”
Caz chuckled. “Hardly. Alice’s grandmere popped her Choos a few years ago and left her a not inconsiderable amount of cash and a chateau in the Vendome.”
A Chateau in the Vendome – I thought – sounded rather painful but before I could voice this opinion Caz was marching on with the life story and personal woes of a woman I didn’t know and would likely never meet.
“No,” she shook her head, “dear old daddy can’t touch her cash wise; but he doesn’t need to. Alice is one of those girls for whom daddy’s approval is the only currency that counts.”
“So him discovering Leelee has her heart would be a bit of a challenge for her. Y’know, Caz, that would be a really interesting story if I had a clue who Leelee was.”
“Well Leelee is Lee Gibson. He’s a TV producer / director, and not, sadly, the right sort of person – dear old daddy thinks – for his sainted daughter. Alice’s daddy is the sort of man who thinks the royal family are new money. Her mother thinks homelessness is some sort of performance art. If they found out their only daughter is smitten with a man who works for a living it would probably cause them to speak at the dinner table.”
“Well,” I answered, carrying the chopping board to the sink, “sucks to be Al. But why am I finding out about this?”
“Because Alice was telling me how Leelee was looking for a pub to film in.”
“Oh God.” I sighed, letting the water run into the sink, dreading what was coming next.
“Well you can thank me later. What?”
“What? Caz, every time we have anything going on in this pub someone ends up either murdered or in danger of their life.”
“Sweetie, you’ve been opening the doors every day for ages now. And a few times there’ve been issues.”
“Issues? Caz, a punch-up; a bit of dealing in the bogs; these are the usual issues one gets in a pub. So far, I’ve had a dead popstar, a bludgeoned waiter and a disinterred corpse. I’m not entirely sure that having a TV crew here to film whatever horror happens next is a wise move.”
“Oh you of little faith. It’ll be publicity.”
“We’ve had publicity,” I answered back, grabbing a sponge and scrubbing at the chopping board.
“And every time, the takings have gone up, right?”
“Along with my blood pressure.”
“Look, they’ll come here for a couple of days, film a few shots. Leelee says that this year they’re going for a ‘Real London’ vibe.”
“Look,” I stacked the board on the drainer, turned off the water and faced Caz, drying my hands on a tea towel, “I’m grateful, really, but I’m not sure that having a film crew here will work. They might disturb the regulars.”
“Disturb? Sweetest, I’m not entirely certain that it’s possible for your regulars to get any more disturbed. And besides, it’s not a film; it’s a documentary.”
“A documentary?” I had visions of famous documentaries of yore, of Koyaanisqatsi, or Seven Up!, and then Caz’s next words made my blood run cold.
“Well a reality thing. Sin City, something like that.”
“Sin City? You’re sure?”
“Well I think so. Something like that, anyway.”
I shook my head at her, more in sorrow than anger. “It’s called SINners Palace, Caz, and I know you’ve seen it. Everyone has. So don’t pretend you don’t know what it’s called.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She shrugged, suddenly becoming very interested in a piece of lint on her sleeve. “I really wasn’t paying much attention when she mentioned it. I just thought it would be good publicity for the pub. Plus, they pay a decent location fee, which I figured you could use. But if you don’t want to let them film…”
“You’ve already told them yes, haven’t you?”
She stopped picking at the imaginary lint.
“Of course not. I’d never be so presumptuous. I’m shocked you’d even suggest such a thing.”
“Caz.” I gave her my sternest stare, and – after a moment of glaring back in almost-convincing outrage – she caved.
“I can call it off, if you really don’t want to do it; but it could be fun, and it’ll bring business in once word gets around that they’re filming here, and then again when the show goes out.”
“Caz, the place will have burned to the ground on day one. Or been struck by lightning. Or…” I searched frantically for words to express my genuinely held belief that terrible things would happen if I allowed the SINners Palace crew anywhere near The Marq.
“Daniel, we’ve been over this. Not every event in this pub will end in death. You can break whatever curse you think is on The Marq by letting these lovely people in to film their little documentary and proving that bad things don’t always have to happen.”
“Curse? Caz, I wasn’t thinking of any curse on the place. I was suggesting it would burn to the ground because I have seen that show. Those people are like wild animals, with food fights and manufactured outrage.”
“Oh, well I’m sorry. I didn’t realise you’d become Judgy McJudgeface in your old age,” she said – her turn now for the more in-sorrow-than-anger tone, “or that The Marq had morphed into Blakes.”
“Fair point,” I said, playing my trump card, “and you’re right, it wouldn’t hurt footfall once word got around that lot were here filming. But Chopper would never go for it.”
Chopper was the popular sobriquet for one Martin Falzone, a businessman who at one time had had more fingers in more pies than Sweeney Todd, but who’d recently begun to reduce his empire by selling off the legal parts of it, stepping away from the illegal parts and burning to the ground those parts nobody was expressing an interest in, then claiming on the insurance and sending the cash to his retirement fund in Valetta.
But despite flogging off – or burning down – most of his businesses he’d retained a few for which he seemed to have some sentimental attachment, and The Marquess of Queensbury public house was one of those businesses he’d retained.
Falzone’s nickname came from the commonly held belief that he had – on more than one occasion – dealt with some business disagreements with the aid, not of a referral to the monopolies commission but, of a machete, and so it was never really a wise idea to cross Chopper.
I really didn’t want to have to call him; our last meeting had not been an entirely amicable one, and I had figured the longer I stayed away from him the more chance there was that he’d forget me. But Caz had insisted I call then and there, and not only had the old bruiser been at home, but he’d been wildly enthusiastic at the idea of the SINners Palace crew filming in his pub.
“My Granddaughter loves that show,” he’d announced. I’d met his granddaughter. She was, well psychotic is a harsh word but a fair descriptor.
“But they might disrupt business,” I’d offered miserably, knowing – even as I did so – that it was a lost cause.
“Disrupt? This’ll make you, Dan. Think of the publicity.”
I was thinking of the publicity. Despite the fact that The Marq was a bit run-down and rougher around the edges than the Turin Shroud, I still prided myself on the fact that I ran – or tried to run – a decent house. The thought of hordes of permatanned shitfaced kids screaming at each other and queueing to get selfies in the stall where Cartier Cobb hurled her Malibu and lime up in Season 6 Episode 3 filled me with an icy creeping dread.
But resistance was becoming increasingly futile, and was finally killed off when my bar manager, one Ali Carter, overhearing my call with Chopper, told my nephews Ray and Dash, who were dressed that evening in gold hot pants and angel wings for ‘Heavenly Wednesday’ the news.
Okay, so maybe The Marq wasn’t that classy; but it was still, I was convinced, classier than the entire cast of SINners.
“This is gonna be mahoosive,” Dash announced in tones so breathless I was sure for a moment he’d misheard and thought the second coming was scheduled for the saloon bar.
“Mahoosive? Apart from the fact that I don’t know what that word means, it’s just a TV show.”
“But it’s got Bryony Dane,” he said, his tone suggesting that even uttering the name was raising his heart rate.
I glanced at Caz. “Female fittie,” she murmured.
“Not just a fittie,” Dash responded, his tone suggesting he was assuming a boatload of umbrage on behalf of Ms Dane. “She’s studying biochemistry. She’s got a brain too, you know.”
Caz assumed a look of contrition and turned to me.
“I know!” I held my hands up, staving off her next few words. “I’m outgunned, outmanoeuvred, and out of options.”
“It’ll be fun,” she said, sidling up to me and linking her arm into mine.
I remained – in the face of a wall of excited smiles from my team and my best mate – unconvinced.
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