The Sixth Door – First Chapter

Pike shared this preview of the first chapter for The Sixth Door, an upcoming ADULT novel that may also make it’s way to TV.

 

THE SIXTH DOOR

CHAPTER ONE

You might have seen me, I get around. The name of the city does not matter to me. When I arrive in a town, I usually go for a long walk, night or day, and pretty soon I’m talking to someone. Whoever it is, they always have the same problems. No money, no sex, and never enough love. I try to help them, not just with talk, but with a few tricks I’ve learned over the years. And more often than not I am able to satisfy their needs. But they seldom thank me afterwards, not when our business is finished. That doesn’t bother me, though. I just pack up my things, buy a bus ticket, and move on. It is all the same to me.
I have nicknames, people call me different things: the Boss; the Hypnotist; the Magician. But I think the name that sticks the most is the Fix. Don’t ask me why but lots of people remember me by that title. Then again, those who get closest to me, they call me the Sixth Door. That name — it’s sort of descriptive — is probably the best. I hardly think about what my real name used to be anymore.
The Doors, you might have heard about the Doors. Not the rock group, but the movement. It’s not an official corporate entity, it doesn’t have a headquarters or offices or anything like that. It’s just out there, people are talking about it. The other day, this person I know — I wouldn’t call him a friend — said he saw a site on the Internet about it. So the word is spreading, slowly, and I suppose I’m doing my part to make it spread.
But the truth is, I don’t give a damn what happens, and that’s the whole point of this story — there is no truth. Words are just words. What matters is the Power, that’s what I say, it’s everywhere in every situation. That’s what I teach people to focus on. Of course, when they finally get what they want, even that does not matter, because it never makes them happy.
What am I talking about? I’ll give you a hint, the answer is in the nickname. You see, I’ve walked through every one of those Doors, and I can tell you for certain that the first is the same as the last. The Doors make you feel good, then they make you feel bad, but once you start, it’s hard to stop. But even with all the pain they bring, the mess the world is in, why should you stop? The Doors do offer their own brand of compensation.
Get to know me better and you’ll know all about that.
Let me tell you my story.
Roger Hart’s story. That used to be my name.
For a while, for the sake of the tale, I’ll act like I care.
It all started when Erica Bayer called, good old first love, a voice from the past, great-time sex, college-day madness. She caught me on my cell as I was coming out of an AA meeting. My sponsor, Carl Revelor, had just gone for the car. I was standing on the side of a dark street in downtown Los Angeles, and the moon was straight overhead and looked like it was watching. It was mid-May but the night felt like summer.
“Erica, long time. How did you get my number?” I said. It had been five years since we had spoken.
“A friend of a friend.” A pause. “I need to see you.”
“What’s wrong? You don’t sound so good.”
“What are you doing right now?” she asked.
“A pal is just about to give me a ride home. Why?”
“You still in LA?”
“Sure.” I added, “I can call you when I get home if you want.”
“I told you, I need to see you in person. I’m in Ventura. Can we meet tonight? Halfway? Say in Aguora Hills?”
I was tired, wanted to go to bed, was looking at a long day tomorrow. “What’s this all about?” I asked.
“I’ll explain everything when I see you.” Her voice grew intense. “I really need to see you, Roger.”
Erica, she didn’t sound right, and we had not ended in the perfect place, but she was a big part of my history. There was no way to say no and not be a jerk. “There’s a Denny’s there, just off the freeway. You know it? I can be there in an hour.”
“I’ll be waiting for you,” she said, and hung up.
Carl appeared a minute later, and I climbed in his car. He lived a mile from my apartment, in Venice; we often drove to our AA meetings together, once a week. Carl had been sober five years, me, six months. Carl was a true friend, a steady hand; I was a work in progress. There was a joke I told him. I never had the urge to pick up a bottle, except when I thought about it. Carl believed I was going to make it, though, and I was pretty sure I would.
When I got in the car, he asked if Kathy, my sort-of ex, had just called.
“No. It was an old girlfriend of mine. Erica. She wants to see me tonight.”
Carl drove down a narrow road, and then onto the freeway. The tall city lights took the place of the distant moon, and the skyscrapers reminded me of Christmas trees. “Have you told me about her?” he asked.
“No. Haven’t seen her in years.” I added, “She sounds like she’s in trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“Beats me,” I said.
