by Corey Michael Dalton

Ever since the Crips for Christ pulled down one of the Ls in the Hollywood sign and torched a strip mall full of Progressive Scientologists, the real estate market in the Greater Los Angeles Area just hasn't been the same. My last closing was nearly a year ago when I sold a one-bedroom loft in Tarzana to a pair of androgynous Swedes hoping to restart the Blue Man Group. Lately, showings have gotten fewer and farther between, not to mention dangerous. In December while giving an octogenarian porn actress a tour of a property on La Brea Avenue, I was jumped by a platoon of Ponyhawk gang initiates in the master bath. If not for some quick thinking and an unconventional use of a day-glo vibrator, I would have been killed. Now I pack heat—an aluminum Saturday night special that I carry in the back of my underwear, pressed neatly into the top of my ass crack.

Yeah, the gangs definitely keep buyers at bay.

And, of course, the Scarlet Plague doesn’t help any either.

Not that the whole country isn’t affected by the “red death,” but the coasts seem to have suffered the worst of it. “Population density,” scientists say. “God’s judgment on the whores and queers,” the Talmudic Terrors say. To my knowledge, my wife Jacqueline is neither a whore nor a queer, but she still lost her left arm to a plague-related infection. We’ve been luckier than most, though; neither of our kids has died. Sure, Milo is now legally blind and Sarah’s face is so pockmarked it looks like the rind of a cantaloupe, but at least they’re alive. As for me, I’ve been perfectly healthy.

Except for a raging case of genital herpes, and I’m pretty sure that’s unrelated to the Scarlet Plague.

* * * * *

A month ago last Sunday, Jacqueline and I finally had it out. I remember it was Sunday because we’d just finished watching The Many Triumphs of Doctor Joseph on Channel 4. As soon as the show ended she laid into me. I guess I can’t blame her. Watching an entire hour of the most saintly physician in the history of network TV save the life of a retarded orphan girl; single-handedly defend his family from a roving band of marauders; and still have the energy to make love to his wife, outside, in the middle of a thunderstorm, would prime anyone to see me as a failure.

“Now that’s a man,” Jacqueline muttered as the credits rolled.

“No, that’s an actor,” I said.

I didn’t want to get into an argument in front of the kids, who were already snuggled down on the couch ready to watch Freydis, The Wonder Puppy, so I headed into the kitchen to scrape dried Chef Boyardee from our last few paper plates.

Jacqueline followed. “Maybe Doctor Joseph is just an actor, but I bet he makes enough money to support his family. I bet they don’t live in a run-down apartment in the Valley with no running water and a plastic bucket to poop in.”

She was always obsessing about the apartment. Sure, it was no palace, but at least we weren’t huddled around a barrel of burning trash in an alleyway or leasing Milo out as a concubine to Cardinal O’Bannon down at St. Joan of Arc’s.

“We can’t stay here,” she continued. “We’re almost out of money. And you don’t seem to have many prospects.”

“I’ve got a few deals in the pipeline.” I tried to hug her but she elbowed me away. “Calm down,” I whispered. “Things will get better. I promise.”

“You’ve been saying that for ten years. I don’t believe you anymore.”

“I just need one more big closing. If I can get that, then we’ll be set. I’ve already picked out a house for us up in the hills. It’s beautiful. Secluded.”

“You’re full of shit.”

I threw my fork into the sink, sending a cockroach scrambling for the drain. “What do you suggest we do, then?”

“I don’t care what you do, but the kids and I are going to live with Everett.”

“So big brother swoops in and saves the day again,” I sneered. “Do you really think Iowa will be any safer than here?”

“It couldn’t be worse.”

“They have the Scarlet Plague in the fly-over states, too, you know.”

“But no gangs.”

“Oh, there are plenty of gangs who get their rocks off by raiding little farms just like your brother’s.”

“They won’t bother Everett. He’s got security.”

“Hired himself a bunch of Mexicans, did he?”

“And Scotsmen, yeah.”

“Well, la-di-da! He must be doing really well for himself.”

“Yes, he is.”

“Did he send you money for the bus ride, then? Those tickets don’t come cheap.”

“No,” she said. “I sold a few things.”

I looked around at our empty apartment. “What things?”

“Things I won’t need in Iowa.”

“How long have you been planning this?”

“A while.”

“Am I even invited to go?”

“I think you’re better off here.”

“Right. Yeah. Of course I am. Wouldn’t want to stand in the way of your new relationship. I’m sure you and Everett will be very happy together. Maybe you’ll put out for him more than just on your anniversary.”

Jacqueline’s jaw tightened and she actually growled a little bit. For a moment, I thought she might attack, claw my eyes out or something. Then I remembered she only had one arm. So, instead, she turned away from me in silence and headed into the family bedroom.

