The Perfect Cup of Joe – 5

PART FIVE

I figured that was the end for Joseph Clay. I’d read enough of Chuck’s notes to know that a bullet was a bullet was a bullet. Dead for real, just like the privateer. After all, I was in the company of Misfortune, the Daughter of Death, so makes sense it would end that way.

But, no. The angels raised Their pistols, and Misfortune shot from the chaise longue in a wash of green and wrapped Her arms around my legs like the damsel from some adventure movie poster.

I felt the slugs tearing through my shirt, under my left arm, near my waist. I felt a tug at my belt and right below my crotch. Either the Sins had aim as bad as Stormtroopers, or Misfortune was working some sort of angelic magic on me.

As gats clicked empty, I looked down into that green face. She grinned up at me.

“You don’t get out that easy, Joe.”

I was standing in an elevator. Someone gasped. It wasn’t me, and it wasn’t Misfortune. And it wasn’t the elevator of the angelic edifice. (That fancy term, I have to admit, I owe to Chuck.)

It was the elevator leading downstairs from the DA’s office. And the gasp was that of Núr Lucas.

“I wasn’t expecting you, either,” I said.

“What happened?” She lowered a curious eye to my waist. I followed it. My belt was hanging loose, snipped by one of the slugs. Pants were staying up, though, which was sad commentary on my dad-bod. I lifted my arms and twisted my body so we could both get a good look. No blood. Just holes everywhere, in conveniently safe locations. Too convenient.

“What happened? I could ask you the same thing.” My fingers were rubbing against my thumb and I suddenly realized I no longer had Oliver’s hat. Contrition set in. “I went to Despair’s place, to poke around. Misfortune was there. Then, the Seven came knocking and things went south from there.”

“Misfortune?” She scanned me again, top to toe. “And you’re unhurt?”

“Seems so.” I yanked the useless pieces of belt free.

Núr had a defeated, despairing look. I honestly felt bad for her. If she’d been to see the DA, it could only be for one thing: to get her former receptionist to take me off the case. To call in old favors. That must have failed. Now, she was looking at a guy who refused to leave her case alone, clothes torn by the Host of Heaven and mysteriously spared by an angel Who wasn’t prone to sparing folks.

“This is very bad, Officer Clay. Misfortune could have sent you to His Father, but He chose instead to save you for something else. Something worse.”

“Worse than Death?” I felt a grin start to move my mouth. I killed it.

She punched the emergency stop button. The alarm complained like a banshee had been raped by a car alarm and birthed the most annoying sound you can imagine.

“Shit, lady.” I shook my head. “This is city hall. They’re going to want an explanation for that. And we don’t have a good one.”

“We won’t be here,” Núr said, her dark brown eyes as hard as stone. She apparently wasn’t as bent under Despair as I had assumed. I’d read her wrong. She whispered a bismilláh. “How did you break your mind?”

I sighed. I didn’t want to come clean on that. “You mean like Charles and his pathetic meditation on the umbilicus? Mother to child, from ancient times and all that bullsh—”

She stepped in, grabbed my shoulders, and locked eyes with me. I could feel the heat of her body. “Matrilineal descent doesn’t move you? You are Jewish?”

I tried to shake myself free, but she was stronger than she looked. Her arms and legs were damn solid. I guess yoga and spinning in Sufi circles will do that for you.  “I am, but it doesn’t.”

“What about patrilineal descent? The Y chromosome, cloned from father to son, generation after generation. Does that move you, Joseph?”

I chuckled, but it was as hollow as Álvaro’s chuckle. “You mean, back through the generations to the first Joseph?”

The alarm stopped. Building security was on it.

“You knew your father well?”

I thought of the Eddie Fisher songs in the lounge. My dad’s music, turned upside down by the tricks of the angelic realm. Did I know my father well? Did I know him as well as the angels knew him?

I heard Abba’s voice in my head. Back when I told him and Emma about my first case. “Don’t make a tzimmes out of this, Joe.” And I saw their faces, their sad blue eyes, their bodies, shoulders struggling not to slump. Their hair was just turning gray, but was still black enough to seem a raging stormcloud as they both shook their heads at me.

In that moment, I was sure. He had known that my grandparents’ carpenter friend had died at Słoneczny. I was reading him now, but I had read him wrong back then. My own father. And my mother. And my grandparents. They had all known. My first failed case. I’d read my entire family wrong.

G-d damn this Muslim counselor. She was breaking my mind against my will.

Just like I’d broken Álvaro’s.

