The Liberace Ensemble
by Frederick Highland
“This one, set K-350.” She swung the catalog around and jabbed at the photo of the gilded living room with rhinestone-studded grand piano. She wore expensive gloves, grey satin, with all the fingers filled. Perhaps she was concealing the three little claws in her palm. Then again, the New Comer females were rumored to be splurging on cosmetic surgery, impatient at having to wait for more organic changes to their appearance.
“That’s it. The Liberace Ensemble. Lib-er-AH-che. You have to hit that AH part. AH. Correctomundo?”
“I believe so, yes.” I put on my glasses. “Let’s see... You ordered the Mansion Set Deluxe, master bedroom with Sistine Chapel ceiling murals and Liberace smiling amid cherubs au-dessus the bathtub, respectively, foyer adorned with slot machines, the Moroccan room including stuffed peacock. As for the pool: the large signature L, piano key tiles, tented gazebo. The Hall of Mirrors, lion-claw rococo furniture, more mirrors—”
She waved a gloved hand irritably. “We have all that.”
“Something hasn’t gone amiss, I hope?”
“Apart from the rude thugs who delivered the stuff. A David is missing. They probably hefted it.”
“We’ll look into this rude hefting, I can assure you.” I punched the code into my screen. “Mrs. Vandenkamp. Etruria Lane, Hampstead Estates.”
“Obutsu-Vandenkamp. I’m warm with Mrs. O-V. I mean cool. I’m cool with that.”
“According to the manifest” — I clicked through several screens and pointed to the screen on the wall — “it seems there were five replicas of Michelangelo’s David sculpture. Assorted sizes.”
“The one by the pool, I mean. It’s a fake. It’s not David. It’s an ugly Greasyo-Romano piece, however you call it, a leering male, with drapery. David didn’t have drapery. He is... ah... au naturel, n’est-ce pas vraiment — esque?”
“Oui, au naturel-esque, madame,” I replied, piling ham on ham.
“My husband is very upset. If it’s not authentic, I hear about it. This is ungroovy, do you think?”
“Ungroovy. Precisely.” I could see she needed reassurance about the argot. “I am grieved to learn this.” I made a pained wince. “Of course, if the piece is inauthentic, we will replace it.”
Her glare was a trifle imperious, although it was hard to tell after a New Comer has had liposuction. The procedure mottles the sheen of their skin and vectors the skin below the eyes, resulting in bluish pouches and making the slitted eyes a bit cockeyed. I could see how Mrs. O-V compensated with makeup, heavy on the puce eye shadow.
“If implies uncertainty.” She leaned forward, lips pursed with displeasure. She was also a bit heavy on the fragrance, a version of Arpège, strongly hinting of moldy melon, probably cooked up in a NC knock-off factory. “Do you think I’m flipping you off, Mrs. Jones?”
That tone. That language. I could sense something ominous and impending in this interview.
I leaned back in my chair and considered a peevish Mrs. Shereen Obutsu-Vandenkamp carefully. The NC’s have become more obstinate over the years, more arrogant and demanding. It was as if they had suddenly realized that they had invaded and won. Ergo, the Earthlings had been invaded and lost.
It was if they had finally figured out the meaning of “loser.”
“Flipping you off? Certainly not, Madame. I can only applaud and admire your refined taste. Elegance, really.”
Mrs. O-V lifted the corners of her rosebud-tinted mouth in a diffident attempt at a ’Ling smile. “Ah well, elegance. We New Comers — NC’s as you call us — are known for that trait throughout our region of the galaxy.” She leaned over to me confidentially, a whiff of sen-sen. “We have only been too glad to pass that love of elegance to you Earthlings, our dear ’Lings. I mean we’ve been... coseptic... for generations now, isn’t it?”
“Copasetic since the invasion, Mrs. O-V.”
“We prefer to call it the Arrival. Recall that one of the first things we did was issue the Edict of Universal Peace and Friendship.”
“After the Culling, I remember my dad telling me.”
Mrs. O-V manipulated her jaw to simulate a show of distaste. “How could we know, Mrs. Jones, that you dear ’Lings would be so overcome by our pheromones?”
“Microbes, we call them, Mrs. O-V. Alien microbes. Several billion of our ancestors were wiped out by them.”
“And we NC’s jumped in to save the day, didn’t we? If it weren’t for our atmospherizers, you would have all kicked buckets. Not only did we stabilize the pheromones but cleaned up the environment your race had practically trashed.”
“A gesture of goodwill for which we remain grateful.”
A condescending smile played about the corners of Mrs. O-V’s thin lips. “Forever grateful, I would think. I mean, consider the outcome.”
Mrs. O-V did have a point, despite the insinuation.
After the Culling, we who survived, thrived. Our leaders persuaded the NC’s to agree to an economic pact. It worked wonderfully. The NC’s are an acquisitive race, and we ’Lings are more than happy to indulge them.
The outcome was a bonanza for us all. Our own small landscaping and interior domicile makeover business, Montparnasse Enterprises, has gained recognition from the NC Economic Board, no small achievement.