Carl looked over. He had three decades on my thirty-four years. His face was small and tight, deeply tanned, wrinkled as the backside of a doughnut. He had hair but it was hibernating. His blue eyes were wide open; the mind behind them missed nothing. If ever I were to have a drink, and call him, he would know with one word. Even if the word was no.
“Going to see her?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Probably.”
“It’s none of my business…”
“You can say it.”
“Is that wise? You’re seeing Kathy tomorrow, and Danny.”
My ex and my son, the twin centers of the universe I was trying to hyper-jump back to. Half my reason for going to AA was to get my family back. The other half was my liver, my brain, whichever was not working at the moment. Carl was concerned that Erica was not Kathy’s best friend.
“I’m going to help her, I’m not going to sleep with her,” I said.
“It’s hard to help an old girlfriend without wanting to have sex with them.”
“She could be married for all I know.”
Carl shook his head. “Doesn’t matter.”
“I’ll call you if I’m about to fuck her. You can talk me down.”
“No way. But you can call and let me listen in.”
“None of your exs have called lately?” I asked.
Carl sighed. “Not in the last few years.”
Carl took me home — a two bedroom apartment one quarter the size of my old house — and I did not even bother to go inside, just jumped in my car and headed north. The time was after eleven, the traffic was light. The drive woke me up somewhat. I began to look forward to seeing Erica again. Carl was right; always a warm temptation, those old girlfriends.
She was sitting in the corner of the Denny’s when I arrived, drinking coffee. She looked tired but good. Her hair was a dark maroon; she used to wear it long, but now it was cropped close to her face like a mannequin’s glove. She had always been thin but now her cheeks were hollow. The effect, at first glance, was pleasant; it made her green eyes glow like stained glass. She had on white pants, a red sweater, a short black leather coat. She stood as I approached, kissed me on the lips, thanked me for coming. We sat across from each other, and her smile was forced.
“You look great,” she said.
I supposed. My drinking had affected my brain, not my face or gut. At six foot, I was still the same weight I’d been in college; although my dark hair was thinner. I tried to imagine how I looked to her, if she meant the compliment she had greeted me with. My features were angular, slightly worn. I did not have the perfect jaw of an actor but I knew how to smile and make it look like it came from the heart. All my life women had told me I was handsome; and I guess I believed it. My eyes were gray, deep set. Erica used to have a love-hate relationship with them. They were made of shiny metal, she used to say; they revealed nothing.
“You look pretty good yourself,” I said.
“Thanks.”
“Been waiting long?”
“Not too long.” She paused. “Still married?”
“Sort of.”
“Which means?”
“We’re separated but we’re talking about getting back together.”
“How’s the kid?”
“Danny. He’s great.”
Erica smiled. “Your own kid, wow — it must blow your mind to look at him.”
“Every single day of my life. How about you? Ever get married?”
“Came close twice.”
“What happened?”
She shrugged. “Who knows? I think it was more me than them.”
“The Restless Soul?”
She smiled at my nickname for her. “Yeah. I haven’t changed much.”
The waitress appeared, I asked for caffeine. We spent a few minutes on small talk. Then the coffee came, and Erica got a refill, and the clock on the wall crept past midnight. I was patient; it was good just to look at her. She was paler than I remembered, but for some reason I thought her skin was the same, and I had barely touched her. The intimacy of our past might have sensitized my fingers. The table was not wide. I had a feeling that at some point in the evening I would reach over and take her hand. But I did not lust for her, as I thought I might. Besides being restless, she had used to be tough; and in college, surrounded by walking and talking Cosmopolitan ads, that had been a major attraction for me. However, now it was more than her eyes that were made of glass. She kept glancing around as we spoke, out the dark windows, where only our reflections could be found.
“I guess you’re wondering why I called,” she said finally.
I nodded. “You sound like you’re in some kind of trouble.”
My remark hit like an arrow; she sagged. “That’s an understatement.”
“Tell me about it,” I said gently. I had used to be gentle with her, most of time, until the end, when we had both been rough.
She gestured weakly. “I don’t know where to begin.”
“Start at the beginning.”
Erica took a sip of her coffee and began. Yet, as she spoke, she seldom looked at me. The black windows continued to draw her. When she did not know where to go, she went there. The coffee shop was almost empty but she kept her voice low.
