If he couldn't sell this article, he would quit writing and go work in the rail yard like his grandfather. Not that a story about a two-headed cow wouldn't be interesting enough to get picked up. It might go viral with pictures, but could he, Corey O'Malley, make it interesting enough? Or would readers smell an overwhelming desire for fame and fortune from an unknown? Especially one only a year out of college and struggling with a crushing need to pay rent and school loans?
Corey O'Malley rubbed his eyes and thought about his woes. He sat alone in the hired Xianzu Gemini autocar outbound on the San Bernardino Freeway at 4:56 AM. You had to pay your dues to get anywhere, right? Freelance journalism was cutthroat. There were lots of dues to pay. His editor friend at the LA Times threw him this bone. Called at three in the morning with the tip to see what he could do with it. Didn't any of these guys sleep?
He stared around at the stream of autocars. An orderly march of ants spaced three feet apart. Clumps of autos in his direction. Carpets of them going the opposite way into LA where the money was. The lucrative jobs that paid well and on-time. Mindless worker bees, every one. Not for him, he thought. Well, he'd never had an offer anyway.
Corey watched the exit sign for Bloomington slide by. His eyelids slit shut, his head in a slow-motion nod toward sleep. He should be researching possible story angles. Learning all about dairy cows and the Federal National Forest Land Loan program. The Feds created this particular dairy farm out of public lands outside of Yucaipa.
Two-headed cows weren't born every day, and this one dropped earlier that night. What caused such a thing? A forgotten leaky superfund site nearby? Some trigger, some cause? Had to be a larger story, bigger than a two-headed cow. He would almost rather write obituaries. At least that was steady work.
Outside the window, the Union Pacific Colton train yard opened up like a rusted iron fan. Locomotives and flatbeds, dusty grain cars, gravel cars, smeared sludge cars lay waiting. Soot-streaked coal cars and dirt-spattered dung colored livestock cars sat closer. This is what they meant by sidelined. It's where the word came from, Grandpa said.
Loading doors slid part-way open looked like they were hiding something. The hobo cars, Corey called them. He looked for heads keeping a lookout for men on yard patrol. Grandpa O'Malley had worked yard patrol there as a young man. He'd lost his leg on the job. He'd been chasing a vagabond when he fell and a moving train wheel sliced and crushed his leg off above the knee.
It was a stroke of luck, grandpa said. Corey's grandma had been the nurse that took care of him. He'd been poor as dirt and then famous overnight and in all the newspapers. The settlement had also been good.
Corey swiped through streaming audio, landing on The Morning Sprat Show. These two, over-caffeinated guys had jovial personalities and entertained the early commuters. Corey needed something to take his mind off grandpa's severed leg and two-headed cows. The announcers were irreverent and comical and definitely not politically correct.
That was the draw, right? A fat guy and skinny guy bantering about everything in a no-holds-barred format. They appealed to the mind-numbed masses. Especially in the morning when most minds were still off. Corey liked the Morning Sprat podcast and listened most afternoons. Today he could listen to it live. Not that there would be any difference. You take your background chatter when you can get it.
A strong Texas twang filled the air. "Wake up, Los Angeles! Jimmy Slicker here bringing you the skinny on the news."
A deeper, melodious voice followed. "And I'm Howard The-Fat-Man Klinghoffer. I'm serving up the phattest, tastiest morsels you might have lost in the day's gravy train."
"Together, we'll help you lick this news platter clean and get you to work on time!"
A huge slurping noise filled the autocar, and Corey turned down the volume. He reclined his seat and dozed, listening for newsy bits he could use in conversation or future posts.
"…closer to a Quantum breakthrough that may make encryption obsolete…"
"…a study saying sleep deprivation is actually a kind of boredom you can't wake up from. Scientists at...
Corey woke up to…
"…reached one million head transplants in China. What a milestone, and in only ten years! Who knew that there were that many brain-dead donors laying around?"
"Laying around! Ha! Hey, that's not funny," Jimmy said.
"Sure, it isn't. The US lags far behind with barely two hundred thousand transplants."
"Well, Howard, as you know there are a lot more Chinese."
"True, Jimmy Skinny. Most of the ones in China are paraplegic cases. Or those accelerated-growth cloner bodies which are illegal in this country."
"But you know what isn't illegal in the States? The very questionable practice of head-swapping for the ultra-wealthy. They account for over twenty-five percent of all US cases. Super rich guys pay untold sums to swap bodies with young, fit, virile, handsome, hung…"
"Don't work yourself up, Jimmy! It's a transaction, but not the kind you're thinking about.