With a fingertip on our catalogue, I drew Mrs. O-V’s attention back to the K-350 Ensemble.
The NC’s like things shiny. If it doesn’t glitter, it’s dross. The upholstery has to be plump, stuffed like pullets. I was not surprised that the O-V’s had ordered the K-350. Liberace is all the rage. Still, the orders for the Ensemble have been few. It’s expensive. Very. Not that the NC’s lack the funds. Money to burn. Acquisitive as I say, but budget conscious. Cheap, actually.
Mrs. O-V became effusive, as an NC might interpret the emotion. “My husband says that Liberace represents everything that marks the triumph of mid-20th century American culture, its op-u-lence, its con-fi-dence, its wonderful ex-cess. Then there’s the Moon thing. True, the Russkis did Sputnik, but the Americans — and I mean we Americans — we had Apollo 11! Armstrong, Buzzy Whathisname and that Collins boy strolling about the Lunar surface playing golf. Breathtaking!”
“If I might make a wee correction. I believe it was just Armstrong who played golf on the moon.”
“Didn’t I say that?” She tugged at a glove. “No matter. Compare that heroism to those Slobovians trudging about in the snow outside the Kremlin in ill-fitting coats with ratty fur collars and deplorable boots. How frumpish, how dour, how dull. How did they get anything into space in the first place? It’s clear they could never win.” Mrs. O-V pulled a glittering faux Cartier cigarette case from her purse, lifted out a Vanity Fair pastel pink ciggy and lit it with a retro Playgirl lighter, possibly a knock-off too. She inhaled with a brisk intake and just as quickly blew a puff of patchouli-scented smoke above my head. “And they won’t.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. We ’Lings know how vindictive and spiteful the NC’s can be. And unpredictable.
She went on with a fitful toss of her blonde disco diva wig. “They are such vile people, ugly, violent, tacky to the max. Ever been in the room with one? The smell!” Lifting her gaze, she glared at me archly, perhaps waiting for me to challenge the statement. “Russkis!”
How the New Comers became obsessed with the Cold War Era, circa 1950-1990, is a puzzle. My father was a psychohistorian of the period. He used to hold forth at the dinner table about the differing hypotheses offered by his colleagues but admitted that the truth was probably close to the legend.
Legend had it that the leader of the first expedition adopted the name Tarik Mulvaney as a way to sound more human even if he didn’t.
He didn’t look human either. None of them do.
Humanoid, I’d say, as the NC’s have appendages that correspond to our heads, arms, and legs. Many of them evolved over the last two centuries to look more like us, for they have a native mimicking ability that allows them to change resemblances over time. Their skin, though, remains a shiny metallic film to block out the deadly rays of our sun. Their eyes are heavily lidded so that they peer out through slits that resemble snow blinders. All of them have taken to wearing clothes to match the era, so much so they resemble walking vintage boutiques.
Intrigued by the Cold War, its style and lingo and music, its personalities and fads and entertainers, Chairman Mulvaney endorsed the era as part of his New Cultural Revolution. The NC’s always play follow the leader; it’s foolhardy not to. They leapt into the charade and became enthusiastic Cold Warriors. They even set up rival groups, like football teams, one group occupying what had once been the USA and the other occupying the former USSR.
Mrs. O-V poised her Vanity Fair between thumb and forefinger. “You have been admiring my gold coin necklace.”
“And the pink pantsuit with the white fox, rhinestone-studded cuffs.”
She lifted one end of her tie-dyed scarf and waved it at me like a bunny ear. “Inspired by an outfit Pam Grier wore in Foxy Brown. You remember that classic don’t you?”
“Foxy Brown. Very foxy.”
“Groovy, very groovy. You’re quite a card, Mrs. O-V.”
She raised a tattooed eyebrow. “Are you trying to dis me, Mrs. Jones?” She blinked and I could see she was confused. The NC’s become defensive when they sense that they have missed the point. “I do play Mille-bornes, though. Tuesdays, with the girls.”
“I mean someone who is quite... humorous.”
“That’s me to a Mr. T. My husband insists on it. Now about that missing David.”
“The David by the pool.”
“The imposter, you mean,” she said irritably. “I must have everything in place by tomorrow afternoon. I want David by the pool in all his naked glory. The gold baby grand is in place. Thaddeus Scorpio will impersonate Mr. Entertainment himself. Lib-er-AH-che in a gold lamee tuxedo! Can you imagine? So trippy! So psychometric!”
“Tomorrow night? I’m afraid we couldn’t deliver the statue to you until Wednesday at the earliest.”
“I’m afraid that won’t do, Mrs. Jones.” Mrs. O-V crushed her cigarette in the ashtray. “The catering has been all arranged, the invitations sent out. This is the event of the year, my event of the year, and everything must be ready.”
I flipped through a couple of screens and made a note. “I can put in a rush order but—”
“No buts about it, Mrs. Jones. Delivery of David by tomorrow or once the word gets out...”
