A shrill vibrato roused me from slumber. I fumbled for the phone and recognized Trevor’s voice greeting, "Happy birthday." It was Tuesday morning and I was a year older. I thanked him groggily, recalling days of yore when I used to streak my pillows with mud from my fingernails.
I had met Trevor through the wiles of a classified advertisement. Not the Personals—rather, the Help Wanted section. We had both sprung to the aid of a Mrs. Helen Fields, an elitist old woman who required assistance in cultivating her immense garden and actualizing general household drudgery.
I’d tried to read Trevor on the first day, a tall young man about my age, clad in a dark green
T-shirt and John Lennon glasses. I’d tried to analyze his blank gaze as he proffered a snaking hose to the withered lawn. He didn’t give much away. Perhaps the glasses were what caught my attention. They gave him the appearance of a shiftless intellectual, a mind that could leap for miles but was too lazy to get out of the backyard.
And that’s what he was. He was the rich-boy-next-door to Mrs. Fields, and his parents had ominously decided one day that their noble son of toil should learn to handle noble tons of soil.
Trevor agreed and worked for free in order to maintain a cordial alliance between neighbors. He had nothing else to do. His parents partied extravagantly at night; he lay in his room listening to Beatles albums over and over again and doing God-knows-what-else. He was afflicted with a congenital disorder plaguing generations of wealthy children—boredom.
Gardening provided a sort of social life for Trevor. We pulled weeds and talked about school. Trevor attended an all-boys’ privy twenty miles from home. I attended the public high school closest to my house, the same distance away from these neighborhoods. Trevor gave me rides, which he didn’t mind. His parents had just bought him a car and he found some use in ferrying me back and forth between opulence and ordinariness.
One afternoon, I came to work in my favorite pants, a pair of hopelessly perforated denims that had suffered through three years of high school and a boat-building project. Mrs. Fields frowned and glanced at the back gate to ensure no passersby were in sight. "I’d like you to work in more appropriate attire," she declared, handing me a trowel.
A dress code to muck around in the mud? I gaped and fell onto my knees in a patch of tomato plants. I welcomed the feel of cool earth against my skin. In my younger days, I used to flood my yard just to squelch the mud between my toes. But now I was in Mrs. Fields’ garden, and each square foot of soil was probably worth half a Ferragamo shoe. I said yes to her request, and she nodded sharply before relieving us of her presence.
"Don’t you know better than that?" Trevor said to me under his breath.
"What? Does she expect me to show up in a silky evening gown with pearls? We’re her slaves. We can’t afford... I mean," I stopped, catching myself, "...I can’t afford to dress better."
Trevor forced a stick of plant food into the ground and I heard it rip through a network of roots. "You’re not that poor. You only say that because you’re comparing yourself to how we live here." He studied my pants. "So those are the famous war-torn jeans. Full of holes. Nice. Did the boat sink or float?"
He smirked. "Did it have holes in it, too?"
I didn’t respond to his attempt at mockery. Instead, I accidentally brought my hand down on a patch of wet potting soil, splattering it onto Trevor.
"Hey!" Trevor raised his arm to fling a clump of earth and froze. I turned around. Mrs. Fields’ emaciated husband was standing in the doorway to the kitchen. He looked as if he were about to fall over.
"Pardon me," he croaked, pointing a trembling finger. "Would you happen to know if a special delivery has arrived today?"
Trevor and I looked at each other and realized we’d forgotten to check the mail. "No, sir," I replied hastily. "Nothing has arrived." We could always check it later.
The man still had enough muscle control to furrow his brow. "All right." He swayed his way back into the house. He was like a snail—one eye of a snail, that is. Emerging and withdrawing and spending most of his time in an expensive shell. We assumed he had Parkinsonian dementia.
I whispered to Trevor, "I think Mrs. Fields is waiting for him to die so she can inherit his fortune."
"Why would she need to do that? She’s already got his money," he whispered back.
I shifted to a squat position. "What does he do?"
"Who knows?" Trevor tied a wayward tomato vine to a stick. "Probably something illegal."
Now that excited me. To think that we were part of a grand scheme that could be responsible for sustaining or destroying the Fields’ way of life. Their house was huge, with columns to support the front, big bay windows surrounding the living room, and a skylight to let sunshine into the atrium located in the middle of the foyer (we had to garden that, too).
After sundown, I’d spend a couple of hours at Trevor’s house before he drove me back. He took a sadistic delight in regaling me on the history of the Beatles. His passion for the band superseded an Englishman’s soccer fanaticism. He tried to convince me that Paul was dead.
"Paul’s not dead," I said. "He gave a concert in England a few weeks ago. I heard it on the radio."
"That’s not the real Paul," he retorted. Trevor loved showing how enlightened he was, especially in comparison to me. "The real Paul died in a motorcycle accident in the late ’60s. Then an imposter named Billy Shears took over."
"Really?" I decided to play dumb. "Pretty good imposter."
"Yeah, and there are all sorts of hints sprinkled in their music. In ‘Come Together’, John sings, ‘One and one and one is three.’ Which alludes to the surviving Beatles, you see."
"I see." I was getting bored.
He continued, "And when they’re wearing the Sergeant Pepper outfits, Paul has a band on his arm that reads, ‘OPD’, which stands for ‘Officially Pronounced Dead.’"
"It’s not. It actually stands for ‘Ontario Police Department’. It was given to him as a gift."
Trevor shut his mouth. "How did you know that?"
"The same way I know that Paul grew a mustache after his accident to cover up the scar on his lip."
"You’re a Beatles fan."
Trevor gathered up his keys to leave. I followed. Halfway out the door, he turned around and squinted at me quizzically. "Paul or John?"
It seemed like a random question, but I knew the answer. "John." He was asking me which one I favored.
"Good," he nodded, and closed the door behind us.