The gym was still empty. But, this time, as gray as an old photograph.

Núr noticed it, too. Her lips were a plump brown Samekh on her cinnamon face.

“Yá Yúsuf! Subhán-Alláh, what have you done?”

“I knocked the door off.”

She gave me a sardonic smirk. “And you were worried about how city hall would react.”

With a hand on my elbow, she dragged me toward the back corridor. Toward that other elevator.

“Where the hell are we going?” As if I didn’t know.

“To see your Boss,” she said with a side-eye. “To find out what is so damned awful that Misfortune would put off taking you to see Him.”

When the elevator doors opened, the party downstairs was in full swing. Every table was full. And every table was as colorless as ash. The glitzy decor had faded to an oppressive grayscale, a faded film noir version of the angelic lounge, interrupted here and there by the bright splash of individual souls.

Kids in blue-and-yellow t-shirts crowded a nearby table, casually downing shot after shot from a honeycomb array of whiskey. An empty-eyed woman lay atop another table, pea green dress gathered at her hips, a bearded hipster in a red flannel shirt, black skinny jeans around his knees, dully shoving his cock into her. Middle-aged couples in pastel were sliding cards and dollars around in a game none of them seemed to care about.

The faces were blank nightmares of ennui. A lounge jazz version of All Apologies reeled nauseating from the sound system, the organ slightly out of tune. Choking on the ashes of her enemy…

Núr and I made our way across the creepy wasteland of apathy, toward the bar. The Menorah Mafia were there, all Seven, murmuring nervously among Themselves. They hadn’t noticed us yet.

“Detective?”

Núr grabbed my elbow again and yanked me still. Sitting at a small, gray table were Álvaro and Curiosity. His shoulders were slumped and shaking, Hers high and steady. His face looked like someone had just shown him his sister’s obituary. Curiosity, a bright golden torch against the cloudy dullness of the room, grinned at me like a tabby cat with a canary in its teeth.

“Hey, look! It’s your buddy Joe!”

Álvaro took a long breath and lifted his eyes to mine, then to Núr’s. I felt her fingers go soft on my arm.

“Detective Álvaro,” she said. Her hand moved from my elbow to his shoulder. “I am so sorry for canceling on you earlier. Would you like to take your session now?”

“Get lost, bitch.” Curiosity slid a hand across the table and wrapped it around Álvaro’s wrist. He let his eyes stray toward Hers. “We’re having a nice chat about the Apocalypse, aren’t we love?”

I put my hand on Curiosity’s shoulder and let the tips of my fingers do my talking for me. The angel slipped a tongue into the corner of Her smile and nodded.

“Fair enough, Joe. But, for once, the Green Witch and I are in agreement.” She pushed the chair back and stood up. Her hand found my cheek, caressed it with Her nails. “About you, at least. Have fun learning what you’ve come to learn.”

She walked away, slim hips rocking in a steady rhythm. Núr took Her chair and told me, “Do not let the Seven distract you. Just go find out what Death wants with you. I will take care of your friend.”

My impulse was to say Álvaro was not my friend. An asshole impulse. I’d done enough damage. Just let it go.

As I approached the bar, the Menorah Mafia eased pistols from Their jackets and smirked. I raised my hands at my sides to show that I was unarmed. Other than my fists.

“I come in peace.”

The click of hammers and safeties told me They weren’t convinced.

Enoch scanned the room, keeping His pistol leveled at me from beside His blood-red belt. “Your Girlfriend isn’t here to save you this time.”

I nodded sideways to let Him know I got the message. “Misfortune is only with me in spirit.” Barrels slumped all around. I summoned what I hoped was a collegial laugh and maneuvered around Them to swing inside the bar.

“Business is lookin’ good, Fellas.” I grabbed a tumbler and squirted myself some seltzer water.

“Our business, maybe,” Nate said. “What’s yours?”

I gulped down the water and clapped the tumbler onto the bar.

“Yeah, Your party looks a little off.” They didn’t appreciate the observation.

“What are you here for?” Rehmy asked.

“To see the Boss.” I nodded toward Death’s door. The Hebrew Váv was gone, replaced by a brass plate etched with the six pips of a die. Or a domino. It was the only color along the entire gray wall.

“I’ve got a performance review to go to.”

With that, I walked out the other side of the bar and made straight for door. The room died around me. Conversations faded. The record scratched to a halt. The weary souls in the tables nearest the door eased out of their chairs like caricatures from a Western saloon right after the gunslinger walks in.