“Let’s go back in time a few months. I was selling real estate in Ventura, but the business was lousy. Lots of new offices had opened up in the area, and the competition was awful. I’d been in the field six years, but I had to go back to canvassing residential neighborhoods, on foot, to get leads. That was so humiliating. It was like, I thought, hey, I’m thirty-four, and I’m starting at square one. And we got this new office manager, he was a real asshole. A fat greasy guy from New Jersey. He hit on me the first month but when I acted uninterested he took away my floor time. That’s where you sit in the office and take calls. I know that sounds boring — it is boring — but you need a certain amount of it to get clients. He tried to hurt me because I wouldn’t sleep with him. Imagine that?
“Anyway, I was used to making seventy grand a year and just like that it dropped to fifty, and I guess I didn’t make enough changes in my lifestyle and I got into debt. It was the usual shit: I owed the limit on five different credit cards, and a few grand to a few friends. To make things worse, I started driving up to that Indian casino outside Solvang to blow off steam, most times late at night. You remember how I used to love to drag you to Las Vegas every chance we got? I guess I got sort of an addiction there, but it’s not a big deal. I just like to lose myself in blackjack when things are tense in my life. I’d never take a lot of cash with me when I went, just a hundred or so. But do that enough, and it begins to add up.”
“How much are your total debts right now?” I interrupted.
She hesitated. “Now? Or then?”
I was confused. “I thought we were talking about now?”
“No. I’m giving you the background of how I got into the mess I’m in.”
“That’s fine Go on,” I said. Yet I found her use of tense disturbing. Her brain had a line in it: then and now. Perhaps that’s why she seemed shaky. I wondered what had caused the division. Naturally, the way she had started, I had assumed her troubles were financial.
“I got so I was fifty grand in debt, and it was not pretty. I had a couple of credit cards with these real high interest rates. The monthly payments were killing me. And you know how terrible it is to owe friends. You’re afraid to call them because you have no money to give them, but when you don’t call them they feel like you just took their money and don’t want to talk to them anymore. I was having the worst luck at work. Besides the trouble with my boss, I had four houses fall out of escrow over just two months. Four! Each one was like a knife in my heart. I mean, usually when you’ve gone that far, the sale is solid. Each time I had already spent the commission money in my head. I began to feel like I was cursed. I used to come home and cry at night. I got so stressed, I had to drink three glasses of wine just to fall asleep.
“Then I saw this ad in the paper. It was a weird ad, it caught my attention. The top line read: Make Money Gambling. Underneath that it said, “This is not a scam. This is for real. A proven system that we’ll demonstrate before you invest a single penny. A system that comes with a guarantee. A system that will change your life.” Sure, yeah, I know, it sounded totally like a scam. But it caught my attention for a few reasons. I was already playing blackjack, and if you remember, I always wanted to learn to count cards. That’s the one way you can scientifically beat the casinos, if you could keep track of the high and low cards. I assumed the people who placed the ad were offering a course on card counting. Of course I was broke, and when you’re broke, you’ll try anything.
“I went to the lecture. It was in a community room in a crummy bank. There were only five people present — including myself — and two of them got up and left as soon as they heard the system did not involve card counting. I almost left myself but the guy giving the talk looked professional. He was not handsome or young but he wore an expensive blue suit and he did not come across as a hustler. He was clearly intelligent, and he spoke in a reasonable voice about how a year previously he had met some people who had trained him in how to beat the casinos. He said he wanted to pass on the information. He made it clear that he charged a fee for the knowledge — five thousand bucks — but if we were interested, he said he’d demonstrate that he could beat any dealer in the world at blackjack. But he warned us that simply by watching him, we wouldn’t be able to tell how he was doing it. Yet we would know it was legitimate. Then he stopped and asked if we wanted the demonstration. The three of us said sure, hell, what did we have to lose?
“The guy — Dave Friar — had brought a small blackjack table, cards, and chips. He asked for a volunteer to play against him and I raised my hand. I figured the closer I was to the action, the easier it would be to tell if he was cheating or not. I was suspicious that he might be a mechanic — that’s someone who can palm cards. But I have to admit I was kind of excited too. Dave spoke with such self-confidence. It was hard to doubt him. He said his system did not involve counting, which only gave the player a slight advantage over a long period of time. In the last six months, he confided in us, he had taken over six hundred thousand out of Vegas.”
“Then why did he need your five thousand?” I asked.