* * * * *
We got a fish the next day. It came in the mail. I signed for it and staggered to the kitchen. The heavy package measured more than two feet long and was addressed from Pike Place Market in Seattle, Washington. I pushed the package onto Trevor as soon as he came into view. He fell down.
"It’s a salmon," guessed Trevor. "Crushing my wild oats."
"I know," I said. I had been to Seattle, and my arms had been able to lift the box only so high.
Madeleine was in that day. She was Mrs. Fields’ part-time cook, a jolly woman having freshly emigrated from Toulouse and desperately needing a work visa. I imagined her being snatched up at the airport by Mrs. Fields’ spies, if she had any. Madeleine had darling pouches of pudge under her chin and arms so expansive they could have flapped her back to France. But we loved her. She rippled when she laughed, giving me the impression that true happiness existed restricted to Europeans. Her only vice was microwaving frozen pizzas and eating them with a raw egg in the middle. I had no tolerance for this French custom and would run away, much to her bewilderment. Trevor tried to pantomime salmonella for her, but she responded with a ripple.
Mrs. Fields bestowed upon Trevor and me the task of gutting the fish. Madeleine cooed at the salmon in French as we washed it. We baptized it Simon, and Madeleine clapped her hands. Then she sat down with an airy whump to concentrate on devising a splendid recipe while Trevor and I sharpened our knives. We stowed the fish in a basin of hot water to thaw, and leaving Madeleine to her devices, went to tend to the heads of lettuce.
"I hear she’s having a party," said Trevor, selecting a fine specimen of radicchio and hacking away at the stem.
"Oh, really? Are we invited?" I had never been to one of Mrs. Fields’ parties.
Trevor raised an eyebrow. "What do you think?"
I peeled off a lettuce leaf and chewed thoughtfully. "Let me guess. No."
"Watch what you’re eating. That’s her prized arugula."
"Ah-roo-guh-la." It would be a palindrome if pronounced by someone Japanese.
Trevor immediately seized the opportunity to mock me. Tilting his head back, he howled,
"Shut up!" I glanced nervously at the door in case Mrs. Fields were witnessing our shameless display of frivolity.
"You don’t think I’m funny?"
"No. I think you’re lame."
Trevor looked hurt. He hacked at another head dejectedly. "I was amused," he mumbled in self-consolation.
By the time we returned to the kitchen, the salmon had thawed enough for us to do our deed. Madeleine had left to go grocery shopping. Judging from the disaster zone she had made of the spice cabinet, she had apparently taken inventory of available products and ended up displeased.
She was like a whirlwind in the kitchen—by the time it was all over, you wouldn’t know what hit you, but it sure smelled good.
As I was about to plunge the blade into the belly, I noticed the mark of a previous deed. Not much, only two inches, and it facilitated entry. I slipped the knife in and sawed away.
"Do you want me to help you?" asked Trevor.
"No. Go away." I didn’t like it when people interrupted my acts of violence. But then I remembered how I’d hurt his feelings in the lettuce patch and stepped aside. He proceeded to chop off the fins.
We opened the belly together. "Jesus Christ," exhaled Trevor. "What IS all this?"
"Entrails!" I replied chipperly, and grabbed a fistful of what appeared to be intestines. My coping mechanism for most disgusting experiences often required a jubilant appreciation of the macabre. I tossed the intestines aside. Trevor gleeked and sidled toward the vegetable buckets. "Oh, no," I replied. "You have to help."
Trevor poked his finger into the guts and rotated it clockwise. "Hm," he murmured, repulsion suddenly overcome by curiosity. "This guy’s been eating rocks."
I poked my finger in near his finger. "I once knew someone who did that. She died."
Trevor hooked his finger and fished something out. Examining it, his mouth slowly spread in a grin. "Look, jewelry!" he exclaimed.
I took it from him and held it under the faucet. "Oh, a ring! A diamond ring. Think it’s real?"
Trevor snorted. "Probably cubic zirconium."
"No," I said, turning it over in my palm. "I think it’s real."
"How do you know?"
"Because it has to be. We found it in the fish’s belly."
"And fish only swallow real diamonds," he answered, anticipating my line of logic.
"Well, yeah. Think about it. What kind of jewelry would reach fish? A sunken ship full of treasure, or the Titanic, where there were lots of rich people wearing lots of expensive stuff who all drowned many years ago." I took a breath and shrugged. "A cruise liner off the coast of Alaska, even."
"Someone could have dropped a fake ring into the ocean."
Blood was drying on my hands. "And what if it isn’t?"
"Then we take it."
A car door slammed and we heard someone singing in French. I looked at Trevor in alarm, then at the ring, then at Trevor again. Madeleine would throw a fit upon discovering a disemboweled fish on the counter and intestines in a punch bowl. She rendered her services to the Fields household only three days a week, and today being her day to shine, she alone had the privilege of making a mess.
"I’ll stall her," Trevor volunteered gallantly.
He left, and I searched my mind in panic on what to do. I shoved the ring into my pocket, and gathering our tour de force into its original wrapping, I threw it into a vegetable bucket and lugged it outside as fast as my legs could carry me. Madeleine wouldn’t look in the garden. Without thinking, I dumped the bucket out onto a refuse pile of rocks and malformed produce. Sprinkling a few weeds for aesthetic effect, I ran back inside.
"...it’s in the freezer," Trevor was saying, pointing to a large metal door. I held my breath, hoping Madeleine bought this explanation. She hmphed and began to unload her bags. The fish didn’t need to be cooked until Saturday morning... Saturday morning! My own guts sank as I realized that a specially delivered salmon from the state of Washington had just been donated to a compost heap.
I had known Trevor would be furious, so I blocked him out for the next two hours as he ranted and raved in the garden and I stared helplessly at the flies and worms infesting the fish. Eventually he regained composure and we agreed to call Pike Place Market after work and order another salmon, rush delivery.
