Archie & Veronica

SHORT STORY | ARCHIE AND VERONICA

The first time I saw Angie lying on the sand at Biloxi Beach in nothing but a floss thin thong, I was sure I'd found a magic genie in a bottle, but from that moment on, no matter how hard I rubbed, none of my wishes ever came true. Maybe I rubbed her the wrong way, who knows, but genies don't come with a set of instructions if you know what I mean. I was never sure what it was I'd found by the pool that day, but I kept right on rubbing on it like one of those zombie gamblers who bang away all night on a one-armed bandit that never pays off. They know the odds are stacked against them but they keep ramming every quarter they've got into the slot anyway. You never know. Miracles happen. Unfortunately, they never happened to me.

Angie had always had a thing about irresponsible vagabonds, unreliable drifters, and gypsy truckers with scruffy hair and bad-assed attitudes, and believe me, I fit the bill to a tee back then. But even so, it's a mystery to me what she ever really saw in me. Well, there was the Kiss My Ass tattoo on my butt. She thought that was pretty cool. And of course there was my juvie arrest record, as unremarkable as it was. Add that to my infatuation with bright but sexually twisted, ball breakers with real boobs and my phobic fear of fidelity (which to women as cocky as Angie, made me utterly irresistible), and I was in the saddle spurring her on in no time. But still, it makes one wonder.

I'd grown weary of babysitting pissed off cows and picking up hookers, hustlers, precocious teen queens, concrete blonds, pasty-faced lot lizards, and borderline whacko runaways by then, and foolishly, I decided to come in off the road and try to settle down like a normal person for awhile. It never ceases to amaze me, the lengths people will go to get laid on a daily basis.

Less than a month later, after coming home unexpectedly from her computer engineering job one afternoon, Angie found me and a half-naked Glitter Gulch topless dancer, sitting on our brand new, Italian leather couch. Unfortunately for me, the dancer was sitting on my lap.

Angie was about the smartest, most understanding, open-minded, loyal woman I'd ever met, but when it came to betrayal, there wasn't a drop of forgiveness in her. And when she squeezed that hair-trigger temper of hers and grabbed a vase, trust me, I ducked. Before I could get to my feet and mount a credible defense, she was showered, packed, gassed up, and gone. I never did get the chance to explain to her that the dancer on my lap was my first ex-wife Ginger, or that Ginger was a proud new bride-to-be who'd only come over to show me the new Gibraltar-sized rock her boyfriend had given her.

OK, so who knows what Ginger and I might have done in ten minutes if Angie hadn't come home early. The point is, it wouldn't have mattered to Angie either way. A hard body topless tart had been squirming all over her cheating, ass hound husband's lap in her house on the leather couch she'd paid for, end of story. What difference did it make why the little tramp was sitting there. Angie was stubborn like that, and the second she decided to go, she just left, damned the facts and figures; especially a figure as fine as Ginger's.

Most likely out of spite, no more than a week after Angie had filed for divorce, she hooked up with my old Reno High School nemesis, Jake "The Snake" Castiano, a violent little gutter snipe who had more tats on his buffed up carcass than the tattooed lady in the circus, not to mention the fact that he had a criminal record that made mine look like a punk stretch in juvie, which is pretty much what it was actually. Angie never liked the misogynistic pig in high school, but the fact that he hated my guts for "stealing" her during our senior year, had made him suddenly irresistible.

After that, the two of them banged around Reno and Vegas together for awhile, and a few months later, most likely out of pure malice, spite, or both, damned if she didn't go and marry the shifty sociopath. Then to really rub it in, she went and got herself pregnant.

"Vengeance tastes best cold," was Angie's take on the entire fiasco, tossing it over her shoulder at me at our divorce hearing like it was a lucky pinch of salt. "Ain't payback a bitch?"

I'd known Jake since we were both five-years old, and just as I'd predicted, it wasn't a year after our divorce, that the hot-tempered Neanderthal started slapping her around. But the minute he left a nasty five inch long welt along the side of her shocked-to-shit face, she grabbed their daughter, and everything else she could cram into her VW Beetle, and hit the road for anywhere else but there.