“I was wondering the same thing. But I wasn’t scared he was going to try to steal my money. When I sat across from him, he went to the trouble to remove his coat, and he was wearing a short sleeve shirt. I thought to myself, if this guy’s a mechanic, where’s he going to get his cards from? Also, the other two at the lecture were sitting on either side of him, practically in his lap. I studied the cards before I started dealing, and there wasn’t a mark on them. The deck was legitimate.
“I started dealing, putting his cards up, keeping my hole card down, hitting on sixteen or less, just like the dealers in the casinos do. I hit on a soft seventeen, which is when you have an ace and a six. That rule favors the dealer. They play that way up at Chumash Casino, that place I told you about outside Solvang.”
“Don’t they use a six deck shoe at Chumash? Which also favors the dealer?”
“Yes, I know. After we played a while, Dave let me deal from a shoe. But first we started with one deck just so we could see how he performed. It was fascinating. We were playing with five, twenty-five, and hundred dollar chips. At first I thought the guy was an amateur. There’s something called basic strategy. I was always trying to teach it to you when we were in college. It’s called playing by the book. Supposedly, if you play perfect basic strategy, you play at a tiny disadvantage. But most people don’t play that way. They don’t know all the rules about when to double down or split. Even when you do know the rules — like I do — you don’t always follow them. When you’ve got real money down, your emotions take over and you hit when you’re not supposed to, or you hesitate to split when you should. Basic strategy doesn’t frighten the casinos. They know they’re still going to make their money. It’s highly trained card counters they can’t stand. Those guys can tilt the odds in their own favor, just slightly. But even card counters play basic strategy. You know what I mean?”
“Sure. Are you saying Dave violated basic strategy?”
She nodded. “A lot of the time. He would get eleven and he wouldn’t double down. That was crazy. You’ve got to double on eleven because there’s an excellent chance you’ll get twenty-one. That’s simple mathematics — it’s common sense. But sometimes he would do it, and sometimes he wouldn’t. I didn’t get it, but I kept dealing. Dave insisted we go through a lot of hands so that luck would have nothing to do with him winning.”
“Did he start winning?” I asked.
“Yes.”
“After how long?”
“Pretty quick,” Erica said.
“Was he getting good cards? Was he winning lots of hands?”
“No. If anything, he was losing an unusual amount of hands, which made sense to me because he was not playing by the book.” Erica flashed a smile. “He was playing like a total beginner, like you used to play when we went to Vegas.”
“I wasn’t that bad,” I said. Erica’s memory was selective. I was the one who had taught her how to play blackjack. However, it was true she had developed a passion for it, and had later studied books on the subject. But I was by no means an inexperienced player. I found it odd that she was going to such great lengths to explain the basics to me. She drank her coffee and continued.
“You sucked, I just didn’t have the heart to tell you.”
I let it go. “How was Dave winning?”
“He was scoring on his big bets. Like I said, his bets were from five to a hundred. For the most part he bet ten or twenty bucks. But occasionally he would bet forty or fifty, and every now and then he put down a black chip. Whenever he did that, he usually won.”
“But not every time?”
“No. I would say he won three out of four times when he bet big.”
“How?”
“I had no idea! It was blowing my mind. The other two got excited as well. We played for close to an hour and Dave won over four thousand bucks. Then he let the guy who was there deal out of a shoe, using six decks, and it made no difference. Dave kept winning a preponderance of his large bets. He won another four thousand.”
“The cards must have been marked in ways you could not see,” I said.
“No. I told you, I studied the decks closely. Also, that wouldn’t have helped him with the shoe. He had to put his bet down before the cards were dealt.”
I frowned. “Did you sign up for his course?”
“Yes. So did the others. We met with him privately after his demonstration and I made an appointment to see him the following week in a hotel room.”
“Alone?”
“Yes. He said he had to teach us privately.”
I had to smile. “Naked?”
“It wasn’t like that, he wasn’t like that. Dave acted the perfect gentleman. But he did insist we pay the five grand up front in cash. That made me nervous until he told me that I would get to practice the system in front of him until I was satisfied. The whole next week, I swear, I was bouncing off the walls. I had seen him win with my own eyes! He was definitely not just increasing his bet when he got down, hoping for a lucky break. It was like he just knew when good cards were coming.”
“But the cards have no memory,” I said.