* * * * *
We found the partially concealed surveillance vehicles two days later, aqueously black against the shimmering melaleuca trees and vainly pollinating the turtle wax with splotches of sticky yellow powder. I had to admit the polka dots gave the cars a morbidly cheerful appearance. Like bumblebees. The men inside would not dare risk an exposé to scrape off the stuff. They would remain in the vehicle, strapped to their Italian leather and their walkie-talkies, reporting back to some distant mastermind on the precipitation in the air. Besides, if they came out, they would get their suits all dirty.
They had parked behind an island of trees bordering the Fields’ property. At first we had surmised they were watching Trevor’s house, but in recalling certain events that had transpired within the last few days, we thought wiser of it and deduced that it had something to do with the ring—and that the diamond probably was real.
I pulled away from the telescope and accosted Trevor. "They’ve been sitting there forever! Do they expect the fish to walk out by itself? What are they waiting for? Don’t they ever go to the bathroom? Or eat?"
Trevor sank into his bed. "That’s a good question." Ignoring my reference to important bodily functions, he mused, "What ARE they waiting for, Holmes?"
Pleased at the conferral of authority, I stuck a pencil in my mouth—Trevor had no pipes lying about—and proposed in a mock British accent, "My dear Watson. Under what circumstances would they discover that Mrs. Fields has discovered the ring? Would she come running out with her hands in the air, announcing it to the world? Or perhaps a well-intentioned shriek. Mimicking the altruism of the rodent world. Or even like a monkey in a jungle, when it sees a snake and wants to..."
"Okay, okay, enough. You’re analogizing with animal instinct. Don’t try to be intellectual."
"Well, we are animals, are we not?" I huffed. "What would YOU do?" I sniffed. "Knowing you, you’d probably bathe it in formalin and rush off for an appraisal." I sniffed again.
"Perhaps that’s what they’re waiting for." He settled back, apparently satisfied with his sage speculation.
"What do you mean, NO?"
"How would they know? We have to consider the possibility they’ve bugged the place." My teeth unexpectedly bit off a piece of pencil lead and I felt the wood stab my gums. Flinching, I articulated somewhat comprehensibly, "We cu’ sheck whun we bring in da vezhtabuls."
Trevor’s eyes waxed behind the global lenses. "Ah, ha! That’s where you lapse, Sherlock. If they knew, they would’ve struck once WE found the ring."
I nodded slowly. "How do they know the fish is even in the house, then? They weren’t there the day we got it. At least, I don’t remember seeing them. Maybe what they’re waiting for is the garbage." The suggestion sounded inane, but I aspired to entertain all possibilities, like a true detective.
"Well, the Fields’ are supposed to eat the fish, right? So when the fish bones show up in the garbage, the men will know that the ring is somewhere in the house."
"Unless someone swallowed it."
"I think someone would notice it before then. It’s at least two carats and very pointy. If not, well, the men can always follow the ambulance to the hospital, intercept it, kidnap the unwitting victim, kill him—or her—and gouge the ring out of the stomach themselves." I ended my prophecy with a flippant smile.
"So we basically have to wait to see if they’re having fish for dinner," he said, rolling his eyes.
"It’s a big fish. Specially delivered. It would probably be saved for a special occasion."
Trevor suddenly looked at me just as I suddenly looked at him. "The party!" we exclaimed in a rare synchronization of brilliance.
Our conclusion turned out to be correct. As we were washing the carrots and potatoes in the kitchen the next afternoon, under the supervision of Her Highness, Trevor casually inquired, "So, Mrs. Fields, what are your plans for dinner this Saturday?"
Mrs. Fields refocused her hawk’s eye on Trevor’s profile, reminding me of the unwitting victim of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. She was suspicious of any questions we whipper-snappers asked of her personal life and especially her dietary habits, as if we would secretly plot to spike her beverages with something as devastating as Ex-Lax. She need not have worried. Trevor and I had already seen the vessels of prune juice she had stashed in the back of a hard-to-reach cabinet. She didn’t need our help.
Trevor silently continued washing the carrots under her scrutiny. I wondered what he was thinking. Probably, "Snooty old bitch, you have no idea you’re gonna DIE!" I muffled a giggle. Trevor and Mrs. Fields shifted their attention to me.
"Sorry," I said quickly. "The, um, carrot stabbed me in the hand. Some of them are pretty sharp." I hunched over to demonstrate servility, like Igor under the command of Dr. Frankenstein.
"Well," Mrs. Fields crackled authoritatively, "we are planning to have Escalopes de Saumon Gigondas."
"Wonderful!" replied Trevor with more joy than I’d seen of him in three months. I hoped he understood French.
"I’m glad you agree with our choice of entrée." She shot us a dark look in case we were a-hankerin’ to ask if we could join her for dinner.
Trevor and I started to peel onions. Mrs. Fields could not bear to watch onions. They made her eyes water, even on television. She whisked herself into the parlor before any thoughts of checking on the non-existent fish in the freezer could enter her head.
"Hey," I whispered.
"What’d she say?"
"Salmon with some other type of seafood in some type of sauce."
I wanted to whoop and slap him a high-five, but I restrained myself. There were many onions left to chop and many potatoes left to peel. I munched on several deformed carrots and remained calm.
* * * * *
Trevor wanted evidence. "Where’s the ring?" he demanded, fondling a brand-new Nikon camera he’d purchased expressly for the purpose of immortalizing our endeavors. He shot a test photo of his dining room wall, upon which hung a giant wooden fork and spoon—leftover decor from the ’70s. Trevor wasn’t proud of it. I once asked him why there wasn’t a knife and he had glared at me.
I handed the ring to him. "You know, if this is stolen, we could be implicated in its theft."
"That’s why I’m not gonna develop the film until we find out who’s behind all this." He focused the lens. "Stand there and hold the ring. Under the light," he ordered.
