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A Circus of Horrors, a Life of Ashes

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“It happened in Buenos Aires. . . .  Jeffries identified a shadowy suspect, someone he believed could be the central person of interest in charge of this entire operation.  All he had, at first, was a name. . . .  Judy.”

--FBI Agent Tamara Preston

--

Chimney sweep sparrow with guise
Judy in disguise, with glasses
Come to me tonight, come to me tonight
Taking everything in sight

Judy in disguise, what you aiming for?
A circus of horrors, well that’s what you are
You made me a life of ashes

--John Fred & His Playboy Band, “Judy in Disguise (with Glasses)”

--

Buenos Aires, Argentina
1987 (I)

Phillip Jeffries usually had a song stuck in his head.

He told Gordon Cole it was good for his memory, that he set up codes for himself—half true, half an excuse for why Phillip would sometimes sing under his breath or tap his thin fingers to a beat only he could hear.  Sometimes he caught himself dancing.

Now, as he glided into the lobby of the Palm Deluxe hotel, Phillip kept the music out of his head.  Easy enough to do, because there was real music in the air, a harp and guitars.  Everything about the lobby—the music, the décor, the plants in their urns and the shrimp-gorged-flamingo peachy pink paint on the walls—had a tropical-Rococo feel to it.  Albert would have found it gauche and over-the-top; Gordon, quaint and amusing.  Phillip noticed the décor only long enough to wonder if any nearby shops sold a shirt the same color as the walls.  He was already wearing boots that color, and he’d like to have a shirt to match them.  Then his mind was back on the business at hand.

“Mr. Jeffries!” the clerk at the front desk hailed Phillip as he walked in, left hand shoved in his pocket, right carrying his suitcase.  The clerk was talking a mile a minute before Phillip had even made it over to the desk, and he shoved the room key into Phillip’s hand as soon as Phillip did get there and stood staring at the clerk over the tops of his sunglasses.

“Here is your key, Mr. Jeffries,” the clerk cooed.  “We hope you enjoy your stay here at the Palm Deluxe.”  All the while, Phillip was processing and considering: Overly enthusiastic or got something to hide?

“Oh.  Uh, gracias.”  Phillip exhaled, took his time removing his sunglasses and smiling.  Most of the time, he did everything slowly—spoke slowly, moved slowly—and in an exaggerated way, just as he exaggerated his southern accent.  Playing up his southern-ness disarmed people, and it gave him time to think.  In the United States, at least, few people expected someone who talked the way Phillip did to be clever (or, sometimes, literate), and they didn’t expect him to be any faster on his feet or with a gun than he was with his voice.

Now, as Phillip spoke slowly and moved slowly, the clerk kept a warm smile on his face and showed no signs of impatience.  Maybe he really was just overly enthusiastic.  Phillip proceeded to ask his next question while looking down at the clerk’s desk blotter.  He spoke as if he was asking for a rare amenity he already knew the hotel could not secure for him.

“Do you have a Miss Judy staying here, by any chance?”

When Phillip said her name, his eyes flicked up to meet the clerk’s expectant, eager-to-please gaze.  There was no change in the other man’s expression upon hearing the name, yet he didn’t answer the question, either.  Instead, he looked around the desktop until he spotted what he was seeking behind an ornate golden clock.  The clerk beamed and snatched up a white envelope.

“This is for you!  La senorita—” he began as he held the envelope out to Phillip.  When Phillip kept both hands on his sunglasses and did not reach to take the envelope, the clerk put both of his hands on the envelope and translated, “The young lady, she left it for you!”

There should not have been a letter; there was to have been the senorita herself, in the flesh, and so maybe the clerk did have something to hide.  But in the few seconds he hesitated, Phillip decided it would do no good for him to make a scene about it.  He took the envelope and tucked it into his suit jacket, and the clerk gave his desk bell a rousing ding to summon the bellhop.

Phillip handed over first his room key, then his suitcase to the bellhop, who was wearing a tropical-print shirt as loud as the one Phillip himself had on under his jacket.  The bellhop led him through the lobby, past the guitars and all the tropical-Rococo, but Phillip’s teeth were clenched behind his closed lips, and his mind was moving far faster than the leisurely pace at which he followed.

--

As soon he’d tipped the bellhop and gotten him out of the hotel room, Phillip sat down on the bed and whipped the envelope back out of his jacket.  Now his movements were quick and sure, no one watching to fool and frustrate with his slow southern charm.  The envelope was hotel stationery, sealed, his name—“Mister Phillip Jeffries”—written on the front in longhand.  “Mister” written out, not abbreviated.  English, not Spanish.  Longhand, cursive, but it looked like a schoolgirl’s writing and not a woman’s.  Phillip turned the envelope over and levered one fingertip under the corner of the flap, then wiggled his bony finger until the envelope tore open.

The paper folded inside was hotel stationery as well.  Phillip clasped it between thumb and forefinger, pulled it out, and unfolded it.  A few lines of the same schoolgirl cursive sat at the top half of the page:

Mr. Jeffries,

Something has come up, and I cannot meet you until this evening.  The hotel has a bar outside on the beach.  I will be there at six, in a red dress.

-Judy

That was all.  Phillip gritted his teeth and reread the odd, stilted sentences several times.  They sounded off.  Halfway through reading the letter a fourth time, Phillip’s brain jumped away, back in time more than ten years ago and seven thousand miles northwest to where a dying woman smiled and told him and Gordon Cole, “I’m like the blue rose.”

Right before Phillip left for Argentina, Gordon had told him this wasn’t just a blue rose case, it was the blue rose case.  Lois Duffy’s tulpa had been like the blue rose.  Judy was the blue rose.

Gordon, in his usual obtuse manner, had not elaborated further, and Phillip knew him well enough not to press him for more.  Chances were equal that there wasn’t any more, or that whatever else Gordon could tell Phillip would only complicate things further.  Phillip knew what he needed to know: Judy was important, the most important. . . suspect? witness? . . . person of interest he had ever sought out.  She was the blue rose, and it was Phillip’s task to find her, to meet with her, to take whatever it was she had to give.

She was his blue rose.

He read the letter one last time, then flicked the paper closed and slid it back in the envelope.  Despite the awkward phrasing and childish handwriting, Phillip couldn’t believe that Judy was a tulpa, a thoughtform duplicate like the dying, smiling, disappearing Lois Duffy had been.

Judy felt original.  Judy felt real.

“Slow down,” Phillip muttered to himself, out loud.  “Don’t even know what she looks like yet.  Just a red dress.”  Gordon didn’t know either, unless he was holding out.  All Phillip had to go on was her name, Judy.  Short for Judith, meaning “praised.”

Praised,” Phillip whispered in his slow drawl.  Praised for what?  Praised by whom?

Phillip laid the envelope on the nightstand beside the bed, then stood so he could slip off the linen jacket that, like most of his clothing, fit him too loosely to suit his thin frame.  He draped the jacket over the back of a chair, stepped out of his shrimp-pink cowboy boots, untucked his shirt, and stripped off his belt.  Then he lay down on the bed and stretched out flat on his back with his mismatched eyes fixed on the ceiling and his arms resting at his sides.  As he waited for six o’clock, Phillip Jeffries tapped his fingertips against the bedspread to the beat of the music in his head.

--

To be continued