"Okay, fat boy. But who wouldn't want one of those young Ferrari bodies? You wouldn't turn one down, would you? An instant hot bod to replace your enormous self. Might even fix your weight problem, though not for long!"
"Don't pick on me, you anemic toothpick chubby chaser. I'm perfect like I am. Besides, only the Uber-wealthy can afford that kind of swap. You and I both know that we can't even think about that kind of lazy luxury."
Oh well, Corey thought. They spun off on the usual Jack Sprat routine of skinny shaming and body-type discussions. He dozed.
The autocars flowed in formation down the road.
Then Corey came hard awake.
"…this two-headed cow that was born a few hours ago."
"Howard? Did you know I have a picture of it right here. Take a look, folks, and then call in with your questions."
"This is streaming radio, Jimmy. No one can see your photo even if it excites you."
"But they want to, Howard. They want to. In their minds, they see a two-headed cow and are trying to figure out if both can suck milk from the mother at the same time. Or does it need two mothers side-by-side?"
"Right! Can it even walk a straight line? What if one head wants to go right and one…."
Goddammit, they'd scooped him. Radio jerks. His editor would pitch a fit. Sure, Corey would get real photos. His searches on polycephaly had already told him that the likelihood of two functioning heads was surprisingly high. The cause was improper cellular splitting of identical twins. On average, these mutations died in a few days. Livestock without prospects for breeding was tagged for "production." That meant food or fertilizer.
But if it was healthy it could become a revenue-generating circus oddity. If Corey could be there from the beginning, his work might get noticed along with the cow. He had to get to that farm and fast. He ordered his car to speed up.
Instead, the Auto slammed on the brakes. Passengers in the cars around him were gawking for rare road trauma. Something juicy for their feeds for when they got to work. Up ahead a raccoon and her two babies were crossing the road like royalty. Somehow they learned that the network of autocars would flow around them. Did they think they were those celebrity ducks in Tokyo? How did they figure it out? Did the ducks swap heads with the racoons?
Howard and Jimmy were laughing at each other in the background. The plan came to him in a flash. Corey called into the Morning Sprat show, gave his name, and waited in the queue.
The Texan picked up. "Hello, Corey! You are live and on the air. Do you have the skinny on something phat for our listeners?"
"Yeah, about that," Corey said. "You guys keep jabbing each other about weight and body image stuff and it's kind of insulting, don't you think?" Corey couldn't let them respond or they'd cut him off. He kept on talking. "I've heard you accuse each other that weight is all in your head, each saying they could swap places if they wanted to."
"You are right, Son. That's our thing and we're sticking by it. Thanks for your — "
"So why don't you two have that surgery and swap your heads and prove it?"
Dead silence. Nothing but the sound of tires on roadway. Had they dropped him?
The Sprat brothers erupted in laughter. "Nice one, Corey! You had us there for a moment."
"I'm serious. Put your money where your mouth is, or your mouth where your body is, or…. Shit, you know what I mean?"
There was hope. He was still on the line.
"Ha, ha. You know that can't happen, Corey. No matter how much we want to prove our theory is right, we don't have the money. Not even for one of those surgeries, let alone two. Jimmy and I don't even have enough beer money left over after payday. You know what I'm saying?"
"Sure. So, you believe your theory enough that you'd do it to prove your point? If you had the money, that is? Despite the risks."
"Hell yes, Corey Boy," Jimmy the skinny said in his Texan twang. "The risks are slim. You heard the beginning of our show this morning, right?"
"Sure did," said Corey.
The baritone voice of Howard chimed in. "The statistics look great. With all that Chinese micro-robotic surgery assists. Um, whatever they call it, the chances of complications are minuscule."
"Yeah, almost nothing," Jimmy said, "compared to the sheer astronomical cost of the thing. We'd do it, wouldn't we, Howard? If money were no object."
"Damn right, Jimmy, but that's one hell of a lot of objects. Thanks for your call, Corey."
The call dropped.
Corey called back and got in the queue. He pulled out his tablet. Howard and Jimmy were still talking about how they would swap heads to prove their point. If they could only afford it. Alas. They repeated the lament to another caller who tried to talk them out of it. The Sprat Brothers of Morning Sprat were, as they said again and again, "Absolutely, totally, and completely committed." But finding out about nature versus nurture for them would have to wait.