Erica waved her hand. “I know all that. Let me tell you what happened. The next week I met him at the Hilton in Ventura, with my five thousand in my bag. You probably have guessed I had to take it out as a cash advance against one of my credit cards. I didn’t care, I just wanted to see how he did it. But before he would show me he made me read and sign a confidentiality agreement. It was long, I barely skimmed it. But essentially it said that I was to reveal to no one what he taught me. That didn’t bug me too much, but I was curious when I saw the name at the top of the form. It was called Doors Inc. When I asked Dave what that was, he said it was the organization behind the instruction. He said I was learning what was called the First Door. He told me there were six doors altogether. When I asked what the others were, though, he wouldn’t tell me. He said I had to master the First Door before he could reveal more.”
“He used the words master and reveal?” I asked.
Erica hesitated. “Yes.”
“Was there an address or phone number on the form?”
“No.”
I nodded. “Go on.”
“After I signed the form and handed over my money, he took my picture with a Polaroid camera. He explained that he needed the photo for security reasons. He said the information contained in the First Door was very powerful and the organization had to be careful that it did not end up in the wrong hands. That made me feel weird. He took my picture without asking. Just snapped it when I looked up. He took the signed form and the picture into the bathroom. He was in there ten minutes. I don’t know what he was doing. I didn’t hear the toilet flush. When he came out, he was carrying a deck of cards and a box of chips.” She shrugged. “Then he showed me the system.”
I waited a moment. “And?” I said.
“What?”
“What did it involve?”
She shook her head. “I told you about the form I signed. I’m not allowed to talk about it.”
“You mean, you told me all this and you’re not going to tell me the punch line?”
“I’m not allowed to. I could get in trouble.”
“Yeah, right, you signed the form. Listen, Erica, this is bullshit. You dragged me up here in the middle of the night because you said you need my help. If that’s true, and you do really want it, then you’ve got to be straight with me.”
The change in her was abrupt. She had appeared uneasy before but now she was distressed. Her hand went to a medallion around her neck. I had not noticed it before. In college, Erica had never worn a scrap of jewelry, and this piece, although at least an inch in diameter, was not flattering. It was a silver wheel set on six spokes. At the tip of each bar was a red garnet. At the exact center was what appeared to be a cheap emerald. None of the stones were impressive, although the silver was brightly polished. The thing looked like it cost at most two hundred bucks.
Erica noticed my attention and quickly took her hand down.
“I can tell you that the system worked,” she said.
“I don’t believe you.”
“It’s true. I practiced the system in front of Dave and won a few thousand dollars in chips. Then I drove up to Chumash late that night and won five hundred dollars.”
“Why not five thousand?”
“I bet conservatively. I was still getting used to the system.” She paused. “The next time I went, I lost four hundred dollars.”
“Ask me if I’m surprised.”
“I practiced at home for a week before going back. I had a friend deal to me. I didn’t tell him what I was doing. I got so I won pretty consistently at home. Then, when I went back to the casino, I won a thousand dollars.”
“Good for you.”
“You think I was just lucky?” she asked.
“I know you were just lucky.”
Erica shook her head. “What if I told you that, in the last six months, I have won over a forty thousand at Chumash and at Las Vegas?”
I paused, I could see she was serious. She was not lying either, I was pretty sure. Forty grand was a lot of money, particularly when it was real money. It alone made for a strong argument. Yet it did not make me a believer.
“Whatever,” I said.
She was frustrated. “You think I made all this up?”
Lowering my head, I sighed, feeling weary. “None of what you say is proof of anything remarkable. Dave has not taught you how to tap into a miraculous power. If it truly existed a million other people would know about it. There’s nothing special about Dave. There is nothing special about you or I. We’re just normal people and miracles do not happen to normal people.”
“How did I win then?”
“You ran into a streak of good luck. Back when we were in college, we went to Vegas five times in one summer. Remember? And every single time I won. Hell, I think I won ten thousand dollars altogether. That doesn’t mean I’m psychic. All it means is I got lucky, for a while. The next summer, I began to lose. I lost most of it back. In gambling every game is based on odds. You’re smart enough to know that in the end you’re going to lose. It’s because the house has the mathematical advantage. It is as simple as that.”
“Are you through?”
I drank my coffee and yawned. “I’m tired.”
Erica was concerned. “I have lots more to tell you. You have no idea where all this is going.”
