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HOWIE GLENST AND THE WOMAN MADE FROM GLASS

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        The woman made from glass called herself Verona. She had eyes of the palest blue.
        "What do you smell like?" said Howie.
        "I was made without odor," said the woman made from glass, who had the most charming turn of phrase.
        "But in the flesh?" said Howie.
        "In the flesh?" she said, considering. Then giggled. The body of a woman but the laugh of a young girl. "In the flesh, I'm a vampire. I live in a coffin, in the dark. I drink blood and eat dogs for breakfast."
        "Seriously."
        "That is serious."
        "At least tell me your real name."
        "Diana, Princess of Wales," she said.
        Then giggled again.
        "Come here," he said.
        Obediently, she knelt at his feet.
        
* * *

        
        "And?" said Cory Blenfan.
        "You'll have to guess the rest," said Howie, smirking.
        "Sometimes I worry about you," said Cory. "Why don't you go with a real woman?"
        "She is real," said Howie. "That's what makes it so exciting. She really exists, somewhere. It's not like she was just a software construct. That's what makes it sex, not masturbation."
        "That's getting a bit philosophical for me," said Cory. "How about I introduce you to a real woman? Flesh and blood, I mean."
        "No," said Howie.
        Because flesh and blood can
        But I won't think of that.
        
        
* * *

        
        "So who's this Diana?" said Howie.
        "You really don't know?" said Verona.
        "I think I knew," he said. "Once."
        "She was a princess," said Verona. "But she died."
        "I won't ask how," said Howie.
        "A wise decision," said Verona softly. "It was very sad."
        Beneath the flawless uplift of her breasts, Howie could see her heart beating softly, softly. Her warmth radiated out from her luminous flesh.
        "What are you really like?" he said, softly. "In the flesh, what are you really like?"
        "Well," said the woman made from glass, with a sly grin, "in real life I'm a banker. Male. Sixty years old. Out of work these last three years. I have terminal cancer and a wife with a premature case of Alzheimer's. I'm doing this for money. It helps pay for my colostomy bags."
        Again, the giggle. For the woman made from glass, nothing was serious, nothing was sacred. That was one of the things Howie liked about her the best.
        "I'll find you," murmured Howie, as he slipped off to sleep. "I'll find you in the flesh."
        "Why?" said the woman made from glass, working on him gently with her hands. "You have a thing for sixty-year-old bankers?"
        When Howie woke, he was alone in the Immersion Room, and Ron the technician was removing the net from his scalp. It prickled as it came away. Howie's scalp felt, as usual, as if it had been skin to skin with a stainless steel hedgehog.
        And Ron was there, waiting to give him his wig.
        "You still want it?" said Ron.
        "Yeah," said Howie.
        "It's harder than I thought," said Ron. "It's going to take longer."
        "How much longer?"
        "Two weeks. At least. And it's going to cost."
        "Do it," said Howie. "I'll pay."
        
        
* * *

        
        "Howie," said Cory, "I'd like you to meet my friend here, Glenda. She's a heiress. Glenda Howie."
        "I want to get married," said Glenda.
        A glossy blonde. A ceramic perfection to her face.
        "Yeah, sure," said Howie, knowing one of Cory's jokes when he saw it, but willing to play along for the moment. "You got a driver's license?"
        "Why?"
        "I want to see how old you are."
        She was 22. And she showed him a bank statement as well. She was rich. Very rich. Not like the sleazy fringe people Cory usually hung out with. Something odd was going on here.
        "I'm rich," said Glenda proudly.
        "So am I," said Howie, amused at the naivety of her pride. "Seriously rich."
        "So you're made for each other," said Cory.
        "Yes," said Howie. "But we need to see a friend of mine. A doctor."
        "Whatever you say," said Glenda.
        Face to face with Doctor Jim, Howie specified his requirements.
        "Main one is a sex test," he said. "You know, like at the Olympics. Are we talking YY or XY?"
        "You have doubts?" said Doctor Jim.
        "It's just that I read this story once about this guy who married a, well, a "
        "A guy."
        "Yeah. So. YY. Check it out. And the usual, uh, disease suite. You know."
        "Yes," said Doctor Jim. "But be warned. There's no such thing as absolutely safe sex."
        "Hey, we're going to have children. She wants six. You want kids, you got to take off the condom."
        "Can't argue with that," said Doctor Jim.
        It all checked out, and they got married. Howie's friends congratulatory. Glenda's friends giggling, high, not quite connected to the planet.
        