While they were talking, Corey typed furiously on his tablet in the moving autocar. Traffic was moving again and he was gliding toward the dairy farm. The two-headed cow seemed trivial now. He had other, grander plans.
"Hello, caller, you're on the air!" Jimmy said. "Do you have the skinny on something phat?"
"I do, Jimmy," he said. "Corey O'Malley on the line again. I was so excited that you guys would actually prove your point by swapping heads that I set up a FundThis site to finance both operations."
Then laughter as before.
"Hey, kid," Howard said. Corey swore he could hear the man sneering. "No way you can raise that kind of money. That's got to be one of the biggest FundThis projects ever done!"
"Not one of them, Big Guy," Corey said. "It is the biggest one of all time, and all anyone has to do is hit FundThis dot com and search for Sprat Brothers Swap. No verified pledge is too small, and nobody gets charged unless we reach our funding goal by Labor Day. That's four months away. Think of the attention you and your show will get, even if it doesn't go."
Corey didn't mention the attention that he would get. Or the stardom he hoped for. This might make him a household name. At the least, he could be a rising star. His fees could go up. Some news outlet might put him on contract. He sure wouldn't be writing obits or public interest pieces on circus cows. No, he'd have splash pieces, right on the front page. Above the fold, as the old saying went, whatever that meant, and he'd never be buried again.
"Attention?" Jimmy laughed. "Kid, we have all the attention we want right now."
Corey knew a lie when he heard one.
"Yeah, thanks, Kid. We'll be standing by. Good luck with that."
The connection dropped.
Corey took a deep breath and screamed his frustration in the tiny cabin of his autocar. The bastards. Then he noticed they'd already raised over a thousand bucks. Feelings of excitement and anticipation took over.
"If it pleases the court. Your Honor, we will demonstrate that the plaintiff, Mr. Corey Canes O'Malley, is only guilty of innocence, gullibility, and blind pursuit of fame. In no way should he be held accountable for the events that transpired in October of last year."
"Is there any legal way I could take a management fee?" Corey asked his uncle Mark over a draft Natty Light. They sat in a local bar called O'Malley's owned by someone of no relation to their part of the O'Malley tree. "I'm hurting for rent money while spending all my time -- my free, unpaid, and unrewarded time -- on fundraising so that two radio assholes can swap heads and prove a silly little argument." Corey swigged from his bottle, put it back down on the damp coaster. He picked at the label, a new thought blooming on his lips. "If I could take a tiny little percentage — "
"Corey. Oh, Corey Lad. That description of the Sprats is the first mature thing I've heard out of you in a long time." Uncle Mark patted Corey on the back. "But the money isn't real, is it? It's all pledges, Laddie. And it won't become real unless they raise enough stupid money to meet the goal. I understand you'd give your right arm for it, but this isn't going to make you rich or famous. You must know that somewhere deep inside yourself, right? Let it go and focus on your work. That's what you need."
Corey peeled the label from his beer. He leaned closer. "A bunch of Silicon Valley guys texted me last night that they hated the Sprat Brothers for slamming their companies all the time. They wanted to do their part. So… we just crossed a million bucks."
"Well, shit in my hat. What's the goal?"
"Two million, one hundred and seventy-three thousand dollars. And there are six weeks left."
Uncle Mark took a long draw on his beer. Swallowed thoughtfully. It had gotten quiet around them. We're between songs, Corey thought. The bartender wiped down the bar top two customers up and angled an ear their way.
"How'd you come up with a number like that in the first place?" his uncle asked.
"Well, it's the cost of two procedures including the three-week neuro recuperation for each. Then there is the physical therapy that medical insurance won't already cover. Life insurance policies for both Jimmy and Howard in the event one or both…." Corey tailed off and drank because he didn't want to say it.
"You should have kept on with accounting at school."
Corey laughed and shook his head.
"I suppose, Laddie," uncle Mark said, waving for two more same again to the barkeep, "that you could put a stretch goal on the thing. Give yourself a management fee, finder's fee, whatever the hell you want fee."
"Can I do that?"
"Why not? The Sprat boys won't mind. I bet they'll be happy about it and encourage you to put up a large number. The larger the better."
"They've got to be getting a wee bit nervous, don't you think? Now that it's starting to look real, you'll be lucky if they don't back out."
Corey glanced at his uncle. At the eyes watching him from the mirrored back of the bar. At the raised eyebrow and grin on the bartender's face as he set the fresh beers down before them.
"Shit," Corey said, watching foam slide down the new bottleneck. "How am I going to keep them in?"