“Joe,” I heard Rehmy’s voice behind me. The voice of Lust. The voice of Hope.

I opened the door and stepped out of the gray, into blackness.

For a moment, I thought I saw a raging sea, dark waves rising like breasts and hips heaving in ecstasy. Glistening black curls swirling, a woman’s hair damp with sweat. Then, great blue-black tentacles thrashed in the dark. A wet and salty breeze slapped my face.

I blinked and brushed my eyes clear with finger and thumb. The same finger and thumb that had itched at the absence of Chuck’s fedora.

The floor was hardwood. There was a wheat-colored rug with red and blue deer standing guard around the edges. An Indian screen with blue Hindu g-ds frolicking on it. A rustic table with chairs carved in leaves and daggers. Some antique upholstered chairs, a small square table in the corner, and a deep red Chinese-style liquor cabinet off to one side.

Death was standing at the liquor cabinet, facing away from me in a black sharkskin suit. The back of His neck, below close-cropped ebony hair, was as white as a corpse. As He mixed a tumbler of ginger-and-bourbon, I could see His fingernails were as black as coal pulled straight from the depths of a mine.

“Why do you keep coming here, My sweet girl?” He snickered with confidence. And inevitability. Exactly how I would expect Death to laugh. He thought I was Núr. “To seduce Me? Or to finally give in to My seduction?”

He slipped a wine glass from above and set it gingerly on the cabinet’s bar.

“Do you know what it is like when your every encounter is a rape? Your kind hate me. Resist me. So when your Charles came, so cynical and weary of the world, it was—” He took a deep breath and eased a bottle of Merlot from its slot. “Ecstasy. Or, at least as close to ecstasy as an angel can feel.”

I let the charade continue in silence.

“I am not so lucky as My Cousins. They kiss. And grope. And fuck.” He let wine slip into the glass. His head leaned to one side, very slightly.

“But, when I kiss, my lovers die.” He sighed and rested pale hands on the bar. The wine glass was frosted where He had touched it. “In loving, I lose.”

His shoulders rose and squared off under the sharkskin. He took a quick, curious sniff. I felt a shudder through my body, like the chill you feel when pissing. The dark blazer rounded in the shoulders and spread at the hips. Fingernails drummed sharply against red lacquer, and scratched at it like a tiger’s claws.

Her face swung over Her shoulder, shockingly blue eyes tight in a predator’s stare. Full lips cocked a licorice smirk at me.

“Oh, it’s you! Come on in, Shunshine!”

That was a knife in my gut. Shunshine was a nickname my mother gave me, a play on my Hebrew name.

“I was expecting Miss Lucas.” She applied a thick layer of vocal fry: “But I am so glad to see you.”

I felt weird just standing there, staring at Her back. And trying not to stare at Her eyes. Or Her ass.

I broke my silence: “So You knew I’d be coming, eventually.”

She spun and leaned against the bar with curves that were a grown woman’s flower of the buds I had seen in Her Daughter. In the shift, She’d kept the sharkskin suit. And the close-cropped hair. She looked like a cyberpunk pin-up model.

“First came the shamus.” She was referring to Chuck, the private eye. “Now comes the shamash.”

“What the fuck are You talking about?” The shamash was the central Hanukkah candle used to light all the others.

“The Seven plus Curiosity. You lit the Eight of Them up, didn’t you, Hazel Eyes?”

“That wasn’t the right Eight. Despair wasn’t there.”

She chuckled. Way too playful for the angel of Death. “Before you start peering under the furniture, She is not here either. Despair and I have come to a mutual arrangement. Now, when She needs a little humiliation, She comes to me of Her own accord.”

“Even so, Despair’s not in Her own apartment, either.”

She shrugged and turned back to the liquor cabinet. “The Eighth has a habit of disappearing. Like the original Josef.”

“The original Joseph was one of twelve brothers, one of thirteen if you count his sister, and he disappeared because his brothers disappeared him.”

“Listen to my voice. Josef.” That time, I heard the F in my head somehow. “The eighth guard from Słoneczny. Herr Josef Stillman. The one who was not caught until—when was it? Nineteen seventy-something? A few years after your birthday.”

“Not my problem.”

She shrugged. “Would you like a cup of coffee? I know you do not drink.”

I noted the frosted over wine glass. “Iced coffee, I’m guessing.”

“You are quick on the uptake, Hazel Eyes.” She pulled a glass from the cabinet and bent down to open a mini-fridge embedded in the cabinet. I caught myself tracing Her curves with my eyes.

“Cream?”