I found out later that, by the time she hit Riverside, she'd already begun to hatch a diabolical high tech plot to get even with Jake. It would take awhile to develop, but she wasted little time planting the proverbial dagger in his back. Nobody burns St. Angeline at the stake and gets by with it, not even a mobbed up degenerate like Jake "The Snake".

Once my and Angie's divorce went final, I dragged my depressed ass over to the Wild Orchid over on Virginia Street in Reno one broiling summer night, intent on getting blitzed on rot gut tequila. But when an article on the front page of the Reno Gazette-Journal laying on the bar caught my eye, I about gagged. It seemed that some ballsy Reno hustler had recently installed a type of software corruption into the code of the system that runs over a hundred fixed-unit bingo consoles at Reno and Las Vegas casinos that allows the cheaters to play more bingo cards than they pay for. And that's a lot of bingo cards. But it still took a week before regulators and company executives realized how bad the problem, and three more before the Nevada Gaming Control Board shut down all the electronic card minder systems at hundreds of Reno and Vegas bingo parlors. By that time at least a thousand bingo players had probably been affected and who knows how much the swindler netted. Let's just say the Mercedes dealerships in town ran out of cars to sell.

As inebriated as I usually was back then, my antennae still went off like Fourth of July fireworks when I realized that only person I knew with the kind of software knowledge necessary to circumvent the safeguards on those bingo machines, and the only one with the moxy to even think about running an electronic computer scam against a slimy mob outfit like Syndicated International, was my computer geek ex-wife Angie.

According to the article, regulators believed the alleged cheating was orchestrated by an employee of Nevada Alliance which is a Reno-based company that provides bingo card minders to a dozen or more Syndicated International strip properties in Reno and Vegas, and Nevada Alliance", a company that just so happens to be the same one Angie works for. As luck would have it, depending on your prospective of course, one of the controlling, silent partners of Syndicated International, which was itself under investigation by the Control Board, was none other than Jake "the Snake. The scam pretty much trashed what was left of Jake's already tarnished reputation, but to make matters worse, it had exposed his role to the Feds as a silent partner in Syndicated International, which is a major no-no for a convicted felon. And if Angie really had pulled that scam, it was a miracle she wasn't swimming with the trout at the bottom of the Truckee River by then, because nobody, and I mean nobody, steals from a spiteful gutter slug like Jake, not even a ballsy little head spinning brainiac like Angie.

So here I am, ten years later, at a truck stop in Encino after finally admitting to myself that I'm getting a bit long in the tooth to be rumbling around the countryside, driving an eighteen-wheel stockyard-on-wheels. And before heading back east, I figure I'll park my rig for the night, rent a car, shoot down to Malibu, check into a little seaside motel, flush my last bottle of white crosses down the crapper, and try to get some long needed rest.

It's long past midnight, but too drop dead tired to sleep, I wander down the PCH on foot to Gladstone's for a drink. I'm pounding down my third Cuervo shot, when who should walk in the bar, but my worst nightmare come to life: Jake "The Snake" Castiano.

Jake wastes no time reminding me of several events that I had conveniently put out of my mind regarding the sordid history of our wild and wasted youths: Such as the time I stole his first girlfriend Betty Big Boobs, during our last year at Reno High. But when he gets to the part about me running off with the unrequited love of his life Angie, his eyes start popping out of their sockets and his cheeks puff up like a pregnant blowfish. I don't know whether to run for my life or slam a beer bottle up against his fat head.

Jake never did play the cuckold well. God knows he has the experience, but what he's really good at is biding his time. In fact, one time, he spent three hours waiting for me to finish track practice under the football stadium where he spent most of his time in high school hanging out smoking Lucky Strikes with his loser hoodlum pals. When I walked by he sprung out of the smelly shadows and hurled me against a concrete wall. "You owe me," he bellowed, like the verbose troglodyte he was. "And do you seriously think I'm going to let you slide after catching you porking Betty Big Boobs in the janitor's closet? I still get nightmares, and now, it's time you paid the pauper."