        
* * *

        
        "I've got married," said Howie.
        "How very nice for you," said Verona, hooking her legs behind his head.
        The woman made of glass was the ultimate in flexibility.
        "You're not curious?" said Howie.
        "I'm here to serve," said Verona. "That's my function."
        "Really not curious?"
        "All right, if that's what you want. I'm curious. If you've got her, why am I here?"
        "Because," said Howie.
        Because ... why?
        Because the truck hit Belinda. Killed her dead and killed little Sammy too. Wife and child both gone in the same instant. The driver, aged 14, claimed afterwards that he had thought it was all virtual. Not real. Anyway, the 14-year-old had been drunk at the time. Howie told Verona about this, in detail.
        "So you'd rather have fantasy than fact," said Verona.
        "I didn't say that," said Howie.
        But it was true, it was all too true. He couldn't trust the surfaces of reality any more.
        
        
* * *

        
        Late night. Howie, sleepless. Glenda, beside him, breathing lightly. He needed to take a leak. He visited the bathroom, returned.
        "You don't have to do that," said Glenda, sitting up in bed.
        "Do what?"
        "The toilet," she said. "I don't need that."
        "What?" said Howie.
        "You know," she said.
        "Oh, yeah," he said. "I won't do it again."
        And, satisfied, she went back to sleep, leaving Howie mystified as to what they might have just been talking about. Perhaps she had been talking in her sleep. Sleep-talking a relative of sleep-walking.
        But the next morning, when he visited the bathroom again, Glenda threw a temper-tantrum. Howling with operatic rage, she pounded on the door.
        "No no no no no!" she screamed.
        "No what?" said Howie.
        "I don't need that," she sobbed. Then, flickering her fingers at him angrily, said "Chittagong! Chittagong!"
        Chittagong? That was a place, wasn't it? Yeah. Down in Mexico or someplace.
        "You want to go on holiday?" said Howie, puzzled.
        "Chittagong!" said Glenda. Then, in patent dismay, "It's not working!"
        "What isn't working?" said Howie.
        But, incoherent with rage or grief, she huddled down on the carpet, keening. And, unable to get any sense out of her, Howie stalked out of the house.
        