“Look, I’m sorry,” I said from the doorway. “I’m sure Iowa will be nice, but I’ll miss you and the kids.”

She pulled a wadded-up Hefty bag out of the closet, shook it open, and started tossing clothing into it. Milo and Sarah showed up a few seconds later to help. They had obviously already been briefed on the Iowa escape plan. While the plastic bag grew fatter, I noticed that Sarah stopped looking at me. At only seven, Milo wasn’t as good at cutting people out of his life; he kept pausing to cry with a ball of socks or a pair of sweatpants clutched in his hands. “Can I stay with daddy?”

Jacqueline didn’t answer.

“No, buddy,” I said. “You go with your mom and your sister.”

“But I don’t want to leave you,” he sniffed.

“It’s only temporary. As soon as I get us a nice house, we’ll all be together again. Okay?”

He nodded his head and toddled towards me, arms spread wide. Because of his poor eyesight, though, he tripped over the bag of clothes and hit the floor face first. I tried to help him up, but Sarah shooed me away while Jacqueline dragged the makeshift suitcase to the front door.

And then they were gone, marching down the street towards the bus station, Jacqueline and Sarah not even pausing to look back while poor little Milo tried to keep his snot and tears from dripping onto his Care Bears t-shirt.

* * * * *

Not two weeks after my family walked out the door I got a call from the Duke and Duchess of Springfield who said they were interested in looking for a winter home in Beverly Hills. I’m not sure how they got my number, but they said they’d heard I was the best realtor in L.A.

So fuck you, too, Jacqueline.

* * * * *

I got up extra early the morning of the scheduled rendezvous, scrubbed my armpits and privates with some waterless antibacterial soap, and slipped into my least-stained suit. For that little something extra, I decided to wear a necktie decorated with dancing snowmen. Everyone remembers a realtor with a wacky sense of humor.

I had arranged to meet the Duke and Duchess at Starfucks, a local landmark where you could get a grande half caf mocha latte and a blowjob from an old-school celebrity look-alike. Marilyn Monroe was my favorite, although I’d heard Charlie Chaplin was also quite good. The other great thing about Starfucks was that it was near the remains of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. So, if the Duke and Duchess weren’t interested in Starfucks—and what out-of-towner wasn’t interested in Starfucks?—they could have a little fun trying to find the imprint of Groucho Marx’s cigar or Trigger’s hoof in the busted-up concrete across the street.

As it turned out, the Duke and Duchess didn’t get a chance to explore either landmark because they arrived for our meeting over two hours late. At a quarter past ten, a black BMW X5 Security Plus armored SUV pulled up to the curb in front of Starfucks. From the size and look of the thing I expected a whole platoon of mercenary soldiers to pile out of it; instead, a dainty lady with clean, blonde hair stepped from the passenger side and shook my hand. She had a surprisingly strong grip and smelled like bleach.

“We are so pleased to meet you, Mr. Ellman,” she said. I wasn’t sure if she was speaking for someone other than herself or if she was using the royal “we.”

“Just call me John,” I said.

“Okay, John.”

I smiled. “And what should I call you?”

“You can call me ‘the Duchess’ and you can call my husband ‘the Duke.’”

I had heard that members of the New Nobility could be a little touchy about their titles. Then again, if I’d spent a million smackers on a trumped-up title as part of one of Congress’s schemes to reduce the federal deficit, I’d want to get my money’s worth, too.

“Speaking of the Duke,” the Duchess continued, “I’m not sure why he’s still in the car.” She banged her hand on the hood of the SUV.

The driver’s side window descended with an electric hum to reveal a man with a John Waters mustache sucking on a chocolate Tootsie Pop. “Can we just head to the first house, please?” he asked, glancing from side to side.

“The Duke is a little nervous,” the Duchess explained. “I think it’s the neighborhood.”

“I understand completely.” I gave the Duke what I hoped was an encouraging wink. “I’m not sure why my assistant thought this would be a good spot for us to meet. Let me reassure you that Beverly Hills itself is still very nice. You’re just going to love this first property.”

“I assume you’re going to ride with us, right?” the Duchess asked. “There’s plenty of room in the back. And a variety of snacks. Twizzlers. Pringles. Tootsie Pops, obviously.”

Despite the fact that I hadn’t experienced the satisfying crunch of a potato chip since my Senior Prom, I had to decline. Even I wouldn’t leave my car unattended at Starfucks for more than an hour—and my car was a burned-out husk of a Toyota Yaris with only two of its four doors.

The Duke and Duchess followed me in their SUV down Santa Monica Boulevard and then up into the hills overlooking the city. I watched them in my splintered rear-view mirror as I drove. They seemed to be arguing, and I was beginning to think that the Duke wasn’t completely sold on buying property in L.A.

