5 min read

Chiseled Torso

Let me tell you about my secret underwater headquarters.

Previously: Batya has a wide-ranging chat with Margaret in her boudoir. There is a puke dress and a subsonic bident and a creepily intimate moment. Now Bat has a new job, one where she has to split the money with her moron sister.

— 19 —

Batya stumbles back out into the head office, feeling a little seasick. She grips the sliding door to steady herself. The archivists all turn their heads, curious.

“Did you piss yourself when she did her thing?” Anabel says.

Bat mulls this over. “I don’t think so.”

“Then you’re already doing better than your sister,” Carmen says.

“Never let her forget that,” Kimani says.

And in drifts Too Handsome Anthony, like a charming and delicately scented breeze. “Ms. Hull, so pleased to see you again.”

His absurd beauty makes Bat feel even woozier, and frankly a little mad. “I’m…the pleasure is all on me. On mine.” That’s the stuff, Batty, very smooth.

“I understand you’ll be staying with us. Shall I give you a tour of the premises?”

“I accept this offer.” Why can she not say words normal?

“Anthonyyy,” Carmen whines. “Be a good boy for once and bring us a crab danish.”

“Get your own damn danish,” he snaps, then offers his handsome arm to Bat.

She grabs the pillowcase stuffed with her belongings, then eagerly takes his arm. He escorts her out into the winding corridors of Hawthorne HQ.

“Sorry for assaulting you with my knee last night,” she says. “Bad way to start our relationship, or I mean like our friendly relations.”

“Think nothing of it. I apologise for startling you during a delicate moment.”

“That a British accent you got there?”

“Estuary English, yes.”

“Is it real?”

“No, Margaret pays extra for it.”

“Where you actually from?”

“A charming village just outside the hamlet of Tulsa,” he says, guiding her into the room where the marine biologists used to dissect specimens and is now the kitchen. Then he shows her the room where they used to store microscopes and water samplers and sonar equipment and scuba gear and is now the gym. There’s the recreational corner with a projector and movie screen. There’s the oxygen and electricity room, don’t go in there. There’s the canteen, three meals a day included, sent down from Sal’s Crab House, he recommends the bisque this time of year. There’s the cry closet where you can go cry if you need to cry. Over there’s the access tunnel to the external research pod, mostly used for one-on-one encounters or solo chillouts of various stripes.

“And this used to be a laboratory which we turned into a conference room, but we never used the conference room so we turned it into a pub. It’s called the Depth Charge until we come up with something better.”

He ends the tour in a circular suite of rooms, each opening out onto a central lounge area with a couple sofas, a kitchenette, a skylight above with a view of glimmering sardines. He notices some empty rum bottles on the floor and huffily gathers them up. “This is where the couriers lay their heads. I daresay you’ll meet them soon enough.”

“And where do you sleep, Tony?”

“Elsewhere,” he says. “But here, this is you.”

He unseals a steel door and it swings open with a squeak. The room is suffocatingly small and Bat feels her claustrophobia kick in. Then she wonders why the decor looks so familiar, and then she notices her sister lounging on a bed, reading a magazine called Chiseled Torso.

“Hi, roomie. You want the top or bottom bunk just kidding you’re on the floor.”

Bat’s frown is almost a caricature of a frown. She turns to Anthony. “Really?”

“I’m afraid we have no other accommodations,” he says, looking deeply and handsomely apologetic. “Now, I shall leave you two to catch up or tussle or whichever you’d prefer.”

He vanishes and Bat immediately misses him. She decides to take this out on her sister. “Amazing deal you got us. We split this teeny room and a teeny salary.”

Mina sits up, sighs. “Yes, that was also news to me. Fifty-fifty.”

“No, seventy-thirty because you dragged me into this.”

“Seventy-thirty the room or the money?”

“Uh huh,” Bat says, looking the place over. It’s about what she’d expect: tasteful, tidy, precise. A minimal style that her sister thinks looks “rich.” Some books and albums, all in alphabetical order. Notepads and pens on a desk, perfectly parallel. Her usual easy ways to impose order, nothing that takes tons of effort, just enough to calm her nerves.

“What’s that?” Mina asks, pointing at the dank pillowcase Bat swiped from the Starshine Inn. “You go trick or treating for garbage?”

“This happens to be everything I got left in this world.”

“Kevin Sanders?” Mina says, getting up and carefully filing Chiseled Torso with the other dirty magazines on her bookshelf.

“That’s right, my one true loyal friend. Meantime you’ve got…what the hell, is that dad’s blanket?”

Mina smooths out the patchwork quilt on her bed, the one the girls have slept under since they were kids, stitched together from old signal flags by their father. “Tis,” she says.

“Wow OK I been hunkering in a syphilis motel while you’re cozying up here with our heirlooms and…” She finally notices the bathroom. “Is that a bidet?”

“It’s a toilet, Batya.”

Bat rushes in there. Reader, it is spotless. It is gleaming. She turns on the tap and the water is already hot. Oh my heavens. Hanging from a fancy rack is a souvenir beach towel with a cute manta ray saying, Catch Some Rays in Fort Hook! And look at that shower. Pristine. Utterly decadent. She could live in there. She will live in there. And how about that beautiful bar of soap! So unlike the sandpaper shard she had at the motel. She picks it up and inhales its rich floral scent and is about to let out a cheer when she hears a crackly voice by the toilet—“Yoo hoo!”—and instead lets out a surprised shriek.

Mina’s at the bathroom door and ready for whatever. “What!”

“The john spoke to me,” Bat whimpers, pointing at it.

“Oh.” Mina goes and sits on the toilet and talks into a little speaker installed next to the plunger. “Yes?”

“We heard Miss Batya was hard up for cash,” the voice says, ringing with feedback. “So we got a big stack of jumps waiting for you up at Sal’s.”

“Thanks, I guess.”

“You’re welcome!” And the intercom clicks off.

Bat takes some breaths, settles down. “Was that those teenagers? They yell at you through the toilet?”

“Yes. I had them install the speaker here since it’s where I like hanging out the most.”

“You always did love a good commode,” Bat says, admiring her stitched-up chin in the mirror. “Sometimes I like that you’ve been the same your whole life. And sometimes it’s just sad and weird.”

“Which time is this?”


This has been Chapter 19 of Chokeville, a novel by Josh Fireland.

Next up: The Triple Pinch