I was tempted to match Mrs. O-V’s innuendo with my own. NC threats, though, are not idle. I stood up and walked over to the glass door that opened to the verandah. The magnolias were in bloom. Willows, my husband’s favorite, swayed gracefully in the wind surrounded by dahlias and hollyhocks and pink snapdragons. The earth had recovered remarkably from the near global catastrophe that preceded the Culling. I decided to jangle Mrs. O-V’s nerves and see what would erupt. “There have been rumors.”
“Rumors?” An abrupt catch in her voice. “What rumors?”
“Well, you know how people talk.”
“You’re right. They do.” She fumbled for another Vanity Fair. “My husband suspected as much.”
“About the event.”
“Of course about the event. Why else do you think I’m here?” She waved her lighter around like an incendiary device before lighting up. “I told you they were a wretched race of people. Commies. Extinction is too good for ’em. Better dead than Red. Good thing we beat them to it.”
“How is that exactly, Mrs. O-V?”
“Not ‘that’, it.”Mrs. O-V inhaled deeply then recovered her composure. She even grinned with what I interpreted as a mischievous air. “Of course we have it.”
I returned to my desk, wondering if Mrs. O-V had gotten her implication straight. “If your team has it, then isn’t it possible they—”
“They do. They’ve built one too. Several. My husband, Enrique — he heads up our Minuteman Launch Team — was furious when he learned about it. ‘Some damned spy passed on our tech. We have no choice, Shereen!’”
I found the exultant look in her eye unsettling. “This is all a game, isn’t it?”
“Are you still a virgin, Mrs. Jones? Why, it’s simple, we’re going to unload on them before they unload on us. It’s going to be a thrilla! The Thrilla from Manila. Like the song by Mikhail Jackson. You’ve heard of him?”
“Vaguely...” My mind was racing to process what Mrs. O-V had just revealed. All I could see at the end of that process was stark terror and catastrophe.
“Pre-emptive, my husband calls it. A Pre-emptive strike. We’re going to blow them to...” — she looked at me blankly then pounced on the word — “smithereens!” She opened her arms expansively. “Boom!”
“M.A.D!” I blurted out. “You heard about that, didn’t you? Neither side could possibly use those terrible weapons.”
“Of course I’m mad about it! We’re all upset and, believe you me, that’s a big bummer for them,” Mrs. O-V said with a surly twist of her lips. “Their destruction is assured. Count down on it! Bye-bye, Team USSR! My husband is quite confident on that point. He’ll take care of the Boom and me, the Event. Then we’ll all hang loose and party down.” She clapped her gloves delightedly. “Freaky.” She turned peevish again. “You see why I must have my David.”
“By the pool.”
“Au naturel.” She leaned over with a conspiratorial lift of her eyebrows. “To start things off, Thaddeus will be playing a Lib-er-AH-che medley. I was thinking of three of his favorites: ‘We’ll Meet Again’, ‘Chopsticks’, and ‘Ochi Chornia’. That’s Russki for ‘Dark Eyes’. Although maybe we should call it black eyes.”
She paused for a second to see if her pathetic attempt at a joke had hit home. “Get it?” she giggled. “They are going to get the black eyes.”
My eyes were somewhere else though. My eyes were roving somewhere on the other side of the world, picturing another NC hostess planning a little event of her own in her remodeled dacha, filled with stuffed furniture from the black market, wrangling over a missing statue of Lenin, planning a medley of Kirkorov’s greatest hits, and waiting confidently for the comeuppance and total annihilation of the smug and arrogant Team USA.
A dreadfully synthesized Led Zeppelin riff had Mrs. O-V scrambling in her purse. She pulled out a vintage Nokia 1011, raised her hand to command my silence, and took the call. Lifting her eyebrows, she sucked in her cheeks, a clear sign with the NC’s that something was very wrong.
“What do you mean, honey bunchers, the Boom is called off? Derek is getting cold feet? There’s panic in Command and Control? But you’re in charge, aren’t you? Aren’t you the one in charge?” She tried to control her tone but a shriek escaped nonetheless. “I don’t care about your little snafus. I’m having my party and that’s it. Did you hear me, I’m having my party!”
She signed off, tossed the cell back in her purse. “Complete dork,” she mumbled. “To think, I could have married Admiral Firdusi-McCabe...” She looked up and, managing a sharp little smile, waved her hand as if to banish any lingering bad vibes.
“You’ll still be wanting your David, Mrs. O-V?” I asked, wondering if the lack of the Boom would cancel the Event. I suspected that if Team USA suffered from cold feet, so would Team USSR. Unpredictable and mercurial, the NC’s, but they always seem to shy away from direct conflict.
Rising in a slither of Arpège, she leaned nonchalantly in the doorway, an imitation Louis Vuitton Alma dangling from her arm. “If you can make that happen. Mrs. Jones, I would be soooo grateful. Mr. Entertainment never allowed a little setback to stop the show. Ditto à moi. Just send the bill to my hubby. Oh, and charge him triple but, when he pays — and pay he will — direct the overcharge to my personal account with ten percent à vous. Are we cool with that?”
My eyes fell to the screen as I calculated the hefty sum outstanding on Mrs. O-V’s bill. “Of course, madame. Totally cool.”
Copyright © 2019 by Frederick Highland