I obeyed. A story flashed through my mind, one that my father had told me long ago about a man and a woman finding God in the belly of a fish. It was an odd but pleasant thought. Then the shutter clicked and I snapped out of it.
Trevor held his hand out for the ring. "If no one claims it, it’ll be ours and we can make a fortune."
I sighed and sagged onto the floor. I didn’t want to think about fortunes. For all I knew, I could end up on a cruise liner and drop it back into the ocean, where yet another fish would gobble it up and it would go to someone else. But wait—there was something, something peculiar I remembered about the fish...
The panoramic lens zoomed out. "Yeah?"
"That fish already had a cut in its belly."
"Yeah. About this long..." I showed with my fingers. "Someone else either started cutting and stopped, or cut for a reason."
Trevor stopped fiddling with his camera. "You mean... you mean someone planted the ring inside."
"And that’s why the surveillance vehicles are outside."
Trevor automatically turned toward the window. "Holy shit. Someone’s trying to frame the Fields’."
"No..." I mused, chewing on my lower lip, "I think they know about it."
Trevor’s mouth fell open. "You’re right! Mr. Fields was EXPECTING that package!"
That reminded me. "Hey, when’s the new fish gonna get here?"
"No, no, shut up about that," Trevor gestured impatiently. "Mr. Fields hasn’t been out of his house for days. Maybe they’re waiting for him to come out. Maybe it’s a stake-out." His eyes gleamed.
"He could just come out and deny he’s seen the ring. He hasn’t, you know."
That stumped us. We couldn’t understand why the men didn’t burst in with a search warrant, throw the place into disarray and leave, absolving the Fields’ of any suspected criminal activity.
We resolved to spy on Mr. Fields. He was up to something, and perhaps we could figure it out with a little snooping of our own.
* * * * *
I spent the next school day dreaming about being a private investigator. Luckily, no tests were scheduled for that day, and the teachers mistook my glazed gaze for intent attention. Thus they didn’t call on me to answer questions. On the other side of town, Trevor engaged himself in similar pursuits. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and we were plotting.
I’d just walked in my front door when I heard a loud honk from outside. Trevor had arrived earlier than usual to pick me up. "Okay," he initiated as soon as I got in the car, "we go upstairs to inform Mr. Fields that we received a call from the post office that the delivery was delayed and will be here Saturday."
"Is it here?"
I blinked twice, deliberately. We rolled to a halt at a red light and I folded my hands, patiently awaiting an explanation.
"Well," he said, "today is Friday and it just HAS to be here by tomorrow. Otherwise we’re screwed."
Mrs. Fields was too preoccupied with party preparations to notice our presence. Customer service personnel from Stanley Steemer had plugged a roaring machine into the living room wall and were busily sucking up microscopic bits of grime and dead skin cells. We could hear Mrs. Fields shouting over the noise, vigorously directing them toward neglected cracks and crevices.
We evaded the ruckus and snuck upstairs. Mr. Fields executed his operations—whatever they were—in an austere office decorated with oil paintings of stern ancestors, shelves stacked with books older than the Civil War, and an intricately embroidered Persian rug. I sneezed at the dust and wondered if Mrs. Fields had chartered Stanley Steemer for this room as well.
"So now we know what he does for a living," I observed, admiring a plaque commemorating Frederick E. Fields for Thirty Years of Distinguished Service. "DeGroot Consolidated Mines, Ltd.," I read. "He works for the South African diamond monopoly."
Trevor shook his head, puzzled. "If he works for them, why would he need to smuggle diamonds in fishes?"
"For private use?"
Trevor pointed to another plaque. "There’s his good-bye plaque. Dated 1987. He doesn’t work for them anymore. Maybe he got caught and honorably dismissed."
"And so, therefore, possibly"—I had a bad habit of using too many qualifiers in speech—"he’s going on the black market to make a profit. I don’t blame him. Upkeep of this house must cost more than an entire force of slave laborers."
Trevor frowned at me. "You’re one of them."
"Look," said Trevor, snatching something from beneath the fax machine. Unfurling it, he read, "‘Frederick—I will be flying Saturday. Will get there late, about 9:30. Be sure you’re ready. Pierre.’"
Trevor scanned the header at the top of the paper. "Pierre Balfour. Leeuwenhoek Gems. Amsterdam. He must be flying in from Holland."
I examined the scrawl of the mysterious Pierre for signs of a corrupt demeanor. All I could tell was that he had been in a hurry.
Trevor dropped the document and oriented himself toward the door. I followed suit in time to innocently greet the startled Mr. Fields. Trevor stammered an apology and quickly excused our intrusion by confirming that the fish was due tomorrow. Mr. Fields smiled weakly and stepped away from the door so we could exit.
Chattering animatedly, we thumped halfway down the stairs and then turned and tiptoed back up to impale ourselves against the wall next to Mr. Fields’ office.
"Hello, Pierre?" we heard him say. "Yes, yes, it will be here. Don’t worry. All right. Au revoir. Have a good flight." The handset clacked onto the receiver and Mr. Fields walked toward the door. Trevor and I bolted for the stairs.
Leaping over Stanley Steemer and stumbling to avoid the carpet cleaning men, we brushed past our distracted overseer and collided with each other in the kitchen. "Trevor," I gasped, rolling off of his leg, "do you think those men are from those cars?" There was a good chance the surveillance men had kidnapped the actual Stanley Steemer people and donned their uniforms to raid the joint for da goods, just like in the movies.
"Maybe," answered Trevor. We lay sprawled on the floor for a few minutes to catch our breath, and then we escaped to the fields to prettify our plantation. Rich folk’d be a-comin’, and we needed to present the garden as a model of wholesome fecundity.
Trevor stamped bumps of soil into submission as I grunted and brunted the force of my sternum against a wheelbarrow of dirt. It budged. I pushed again and it groaned to life. We worked diligently, without speaking, as if we were afraid to jinx our potential plans. Inside our brains, however, bubbled ruse.