I'm guessing that the word he was looking for was piper, not pauper, but judging by the bloody red sludge bubbling up in the corners of his eyes, I saw no future in correcting him. After all, he was a year and a half older than I was, even though we were both in the same grade, and I doubted he could comprehend the finer aspects of his grammatical faux pas anyway, so why push it?

I don't know if it was because I was flat broke during high school or because of Jake's unpredictable temper, my truly warped sense of loyalty, or guilt, but I finally agreed to ditch school that next day and drive the getaway car on a bingo equipment heist he and his hood pals had planned.

As it turns out, Jake's dad was head of Teamsters Local #14 at the time, and he and our Reno High School Principal, were both members of the Masonic Lodge. So the morning after Jake and I got arrested (like that's a surprise), Jake's old man pulled every string in the book getting us both off. Jake had a dozen or more priors, and although the judge could have thrown the book at him, he only got three years. But because I had good grades, he let me off with a slap on the wrist: no time served and six months of community service, that's it. So in Jake's mind, I owed him big time for the simple reason that both he and I did the crime, but only he did the time, and he wasn't about to let me forget it, even after all these years.

The odds of Jake finding me here at Gladstone's at midnight, really aren't all that staggering if you consider the fact he lives with a porn star-slash-actress in a pretentious faux McMansion about a mile from here in Pacific Palisades, and loves the crabs here as much as I do. Plus, considering his Teamster connections, he'd probably had a tail on me since I'd arrived in LA, most likely intending to get one last shot at squaring things with me in-person before I headed back home to Reno.

I can't say it's good to see him, but it does give me the opportunity to ask him where he got the money for the three-thousand dollar Armani suit he's wearing -the fact that it's black and the temperature outside, even at this time of night, is still pushing ninety, notwithstanding.

"The deal is, Jake says, "you still owe me for saving your chicken shit ass after you botched the bingo machine heist back in high school by driving our getaway car into a fucking police cruiser, and if my dad wouldn't have got you off, you'd still be doing time up at Ely State Prison taking it up the Hershey highway for a pack of Camels. I thought you said you could drive anything with wheels."

He's got me there; I actually did say that. But, stealing from the Mob, blowing holes in one of their delivery vans, and then chopping the ears off the driver because he wouldn't give up the keys, did not exactly match my understanding of my job description.

"Sorry about that Jake. But hey, it's been what, a hundred years since high school? You'd think a reasonable person like you would eventually get over something like that.

In Jake's world, payback, revenge, and justice are all pretty much synonyms, and it's obvious that there's no way in hell he's ever going to forgive me for my various adolescent transgressions, either real or imagined, even after twelve long years. Jake's no brain surgeon, but there's nothing wrong with his memory.

"OK," he says. Here's the deal. As you know, after I gave Angie that little love tap on the cheek for dissing me in front of my crew, the black-hearted bitch divorced me. And then, out of revenge, she fucked me over with Syndicated International and the gambling commission on some phony bingo machine rigging bullshit. And when she took a hike, she took my kid with her... and I want the kid back. End of story. Capese?"

Capese my ass. Jake isn't even Italian. His mom's Romanian and his old man's a Russian Jew. The way Jake sees it is, if I don't do this little favor for him, he'll make an anonymous call to his mob pals and tell them I stole his wife and kidnapped his kid. I'm not a great swimmer and can't imagine that wearing a pair of cement shoes will improve my stroke any, so I pay attention.

"All you gotta do," he says, "is snatch the kid and deliver her to me by tomorrow noon, and we're even."

Then he hands me a photograph. "It's not like you'll be kidnapping her or anything," he adds, with no touch of irony. "It's my kid, for fuck's sake. Think of it as setting up a play date. Just turn her over and you're off the hook, deal?"

I always imagined that making a deal with the devil would involve spooky violin music, black smoke, and Boris Karloff, but all I get is Jake "The Snake" slithering his way towards the back door of the restaurant in his sunglasses and black Armani suit, and disappearing into the muggy face of a record setting heat wave.