"We want out," Howard said, his jowly face hogging most of Corey's screen.
Jimmy pushed into view, headphones still in place. They were calling from the station. "You've had a fun little time taunting us, Sonny," Jimmy said, "Now it's time to grow up and move on."
"I'm not taunting you. You're the ones slamming each other all the time. This was basically your idea." Corey, caught off guard, realized he lay on his studio apartment's sofa-bed. He shifted to the chair where there would be only a blank wall behind him.
"Are you in a dorm room, Kid? You're not even a real journalist yet, are you?" Howard instinctively zeroed in on Corey's weakness.
Jimmy followed the lead. "Nah. He's still living at home. Looks like a basement to me."
"Guys, this has nothing to do with me or my living situation." A blatant lie, but the Sprat Brothers wouldn't know that, right? Yeah, sure, Corey bet that this stunt would get his name out there and it could even go viral. No, it wasn't a stunt. He can't call it that. These guys had to actually go through with it to make it real. Corey was orchestrating the show. That was it. Sure, he could get a leg up in media and, sure, make contacts he'd never make otherwise. But the real benefactors would be Howard and Jimmy. If Corey ended up with work, if he was sought after, if he landed some sort of syndicated gig then that was, what? Collateral benefits.
"Guys," he continued, needing a distraction and knowing the perfect one. "You are benefiting from this already. I've checked your ratings. They're soaring since you signed up for this, and I won't believe you haven't been checking every hour. But... I think we've erred on the low side in terms of risk."
"Hell, yes! It's gotten a little too real. Right, Jimmy?"
"Our necks are literally on the line here, Kid, and you know how that story goes. It's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt."
"Or gets their head chopped off, Kid," Howard added.
"My name's Corey. I'm not a kid and I'm not doing the chopping. An expert doctor does the procedure. She's performed over seven hundred successful transplants in her career. One of the foremost experts in the field here in the world." Corey took a breath and kept on as they tried interrupting him. "Guys! Stop and listen for a minute. We want to guarantee your safety as much as possible. And also properly compensate you. But we forgot that you both will want the option to swap back at some later date, right? And that's going to cost a lot more, and that means we need to reevaluate what we're raising here."
The two radio guys sat blinking in their window.
"Hello? Right?" Corey went on. "Not double, but more like triple what we first thought."
"Um," Howard hummed, eyeing Jimmy next to him.
Corey could tell that they had taken the golden hook. Now, like any good fisherman, he needed to set it fast. "Of course, your listeners would understand if you wimped, I mean pulled out. Not all the new listeners you pulled in because of this would leave."
Corey could almost hear them calculating. Somewhere in the clicking of their mental abacus, the beads fell into place. Jimmy took a deep breath. Howard coughed and looked away, nodding to himself.
"What do you propose?" Jimmy asked.
Corey's grandpa would be proud. He'd always told Corey he could be a natural salesman. Follow granddaddy's footsteps. Maybe Grandpa knew something, after all, something fundamental?
Corey took a deep breath, then laid it all out for them. He included his 'collateral benefit,' his 'stipend' as he began to think of his cut.
The next morning, the Sprat Brothers made the announcement on the air. Their FundThis site got updated. Some listeners cried foul and they lost a few small donors. But by the end of the show, they had cleared another five hundred thousand.
The number of retweets and reposts that flooded the media-sphere astonished Corey. He wondered if someone had hired bots. He'd wanted to, but even the low-cost bots were beyond the reach of someone struggling to pay rent and student loans. Who was boosting this? The techies with a vendetta? The medical group on standby waiting for an increasingly high-profile procedure? The radio station itself? Not the Sprat Brothers, considering their waffling commitment.
He could find out, run a trace and identify a few sources, but the pledges were coming in and that's all that mattered. The primary goal was to keep Jimmy and Howard in the game, and they had made the announcement, not Corey.
His phone buzzed with a text from his landlord. He thought about all the money being thrown at them. Not a penny of it available to him now when he needed it.
In the polished mahogany courtroom, the lawyer for the Sprat Brothers stood up. "Coercion, Your Honor." He took a deep breath. He puffed out his already broad chest on a body somewhere between skinny Jimmy and fat Howard, except the lawyer wore a much better chalk stripe suit. "Pure coercion. Mister O'Malley concocted this absurd stunt and shamed my clients into going along with it. Then he got greedy and inflated the numbers with padded costs and fees for himself. Liaison fees. He intended to personally profit from risk born solely by my clients."