We went back to Trevor’s house to conspire. The ceiling of his room had been strung with disintegrating model airplanes, and he lay on his bed, tossing a Nerf ball against the fruits of his childhood labor while I chewed on another pencil. Tomorrow would be Saturday. We had gone on the Internet and ordered the second fish to be delivered directly to Trevor’s house so that Mrs. Fields would not grow suspicious at a repeat performance.
So far, our scheming had reached a dead end. I sighed and stretched backward. "Trevor." The ball fell to the ceiling and bounced up to Trevor. I jerked myself right-side-up and said, "You know, we’re gonna have to sneak in there before the main course is served. And we’re not invited."
"Don’t you think I know that?" he snapped irritably. "It’s just delaying the inevitable. They probably want to catch Mr. Fields in the act of giving Pierre Balfour the ring. And there’s no ring!"
"Um, you know, we could give it back."
Trevor tsk-ed in annoyance. "Even if we get everything there in time, once everyone sits down to dinner, the men will do something—burst in there with guns or whatever—and demand the ring."
"Maybe they’ll burst in beforehand, if they smell the fish cooking," I offered idiotically.
He responded with the I-can’t-believe-you’re-such-an-idiot look. "What’re you gonna do, FUNNEL the odor to the car? Should we stand outside with big fans and wave ’em in their direction? Clever, really clever. They’ll never catch on to THAT one." He rolled his eyes in disgust.
"I’m not as dumb as you think, so stop treating me like I am," I clarified in a quietly annoyed voice.
Trevor muttered an apology.
We ruminated in silence for a few more minutes until I suggested that we go downstairs and watch television. He agreed. Perhaps what we needed was a break. Perhaps it would give us ideas.
Trevor’s parents were in the kitchen, so we postponed looting the refrigerator and flopped onto the living room couch. "Hey, what kind of TV do you have?"
"Toshiba 32-inch big-screen stereo TV with Invar technology and Picture-In-Picture," said Trevor. "Why?"
"It’s the same one Mrs. Fields has."
"No, hers is bigger. Plus it has surround sound." He flipped through more channels.
"Well, you know how they got General Noriega out in Panama. They bombarded his hide-out with heavy metal." I shrugged. "That’s one way to get everyone out of the house."
"Pssh!" Trevor sibilated. "And drive the sheep straight into the jaws of the wolf." The screen changed to an image of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully and I tapped Trevor’s arm. He changed it nonetheless. "It’s a rerun."
"We could wear nice clothing and crash the party."
Trevor lowered his head in order to avoid shooting me any more disparaging looks. "Won’t work. They won’t let YOU into the party, that’s for sure. You remember how she reacted to your ripped jeans. They might let me in, just ’cause I live next door, but I doubt it." He paused and slyly cadenced, "You’d have to wear a dre-ess."
"Find one, then."
Trevor looked shocked.
I wagged a finger at him. "I’ll wear pants underneath, so it doesn’t officially count as wearing a dress."
Now Trevor looked amused. "You’re really determined, aren’t you?" I pursed my lips and decided not to answer in case I slandered my reputation as a gender-free individual. He took this as a yes. "Okay, hold on." He extracted himself from the downwelling cushions and jogged upstairs.
After several thumps and rolling closet doors and profound expletives, Trevor came cascading down the staircase with a giant wad of something that resembled Colonial drapery. "Here," he said, tossing the bundle onto me. I stared at it. It was huge. It was diaphanous. It bore the elasticity of an ACE bandage. I couldn’t help looking worried.
"Well?" he asked. "It was my sister’s Princess Leia dress for Halloween one year. You should be able to fit in it." He beamed with pride.
Surfacing through yards of cloth, I added, "Yeah... me, you, Mrs. Fields, and the men." A few yards lay bunched up around my feet. "A person could get married in this."
"Getting in touch with your feminine side already, I see."
I flicked my middle finger at him. "How tall is your sister?"
"Oh, about six."
"No, YARDS," Trevor responded sarcastically.
"I’m not surprised." Lifting the bunched-up portion from my feet, I instructed, "Get me some scissors."
Ten minutes later, I had my costume.
* * * * *
I didn’t sleep that night, and for the first time in years, I watched Saturday morning cartoons. The Smurfs started to get on my nerves for being one-dimensional and homogeneous, and I dialed Trevor’s number to vent. No one answered.
Lounging in my pajamas and attempting not to think about the party, I absent-mindedly demolished several graham crackers in my teeth with a fall-out rivaling that of Cookie Monster. Everything was going to go wrong, I just knew it. We wouldn’t even have a reason to go if the fish didn’t show up. I brushed off a blanket of crumbs and gnawed on my fingernails. Pessimism made them appear larger than normal.
I waited all afternoon. It was excruciating. The phone finally rang at 4:17 p.m. Trevor ordered me to put on some real clothes and meet him outside in half an hour. I did as he bid, remembering to bring the dress with me.
"What the hell are you wearing?" Trevor demanded in the car.
I examined myself. "Um, clothing."
"No, THAT." He pointed to my garishly colored, oversized flannel shirt.
"It’s cold outside!"
"You expect to wear that under the dress?"
I hadn’t, actually—I had planned to take it off when it came time to convert, but Trevor’s sneering rankled my nerves and I determined to spite him. "Yes."
Trevor tensed his hands as if to clutch an imaginary bowl of agenda. Then he clamped them back onto the steering wheel. He never liked to argue at crunch time. Nothing would be allowed to foil his plans. I could get away with murder and he would still be busily blueprinting a new heist.
We screeched onto the avenues leading toward the town’s share of filthy lucre. I clutched the dress guiltily. For some reason, around Trevor, no matter how brilliant my ideas, I always felt like a loser... that he was the smart one and I had to play the imbecilic sidekick. My expertise in Beatlemania had impressed him slightly, but that vanished as soon as I admitted I didn’t know John had been high on pot while playing the piano for "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da".