I have no idea what I'm doing back here in Reno, tailing a nine-year-old. My short, rather indistinguishable life of crime up until now has consisted mostly of shoplifting groceries and stealing vegetables from the next door neighbor's garden, and it doesn't sit well with me, snatching anybody who can't even vote. But I'd made a deal with Jake and as far as he's concerned, once you pick up the cards, you play 'em as they lay. The game's over when Jake says it's over. There's no folding. It's not like I've suddenly become Jake's bitch or anything, but in light of Jake's twisted psychopathology, I see no harm in at least exploring my feminine side. Maybe all the years Jake had spent in reformatories after junior school, and the time he'd spent in the joint later, had fried his brain, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why wants me to nab his own kid, other than to spite Angie who'd had the sense to finally leave the abusive dirt bag. He never even liked kids. Seems to me there are a dozen or more of his depraved, Mafiosi wantabe ex-bunkmates from prisons all over America who would jump at the chance to kidnap a defenseless nine-year-old girl.

It makes me puke just thinking about it, but all I've got to do to get Jake off my back, is to deliver his kid to his Mafiosi pal's fishing lodge in Tahoe by noon tomorrow and I'm out, case closed. How hard can that be? He's right about her being his kid, and after all, it's not like I have any choice in the matter. Jake had made his bones in LA running whores and whacking the pimps he'd stolen them from, and in Jake's world, Jake rules.

Looking back all those years, he'd certainly lived up to his part of the bargain. His old man's legal beagles had been the finest money could buy, and so was the judge that heard the case. At the hearing, coaches, bosses, Sunday school teachers, union leaders, and Freemason pals of his, some of whom were the crème de la crème of Reno's landed gentry, appeared out of the blue, touting my and Jake's inspiring virtues. It was like a frigging Broadway audition. There were witnesses lined up half way around the judge's chambers. They slapped their hands on the Bible and swore under oath that neither Jake nor I had been anywhere near the scene of the crime the night we'd bungled that Syndicate International truck heist. We'd been with our parents at the Hidden Valley Country Club sipping tea, eating cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and discussing 17th Century Elizabethan poetry. The judge was so pissed at getting railroaded like that, he couldn't spit straight, but he had no choice but to let us walk. And now, Jake's calling in his marker.

It's coming on dark and I'm sitting on a park bench out by Heron Lake, taking a break. Stalking children is hard work. I can't find the kid anywhere and it's too hot to sleep, so I light up a Lucky and stare out at the blaze of dazzling red lights that crisscross the third world wasteland surrounding the Reno/Tahoe Airport. It's nearly eight in the evening and the temperature hasn't dropped a degree in hours.

As planes roar overhead, a young girl, no more than nine or ten, mysteriously materializes out of the glimmering shadows. I can't help but wonder what kind of parents would let a kid that young go out walking alone by herself this late at night in this shithole neighborhood. Don't people know there's dangerous people walking around loose out here? But the kid doesn't seem to give a rat's ass how late it is and parks her butt down next to me like we're bosom buddies hanging out at the soda shop having a couple root beer floats. "What's up, Pops?" is all she has to say for herself.

The kid's got some nerve, I'll give her that. Probably a strung-out juvie escapee or flipped out panhandler looking for a free handout. She has no idea who I am. I could be a serial rapist or a child molester. Or even worse. I could be a kidnapper looking to snatch a kid that looks exactly like her.

Even in the glare of the sparkling airports lights, something about the kid rings a bell. So I wait till she turns away for a second and pull the photo Jake had given me out of my pocket, and then sneak a quick peek at it, just to make sure. Then I look back at the kid. Shit. It's her alright, the same girl I've been stalking for the last three days. Jesus, what next?

We're sitting side by side like two old fogies who can't seem to remember what they're doing there. She could be a plastic surgeon sizing me up for a nose job, the way she's looking at my face. And she's not fooling around. It looks like she's actually looking for the perfect spot to start carving.
When she thinks I'm not looking, I glance over and see her staring at the photo she's just pulled out of her pink plastic purse. By now we've both noticed each other peeping at our respective pictures, but it's me who blinks first; "OK, so you show me yours, and I'll show you mine, fair?"

"Excuse me?" she stammers, moving away from me on the bench. "What are you, some kind of pervert?"

