Analyzing the Facts
Sophia looked at the Reflecting Pool a long time. She liked the way it mirrored the Monument, and she especially liked the way the wind blew waves in the pool, which shaped the reflection into an Impressionist scene of cherry trees surrounding the tall, narrow national landmark. Today, the bright sun lifted her spirits, which had been flying a bit higher the past few days. A week before, she’d phoned The Washington Lines and queried the newspaper about a feature exploring how to bridge the communication gap between management and immigrants in the workplace. An editor there, Francois LaSonde, was so impressed with her research, her background, and especially with her affiliation with neophyte Uni Daniel, that he said the paper would pay her expenses for her to fly in, discuss the feature further, and set up a photo session with a local business that hired primarily immigrants. At first, the paper’s generosity impressed her. But then, she reconsidered: Obviously, the staff would try to proselytize her. So before she left, she’d called together a Christian group of “intercessors” who’d prayed for the Holy Spirit’s protection. Now, she was fearless. She felt as if she wore an invisible shield that would automatically repel false doctrines.
After strolling around the Capitol area, she walked to The Washington Lines building. She arrived forty-five minutes early and planned to stop in the cafeteria for some juice or whatever beverage the sect allowed its members to imbibe. Although Daniel still drank coffee, Sophia wasn’t sure if he weren’t violating one of the plethora of rules, rules he often quoted from the DP.
When she glanced around the gray marble foyer in the building, she spotted a restroom, darted into it, and nearly knocked over a woman who’d bent over to brush her long, black hair in front of a mirror. “Sorry,” Sophia blurted out and slipped into a stall.
“Quite all right. Just trying to fluff out my hair.”
Almost imperceptibly, Sophia chuckled.
“My husband—he’s an editor here--likes it fluffy.”
When Sophia came out of the stall, the woman had stopped fiddling with her hair. Now she leaned over a sink, the rim of which planted a wet line on the woman’s slacks, and she dabbed on eyeliner. Smiling, Sophia watched her reflection. The woman’s high energy and quick, jerky movements collided with a certain poise she seemed to exude. Perhaps it was the light in her eyes or her open-eyed expressions, but something about the woman made Sophia wonder if this woman had graduated from a Catholic all-girls school. When Sophia was an undergraduate, her two roommates had come from Catholic all-girls schools. She liked them tremendously, but she also perceived that something set them off from other women. The difference was difficult to define, but the two roommates—and nearly all of the other Catholic girls-school graduates she’d known—projected a certain attitude: a simultaneously poised yet humble attitude. And they seemed to like other women, not in a sexual way, but in a sisterly way. During her undergraduate years, she’d found this attitude rare within the general female populace. Later, she’d pored over studies about the effects of all-girl schools upon the female student’s psyche. Generally, the research showed that without the burden of competing for adolescent boys’ attentions, Catholic girls often learned to like and trust each other more than did their co-ed sisters. At any rate, the light reflecting from the dark-haired woman’s eyes convinced Sophia that she was a Catholic, and Sophia found it odd to find her in this building.
Apparently, the woman didn’t consider it odd that Sophia was there. She looked at Sophia’s reflection in the mirror. “You look so sad,” she said then turned and touched Sophia’s forearm, slide her fingertips down to the back of her left hand and rubbed it. Then she returned to applying her makeup. “You’re not one of them, are you?”
Sophia glanced at the corners where the ceiling met the walls and spotted no surveillance equipment. The room’s light fixtures didn’t appear to contain cameras, either. So she shook her head then threw a glance to the floor. It was tiny black and white checked ceramic tile that had most likely been installed in the 1930s.
“I didn’t think so.” The black-haired woman lowered her voice. “Your eyes look sad because you feel something. Those Unis look as if they’re plugged into a different universe, as if they’re receiving messages from some central computer.” She sighed, put away her eyeliner, turned directly toward Sophia and smiled. “Of course, the way they wear those crazy grins when they don’t have sex, in fact—don’t even touch, they must be plugged into a different dimension.” The woman giggled.