The Radio Heads website had caught fire since Corey stopped moderating the comments. Sometimes you had to close your eyes and jump off the cliff. That's what Donny M told him that afternoon at lunch at Cafeteria Ruskie over-boiled cabbage and Borscht. The M stood for Moshennik, Donyeh Moshennik. He had some interest in this particular restaurant so they always ate here. "This is going to get big," Donny M said, grinning like a plump Cheshire Cat. "It will be out of your control no matter what you do, so you might as well do as little as possible. You're going to have other things to worry about anyway."
"That sounds ominous, Donny M. What are you saying?" Corey mixed the cabbage chunks into his mashed potatoes. It seemed the Russian version of Bangers and Mash without the sausage. Smelled worse, too, but then the strong vinegar kind of gave it a sweetness he hadn't expected.
Donny M slowly stirred sour cream into his blood-red soup, making swirls of light pink as the colors mixed. His heavy gold chain bracelets sparkled in the light as did his many rings. "I'm saying you're too busy creating content to inform the gawkers and distract the trolls. What about your own stuff, Corey? Don't you still need to make a living? You're going to have to attach ads to generate a little income. I can't keep buying you lunch forever, Sweetheart, though it's something I do enjoy." He drew a deep breath. "Of course," Donny M grinned and looked over his sunglasses rims, "there are other ways."
"Christ, D M. I'm well aware of my bills. If you'd look at the website once in a while, you'd see ads on the site right now, and you'd help increase our traffic ranking. I have to wait for a whole billing cycle before I see a dime, and then I have to share it." He put his spoon down and sighed.
"Any articles you're working on?"
"Sure. I sold one about the Civic Center Flower Show last weekend. That'll cover my electric bill."
"You need to get some synergy going, develop an area of expertise. Any ideas?" Donny M slurped a spoonful of borscht and smiled as he swallowed.
Corey reached for the plate of the Cafeteria's signature round rolls. A few spilled off in his direction. One landed in his borscht.
"Crap," he said, gathering the fleeing pieces of bread to put them back. Corey plucked the floater out of his soup. He looked at the red dripping bottom as Donny M looked on.
"Tell me about this operation," Donny M said. "How do they do it?"
Corey glanced at Donny and back to the dripping bread. "They have to cool the head and body down until all activity drops off, almost near death." Corey winced. "Pretty scary. The target body is also on ice and hooked up to whatever they need for organ maintenance. And then," Corey picked up a sharp knife. With surgical precision he cut away the red part, leaving a skull-like silhouette. "They sever the head between the C1 and C2 cervical vertebrae here. This is where the spinal cord is densest and most tightly packed. Then they carve down under the mandible between the hyoid bone and epiglottis. That leaves the tongue intact." Corey made little smiley face incisions on the front of the roll.
"So, you keep your tongue?"
"Yes, but not your larynx. That comes with the target body. You shape sounds with your tongue, but the timbre and quality of your voice will come from the new body."
"The radio heads swap but the voices don't?"
"That's right. It's the simplest way to do it. The safest way."
"You know, Corey," Donny M said, reaching over and snatching the bread skull. "That's pretty interesting. Science articles sell pretty well, don't they?"
Corey nodded. "Yeah. Some places even pay advances."
Donny M dipped the skull in his soup. "Imagine that," he said, and popped the dripping bread into his mouth and chewed. "But the weight thing? That's the whole reason for this, right?"
"Yeah. Why?" Corey was now uncomfortably aware of his friend's rotund body.
"My cousin had thyroid problems that made him fat. The thyroid is in your throat. Who gets the big guy's thyroid?"
"The thyroid stays with the body. But there are so many other factors. Nature. Nurture. All that."
"Couldn't they both get stubborn and end up skinny by sheer willpower? In which case we wouldn't learn anything."
"A possibility." Corey sighed. "That, in itself, could be something, though. I'd have to research it."
"So many ways to look at this. So many questions," Donny M said.
"So many articles." Corey nodded. He could make a name for himself with this expertise. It could be lucrative, and it was being served to him on a silver platter along with a few other perks and a couple of heads.
His grandfather had been on disability for several years after the railyard accident. During those years, grandpa and his new bride had traveled the world. Then they returned and opened a Men's Furnishings boutique. The store sold imported fine clothing from around the world. As a kid, Corey remembered playing in the racks of clothes, all except for the suits. His grandpa told him to be careful there, that some of them were sharkskin.
