Sunday, October 4, 2015

Barbie Doll

This is a story that has been sitting unedited in my desk drawer for over three years now. It was my first tentative step into mystery writing. 
I'm re-blogging it now, rewritten and polished (by my editor at Buddhapuss Ink LLC). Hope you enjoy it!


                      (Art: Eric G. Thompson – used with permission) 



                                       BARBIE DOLL


I’m late for my lunch meeting with Freddy. 
Bloody stupid traffic jam held up my cab so I jumped out and walked along the last couple of blocks to Harvard Square. Of course I’m sweaty and exhausted by the time I get to the restaurant where we like to hang out, but he’s there, good soul that he is, and has held the table for us.
“Damnable heat,” is his greeting as he raises his hand to signal the waiter.
“Fish and chips,” Freddy says. “Today I’m definitely going to have that.” 
It feels much too hot to think about food.
“What about you?” He hands me the faux-leather-bound menu. 
“Salad. Just salad.”

Freddy is at his dapper best. I’ve never yet seen him in anything but those striped shirts and bowties, in winter with a tweed jacket, in summer with a straw hat. 
We’ve been meeting like this for quite a while now, maybe three years or so. It has become a kind of ritual, always the same place, and nearly always the same meals, at least for Freddy. He flirts with the menu, announces he will pick something else, and then ends up with the fish and chips, and beer.

“So,” he asks when the waiter leaves, “What’s new?”
He always asks that question, as if because I’m a police detective he thinks I know everything. He seems greedy for the morsels I’m allowed to spill.
“Nothing much this week.” A girl brings a basket of bread and butter, and Freddy spreads the linen napkin on his lap. Very daintily he picks out a slice of the bread and begins to nibble on it.
“It’s summer break, nothing much is going on. Everyone else has left Cambridge. Sorry, no gruesome tales for you today.”
His face falls at those words. “Oh. Too bad. You make me feel connected to real life with your news, my friend. You know how it is.” 
With a wave of his hand he points in the general direction of the university. “Living and working behind those walls is like living in a different dimension sometimes.”
Freddy works at one of the libraries, the Archives, but I’ve never understood exactly what he does there, and to be honest, I don’t care. That campus, Harvard, has always been a strange world to me. Just walking through those gates seems to be an act of profanity if you don’t belong there.

“We did have a stalking case this week,” I say, more to keep him amused than anything else. “But it was just that, a dropped lover who wouldn’t let go. The fact that he spent a night in jail was enough to make him skip town. Case closed.”
Our entrees are served. My salad looks intriguing and delicious with its mix of greens and fruit, and the thin slices of poached salmon.
Freddy rubs his hands in glee over his huge serving of fish. I know he won’t be able to even finish half of it, but will have the rest packed to take home in a doggie bag. I’ve always wondered if he has a cat who’s looking forward to his leftovers.

“That’s not stalking.” He bites into one of his fries. It’s so fresh that I can hear the crunch.
“What is?”
Well-mannered as always, he swallows before replying. “The guy you’re talking about. That’s not really stalking. If he gives up and goes away, that’s not stalking.”
Intrigued, I put down my fork. “How do you define stalking, then?”
Freddy leans back into his chair. “Oh, a real stalker would never let go that easily.”
“You think? Yeah, I think they do let go if you scare the living daylights out of them.” His attitude amuses me. As if a librarian knew about stalking. As if dapper, slight and intelligently witty Freddy knew about stalking. Right.
His blue eyes regard me with cool amusement while he breaks off a piece of fish and pierces it with the fork.
“Change tactics, maybe, but never let go.”
The way he says it sends chills down my back. “You think so? You think a stalker can be obsessed enough to outsmart the police?”
“Oh, dear boy, most certainly.” He draws his brows together. “Now if I were a stalker, I’d never let go of the object I adore.” 

A group of tourists stream in, chatting loudly in French, and a bright smile flashes across Freddy’s face. 
“Ah, Europe,” he sighs, “So cultured.” He puts down his fork. “Well, as I was going to say, if I were a stalker, I’d lay my plans carefully, go about it slowly, and never take a direct route.”
“You’re scaring me, Fred,” I say, and it’s true. 
But he gives me a grin and pats my shoulder. “Come on, dear friend, we’re just talking hypothetically, aren’t we. I read too many books in my line of work, some more fun than others.” 
“Okay then, tell me!”
“First of all,” he slowly says, “You have to understand the underlying motives for stalking. Why, do you think, someone turns into a stalker?”
Now that one’s easy enough. I’m not a detective for nothing. Before I can reply though, Freddy goes on, “A stalker doesn’t decide to become a stalker. Let’s say I was one. Let’s assume I was a stalker.” He points at our waitress. “When I was a little boy I wanted nothing more than a Barbie doll. I wanted one with long, blond hair, and beautiful dresses, and I wanted to play with her, dress her up, do her hair, slip those high heels on her little plastic feet. I even cleared out a nook in my wardrobe for her stuff, and built a house for her over summer vacation. My mother thought it was for a rabbit or hamster, but no, I wanted my Barbie doll to live in it. I think my mother got suspicious when I started nicking scraps of fabric from her quilting chest to put on the bed and windows of my playhouse. It drove me mad that she didn’t have anything I could use for carpeting! And lace. I needed lace for the sheets on Barbie’s bed so I bribed my friend Sam to steal some from his mother, who was a quilter too. My mother asked me why I thought a hamster needed a bed with a lace sheet, but of course I didn’t tell her. My birthday was drawing close, and my only wish was for a Barbie doll.”
He breaks off to take a drink of beer.