Flabbergasted that she would even know what the word perv means, I about fall off the bench. "For crying out loud," I tell her, "I'm talking about sharing the photographs we've both been hiding from each other."

Like two gunfighters with the drop on each other, we gingerly exchange photos. Lock jawed in unison, we both gawk at them in shock. A long silence seems to engulf the entire city. I could swear I'm having some kind of brain aneurism but manage to catch my breath before the impending blood clot explodes in my brain. I point to the photo in my hand and ask the kid, "What's with this photo anyway?"

She flashes me a self-satisfied smirk; "Looks to me like it's a photograph of you and my mom, doesn't it, Pops? Pretty good likeness, huh?"

All I can manage to do is mumble stupidly, "That's me and my ex-wife Angie."

"Gee, you remembered her name. How sweet? Mine's Sophie, as if you care."

According to Sophie, she'd gathered up a year's worth of her allowance and paid off an off-duty cabbie pal of her mother's to chauffer her around Reno half the night, looking for me. She must be cramping up by now from patting herself on the back for digging up all the info she'd needed to finally track me down. It wasn't easy but when her mom had been laid up in the hospital for a week awhile back, after getting broadsided in a freak hit-and-run accident on her way home from her computer programmer job, her pill-pushing quack got her so zonked out on pain killers and muscle relaxers, it was as if she was over at St. Mike's confessing her sins 24/7. She couldn't seem to spill her most intimate secrets fast enough, and Sophie took advantage of the situation by drilling her incessantly for hours about every single one of them. There is just no end to the number of secrets you can drag out of a hysterically tripped-out, doped-up zombie who's zonked out on Darvoset, Skelaxin, Valium, and a Morphine drip: even if she is an anal retentive control freak.

Sophie tells me that her Menses mom had apparently kept a carload of mental notes on everything there was to know about my sad and obviously pathetic life: like my wearing Fruit-of-the-Looms, using Colgate toothpaste, hating fortune tellers, snoring, living alone in a justifiably condemned shack off Langley Lane when I'm not traipsing across the country hauling a truck full of cows, pigs, or groceries. But in spite of all that, surprisingly, her mother thought I was almost bearable when I wasn't boffing half-naked teen queen topless tramps.

It seems Angie was a lot more crushed than she'd let on when she'd caught me and my ex-wife Ginger sitting on her couch. The only rule of Angie's that she'd ever really put her foot down about was, no bimbos. But in spite of how that non-event hurt her, according to Sophie, she apparently never really stopped loving me, in spite of her contention that I was an "over-sexed, stripper-humping dip shit".

I have no idea why the kid's carrying a photo of Angie and me around or why she'd gone to so much work looking for me, but in spite of the fact I was stupid enough to get kicked out of Berkeley at the end of my first year in Grad School for boinking my Economics professor and her daughter, I can still put two and two together: and Angie and Jake having a kid together does not compute. Like I said, Jake's always hated kids and there's no way he'd have stood for Angie having one. He even carried a half dozen rubbers and the name of a back street butcher he knew in Tijuana in his billfold just in case.

I'd begun wondering about Angie's kid after our divorce, when one of her gossip-mongering, computer key banger buddies told me that Angie had been pregnant when she'd walked out on me over the infamous topless trollop episode, but I had no reason at the time to believe that it was true. Angie had never said one word to me about being pregnant, but now that I think about it, it would have been just like her to have kept that from me, if for no other reason than spite. As I've said before, forgiveness for anything even resembling infidelity had never been her long suit and there was just no way she'd have given me the satisfaction of knowing I'd been the one to impregnate her. Which means, it's entirely possible that all these years later, the sawed-off little smart aleck I'm sitting here in a park with in the dark in the middle of the night, could very well be my own kid: the same kid Jake had hired me to snatch. This totally sucks. But the dates fit and numbers don't lie, and the kid does have Angie's face and my wise-assed mouth.

I'm almost sure of it now; I've got some kind of brain tumor. I've gotta get to a doctor fast, but first, I gotta know what Sophie's up to. So I decide to play the tough guy and get right up in her inscrutable poker face; "I don't know what kind of scam you think you're pulling here Shorty, but I'm not buying it. Now why don't you tell me what you're really doing here and why you've been carrying around that photograph?"