Sitting with Donny M, he imagined he'd put on one of those sharkskin suits. He felt the future rushing toward him like a great current. He wasn't worried, he thought, as he ran his tongue over the sharp ridges of his teeth. All he had to do was keep swimming.
"Wake up, Los Angeles! Jimmy Slicker here bringing you the skinny on all the news."
"And I'm Howard The-Fat-Man Klinghoffer serving up the phattest, tastiest morsels you might have lost in the day's gravy train."
"We know you really want the news, but we know what news you really want!"
"And here it is!" Howard said.
"Seconds before midnight last night, our FundThis campaign crossed that all-important threshold."
"That's right, folks! You guessed it!"
Together, Jimmy and Howard shouted, "It's a go!"
"I get Jimmy's body."
"And I get Howard's."
"If you said that before, I'd call you a chubby chaser, you little toothprick."
"And I'd deny it. It's always been your personality that did it for me, Howard. Wait. Tooth what?"
"Ha, ha, Jimmy. Guess who we have here on our guest microphone?"
"Could it be none other than mister Corey O'Malley? The guy who came up with the idea that we are all literally losing our heads over?"
"Indeed, it is! Corey, come on down and tell us what we've won!"
Corey cleared his throat in front of his microphone. "I read into here, right?"
"Cheese a wheeze, Corey. Sure, with feeling though. Some of our listeners are still asleep."
"Well," Corey said, and cleared his throat again. How hard could this be? He'd never been on the air, or even in the same room as the Sprat Brothers. This place was a fishbowl with station managers and lawyers watching through the soundproof glass. He was in the spotlight now. Get used to it.
"Okay," Corey said, his voice brightening. "You've won an all-expense-paid medical adventure at the prestigious Cayman Islands Surgical Campus right in the heart of Georgetown. Your stimulating recovery can be virtually anywhere you want, and I do mean virtual."
"Virtual, Corey? What's that?"
"For two weeks while your nerves grow back together, you'll be entertained and stimulated by the latest in virtual reality therapy. You'll learn to walk, swim, even run if you want, all before you get out of bed. You can do this virtually any place your heart desires."
"Whose heart, Corey? Mine or Jimmy's? Before or after the swap?"
Howard leaned close to his microphone's pop shield. In a conspirational tone, he said, "Listeners. If you could only see the look on Corey O'Malley's face right now, you'd be laughing your ass off."
Jimmy chimed in. "Look at that face. That cherubic youthful face, that brown mop of hair, those clear eyes. Are they green?"
"Hey," Howard said, "I wanna swap with Corey instead! Can I do that?"
Jimmy hit a button and the amplified sound of a face-slap repeated over and over while Jimmy said between slaps, "No. You. Will. Not. You. Promised. Me. First."
"Now I'm awake, folks! Jimmy hits just like my girlfriend."
"Does she come with the body?"
"She does now!"
"Just asking because I'm wondering where my boyfriend will end up."
"Jimmy. You never told me! After all these years."
"Being with you in the same room, Howard, it never came up."
Sounds of canned drums and a high-hat.
"So, Corey? Given that, whose hand are you going to hold in recovery?"
Corey relaxed and grinned and leaned in toward his mic.
Hickory smoke from the Caribbean Beach Barbecue made his eyes sting as if someone had flipped white sand into them. Corey blinked and stumbled toward the bright blue water of the Caribbean Sea.
"Watch where you're going, Dude!" said a tanned woman whose lounge chair he'd bumped. She held a dripping drink at arm's length and looked down at her chest for spillage.
Corey looked as well. "I'm sorry," he said. "Can I get you a replacement?" He felt flush from the recent windfall of cash and the way she looked up at him and smiled. He wouldn't try to impress her with his story. He felt confident, smug holding the information back. He had secured his place in the spotlight. Better not to crow about it. Play it cool, he thought, as she studied his face from her chaise, looking him up and down.
"Penny," she said. "And it was a pina colada, but only if you'll join me. I hate drinking alone." She took a sip of her remaining drink.
He returned with a waiter and a chaise lounge of his own. They talked of island life, the local nightlife, and what celebrities had been spotted leaving the island's plastic surgery clinic that week.
"It's called medical tourism," Penny said, "and the Caymans are the epicenter. There's no place cheaper or with more beautiful recovery rooms. The surgeons are the best in the world in every category. Most of them are telemed robotic procedures, but some doctors fly in for the more delicate ones. Like my dad."
"Yes, that's why I'm here. Along for the ride, you might say. He's a neurosurgeon that specializes in spinal cord reconstruction. He's part of a team doing a head swap for two flash-famous radio personalities. Something about a bet or dare."