“You say you won forty thousand. Why didn’t you win four million? If you really know how to beat the casinos, you should have been able to steadily increase your bets until you were taking the chips home in shopping bags. Answer me that and I’ll listen to the rest of your story.”
She was silent a long time. “I lost interest in the money.”
“What?”
“I made enough to pay off my debts. I was no longer under pressure. I didn’t want to gamble anymore.”
I signaled to the waitress for the check. “I don’t believe that either. Gambling is to you what liquor is to me. And yes, I have a drinking problem. Only I don’t drink now because I want to wake up every morning and see my son before I have to see the rest of the world. Danny is what keeps me going. You need to find something that means more to you than gambling. Then you’ll lose interest in Chumash and Las Vegas.”
Erica reached out and took my hand. Her skin, I knew her skin, it was as warm and soft as it had been in college. “Roger, trust me, I’m not gambling anymore. But that does not mean I don’t need your help. I do, more than you can imagine.” She added, “Please don’t leave me.”
There was genuine fear in her voice. Her green eyes strained to hold mine, and I knew she was not someone who acted dramatic for drama’s sake. Also, I have to admit, I was sort of curious about what happened next. I squeezed her hand, nodded. “Just don’t talk anymore about blackjack. It bores me.”
“The Second and Third Door have nothing to do with that.”
I took a few seconds to understand. “You went back to Dave?”
Our tender moment was brief. She took back her hand. “Yes.”
“Why? You said you were sick of gambling.”
“What he taught me worked. I wanted to see what else he knew.”
“How did you find him?”
“I had his card, I gave him a call, left a message. He called me back the next day.”
“What was the area code for his number?”
“ Four-one-five, the Bay Area. Why?”
“Just curious. Did his card contain an address?”
She hesitated. “No.”
“Where did you meet him next?”
Again, she seemed reluctant to tell me, although I did not know if it was because of forms she had signed or because she was embarrassed. “I met him in a hotel room in San Jose,” she said finally.
“For a specific purpose I take it?”
“Yes. Before I drove up, he told me a little of what the Second Door entailed.” Her eyes wandered once more to the black window. She reached out and touched the glass, rubbed it briefly, the dust and her reflection. She spoke in a low tone. “There was this guy, Joey, I had a crush on him. He was incredibly handsome. He worked in an auto supply store near my office. He was younger than me by seven years, but we hit it off at first. The sex was amazing. He had the greatest skin, deep blue eyes, strong hands. But he never wanted to commit. I mean, I didn’t want to marry him, but I at least wanted him to call me his girlfriend. I would see him three or four days in a row, and then I wouldn’t see him for two weeks. He wouldn’t even call. I knew he was seeing other women and it drove me crazy.”
“You told Dave about him?”
She looked at me. “Yes.”
“Why? Did he tell you ahead of time that the Second Door could help with a romantic relationship?”
“He told me it could. I don’t know if I brought up Joey first. But I do remember Dave asked me, ‘What do you want?’ That was on the phone. It was a simple question but it shook me up. That was when I told him about Joey. Dave told me that was not a problem. I could have Joey if I really wanted him. He told me to drive up and see him.”
“Was there a charge?”
“Ten thousand dollars.”
“Jesus Christ. In cash?”
“Yes.” Erica spoke quickly. “I had money left over from gambling. By then I knew Dave was the real thing. If he said he could get me Joey, I believed him. But he did make an unusual request before I drove up. He told me to get a picture of Joey, and some of his hair.”
“What for?”
She hesitated. “I don’t know.”
“Erica?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. But when I arrived at the hotel where Dave was staying, he took a lock of my hair as well and made me sign more papers. Then he went next door for half an hour. When he returned he gave me something and told me…how to use it.”
“I am so glad we are being open with each other,” I said.
She gestured helplessly. “I can’t tell you what he gave me, or what he told me to do with it.”
My impatience returned. “Why not?”
“They might find out.”
“They?”
“Dave’s organization, the Doors.” She lowered her head, spoke in a small voice. “They could hurt me.”
That made me pause. “Did Dave threaten to hurt you?”
“No. Not him. It’s complicated. Just let me go on. Okay?”
“Fine.”
“I returned home and followed Dave’s instructions to the letter. At first it had no effect. Joey came and went as usual. If anything he seemed more distant. But after a month he started to hang out more, and after two months I was seeing him almost every night. Two weeks after that he shocked me when he said he wanted to move in with me.”