Sophia smiled then drew her fingers through her hair. “They’re waiting for the ‘matches’ the reverend will make for them.” She wrinkled her brow. “But if your husband joined the Movement, that blows my theory.” She sat on a small couch not far from the counter under the sinks. “I thought it drew in mainly the lovelorn.”
The woman shook her head. “Ghuune must be a psychic.” She dug into a duffel bag beside her and pulled out a cotton, turquoise shell top. Then she tugged off the black T-shirt she’d been wearing. “Or the anti-Christ. He truly knows how to manipulate people. He goes for all types—right-wingers, left-wingers, young kids, middle-aged men, and he seems to sense precisely what to use for bait to lure each of them into this strange religion. Her voice was a whisper now, and Sophia bent toward her to better hear her words. “Take my husband, Francois: he needs to build his career. So that’s how the Goon hooked him. Francois was working sixty hours a week as a reporter—not making much more than five bucks an hour. So the Goon offered him an ‘associate editor’ position, complete with perks and a snazzy salary. Of course, now Francois seems to believe the ol’ fat man is God incarnate.” She shrugged. “Of course, that was an obvious case.” She sighed, slipped on the shell top, then sprayed Tresor over her chest. Afterwards, she pulled a pack of cigarettes from her bag and offered Sophia one.
“Thanks.” She took it and smiled. “I quit a month ago.”
The woman leaned against the counter and continued whispering. “I cannot believe how this country has let that fat Korean buy his way into power. And I can’t believe so many men—normally bright men, like my husband—are so obtuse that they follow him.”
Inhaling a toke, Sophia stared at the wiry woman. “So how do you handle it? I mean, the celibacy?”
The woman shivered. “I don’t.” Then, she squinted and stared at Sophia for a long time. “If you aren’t working for the Unis, why are you in this building? Only Unis can work for the publishing staff, and you aren’t exactly dressed like a, uh, a custodial engineer.”
Sophia chuckled. “No, I’m not a janitor.” She flicked an ash into a sink. “Actually, I am working for the staff—but only to free lance a feature.”
Lynette blinked. “I’m surprised they hired you for that.”
“It probably helped that my fiancée belongs to the church.”
“Ah ha. No wonder you asked about the celibacy.” Lynette shook her head. “It’s hell, I tell you. It wouldn’t be so bad I suppose if I were younger—or older. But hey, these are the years of my sexual peak.”
“Does Daniel work for the editorial staff?”
Sophia shook her head. “He runs a small proofreading business, a sole proprietorship. In other words, he’s a free-lancer trying to establish a business.”
Lynette frowned. “So he’s vulnerable, too.”
Sophia nodded and rose from the couch. She ran water over her cigarette, threw it in the trash, and wiped ashes out of the sink. “Yes. That’s why I pitched this feature to The Lines. I wanted to check out this place. But I was surprised they paid me to come here.”
“Ah ha! They’re after you, too.”
The restroom door flew open. Sophia and Lynette jumped. There, in the doorjamb stood a plump, tear-streaked woman. “You’re crazy.” She sobbed.
“What’s wrong, Shirley?” Lynette shook her head and lifted her arms. “You’ve known that all along—so why the tears?”
Shirley dropped her Gucci tote bag and crossed her arms. “Ralph’s out pitching an advertiser. The idiot receptionist won’t let me know when he’ll return. She stared at me with those glossed-over, nutsy eyes, and acted as if I were some trollop off the street. ‘Leave a number,’ she said in a high-pitched trill. Like I have a number here—like I—” The sobs escalated and turned her words into incomprehensible mumbles.
Lynette wrapped her arms around Shirley and patted her quivering back. “It’s okay, babe. We’ll go back and talk to the dim-wit. She can’t help it. You know the Goon sucks out their brains.”
Shirley still sobbed. “Yes, and he’s blown away Ralph’s and Francois’s, too.”
“Francois? Francois LaSonde?” Lynette and Shirley nodded. “That’s who I’m meeting with.”
Lynette introduced Shirley to Sophia. They greeted each other, and Sophia looked for a while at the twosome. With arms still locked together, they shook like intertwined figures sculpted from Jello. She wrapped her arms around them both. “Why are you two here? Didn’t your husbands expect you?”
“Actually, mine did,” Shirley said. Lynette said nothing.