        
* * *

        
        Verona kissed his feet. Imagine, now. Having her for real. The real woman bending to kiss your feet. Sane. Compliant. No howling madness, no midnight mysteries. What have you done, Howie? You've married a madwoman. Pain is a knife which turns. The woman made of glass. Make her flesh. Make her yours.
        "I want you so much," said Howie.
        "Then take me again," said Verona.
        Afterwards, liberated from the stainless steel hedgehog, Howie found himself face to face with Ron again.
        "I've got it," murmured Ron, looking guiltily around the Immersion Room.
        "You have?"
        "In the agreed place. But you're making a big mistake."
        Then Ron passed Howie his wig.
        On the way out from the House of Glass Women, Howie stopped at the cash terminal and, fingers flying over the keys, posted the balance of the bribe money to Ron. And, to the made from glass, he posted his usual 50% tip.
        At the Little Red Rooster bar, he took off the wig, not caring who might see him, and detached Ron's message from the interior. Verona Sloors, 45 Pig Hill, Apartment 27. Verona! So she was using her real name!
        All hastening excitement, Howie hurried in the direction of Pig Hill, with visions of chic Cosmopolitan-type women dancing in his head. The thing is, Verona, I'm rich. I mean, not just comfortably affluent, but seriously rich. Is that too crude? Well, let me ask you just this one question: What do you want most in all the world? I can give it to you.
        The address was promising. No burnt-out junkie slum but a severely respectable upper-middle-class condominium. So that's what she's like. A whore in bed, a total slut, the ultimate vibrating bed, plug in your money and she turns you on. But, socially, she'll be presentable, able to do the slim champagne thing, the understated little black number thing, the poise at the roulette wheel thing. And who knows? maybe she even likes golf. One can always hope.
        (Golf. A sudden flashback to Hawaii. The lurid emerald greens. The surf crashing on the shore. The impossible parrot-bright sky. And the ball soaring, high, he had played brilliantly that day. But, no, Howie. One passion at a time, please).
        At the door to Number 45, a doorman refused to let him in, refused a bribe, and then, when Howie persisted, actually called the cops and had him escorted off the premises.
        Well, no problem. Hey, these stories we hear about police corruption, you think there's any truth to them?
        That very afternoon, Howie returned to Number 45 with three uniformed policemen, two detectives and a search warrant authorizing them to search Apartment 27 for plutonium, bomb-making materials, fuses and the like.
        "You guys want to open up or do we break the door down?"
        The door opened.
        And there was this guy, aged maybe 60, dressed in a suit. He looked at Howie, blinked, then named him.
        "Howie Glenst? I'm Jonathan Sloors. You'd better come in."
        Leaving his private army outside, Howie entered the apartment, which was dimly lit. It smelt musty. The kind of dim, brown smell of an introverted place which keeps to itself, which never goes out jogging in the park, which isn't quite alert enough to realize that it's starting to smell bad. An apartment too old to remember to changes its underwear as often as it should, too old to remember to eat right.
        The apartment was senile, then, and so was the woman on the sofa, who was muttering in German or something as she kept up her side of the conversation with the bright thirty-something creatures of the TV soap opera.
        "Verona Sloors," said Jonathan, gesturing.
        "Verona!" said Howie.
        And hastened to her. Dropped to his knees at her feet. She was what? Fifty? A strangely unlined face. A disappointment. But, even so. This is her!
        "Verona? Verona, speak to me!"
        She turned to him, studied him intently for some time, then said, very distinctly:
        "The pipes have already been fixed, thank you."
        Over at the sideboard, Jonathan Sloors sloshed some Jim Beam into a glass, then gulped. Half of the drink vanished.
        "She has Alzheimer's," said Jonathan.
        Yes? Ah. Then that explains. This. Failure. To. Recognize. Me. But she looks ... well, peaceful. A kind, peaceful, harmless person, tragically deranged. Maybe I could take care of you, Verona. A new experience for me. Taking care of a person instead of a bank account.
        But. Wait a minute, Howie! If Verona was truly suffering from Alzheimer's, how to explain her performance in the House of Glass Women? You don't imagine that the Process somehow cures Alzheimer's, do you?
        Logic, Howie. These are the parents. Verona is the daughter. The daughter has the mother's name. The daughter has a room, somewhere, in this apartment. You know. The Cosmopolitan setup. The fancy lingerie, the French perfumes, the vibrator in its velvet case, the esoteric manuals on orgasmic technique, the designer labels hanging in the closet.
        "You're kidding me, right?" said Howie. "You're hiding your daughter, right? In the back room or something?"
        "Howie, Howie," said Jonathan, cradling his drink in his hands, "you asked me how it was, I told you how it was. Straight question, straight answer."
        Then he giggled, drunkenly. The middle of the afternoon, and Jonathan Sloors was giggling drunk, a hopeless alcoholic, operating drunk, drunks talk a lot, some drunks, a drunk can do anything. Remember, Howie? Remember how you burnt your feet doing that firewalk thing? White hot, but you were drunk. Drunk, it doesn't even hurt.
        But this did.
        Down on his hands and knees, he threw up. In his excitement, he had forgotten to eat lunch, so it was bitter green bile which came up. Green bile. The taste of reality.
        "You were warned, Howie," said Jonathan, helping him to his feet and pressing a drink into his hands. "Here. Drink this. It'll help."
        A glimmer of light caught Jonathan's eyes and brought to life the color there. A pale blue. The eyes: the eyes were for real. Even in the flesh, the woman made from glass did have eyes of the palest blue.
        
* * *

        
        Okay.
        Back to the real world, then.
        It isn't so bad, living in the real world. Face facts. Had Verona been real, you'd have had to divorce Glenda. But maybe you'll have to anyway. She's nuts right? Hey. Not so fast. A psychiatrist, a few pink pills, and she'll be right. She's young, she's female, she's clean, and it was love at first sight. I mean, it was, wasn't it? That was why you married her right? Yeah. Must have been. And it must have been mutual.
        So thinking, Howie hurried home.
        And found a bunch of suits on the premises. Lawyers and private detectives and an upmarket psychiatrist. An ambulance was outside, and Glenda was being loaded into it.
        "You're in big trouble," said one of the suits.
        "Trouble?" said Howie.
        "Take advantage of her ... her condition."
        "Hey, she married me!"
        "We know."
        Then they explained. Glenda was nuts. Okay, so Howie could accept that. But he couldn't really believe how nuts until, finally, he got the opportunity for a face-to-face meeting, and she confirmed it.
        "I didn't think it was any of it real," she said. "I mean, the real me wouldn't hook up with a guy like Cory Blenfan. I thought you were just a software construct. I thought the whole thing was virtual."
        And that was when Howie knew he really loved her, and that they could work the whole thing out.
        "Hey," he said. "I really love you. We can work the whole thing out, you know that?"
        Then she showed him the photos. The photos that Ron or someone must have scammed out of the computers of the House of Glass Women. Howie Glenst, identifiably himself, with the sweet form of Verona Sloors kneeling to kiss his feet.
        All over. Your score is zero. Fadeout. Finish.

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