“How long ago was that?” I asked, trying to get the time frame clear in my head.
“Two months ago.”
“Did he move in?”
“No. I didn’t want him to. I was seeing so much of him, I got sick of him. Then he started to obsess on me, which completely turned me off. I had given him a key and I would come home from work and find him sleeping naked in my bed. I finally told him I didn’t want to see him anymore, and changed my locks, but it didn’t make any difference. He kept coming over. I finally had to call the police, and go to court and get a restraining order.”
“Wow,” I said.
Again, she was disappointed in my reaction. “Don’t tell me that he suddenly got obsessed because of chance,” she said.
“It was not chance. You’re a beautiful woman. I was obsessed with you at one time. If you remember the arc of our relationship, it took me over a year of dating you to get in that state. Joey’s affection for you sounds no different, except he did not have the good sense to know when to back off.” I added, “When Dave took your ten grand, and promised you Joey would be yours, he just had to look at you to know it would not be long before the sucker melted.”
Erica shook her head. “You’re wrong. You didn’t know Joey the way he was at first. He was like a cloud, he was so unattached. And then, wham, overnight, he’s stalking me. You can’t explain that away with logic.”
“Frankly, I have trouble explaining any of this since you won’t tell me what your secret instructions were.”
Erica appeared to withdraw. The waitress came and refilled our cups. She also brought us the check. I drank my coffee, I was going to need it to get home. Erica went back to fingering her medallion. If it was a talisman of power, it was not working on me. I had to wonder what had become of the hard-boiled chick I had known in college. No doubt Dave was persuasive, but what he was selling sounded like it was made out of air.
“Do you want to hear the rest?” Erica asked finally.
“Yes.”
“Will you keep an open mind?”
“As long as open does not mean gullible.”
“How are you going to help me if you don’t even believe me?”
“I can help you best by keeping a level head. Tell me what was behind the Third Door.”
Erica nodded, perhaps more to herself. “The day I got the restraining order on Joey, I called Dave back. He didn’t appear surprised to hear from me. Nor did he act surprised when I told what had happened with Joey. Again, he asked me that question, a few times, sort of like a mantra. ‘What do you want, Erica?’ ‘Do you know what you want?’ I felt like he was trying to tell me something profound. For sure, the question got me thinking. I had thought I wanted Joey, but I hadn’t really. The truth is the guy was a big baby, great in bed but a pain in the ass. The more I looked inside, the more obvious it was. I didn’t want money. I didn’t want sex. I wanted love.”
“We all want love,” I said.
Erica stared at me for a moment with an odd expression. It was not annoyance, or fear. Perhaps it was desire, I could not be sure. Her lower lip trembled slightly. Yet the look did not last.
“I know, we all want love, but that did not make my insight any less valid. Not to me. Because it was only then, talking on the phone to Dave, that I was able to articulate the feeling. He understood, he spoke to me with great warmth. He said the Third Door dealt with love. He told me if I was ready, he would be honored to show it to me.”
“For fifty thousand?” I asked.
“For free.”
“What?”
“Dave said there could be no charge for love. He would give me the means to attract true love into my life for nothing. All he needed was to see me in person.” She added, “And a little of my blood.”
I almost fell out of my seat. “You gave him some of your blood?”
She acted defiant. “Yes.”
“Why for godssakes?”
Erica got angry. “Why do you have to ask? Haven’t you been listening to me? I wanted money and he got me money. I wanted to fuck and I got to fuck all I wanted. If he had asked for one of my fingers, I’d have given it to him to get what he was promising. If you knew it would work, you would have done the same thing!”
I had to drown my gaze in my coffee cup. Because I wanted to get up and walk. Worse, I wanted to laugh. Only Erica had tears in her eyes now, and she was asking for my help. But how could I help her, I asked myself? She did not need an old boyfriend. She needed a deprogrammer.
Another uncomfortable silence settled between us.
“When you saw him, what did he do with the blood?” I asked finally.
“I can’t tell you.”
“Because he made you sign a form?”
She wiped at her eyes. “Yes.”
“But you saw what he did with it?”
She hesitated. “I think so, yes,” she replied, sounding far from sure.
And I had thought the gambling scheme was annoying.
“What happened?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I drove back home, and two weeks later, at a party in Agoura Hills, I met Clive.”