As I opened his trunk to extract Simon No. 2, I was surprised to discover that Trevor had squandered a small fortune on walkie-talkies. I lugged out the fish and inspected our new toys while Trevor strode silently to the garage and grabbed a key hanging on a wall. Then he headed for the storage shed. There, connected by a network of cobwebs, resided a hoe, a saw, rusty hedge clippers, and the disembodiment of something big and blue. A non-commercial water chute, ages 6 and up. Years ago, this behemoth erection had loomed at the side of Trevor’s swimming pool, and now we were bringing it out of retirement. Trevor’s ingenious idea was to plant the chute at a hidden section of the hedge bounding the Fields’ property so that at the auspicious moment, we could gush forth in glory. I helped him stack the spiraling segments, hoping that one of us would not get stuck during rotation. We carefully lowered the bottom of the chute onto the Fields’ property and joined the parts together with the ladder on our side.
We weren’t done. I alerted Trevor to the likelihood that the surveillance men might overhear our transmissions over the walkie-talkies through their own communication devices. We worked out a code utilizing a mutual understanding of what we both knew best.
I stood at one side of the driveway and thumbed the switch, urgently whispering, "Tell me that you’ve got everything you want." Thumb off switch.
Static, and then, "And your bird can sing."
Thumb on switch. "But you don’t get me."
"You don’t get... ME!" we both sang in unison. It was one of my favorite songs from the Revolver album, with a catchy guitar riff and slightly spiteful lyrics, lead singer John Lennon.
We had positioned the chute to open at a side of the Fields’ house where we would not be seen unless a giraffe were in the downstairs bathroom on a stepstool peering out of the high window.
We tried to watch a half-hour of television to calm ourselves, but Trevor hogged the remote control, and so I had to steal it from him and hide it in my back pocket. This meant that we would have to get up to change channels, and soon our method of stress management fell into disfavor. We went upstairs. We had to stand sentinel from Trevor’s room anyway so that we could keep a close vigil on the surveillance vehicles.
"Why doesn’t Mr. Fields just call the police on them?" I murmured, fascinated with the shadows my eyelashes made on the telescope’s eyepiece.
"Probably ’cause then THEY will figure out that he’s doing something bad and arrest him. He’s not gonna win either way."
"What if they attack? You know, the men. Should we set the sprinklers on them?"
Trevor assumed a mien usually occupied by prissy old ladies. "Well, as you might not have noticed, my dear, the reason I’ve been manually watering the lawn for the past four months is because they don’t have a sprinkler system," he expounded, fluttering his eyelids.
"All that money and no sprinklers? Hm. We can always call 911 if we notice any suspicious activity."
"Not if we’re at the party."
"Oh, yeah," I chortled. "I forgot we were going."
Trevor’s eyes bugged. "SHIT! The fish!" We had forgotten all about planting the fish in the freezer.
Rushing outside with the salmon, we spotted Madeleine weeping inconsolably on the front steps of the Fields estate. We dumped the fish near Trevor’s mother’s bougainvillea trellis and cautiously approached Madeleine. We could pretty much guess that Mrs. Fields had found out that there was no salmon in the freezer, and having no one else around to blame, had administered a severe tongue-thrashing to Madeleine. In her limited English, Madeleine informed us that Mrs. Fields had fled to le boucher in an emergency to buy un canard. The saving grace of the day would be Duck l’Orange.
We asked if Mr. Fields knew, and she turned her palms up and shrugged. Then she said, "No, I do not think. I do not see him today."
This meant that Mr. Fields would have to tell Pierre that he did not have the ring, and either Trevor or I would have to somehow sneak it into their company. Trevor supposed the surveillance vehicles were waiting for Pierre, because in Trevor’s blessed opinion, the men surely would have stormed the house and dragged Mr. Fields out by now. Which they would probably do once Pierre showed up.
Intending to set a trap for uninvited guests, I snooped around Trevor’s storage shed and unexpectedly encountered a childhood memory. "Willy!" I squealed. "You have Willy the Water Bug!" A rotund yellow water dispenser lay on its side, its hollow straws of hair bent and lifeless. "This can be our sprinkler system!" Willy had brought me many hours of joy during summers of my childhood.
"Yeah, right! Like we’re really gonna install that next door in the yard without anyone seeing."
"Well, gee, we’re gonna install ourselves. Why not Willy, too?" I campaigned.
Flustered, Trevor acquiesced and ran the hose to Willy’s backside, screwing it onto the nozzle. "This goes down before us," he said, nodding at the chute.
"I know," I said. I was excited.
* * * * *
Like snipers, we kept an eye from the elevated locale of Trevor’s room, which was indeed somewhat like a schoolbook depository. We would have to wait for Pierre Balfour to arrive. No sense in going and being thrown out before the most important guest appeared. Trevor and I started crouching near the chute at 2100 hrs, fully attired and armed with binoculars and walkie-talkies, and spied through a hole in the hedge—thanks to the clippers we had found in the storage shed.
At 2120 hrs, a sleek black door opened and a gray suit emerged. Straightening its tie, the suit hurriedly traversed the grassy knoll to ring the doorbell.
I elbowed Trevor. "It’s almost 9:30!" I hissed. "That’s Pierre!"
Trevor stood up and we both realized that Pierre had lied. The flight arrival fax was just to beguile Mr. Fields. Pierre had been in the surveillance car all along. He was acting as a double agent. The surveillance men were on his side, and they could...
Then I stood up, gown of gossamer oppressing my all-weather flannel gear. I was indignant. I was also disturbingly ungainly. I could have abided by the details and opted for a more contoured appearance, but if anything, I was determined at least to get a laugh out of this whole thing. Meanwhile, Trevor had availed himself of a tuxedo and a top hat. I’d wanted him to look ridiculous just like me, but unfortunately, he looked quite distinguished in black and white with his round silver spectacles. I’d had to tie his bowtie for him.