"You mean the photograph of me and my mother Angie," she says, carefully enunciating the name, adding somewhat sardonically, "your ex-wife? ...the woman who was pregnant with me when she caught you boffing the bimbo?"

"Holy Jesus, Joseph, and Mary Mother of God," she's on to me. The jig is so up. No doubt about it now. Sophie's either my daughter or a seriously precocious dead ringer somebody slipped in on me when I wasn't looking. If she's smart enough to figure out how to locate me in the middle of the night, without her mother calling out the FBI, the CIA, and the local boys in blue, then who knows what else she's got up her sleeve. I'm sure she got my address from Angie and has been watching my house, but how she gave Angie the slip is beyond me. And quite frankly, in spite of her fractured English, her advanced
vocabulary is beginning to really creep me out.

Sophie says that after interrogating her zoned out mom for days on end in the hospital after her wreck, she'd finally confessed to Sophie that I was her old man, and not Jake. Right then and there, Sophie decided to hunt me down so she could give me a piece of her mind in person for cheating on her mom with a lap dancing floozy, and cheating Sophie out of a real father. And from the dead serious scowl she's giving me right now, it looks like it's pay back time. But just when I think things are making sense around here, a bomb goes off in what's left of my half-a-brain: Jake knew! He'd known all along that Sophie was my kid. Angie had to have told him. How do you keep something like that from a chronically paranoid sociopath like Jake? Knowing Angie, she'd thought it was better just to tell him about the kid being mine up front than let him find out later, which he almost certainly would have.

Holy crap. It's finally coming together. That's why Jake had called me instead of one of his gutter slug guinea playmates to pull off this revolting kiddy snatch job. And it's got to be why Jake had kept such good track of my whereabouts all these years. With Jake's Teamster cronies running Local Union #631, it wasn't hard for him to get his hands on my logs. Hell, he probably knew I'd be in LA before I did. I hadn't even considered being followed, so that part was a snap. And now I think I know how he's planning on getting back at me. It's obvious that my playing tonsil tag with Becky Big Boops, and then taking Angie away from him later, must have pissed him off more than I'd dreamed it would Who knew anybody could hold a grudge so long? Come to think of it, maybe Jake isn't as stupid as he looks, although it is becoming apparent that he's one hell of a lot sicker than anybody knew.

The gears in my brain are screeching from years of neglect, but that doesn't stop me from finally putting the rest of the pieces together. Jake's demented little hidden agenda had almost certainly been to teach Angie a lesson for not only leaving him, but for implicating him in that bingo scam she ran on him by nabbing her kid: and while he was at it, to get even with me for stealing Angie in the first place and then maybe have a little fun with his pretty little step-daughter in the bargain. Knowing Jake, that would make sense to him. Most likely he hadn't been able to come up with anything that he could do to Angie that would come even close to causing her the pain she'd feel when she woke up one morning and found out that her precious princess Sophie had gone missing. But the icing on the cake for Jake would be the agony it would cause Angie when she found out it was her clueless, two-timing, hussy-humping ex-husband who's nabbed the kid. Add to that the look on my face when I'd find out the kid who I'd snatched, and delivered to Jake, was my own daughter, and voilà... Fate Accompli. Freaking brilliant. Looks like Angie isn't the only one who prefers her revenge cold.

Sophie's looking at the photo I'd handed her like it's covered with Anthrax. "So what are you doing with a picture of me for anyway?" she asks, her senses on full alert.

Oh oh. This can't be good. I swear to God my arteries are about to blow a gasket from the heart attack I think I'm having, and I've got no idea how I'm going to get to the hospital in time; "I don't think you'd believe me if I told you, kid."

I can feel my chest heaving and can't even remember if they've got a good saw bones over at St. Mary's Emergency or not. I can't believe it; five minutes ago I was about to kidnap my own daughter and deliver her to Satan, and now this. I blink away the exploding stars in my eyes and try to focus. How I got myself into this sorry state of affairs is anybody's guess. All I know is that I need an EKG, stat!