We pulled up to the first house on my list—a walled, 4-bedroom, 4.5-bath, mini-mansion with hardwood floors throughout and three fireplaces. This wasn’t the house for the Duke and Duchess. I knew that. Don’t get me wrong, the house was nice. Very nice. Contemporary enough for a hip, young couple, yet refined enough for a pair of old-money retirees. It was exactly the kind of house that the Duke and Duchess had described to me over the phone. But as every realtor knows, buyers are liars. This place simply wasn’t ostentatious enough for the New Nobility. They’d like it but ultimately decide that it was too small. All part of my plan. I had structured the day to slowly build up to the kind of gaudy, over-the-top estates that I knew they’d eventually pick.

I nodded to the house as we walked up the flagstone driveway. “What do you think?”

“It’s nice!” the Duchess said.

The Duke chewed up the last few bites of his Tootsie Pop. “I like the little hedges,” he said.

“Wait until you see the size of the bedrooms. I better run in alone and check the place out first, though. I don’t want to find any little surprises with clients in tow.”

“Surprises?” the Duke asked. “What kind of surprises?”

“This particular house has been empty for a while, so you never can tell what’s made its way inside. I’m sure we’ll have no problems in this area, of course, but some of the other neighborhoods aren’t so well-kept.”

A bead of sweat ran down the side of the Duke’s face. “Are we talking about gangs here?”

“Animals, mostly,” I assured him. “One of the junior realtors with my agency claims that he once fought off a mutated, 4-foot-tall opossum in the basement of a bungalow in Santa Ana.” I laughed. “He swears it had glowing, yellow eyes.”

“That’s not possible,” the Duchess said. “Scientifically, I mean. The eye thing. It must have been his imagination.”

“Are you scientists?” I asked. “Is that what you guys do for a living?”

“Oh, no,” she said quickly. “We don’t do anything for a living. We got our fortune from a reality TV competition.”

“Which one?” I asked. I loved reality TV shows. Amish City Slickers, Pick Your Daddy, and Heir Apparent were my favorites.

“I won first place on Top Mortician,” she said.

I admitted that I’d never seen that program and went to retrieve the key to the house. The lockbox that hung from the front doorknob was cracked and busted, so I ignored the numeric keypad and just fished inside the box with one finger. The key slid out.

“Be right back,” I called over my shoulder.

The inside of the house seemed secure, aside from a couple of broken windows and a family of overweight (but non-mutated) pigeons. It did have that stale-air smell that houses tend to get when they’ve been shut up, though. I wished that I’d brought along a can of Aquanet Fresh Fragrance to mask the odor, but Jacqueline had taken the last of the hairspray with her.

I opened the door for the Duke and Duchess. “Welcome to heaven,” I said lamely. I even bowed a little as they entered in an attempt to remind them of the houseful of servants I was sure they had back home.

“I love the high ceiling,” the Duchess said.

“Isn’t it great?” I said. “It really gives the room a sense of drama.”

“And is this floor marble?”

“Yep. This house is filled with elegant touches like that. The fixtures in the master bath are gold-plated. In a couple of years these houses will be worth triple what they're going for now, mark my words. The president says the economy is bound to turn around soon."

“You actually call that woman our president?” the Duchess asked.

“Only in jest,” I backtracked. I was a chameleon when it came to politics and religion. I once wore a pair of sparkly socks and a “WWMJD” bracelet while showing a family of Jacksonites a two-bedroom semi-detached cottage in Santa Monica. But that was a while back. When I could afford luxuries like sparkly socks.

“Well, I like what I see so far,” the Duchess said.

The Duke nodded towards an open doorway to his left. His face was drained of color. “Is that a bathroom?”

“That’s the downstairs half-bath,” I confirmed.

The Duke covered his mouth with one hand. “Excuse me,” he croaked. He ran into the bathroom and slammed the door behind him. A second later, the Duchess and I heard the unmistakable sound of a full stomach being forcibly and expeditiously evacuated.

I made eye contact with the Duchess. She looked a little concerned. “I’m sure he’s just got a cold or something,” I reassured her. “Probably nothing to worry about.”

“Oh, it’s not the Scarlet Plague, if that’s what you’re thinking,” the Duchess added. “The Duke just has a sensitive stomach. He probably ate too much junk food in the car.” She knocked on the bathroom door.

The door opened a crack. Half of the Duke’s face peeked around the corner, a chunk of vomit dangling from his mustache.

“Can I come in?” the Duchess asked.

The Duke nodded and let his wife slip inside.

As soon as the door clicked shut, I leaned in close and tried to make out their conversation. Eavesdropping on clients could sometimes provide a realtor with that one crucial bit of information to close the sale. I held my breath and listened. The Duke and Duchess were whispering, their words no more than an excited series of hisses. I did manage to identify the phrases “go through with this” and “make a mistake” before I gave up and decided to pop a squat on the raised bluestone hearth in front of the Great Room’s gas-log fireplace.