My eyes narrowed. We were in Agoura Hills now. Indeed, I suddenly realized, she had been here when she had called, not home in Ventura like she had said. I glanced around the Denny’s, which caused Erica to snicker quietly.
“He’s asleep,” she said.
I spoke sarcastically. “Good to know.”
“You’re not mad?”
“I’m not? You should have driven down to LA to see me. I have to get up early tomorrow. But you didn’t want to drive anywhere because you hated to leave your true love’s side for more than an hour at a time.”
“Are you jealous?”
“Ask me another stupid question and I’ll leave,” I replied. I hated being lied to, particularly by someone who kept begging for me to believe them. I was not jealous, I told myself.
“Sorry.” Erica wiped at her eyes some more, nodded, sat up and leaned closer. She did not touch me but her fingers came near. “I heard about this party through a friend of a friend at work, and I wanted to go because Dave had told me to get out more often, give what we were doing together a better chance to work. Clive was throwing the party. I met him at the door when I arrived, and I have to admit he caught my eye. He’s from the Middle East, has dark skin and thick sensual lips. But he was educated in this country. He graduated from Harvard Business School. All this stuff I found out while hanging out at the party. But I did not talk to Clive until I was about to leave. He came up to me as I was heading for the door and asked if I wanted to see his fish. He has a huge aquarium in his bedroom. Those fish must have cost a fortune. He had different species from all over the world. Every color of the rainbow. That was how we got to talking.” She added, “I liked him right away.”
“What does Clive do?”
“He’s a stockbroker.”
“Clive does not sound like an Arab name.”
“I didn’t say he was an Arab.”
“Is he Persian? Jewish?” I asked.
“I don’t know. His last name is Hortee.”
“Unusual name. Are you in love with him?”
She smiled wistfully. “Yes. I’ve…been with him since I met him. Day and night.”
“How about your work?”
“I don’t know. I might not have a job anymore.”
Her pain was apparent. I spoke carefully. “Does he love you?”
She stared at me a long time, with her wistful smile, until it began to crack at the edges, and transformed into a grimace. Her face trembled, her fingers knotted. “I don’t know,” she whispered.
“Erica…”
“He’s one of them!” she snapped.
After the blood, I thought I was ready for anything. Her revelation forced me to slump in the booth. In an instant her tale took on larger dimensions, more sinister shades. If I believed her, that was. She was clearly frightened, but I had never found fear to be an effective emollient against poor character. Erica was not the person I had once loved. She was too erratic.
“How do you know? Did he tell you?” I asked.
She nodded. “Last week.”
“Does he know Dave?”
“I don’t know, I would assume. His name didn’t come up. But last week he told me, right after we had sex, that he couldn’t see me anymore unless I went through the Fourth Door. No warning, no lead up to the ultimatum, he just said the words.”
“Get away from him. Now.”
She shook her head sadly. “I love him. I love him more than I love my own life.”
“Has he told you what the Fourth Door involves?”
“Sort of.” She added, “Not really.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s complicated.”
I pressed her. “Have you asked Clive if he knows Dave?”
She spoke so softly she was difficult to hear. “There’s no reason to. It’s obvious they’re all in this together, and that I’ve gotten way too involved. You see, Roger, I think it’s all out there, part of a master plan, and that it’s spreading across the country.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She sighed. “It doesn’t matter.”
“But you keep seeing him. You saw him tonight.”
“Yes.”
“If you don’t talk about all this shit, then what do you do?”
Erica wore a dazed expression. “We eat, we swim, we listen to music, we watch TV. We fuck a lot. I mean, since I love him so much, I guess I should say we make love. But he’s going through the motions. He looks at me like I’m a prop in a play. He’s not going to love me again until I give him what he wants. Any day now he’s going to kick me out.”
“What does he want?” I asked.
“I told you. He wants me to go through the Fourth Door.”
“I got that. But what do you have to do to go through the Fourth Door?”
I was uneasy using the expression go through. Besides sounding cultish, it said nothing. Yet it meant something to Erica. My question filled her with dread. Her pretty face turned chalk-white. We had come to the climax of the evening, the reason she had called. She reached out to touch me. Her delicate fingers brushed the back of my palm. For a second I felt the warmth of her skin, and a strange chill. Then her hand went limp. It just lay there on the table top as if it were attached to a corpse.
“He says I have to kill someone,” she said.

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