"Okay," said Trevor. "If I sing ’Love Me Do’, go toward the house. ‘Nowhere Man’, go away from the house."
"‘Twist and Shout’ goes toward Willy and the hose," I added.
"No, that’s not an original Beatles song."
"Tough. ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ goes toward the surveillance vehicles." I was taking charge, briefly.
"Why would we want to go near THEM?"
"Just in case."
He nodded his assent. "Give me the binoculars. I’ll put ’em in my pocket."
I rested the walkie-talkie against the ladder of the chute, and lifting their leash from my neck, woofed him the binoculars.
Trevor launched Willy down the chute and I made sure there was enough length of hose to follow. The water bug rumbled around and around and dropped with a plastic bonk into the grass. Success number one. Then Trevor slung one leg into the chute canal. I climbed up the ladder. "Wait," he said, withdrawing his leg and turning around, and I bumped into his chest. For an instant he was snuggly and then I pushed him down the chute. Success number two. I gathered up my hemline and slid into the Fields’ grass.
"We have to take Willy with us when we go to the front," whispered Trevor. "How are we gonna get it past the men?"
"We walk," I stated flatly. "We’re guest horses bearing a gift." I patted my bulk. "I am, at least. It can be a lawn ornament. They won’t see much. It’ll be dark."
Trevor considered this for a moment and shrugged. Picking up Willy with one arm, he offered the other to me. And we walked, very matter-of-factly, to the broad double doors greeting all who came to call upon the Fields’. On the way, we casually deposited Willy in the middle of the front lawn.
I pressed the doorbell twice and sweated. The doors opened... by a plump velveted woman we had never seen before. She invited us forth, but not without a double-take of my grass-stained aspect. We strolled (I billowed) in and promenaded past the atrium to the parlor.
The entire house resonated with the sophisticated sounds of gossip and the clinking of glasses. The clientele were mostly osteoporodic women and their declining husbands. The ladies all wore pearls and I began to feel self-conscious at my lack of jewelry. It even crossed my mind to put on the diamond ring relaxing in Trevor’s pocket. I wished dresses had pockets. Many of the ladies wore false eyelashes, but I didn’t care about that, having marveled at my own through the telescope. Their husbands came in either of two forms—portly or effete. They smelled like Calvin Klein’s Obsession. Some of them smelled like shrimp cocktail.
"Who is it?" rang the voice of Mrs. Fields. She brisked swiftly toward us and stopped. And turned very red. There we were, shockingly, a very lumpy Princess Leia and her consort, the self-proclaimed Lord of Liverpool.
She couldn’t evict us, not there, not in front of everyone, so she swallowed her distaste and offered us drinks. Eventually she would steer us into a secluded corner, and teeth clenched, ask us politely to leave. But in the meantime, we would take advantage of our circumstance. A couple of the old ladies had even mustered enough etiquette to compliment my dress.
On the opposite side of the parlor, Trevor was a hit with the gentlemen. I noticed he had pushed his glasses further down his nose, sort of like a pince-nez, in an effort to show that he possessed intellect. He pointed to someone holding a glass and self-importantly commanded, "On the rocks!" They slapped him on the back approvingly and tried on his hat.
Before we knew it, Trevor and I were ushered out the door. We found ourselves on the front lawn again, staring at Willy the Water Bug and the island of trees that hid the surveillance men.
"Did you do it?" I asked.
Trevor looked grim. "No."
We returned to Trevor’s backyard and repeated the evacuation procedure. This time, Trevor would go inside, and I’d loiter near the hose knob at a hidden side of the house in case the surveillance men tried anything.
Trevor went off to save the day, and I assumed my post, passing the time by picking at a hangnail and glancing flirtatiously at the surveillance vehicles.
"Hey! What do you think you’re doing?"
I yelped, but it was only Trevor. "You scared me!"
"I sang the first two verses of ‘Love Me Do’, but you didn’t answer!"
"Oh, shit." I gulped and remembered. "My walkie-talkie. I left it next to the chute the first time we went over." We had gone over a second time and I hadn’t even noticed. "How will I know where you are?"
Trevor exhaled laboriously. "Well, I’ll think of something. Keep your ears peeled for a signal. If you don’t hear anything, everything went okay and I’ll come get you. If you hear something, come to the house."
"What’s the signal?"
"I don’t know yet. Don’t worry. You’ll know it’s me."
I grabbed for his tuxedo tails as he hurried away, but I missed. "Yeah, whatever gets you through the night," I muttered crossly. I waited in silent abandonment for about ten minutes. Being anxious and frustrated in so much clothing had dampened me greatly.
Then, from a distance: "Ah-ROO-guh-la!" I understood it as my signal. What else could it be? "Ah-ROO-guh-la!" wailed Trevor plaintively. He could have been a dog.
I jogged to the front of the house nonchalantly. Trevor was there. "Mr. Fields and Pierre are talking about the ring," he reported. "I still have it. I think everyone’s getting suspicious at our ins and outs. If the men come out, go immediately to the hose and water them down with Willy. Stay out of sight."
"What are you gonna do?"
"I’ll try to distract them." He walked toward the front door.
I turned around and my heart skipped a beat. The dim moonlight revealed dark figures standing next to the cars. I turned back to the house, but Trevor had already gone inside. I could see the big Toshiba television blazing through the big bay windows, surround-sounding something about gourmet food, but I didn’t see Trevor. Must go back to hose, I thought. I tried. The surveillance men were looking at me, and my legs suddenly felt rubbery. With my first step, I slipped and sat down hard, right in front of the windows. I saw the TV channel change. I tried to get up and fell back down. The channel changed again. I bounced. It changed. I darted my eyes around nervously, praying that no one had noticed that my left buttock was relaying satellite signals. I felt around in my back pocket and discovered Trevor’s remote control, internally programmed to change channels on all televisions of the Toshiba brand.