“Nice story,” I say. My appetite has disappeared. His tale sounds too real for comfort.
Freddy shrugs. “It’s just a story. I’ve always thought of writing crime, and maybe you’re helping me to find the courage to do it!” 
After another bite he goes on, “So my ninth birthday comes, and there’s no Barbie. Of course there isn’t. My parents would never give me, their son, a doll. I could turn into a fag, right?”
His English words always sound so elegant and sophisticated to me. Freddy is a natural born gentleman.
“And there I am, a disappointed young boy who wanted nothing but some feminine beauty.”
His tale is beginning to be amusing. This isn’t exactly how a man turns into a stalker, at least not in my book, but his narration is entertaining enough, so I let him ramble on.

“Of course, over the next few years, I grow out of it. Dolls and dollhouses were…not so much forgotten as pushed into the back of my mind. The girls I try to date? They are all images of Barbie. Of course not one of them is really exactly like her. One is too short, one too tall, the other’s waist isn’t slim enough, and the next one doesn’t have enough chest. One needs to lighten up her hair, and another one has too many curls. I’m looking for the perfect girl. The one perfect girl with cornflower-blue eyes, rosy lips, long, wavy, golden hair and the figure of a doll. The one who would wear high heels even on her way to the shower, and who’d never talk. Can you imagine Barbie talking? I can’t.” 
Again, he shrugs. “Or rather, I don’t want to imagine how that voice sounds. It can’t be anywhere near good enough to match her perfect body.”

The blond girl who brought us our food saunters over with a jug of water to refill our glasses, and Freddy measures her.
“This one?” he says, “She would need so much work to make her perfect. But it’s summer break, and there’s not much material around, so she’ll have to do.”
“Do? For what?” 
“Oh, you know. I need a Barbie in my life.” He asks her for another beer, and she smiles at him. It makes him regard her through narrowed eyes until she gets impatient and walks away.

“So why not buy all the dolls you couldn’t have as a kid and put them on a shelf now? You know you can get them on eBay easily enough. You don’t have to imagine live girls as Barbies.”
“Boring.” Again, he shrugs me away. “I’ve grown out of that.” His eyes gleaming, he leans forward and rests his elbows on the table. “And I have the ideal job! I work in the vaults of Harvard where there are rooms that are never used, totally forgotten. People would believe that if it were in a novel, wouldn’t they? And it would make a really great setting!”

It would indeed. I have to agree with that. In my mind’s eye I see dark, dank corridors, creaking metal doors, muddy light from flickering bulbs. And at the end of the hallway when you think you can’t go any farther, Freddy’s secret chamber. I realize he has succeeded in planting this vision in my mind. I’m afraid he will open that door. He’s insanely good at telling this tale.

“I’d find a space in the bowels of the building,” Freddy says.
I blink and take a big drink of tea. Now I know why I never watch CSI or Criminal Minds or anything like that. It’s so far away from my daily police reality it’s almost like a parody, but strangely enough, with Freddy’s tale, it seems so much more real.
“And I turn it into a replica of my doll house. It takes me a couple of years, I have to be very circumspect. But one day it’s finished. And then, during one Christmas night when there’s no one around, I bring in a doll. Not a Barbie, mind you, but a life-sized dummy that I found on eBay.” He grins at me. “Isn’t it cool what you can get through the internet these days? You can buy almost anything.”

I’m torn between scoffing and asking him if he really did that. My skin is crawling. But hey, this is Freddy, I’ve known him for years, and I’d be the last person he’d tell that he’s a…
“What you’re describing, Fred,” I say, “Is not a stalker. That’s a budding serial killer, my friend. Watch it, you may have to change your premise.”
Surprised, he stares at me. “Really? You think so? I’ve never thought of it as serial killing.”
For a few minutes he sits musing silently. Then he shakes it off, as if he’s decided that this is something that doesn’t fit into his story.

“Anyway,” he picks up his thread, “The mannequin is all good and well, but it’s not perfect. I want a perfect, life-sized Barbie, and so I start strolling across campus with a new awareness. I attend lectures, go to the cafeteria for lunch, and sit on benches to watch girls walk by. 
Then one day…one day I see her. The perfect girl, Barbie come to life. And I know she has to be mine, has to be enshrined in the house I built for her. I must bring her down to that room that is now a shrine to her, and I must keep her there, until the end of days.” He tilts his head at me. “Or at least until she fades and isn’t Barbie at all anymore but just another plain, blond girl.”

“So what happens then? What happens when she turns into a real human being in your eyes?”
“Oh.” Freddie signals to the waitress. “She’ll have to go, won’t she. She’ll need to be replaced. Every toy breaks after a while and needs to be replaced.”
I have to ask. I just have to. It’s my instinct, and my job. “So what do you do with her, when you find a replacement?”
He’s signing the bill, but that makes him pause and look up at me, his eyebrows raised in surprise. “Broken toys go with the trash, don’t they? What a stupid question.”

Outside, the air hits me like a hot, wet bed sheet.
Freddy walks away without lookning back, his hat at a jaunty angle on his head, his hands in his pockets.
My phone rings. It’s my partner, Jody.
“Dude,” she says, “You better get your ass moving. They just found a body in a garbage truck.”
“What?” The small word gets stuck in my throat.
Freddie is out of sight. I watched him walk through the arched gate and onto the campus just a second ago.


“A young woman. Blond, and quite pretty,” Jody is saying. “Actually, she looks like Barbie Doll.”