“Sure,” I said. “Whatever. To Núr, You’re a Him, I’m guessing.”

“As I would be to you too, Joe, if you had come straight here earlier instead of getting into a dick-measuring contest with the Goon Squad out there.” She stood, closed the fridge, and poured. “So much focus on the masculine in you. Not like Chuck at all.”

She turned, a glass of iced coffee in one hand and Her own drink in the other. She held out the java.

“It is not poisoned,” she smiled. “If I had wanted to swallow you right away, Baby Girl would have let the Goon Squad shoot you upstairs.”

I took the glass and almost dropped it. It felt like January in Antarctica. I lifted it to my lips and let my tongue lap a drop into my mouth.

It was the best damned coffee I ever tasted.

“Misfortune and I overlap a lot.” She nodded toward the sitting area.

So, it was like that. Just two old friends having a chat. I took a velvety red-black-and-white arm chair so She could have the blue-and-black one. The grin She gave me as I sat echoed Misfortune’s amusement when I leaned into the chaise longue.

“You overlap how?”

“You know how angels are, Hazel Eyes.” She kissed the tumbler and set it on the side table beside an antique humidor. Then, She thought better of it and picked up the drink again. “We exist wherever We are expressed, and sometimes the edges get blurry.”

Death nodded toward the Indian folding screen with its dancing deities. “There are even Muslims who accept the Hindus as fellow People of the Book. Different ways of talking about the same stuff. Angels, spirits, g-ds.”

She winked over Her drink. “G-ds without the capitalization, of course.”

“I didn’t come here to talk about inter-ethnic dynamics.”

“Did you not?” She set the drink aside again, but more business-like. “There is much overlap in your kind, as in Ours. Intermarriages. An endless Venn diagram of circles over circles.”

I sipped the coffee and felt a rush from it. “If You gotta point, Boss, let’s get to it.”

She liked me calling Her Boss. I didn’t like it so much, all of a sudden.

“So, I overlap with Misfortune. We are both your—” She stopped to savor the next word. “Weakness.”

I smacked my lips and ran a hand through my hair. The way She followed the motion, I couldn’t help but imagine how it looked to Her, my rough fingers plowing through a field of wheat blond.

“You took after your dad, eh?”

I guess I had. Or I’d tried. I heard his voice again. “Don’t make a tzimmes out of this, Joseph.”

“He taught me to try to see things from the other guy’s eyes. Objectivity. Or maybe it’s just genetic.”

She thought that was funny. The grin never touched Her mouth, but it was there in Her eyes. “The virtues of the father, visited upon the son.”

I took a deep slurp from the coffee. It felt like swallowing my own soul. “I guess so.”

“I am hearing your conversation with Núr earlier. About the—” She closed Her eyes and nodded. “About the privateer, you call him. Charles Roland Oliver was obsessed with the umbilicus, the ancient tie reaching back, female to female, forever.”

“The virtues of the mother?”

Her face revealed nothing. Unreadable. “And, you have your Y chromosome, passing clean from male to male without getting mixed up with the X.”

For a moment, I mistook the X for “ex” and thought She was talking about my ex-wife. My ex-wife who’d told me my mother would die before my father because my middle toe’s longer than my big toe. Ridiculous Korean superstition. Then it clicked. Death was talking about patrilinear descent.

“Like I told Núr, I’m Jewish. We don’t look at it that way.”

“The Aryans did.”

That was cheap and clumsy. Argumentum ad Nazium. I huffed a chuckle. I decided to keep it real. Keep it on my father.

“You knew my dad?”

“I did, Hazel Eyes,” She said. “I knew both of them. And, want to know a secret? Your ex-wife was right.”

I didn’t want to think about that. I didn’t want to think about the fact that Death would know some secret about my parents’ death. “Maybe by a microsecond. Coroner said both died instantaneously.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Clay,” Death said, as if rolling another secret around in Her black mouth.

“Again,” I set the glass on the side table beside the humidor. “If You have a point, let’s get to it.”

Her blue eyes blinked lazily like a cat. Not the same blue as my parents. Colder. Her glance swung between me and my glass. “Such a cup of coffee is a match for twenty blue devils and will exorcise them all.”

She was quoting something, but I had no idea from where. I was done with talk. I wanted to plant knuckles in that smug, white cheek. But, Chuck’s notes had warned me that you can’t kill an angel in Her own place.

“We can go up to the gym and put gloves on if You want to box it out.” She grinned a black grin at that, which is all I expected. “You think you have a haymaker that can take Me out, Joe?”