"Small world," Corey said, glancing up. "It's more of a shaming, actually."
She looked at him granny-style over the rims of her dark glasses. "No kidding? And you know this… how?"
The story gushed out of him. He stopped short of the money he'd made so far, and the deal he expected to cut with agents for a book. It felt like a great release, almost like an orgasm. He liked her and was working too hard, he thought, but he couldn't help himself, and she seemed impressed.
Now that he'd mentioned it, she said she remembered one of the viral stories. The one about upping the goal amount and the chatter it caused. Corey caught her eye again. He didn't have a medical degree or prestige like her dad, but a little fame, a little fortune could be its own seduction.
Two drinks later, she handed him suntan lotion, laid her chaise flat, and rolled onto her stomach. While he applied the cream, she asked him.
"So, Corey," she said. "Do you have dinner plans, or do you have to watch your friends? They're going to be in surgery for quite a while."
"No, to both," he said. Her skin was so smooth. The strong scent of coconut lotion rose up from her warm body, making him aware of his own. "I… I actually don't know why I'm here. Jimmy and Howard insisted on their own camera and media crew. They have control of the website and video blogs now. I'm here as an observer at this point, but I can watch the feeds as well as anyone else."
She pressed up on her elbows. "We have a private little beach house for a month," she said. "It's not far."
Her name was Penny Welton. The little beach house was a modern mansion on a private stretch of pristine white sand. Lush plantings and towering King Palm trees separated them from the world. They made love in the afternoon shadows by the pool to the sounds of surf and the brushing of palm fronds. She ordered in for dinner, amberjack tuna and mango salsa tacos from Gilligan's. He selected a bottle of white wine from her well-stocked cooler. A Viognier, because it sounded rich and he'd heard the name before. There were several bottles of it.
Her corner room on the second floor had a faux balcony and open French doors. They could lay in bed and watch the cresting waves roll in under the spotlight of an almost full moon.
He could get used to this.
Making coffee and wearing only his boxers in the open kitchen the next morning, he met Dr. Welton coming in from the long night of surgery.
"How did it go? Are they okay?"
"Who are you?" Dr. Welton demanded.
"Oh, sorry. Corey O'Malley. I'm a friend of Jimmy and Howard."
"And now my daughter, apparently." The doctor looked angry. "Pen?" He yelled. "Penny?" He glared while Corey hunted for a place to stash the empty wine bottles he'd pulled from the counter.
Penny appeared wearing Corey's shirt and her panties. "You're home," she said.
"You're tired," she said.
"Yes," he said. "Call Alejandro and have him take this… this kid away."
"But this is Corey. He's a friend of — "
"I know who he is. He didn't bother being at the surgical suite or checking in. Now I know why," the doctor said.
"Are they okay?" Corey asked.
"They'll make it, but you won't." Dr. Welton took a step toward him. Corey stepped behind the kitchen island. "I'm calling the medical center. If I see you put one foot in there while I'm in charge, I'll have you arrested and drowned like the rat you are. Get the hell out of my house!" He stepped up to the counter and slammed his two fists down. "Leave! Now!"
Corey fled, followed by Penny and the bellowing of Dr. Welton.
Outside on the sand-colored paver driveway, she stopped him, stood on her tiptoes, and they kissed. "Stay here," she said. "I'll throw your wallet and shoes down in a minute."
"Are you going to be all right?"
"Yeah. This has happened before. He'll get some sleep and calm down," she said and sighed. "I'm afraid he's right about the clinic, though. I'm sure he's on the phone right now banishing you. You can try to get in, but for the next month or so, Dad is the authority. You should go back to California."
"What about you? I could stay a few days if you wanted."
"He'll have me on a plane out by dinner." She kissed him again. "It's been fun."
She turned and went inside. As she closed the door he heard her say, "Nice." Corey imagined the conversation. Her storming upstairs. The doctor fixing a drink.
A moment later, the window upstairs opened. Then his shorts, shoes, keys, and wallet rained down on him. He watched her peel off his shirt, button by button. Then she wadded it around his cell phone and tossed the bundle down. She lingered there, then blew him a kiss. He imagined she looked sad. He hoped she was sad.
Walking back to the main road, he called a ride service. Then story after story on their website about the successful operation hit his feed. Their twitter, their everything was too much. The guys were right to hire these media experts. His feed flooded with posts, clips, videos, graphics. They didn't need him here at all. His contribution to the media coverage would be pointless. He could interface with the crew from home.
