Gaily-colored streamers tacked to the ceiling descended to the floor and balloons, each with a letter of Stein's name, stood proud and straight on their thin twined bunches. Maggie Chamberlain was in the kitchen, singing along to Buddy Holly while she watched the maid cut the cake.
“Barbara! Even slices. Don't want Cristein to get fat, like his father.” Her blonde hair was dyed pink in places with a black-glitter mesh bow. The maid, a squat woman herself, pursed her lips, her fingers tightening around the handle of the knife but said nothing in objection. The woman was a cocaine addict and her son had a freakish name, and that was punishment enough for this family. Instead, she finished the job of slicing the white-chocolate cake in neat little child-size squares and pushed through the French doors on the patio to tell the brand-new eight-year-old that he and his friends could come have cake in the parlor. She called him Stein, and he loved it. Better the boy grow up with an alternative; Cristein was an oblong name. She chuckled as she went to gather up the rest of the family.
Benjamin Chamberlain was in his home office on the phone. Barbara stood patiently outside his door, waiting a few moments to see if he'd turn around and catch sight of her. The conversation was tense, and after a few seconds, she stepped back from the doorway just to eavesdrop in spite of herself.
“I see...and you are sure it's Karen...” Ben propped the phone between his shoulder and ear momentarily while he extracted a small packet of white from his top desk drawer from the nesting of identicals, and locked the drawer with a small key. He held it up to the light of the window and set it down on his desk, turning to look to the doorway before refocusing on his conversation.
“She was found where? What about her mother, can't she—oh...oh I see. Several years ago.” He sucked his breath in through his teeth and loosened his tie, one that Maggie'd given him for the past Father's Day. It was navy blue, with little red polo-riders in a diagonal pattern all over it. His light-blue shirt was beginning to develop sweat stains, perhaps from the conversation, perhaps not.
“I can come identify her, but it's been years since I last saw her. I don't think she even knew I was her father.”
Wide-eyed, Barbara staggered backwards.
A bright light. Stein opened his eyes and immediately slitted them against the intrusion.
“A sister Cristein. Did you know?” Roger was close by. Very close, like a lover's voice.
Heat shimmered in the lights and Stein blinked a few times and nodded. “Dad told me. The day before he died. She was twenty-two.”
“Do you know how she died, Cristein?”
Stein grimaced. His collar felt tight. “No. That wasn't really fully disclosed. Some kind of wreck.”
“You tried to find out, didn't you?”
Stein nodded again. He tried to sit up but couldn't. His body felt immensely heavy and non-existent all at once. “Am I dead Roger? Did I die?”
Roger laughed and stepped into view. Stars winked behind his head and Stein was out on the highway again. The lights were headlights and he could feel the cracks in the blacktop under his back. He pressed his shoulders into the road, treasuring the sensation of something solid besides his breathing. In. Out. In. Out. In—
“Answer the question.”
“I went to the library—“
“Her name was Karen. Karen Mills.”
“I know that goddamnit,” Stein said, turning his head to Roger's voice, but it was just him and that bedeviled car again.
“Would you rather we go elsewhere?”
“Besides lying in the road in front of a demon car? Sure.”
Stein licked his lips and tasted sand. He was on a beach, looking out at nothing. No water. Just dead seabed. The moonlight drifted down in rivulets, as if afraid of the cursed place. The ground was spotted, as if it'd tried to rain, but thought better of it.
Stein sat up, and leaned over his knees, hugging his legs. “Yeah. Good as it gets, I guess.”
“She died of asphyxiation Stein.” Roger stepped into view but his face was unreadable and dark. Isobel sat sentient, silent and unlit. The moonbeams split over the roof of the hulking machine and dared not even reflect off the fenders. A dim glow resided in the ancient glass of the headlights.
“Choked to death with her own pantyhose.”
Stein shook his head. “Car accident,” he said incredulously. “The papers said it was an automobile accident...a flaming wreckage—fuck.” His eyes were bulging. “Isobel.”
Roger smiled not kindly. “She severed a man's penis while he was high on cocaine.”
“Was everyone on that shit in the eighties?”
Roger snorted. “It was a very busy decade for us.”
Stein exhaled hard and shook his head. “Fuck you. Whomever the fuck you and that goddamn car work for.”
“Karen was the original Chamberlain. You took that from her, didn't you?”
“I didn't know!” Stein roared and jumped to his feet, fists clenched at his sides. “What the fuck is this? A goddamn interrogation?”
Isobel's engine started and the headlights were there in Stein's face again. The accelerator raced, rocking the car violently.
“Careful. You don't want to piss off your partner,” Roger said, his smile fading from his ghastly illuminated features.