I told Her the truth. “No, but I think I have a better chance with a haymaker than with anything else.”

She laughed at that, and I hated myself for loving Her laugh.

“Let’s get to it then, Boss. You know who I’m here for.”

“Good old Chuck. Have you asked yourself why he had no girlfriend, no wife?”

“I got no girlfriend, and only an ex-wife.”

“Which may be why you have not asked yourself, yes? You skipped over Chuck’s notes on the hardboiled?”

“Yeah, I don’t have his patience for philosophy.”

“You and he are nevertheless alike in one respect: you care more about people than persons.”

I found my tongue rolling around in my cheek. She and Curiosity and that “Green Witch” Misfortune were all in cahoots. Overlapping.

“Sure,” was all I could muster. But She had stirred my curiosity. “More about people than persons? What’s the difference?”

She lifted the tumbler and rotated it in Her white fingers. The ice sang prettily against the glass.

“Consider the hardboiled…”

Jesus fucking Christ. I sighed and nodded for Her to go on.

“Why do you think this particular brand of fiction rose up just as America was feeling the pressures of a fully pluralistic society? Millions of immigrants flooding in from all over. The Jazz Age blurring racial and cultural lines. Venn diagrams bubbling up in every direction.”

“This is Your lecture, Professor,” I said. “You tell me.”

“Like you told me, inter-group dynamics. A truly pluralistic society has no common sense of justice, so justice is hard to achieve, and even harder to get people to perceive in common. Everyone is suspicious of other groups and out for their own group’s interests. Their own family, their own friends, their own race or religion, and calling that selfishness ‘justice.’ Without any binding ideas in common, no acceptable third parties—”

I cut Her off. “I get it. No judges everyone can trust.”

“That is right, Shunshine. No trusted judges.” She like that word. She grinned. “The idea of justice gets reduced to relationships. And people—excuse Me, persons want you to care about them personally.”

I chewed on that, almost spat it out. “They want you to care about persons more than people.”

“And that, Shunshine, is the seed of corruption. Then it is all about whom you know. To whom you are related. With whom you feel—”

“Identity,” I said. “Favoritism, all those pretty little poisons.” She forgave me for cutting Her off. With a broad, intoxicating smile. A gray tongue tasted the corner of Her mouth.

“Refusing to be taken in by those corruptions, putting principle before the personal, it takes a hardboiled mind. So, the hardboiled appeared as a kind of study guide.”

“Is there gonna be a test? I shoulda been taking notes.”

“Your country has been tested. Four times by four Virtues. John and Franklin passed Temperance’s little test the first time around.”

John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. She’d left out the more Jewish parts of their names.

“Lincoln passed Fortitude’s test.”

“Abraham,” I insisted. “But, not the original Abraham.”

“Both.” Her head nodded sideways in Desi fashion, glancing again at the Indian folding screen. She was enjoying the historical and ethnic conflations. “Both Abrahams were willing to sacrifice their sons, and navigated that test. The next Franklin passed the third test, Prudence.”

Angels do love playing with words. This time, Franklin meant Delano Roosevelt.

So that’s three of the classical Virtues. “And, the fourth test?”

“Oh, Hazel Eyes.” Her black lips pursed in mock sympathy. “You’re failing this one, badly.”

Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence…

Justice. What the hardboiled is all about. Caring about people and principles more than individual persons.”

“That’s why the detective always turns in his girlfriend when he figures out she’s the killer.” One eyebrow lifted. “Such scruples can do all kinds of damage to a relationship. You and Chuck both lived that reality.”

“I guess.”

“The drinking binge that ended your marriage was more about slipping in your scruples than anything else, was it not? You let the wrong guy go?”

I had let the wrong guy go. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

“My parents died,” I said. “Fuck off with that.”

“Yes, yes. Everything dies, Shunshine. But, your marriage did not die because you were mourning your parents, but because you were lamenting your failure to locate the just path and follow it—”

“I loved my—”

“—and now your civilization is going to die for the same reason.”

My lips wrestled each other for a moment. I shrugged. “Alright, but I do what I can for Justice.”

“Do you?” She stopped looking at me. It was jarring. One finger caressed the edge of Her tumbler. “You think you have been keeping Me at bay, Shunshine? What did you tell your district attorney, that little dyke? That you were judo-flipping Me?”

I bristled at the slur. Inside. I didn’t let it show. It was a feint, an emotional trap. Death was really questioning my conduct as a cop. The same G-ddamned suspicion that Álvaro raised when I first compared myself to Her. I’d come full circle.