“So I shouldn’t say I ran into you?” Sophia asked, “that you said ‘hello’?”
Lynette stepped back from the group and squinted at the counter under the mirror. “No. Actually, Francois doesn’t know I’m here.” She glanced at Shirley. “In fact, perhaps I shouldn’t go into the offices.” Shirley blubbered again. “You see, I have a plan.” Then she rifled through her purse and wrote her hotel and cell phone numbers on the back of a business card. She gave it to Sophia, who flipped it over. The front side advertised Lynette as a sculptor. “Call me after your interview. Perhaps we can shop at the Watergate—or I know a place in Arlington with far better prices.”
When Sophia stepped into The Lines editorial offices, she saw that Lynette and Shirley’s perceptions were apt. All of the workers—the receptionist, secretaries, classified-ad women, reporters, and editors—shared a dazed, far-away look, as if they focused upon Trafamador. Imagine, the reverend has created hundreds of Billy Pilgrims, she mused. She wondered if they were time-travelers, too.
Tall, dark-haired and handsome, Lynette’s husband had also acquired that stoned expression. Nonetheless, he was polite to Sophia, and he helped her set up a photo session with a local heath-food store owner. She was to meet the owner and photographer at the store the next day. After she left, she phoned Lynette and met her at a shopping center in Arlington.
“For God’s sake, buy it!” Lynette perched her fists on her hips and shook her head at Sophia’s three reflections. “Marvelous.” Sophia modeled a blue-fox jacket that The Hecht Company was selling at half-price. Sophia felt the fluffy fur made her look a bit like a polar bear. Had she been as thin as Lynette, the extra fluff wouldn’t matter. But she was an average size, and she worried the jacket made her look too bulky. On the other hand, it felt so good. It was light-weight but incredibly warm. Silky and so white, it did indeed appear to be blue. In fact, it appeared to be from another world. It was as if the jacket were made of angel feathers. And she had to admit, it made her feel lighter, made her feel even heavenly. No piece of clothing had made her feel so new, so reborn. In fact, it’d been some time since she’d purchased any new clothes. Throughout graduate school, she’d been buying most of her attire from second-hand shops, charity boutiques like Goodwill and Salvation Army shops. That way, she could buy more new clothes and other items for Adam.
“Yes!” Shirley squealed as she slid her arms into a full-length ranch mink. “Sublimate!”
Lynette lowered her voice. “It’s beautiful on you. Everyone should look so good in fox.”
Sophia blushed and drew the silky pelt closer to her neck. “It does feel good. Even at half-price, though, I really can’t afford it. I’d have to take money from my savings.” Staring at her reflection, she sighed. “I suppose I could zap it with my Visa.” Then she glared at Lynette. “I shouldn’t have come here with you. If I buy it, I’ll feel like a selfish bitch. If I don’t, now I’ll regret it—I’ll mull over it till I’m miserable.”
Lynette shrugged. “Our country’s billions—maybe trillions of dollars in debt, and you’re worried about owing $300?”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way.” Sophia looked back at her reflection. “Plus, I’ll make three times that from the feature. But then, perhaps I should spend the money on my son. And what shall I tell Daniel? For my Christmas gift, he donated $100 in my name to the Unies. He said I needed to budget my money better so I could contribute more to the church—and that I need to abandon material comforts for the cause.”
Lynette squinted and ran her fingers down the sleeve of the mink jacket she modeled. “Tell Daniel if he thinks you’re being too lavish, he can contribute donations to your Visa account.” Then she winked. “You might also remind Daniel that the Goon drives a limousine that costs far more than that coat—than all three of these coats together.”
Later, while the sales woman slipped plastic over the furs, Lynette whispered, “Besides, think of our cause. We must play the dowagers to divert attention while we work to fulfill our mission.” She smiled and looped her plastic-wrapped mink over a shoulder. “And fur becomes us.”
Sophia smiled. Perhaps Shirley was right about Lynette, too. This sculptor could be a bit mad. On the other hand, destroying the publishing company might be a sane idea. Nonetheless, she’d have to convince Lynette not to do anything until after she’d cashed her check for the feature.