Distraction. Yes, that’s what Trevor needed. I would change channels at random and make everyone inside think that their TV was possessed. Forgetting that regular broadcasts start with channel two, I entered channel one. Almost instantly, Mr. and Mrs. Fields were on their feet in front of their massive television, holding up their martinis for all to salute, in an attempt to direct attention away from the sordid scene on the screen. I saw bodies. I’d forgotten that channel one was X-rated and wondered who in that household (there were only two of them) subscribed to it.
The ladies crumpled to their husbands’ chests in a chaste display of fidelity. The husbands buried their wives’ heads in their chests and then gawked at the television themselves. Finally, Mr. Fields stepped up victoriously, brandishing the defeated snake of temptation—he had yanked the cord out of the wall and now the horror was over.
I watched all of this, agog. I didn’t think to keep an eye on my surroundings until the minor fiasco had passed, and when I finally looked, I found the surveillance men, seven of them, scattered throughout the lawn like outfielders... waiting to catch a fly, or any hapless person who tried to escape. They had guns. I froze.
Then, miracle of miracles, Willy the Water Bug came alive. His hair shot upward and outward and water rocketed out in every direction, catching the men completely by surprise. Vituperating unabashedly through Willy’s assault, they loped wetly toward the house.
Then Willy started to rotate. No one was safe. Water sliced through the air everywhere as he whirled dervishly on his axis. Some of the men slipped and a couple of gunshots went off, but a couple of them made it to the door, where I was cowering, hoping they wouldn’t see me.
The double doors opened to reveal Pierre Balfour gripping Mr. Fields tightly by the forearm. "Let’s go," Pierre said. Then he spoke to one of the dripping men in a language that sounded like Dutch. He was speaking Afrikaans, of course, being a representative of DeGroot Consolidated Mines, Ltd., out to capture the culprit who had been smuggling from his company. Mr. Fields, in the meanwhile, wore guilt all over his face. Where was Trevor? We didn’t want Mr. Fields to go to jail, regardless of how many times we called his wife a witch. Pierre marched Mr. Fields toward the island of trees.
The next thing we knew—for I was in the middle of an incredulous crowd by this time—three police cars had blared up the street and barricaded in the surveillance vehicles. Trevor was quick. He’d known exactly what to do while I was busy being mystified by my own powers. He’d called the police and turned on Willy to repel the surveillance men until the police arrived. I was supposed to have turned on Willy... but I’d failed at yet another assignment.
"Hey." Trevor suddenly appeared beside me as the guests retreated to retrieve their outerwear so they could go home. "That was really clever. You didn’t tell me you were gonna do that with the TV." He looked pleased.
"It was by accident. I forgot about Willy. Sorry."
"No, that’s okay. You took care of the distraction. I wasn’t doing a very good job. People were ignoring me."
I looked at him. "Where’s your hat?"
He felt his head. "Um, I don’t know. Must’ve left it somewhere."
"That’s probably why they stopped paying attention to you."
We caught up to the police and the surveillance men, who were having a spirited powwow on the island underneath the trees. One man was being bandaged for accidentally shooting himself while dodging Willy. Pierre was furious. "How can you arrest us?" he screamed at the police. "This man," he declared, pointing dramatically at Mr. Fields, "is in blatant violation of South African law!"
"Sir," replied a barrel-shaped policeman, "South African law does not apply to American soil. We are innocent until proven guilty. You, however, are in direct violation of trespassing laws. This is private property, and we must escort you away from it." Patience discharged, he began to rattle off Pierre’s rights in America. Another policeman guided Pierre into the police car, and that was the last we saw of Pierre.
* * * * *
Needless to say, Mrs. Fields fired us after the hullaballoo—as if we had wrought havoc on her life by saving the life of her husband. We even gave the ring back. No thank you, no bonuses with the paycheck, nothing. We knew the dark secret of the Fields household, and it just wouldn’t do to have us around to poke and pry and gossip to the neighbors. They all eventually found out, anyway. Trevor’s parents told them during an extravagant party. I give Mr. Fields a little credit, though. Aside from the fact that he and I both disdain diamond monopolies, he attempted a few times to express his gratitude, but I think he was too afraid of his wife turning her evil eye on him. That would be the final tip to deliver him to the afterlife, though I personally thought he should go as soon as possible.
I felt rather glum my last day of work. As tedious and taxing gardening a big plot of land is, without it I would never have met Trevor and romped through such an opportune adventure. We cleaned up and I said good-bye to Madeleine, whom Trevor would probably find weeping on the steps some other misfortunate day. Life here would go on as usual, but I no longer had a reason to be a regular part of it.
Trevor drove me home. Before I got out of the car, he patted my arm to wait, and pulled something out of his pocket. It was the picture Trevor had snapped of me holding the diamond ring under a lamp, with a very engaging and wistful look in my eyes—a vision of myself I’d never before had an opportunity to behold. "This is a good picture," I said.
"Yeah, it is."
"Thanks." I pushed it into my pocket. Deciding that I should relieve myself before awkwardness overwhelmed us, I opened the car door.
"Keep in touch. You have my phone number," he added, as if he didn’t trust me to call of my own volition. His downcast eyes, almost embarrassed, implied sincere regret at my departure. Then he recalled his pride. "You know, if you wanna go garden at some other crotchety old lady’s house... and ruin her life," he justified, punching my arm lightly.
I punched his arm, too, but a bit harder. "Okay."
When I closed the door, Trevor had a slight smile on his face, as if he were reminiscing about something funny that had happened between us. After the smuggling ring experience, I think he finally respected me and appreciated my company. It was good to see that. It made me very happy. Maybe I really would give him a call sometime.
I waved good-bye, and he drove away.