Corey looked again at the feeds. Watched the mosaic of photos of the Sprat Brothers on the way to the hospital before the operation. The videos he'd made of the recovery room from brochures played over and over. Info pieces on the body scaffolding that kept them immobilized while their nerve endings grew back together. The electro-virtual stimulation rigging.
At least something was going right. That children's rhyme started up in his head. Corey wondered if it had been their inspiration for starting the show? He'd have to ask over video chat because they wouldn't let him in there, not now anyway, so he might as well go home. He'd come back after the VR physical therapy and nerve pairing was complete. He would be present for the first raised hand or step. Whatever. Some sort of photo op to keep him in play.
The pounding on his apartment door woke him from a dead sleep. Corey pulled on a pair of sweatpants (he'd felt cold ever since he got back from the Caymans) and checked his security cam app. Two cops stood in the hallway, one pounding on the door.
"Can I help you?" Corey asked, opening the door.
"You're under arrest for fraud and evasion. You have been deemed a flight risk and will be taken into custody. You have the right to…."
The shock of it blurred all the details. At least they let him put on a shirt and grab his wallet and keys. They cuffed him and dragged him down to the squad car where the gull-wing doors rotated up and out of the way. Impossible to hit his head. The cops locked him to a restraining bar inside. Then the autocar windows blacked-out and it and Corey headed downtown to the station. Being in an unmanned police car denied him the ability to ask questions. At least he could make his phone call on the way.
Should it be Donny M or Uncle Marky? Donny had connections, while Uncle Mark was a trial lawyer. The cops said he'd been arrested on fraud charges. That meant shady money deals and that was more in Donny's area. But Uncle Mark would be upset, and Corey was going to need his uncle's legal and financial help.
Donny M picked up on the third ring.
"I'm in trouble," Corey said.
"So, I've heard. It seems Slicker and Klinghoffer aren't in Grand Cayman recovering. Facial recognition put them in Switzerland this morning. They were boarding a train."
"That's privileged information and I'm not privileged at the moment."
"Could you call my uncle Mark and work with him to get me out of here."
"Hold on, a sec. He's on the other line."
"Laddy, what have you done this time? This is serious."
"I didn't do anything," Corey said. "This is real. You saw the photos, the videos of them in the body scaffolds with all the wires. Jimmy's head on Howard's body, and the opposite."
Donny M interjected, "AI doctored videos. Every one. You've heard of that right? Also, the island medical center complained they hadn't received any funds. They'd postponed the whole thing. That's what tipped everyone off. The biggest, most dramatic fundraiser in history and it turns out to be a scam. They are coming for you, my boy."
"But I met the surgeon! I slept with his daughter!"
"Are you sure about that, Corey Boy?"
"Their last name is Welton," Corey said, in protest. "I don't know his name, but hers is Penny."
"My guess? They were actors, starving artists themselves, I doubt they got union rates." Donny M said. "It's too bad the Radio Heads didn't put your money in a Cayman Islands bank account like theirs. All your assets have been frozen, and FundThis wants it all back, and not just your measly portion."
Corey sat silent while the metal cuffs clanged against the chrome restraint.
"I hate to say this, Sweetheart," Donny M said quietly, "but your name is shit right now. To scrape all the crap off your hide is going to take a bunch of lawyers a long, long time. You're going to have one hell of a bill. And it gets even worse if they don't prove you are innocent of all knowledge and did all this in good faith. They may try to say you are taking the fall for a later reward, especially if the Sprat Brothers aren't caught. Impossible to prove, but it will tarnish any jury trial and force you into a bad plea bargain."
"What am I going to do?"
"Well," Donny M. said. "You're lucky this made the media hype that it did. There's probably a two-book deal in your future. The lawyers for the opposition will argue that you may have set this up with them, knowing that you'd profit from it."
"All I wanted to do was make a name for myself."
Uncle Mark said, "You've accomplished that quite nicely, Laddie. Are you happy now? Your grandfather is rolling over in his grave with shame."
"There is something that could cut your losses. Change the narrative," Donny M said amid the sounds of keyboard clicks.
Corey flew into the restraint as the autocar slammed to a halt. The door scissored partly open next to him. Bright sunlight knifed into the dim interior. The door scissored shut. The car jolted forward, and then the whole thing started again. Door opened. Door shut. Slam. Door open. Taunting him.
Close enough to slip his leg outside.
It would only hurt for a little while, Corey thought.