A couple of minutes later, the bathroom door opened and the Duke and Duchess stepped into the foyer.

“Sorry about that,” the Duke muttered. “I got a little sick.”

I stood. “Happens to the best of us”

“And the toilet won’t flush,” he added.

“I’ll get it taken care of.” I reached out to give him a pat on his shoulder, but he stepped away from me.

“Why don’t we check out the kitchen,” the Duchess suggested. “I love a good kitchen.”

“No problem,” I said. “Right this way.” I passed through the open archway into a kitchen that contained more stainless steel than an operating room.

“Wow,” the Duchess said.

“Pretty nice, huh? I’ll bet they don’t have refrigerators that size back in Springfield, do they? Which Springfield are you guys from, anyway? Illinois?”

“Iowa,” the Duke said.

“No kidding? My wife and kids are in Iowa visiting relatives right now.”

“Oh, it’s a great place,” the Duchess said. “Very family-friendly. The Duke and I are considering starting a family of our own soon, aren’t we, dear?”

“Uh, sure,” the Duke said. He was digging through his pants pockets, preoccupied. Probably searching for another fucking Tootsie Pop.

“Well, Beverly Hills is a great place to raise a family, too,” I said. “In fact, when my wife and kids get back from their vacation, we’re planning to move up into the hills ourselves. Who knows? We could end up your neighbors.”

“That’d be nice,” the Duchess said. She was smiling, but there was something sad in her voice.

And then I felt it. A sudden burst of searing pain at the base of my neck. I tried to swat the mutant mosquito that I was sure had just sucked a pint of my blood, but my arm refused to rise above my waist. I looked up at the Duke and Duchess, confused.

The Duke held a hypodermic needle in his right hand. His bottom lip was trembling.

With all the will power I could muster, I snaked my right arm behind me and into the back of my pants. The tips of my fingers brushed across the grip of my Saturday night special. I staggered backwards and drew the gun, pointing it at the Duke and Duchess from my hip.

They grabbed one another and took a step away from me in unison.

We stood that way for a few seconds, although it seemed longer. Me, wobbling on my feet and attempting, unsuccessfully, to make my finger curl over the weapon’s trigger. Them, huddled together and suddenly afraid.

And then my legs gave way beneath me and I collapsed in a heap on the unforgiving kitchen floor. The gun clattered to the slate tiles in front of me, resting just inches from my numb face.

The Duchess knelt beside me and turned me onto my back. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “You won’t feel any more pain. The drugs cause complete paralysis.”

I tried to speak, but couldn’t make my mouth work. She wasn’t kidding when she said “complete paralysis.”

The Duchess leaned in close to my face and brushed my hair away from my eyes.

If I had been able to move, I would have bitten off a chunk of her cheek.

“My colleagues and I need to run some tests on people like you,” she said, “people unaffected by the plague. You’re just 2% of the population. Did you know that? You’re very lucky.”

“This is all perfectly legal,” the Duke babbled behind her.

“With your help,” the Duchess continued, “we will find a cure. You’re doing a great thing.”

“It’s all legal,” the Duke repeated. “We’ve already paid your wife the $5,000.”

“Just shut up,” the Duchess snapped at the Duke. “He doesn’t want to hear that.”

She was right. I didn’t want to hear that Jacqueline had sold me as a guinea pig to some amateur scientists with delusions of grandeur for five thousand bucks. She should have gotten double that, at least. More bad advice from her asshole brother, no doubt. He probably brokered the whole deal. At least she managed to get enough cash upfront to buy three bus tickets to Iowa.

The Duke was staring at me, his mustache twitching. “We have a signed bill of sale and everything.” He patted his back pockets. “I’ll show you.”

The Duchess pressed her mouth to my ear. “In case it matters,” she whispered, “she cried when she signed the final paperwork.”

Oddly enough, it did matter.

“Oh, God!” the Duke yelled. “Oh, sweet Christ!”

The Duchess laid my head on the kitchen floor and stood. “What is the fucking problem, Scott?”

“I-I can't find the bill of sale,” the Duke stammered. “I’ve lost it.”

The Duchess sighed. “Just calm down. I'm sure it's out in the car someplace. It probably just slipped between the seats.” She grabbed my arms and dragged me towards the front door. “Get his legs,” she ordered her husband. “And be careful with him, okay?”

As the Duke and Duchess struggled to carry me through the front door, my head lolled backwards. I ordered my eyelids to shut, but even they were out of my control now. Everything was out of my control. I stared up at the sky and tried to imagine my family living somewhere in that vast field of blue, free from sickness and gangs, in a giant cabin built of Lincoln Logs watched over by Doctor Joseph himself.

But I just couldn’t see it.