Oh to hell with it. I've never been any good at thinking on my feet, so I sit back down on the bench and resign myself to the fact that Sophie is most likely my kid...and that she is in some real serious frigging trouble. But instead of beating around the shrub, so to speak, I slide up next to her and give it to her straight. I know I'm slurring my words on account of the stroke I think I'm having, but I still manage to finish my thought:

"OK kid, we can do this two ways...I can haul you up to Tahoe tomorrow and dump you off like a bucket of bait at Jake's fishing shack, and let him do whatever the diseased letch and his sicko pals have planned for you in order to get revenge for what Angie and I did to him, or, I can not take you to Tahoe on account of you being my kid and all, and we can both fly to Tahiti, run around barefoot, paint pictures of fat Polynesian chicks, and eat coconuts, since that's probably the last place on earth we can go where Jake won't go to find us."

"You're giving me a choice, right? That's funny."

"Huh?"

"Like in the movie, Sophie's Choice. How cool is that?"

"Oh, I get it. Sophie's Choice. Real funny. So what do ya think about Tahiti?"

Sophie's thinking it over. I think she's warming to the idea, but with my cerebral thrombosis kicking in, I'm not sure I'll live long enough to make the trip.

"Why Tahiti?" she finally asks.

"Because Jake hates coconut, that's why: In any form. He's just got this thing about it. He won't even go near a coconut cream pie. Never could stand the stuff."

Trying hard to suppress a giggle, Sophie says, "Then how about Bora Bora. They got coconuts in Bora Bora?"

Ignoring her sly attempt at sarcasm, I finally default to reality; "OK, kid. Never mind. I've got a better idea. We'll get two new sets of ID on the cheap from this Sicilian ex-con I met at a truck stop in Bakersfield, and then hit the road for Quebec, Canada. I know people there and if we get there in one piece, you can call your mom. Who's knows, if hell ever freezes over, maybe she'll forgive me and join us. But we'll have to hurry. Jake's expecting a call from me any time now. I already told him I've eyeballed you and that I'll have you in Tahoe by tomorrow noon, and he's expecting to hear from me tonight. So Quebec it is then, right?"

"You just keep doing the thinking there, Butch," Sophia snickers, cracking herself up.

Great. A Butch Cassidy fan. Just my luck. What I need, is an ambulance, but the only thing I've seen out there in hours is a low rider Pachuco crank head, bobbing up and down like candy in a Pez dispenser, driving a tricked-out Mercury Shark. "Listen, kid," I tell Sophie, "Jake's on the move and it's time to go," and off we stumble towards the airport.

"Hey, Pops" she wheezes, struggling to keep up, "I'm gonna need some new outfits for Quebec. I really like that frilly frog shit."

"Don't say shit. It's a dirty word."

"Sorreeee," Sophie huffs."

"You'll need a new name too," I tell her.

Sophie wastes no time with that one; "How about Gladys?" She's already getting into this living-on-the-lam business. "I like the name Gladys."

Astounded, I feel compelled to ask, "Who in their right mind would pick the name Gladys for themselves if they had a choice?"

Sophie ponders for a minute; "Another choice. Cool."

"OK," I tell her. "How about Veronica? That's got a nice ring to it. And stop calling me Pops. From now on my name will be Archie and yours will be Veronica, you got that?"

"I got it, Pops," Sophie says, stifling a giggle, "but don’t you notice anything familiar about those two names, Archie and Veronica? "

"No."

"Well, OK then. Not a cartoon fan, I see," she snorts, trying hard not to snigger in my face; "So let's go get some new French outfits."

I'm all stooped over, clutching my heart, trying my best to hobble off towards the airport without falling on my face. I'd be better off heading straight to the cemetery and saving the funeral driver the trip, but somehow I manage to keep going. When I notice Sophie's in a full gallop behind me, I slow down. Looking down at my new pint-sized sidekick, I have to ask; "So what color outfits you want?"

"I like blue shit."

"Don't say shit."

"But you asked me a question!" she pouts, stomping her foot.

"I meant, don't say the word shit."

"Jesus H. Christ!" she howls, pausing for maximum affect. Who do you think you are, my father? Oh, wait. I forgot. Never mind."