She was looking at me again with those ice-blue eyes. So, here it was. The face-off.

“I kill Your killers, yeah. And, I’ve got the numbers to prove it. You wanna try to spin my record? Others have tried. You can go fuck Yourself. I know where I stand.”

“Ramifications, Joe.”

“The ramifications of Death?”

She took a sip and set the tumbler down. The glass was frosted over, just like the conversation. “Do you know where the word ‘ramification’ comes from? From the Latin ramus, Chuck’s Latin.”

“Yeah.”

“It means branch. Things branch out, they spread. What do you think the world would be like with—”

“—without Death?” I cut Her off. I was getting used to cutting Her off, I guess. I pulled a cigar from the humidor. The corner of Her mouth twitched at the sight of it, a stifled smirk. “Without Death, the world would fill up with people, and they’d run out of resources and come tumbling back into Your lap. I’m disappointed You’d resort to such a lame Malthusian argument.”

“Did I?” She hadn’t. I had fired too soon. I misread Her. “Let Me finish. What do you think the world would be like with those killers still alive? The killers you kill?”

I had no response.

“Who do criminals kill, more than anyone else?”

I let myself think it through. I didn’t want to, but I did. And, it all came crashing down on me like a badly built arch. My eyes closed. “Other criminals.”

She leaned back, breasts stretching the buttons of that black blazer. “So, for every bullet you put into someone, it stops dozens of bullets going into others, but mostly other criminals, who then live on to kill more people themselves.”

Fuck me.

“I’ll look into it,” I said, not sure if I really wanted to or not. “I’m sure I could crunch the numbers.”

She laughed and pushed the tumbler across the table with a fingernail.

“You like to crunch numbers, Joe? Go take a look at how many of the people you put in prison end up dead there, compared to other inmates. And why is that? Because you spare the nice ones for prison, those with—how do you put it?—a saving grace. The nice ones. And the nice ones do not do so well in prison.”

I felt sick. I dropped the cigar onto the table and touched the glass of coffee. It was as cold as the grave.

“You kill only the worst of the lions. If you let them live, they would take out a lot of petty killers, the kind of incompetent hyenas who are more likely to kill the innocent. And then you send the lambs to prison, into the lion’s den to be ripped to shreds.”

“It’s not,” I stuttered.

“You are one of My best employees.”

I looked at my hand where it touched the glass of coffee. It was gray. My whole body had turned gray. My multi-colored plainclothes outfit was as gray as ash.

“Shit. Shit!”

“Having trouble, Hazel Eyes?”

My fists showed up without me calling for them. “Why the fuck do you keep calling me that?”

“It makes you stand out. That and your blond hair. Did you never notice?”

She was being stupid, now. My hands gripped the arms of the chair. Fat little hashmarks of red, white, and black under my gray fingers.

“Hazel eyes and blond hair are pretty common.”

“Not in your family, Shunshine.”

My gut sank. My Abba had blue eyes. My Emma had blue eyes. Both had dark Jewish curls. And my grandparents. On both sides. The little photos of my great-grandparents slammed into my reverie. Blue eyes and black hair, all the way back.

“My Daughter tried to warn you. You have so much in common with Chuck’s Mashioch. Your so-called mother was a virgin when you were born.”

Emma, a virgin? It made no sense. Unless she wasn’t my true mother. And Abba wasn’t my true father. Chuck’s umbilicus snapped. The Y chromosome stabbed me in the chest. I wanted to puke.

Her blue eyes settled on me. “Don’t make a tzimmes out of it, Josef.”

I heard Her spelling in my head. My family had known about the Słoneczny Seven. They had known about the missing eighth. They’d known about Josef Stillman and didn’t want me digging into it.

“No.”

“Your biological mother committed suicide when she figured out who your father was.”

“No.”

“She was a Jew, don’t worry. Argentinian, but Jewish. Your birthright is safe.”

My throat heaved. I tasted coffee.

“Fuck you.”

“And then, based on what your real mother had revealed in her suicide note, your real father was tried and executed. One after the other, just like your wife said.”

I fell out of the chair onto my hands and knees. My eyes were filled with tears. And blue-and-red deer. Smeared in vomit.

“Come on, Joe. We need a new door for Despair’s place, and you’re just the right color for it.”

“I’m not Your fucking door.”

“Are you not?” She knelt over me and leaned in. I could feel the chill of Her breasts on my shoulder. “You always have been, Shunshine.”

GO TO PART 6