by David Castlewitz
Dinner with the star of Madam Murder didn’t meet Tony Pink’s expectations. When he complained to the director, he got back a long stare followed by a mild chuckle.
“She’s not real, you know. She’s a cartoon.”
The cast sitting at the dining room table traded looks of amusement.
Tony glanced sideways at the small woman seated to his left. As a fan of Madam Murder, he’d been attracted to the TV series by the beautiful heroine, Andrea Florez, who combined wit, a hard right hook, and commonsense to solve murder mysteries that sometimes spanned entire six-episode seasons.
“I’m the stand-in,” the woman whispered. Tony glanced at her unusual attire, a dark blue bodysuit with metallic buttons at her joints, the center of her forehead, both chubby cheeks, and the nape of her neck. He considered her a poor substitute for Andrea. This dinner scene, in which he needed to “pretend-speak” to the heroine, was not the prize he expected when he entered the sweepstakes. As the contest winner, he’d been guaranteed to be close to the star, featured on screen for at least five full seconds. With Andrea. Not this stand-in.
Then he saw the opening sequence of that week’s show. In the viewing room where the cast and crew gathered, he marveled at the finished product. The actress in the bodysuit disappeared, replaced by the beautiful detective. Her long blond tresses caressed her bare shoulders, her glistening black dress showed off the contours of her upper body, and Tony forget how disappointed he’d been during the shoot.
“Whatcha think?” the director whispered from his seat behind Tony, who occupied one of the soft contoured front-row chairs.
“You shot the opening last,” Tony said.
“That’s how we do it,” the director said.
Tony watched the half-hour episode. The dinner scene set the stage, the short clip culminating in the discovery of a body at one end of the table, Andrea jumping into action as usual, her pet monkey making gibberish noises from its perch in a corner of the ceiling, and her personal assistant, Lord Griffin, blocking the exits so everyone remained in the room while Andrea solved the whodunnit.
At the end of the show, after the applause and mutual-congratulations, Tony mingled with the cast and crew and tried to enjoy the after-party. Soon, he drifted to a corner and stood alone, all the while lamenting anew the fact that the real Andrea Florez, the master detective they called “Madam Murder,” appeared only in the guise of the actress who was her stand-in, a small woman whose name Tony never knew.
“And for our guest of honor,” the director announced after a string of acknowledgements for specific contributions to another successful taping, “a parting gift.”
Tony felt himself pushed out of his corner, the bubbly Champaign sloshing over the rim of the plastic goblet in his hand. He felt compelled to keep stepping forward until he reached the director, whose liquor-laden breath washed over him.
He smiled when presented with an Andrea Florez action figure. It came with a gaggle of accessories, ranging from crimson cape-with-hood, black-handled rawhide whip, snub-nosed revolver and pearl-studded holster, and thin steel leash for walking with her pet monkey.
At home that night, Tony put the action figure next to his computer keyboard and over the next few days he played with the doll-Andrea, dressing it in a black jumpsuit and red cape, sometimes adding her whip, always with that pistol in its holster belted to her narrow waist. Once, he removed the doll’s calf-high white boots, but he didn’t like the look of the plastic feet. They lacked distinctive toes. Another time, he cut out a picture of Andrea’s monkey from a scene he’d captured while watching the show on his computer and then printed it in black-and-white. Some molding clay, a squirt of glue and a helping of ingenuity resulted in doll-Andrea walking with her monkey, steel leash in hand.
Late one night, the memory of his short scene with Andrea Florez still fresh in his mind, and while absorbed in a mystery adventure game featuring the famed detective, Tony caught a flicker of movement from the corner of one eye.
He blinked. Not his mother, he realized, and sniffed back tears. She’d died two years earlier, before Andrea came into his life. At the age of 36, Tony found himself to be an orphan. His father ran off when he was a toddler, so he never counted. Only Mom. She counted. She mattered. Even when Tony thought of her as merely a distant presence prowling the first floor rooms of the house, the floorboards creaking to mark her progress, Mom mattered. While Tony sat in his basement room, alone with his passions, his games, his fantasies, and, most recently, his love for Andrea, Mom and the memory of Mom, mattered.
Again, something stirred and drew his attention. A subtle movement, slow to the point of being unreal. Doll-Andrea stirred, her head twisting, her arms flexing, which caused the steel leash to pull on the monkey’s neck.
“Is that supposed to be me?” doll-Andrea asked, and pointed at the computer’s screen.
Tony jerked the computer mouse across the desktop, waking up the still image of Andrea about to fight a horde of rock people.
“It’s an adventure game,” Tony said. He displayed his prowess by pressing a mouse button and jerking the device back and forth near the keyboard, causing the on-screen Andrea to fire several rounds of explosive bullets that shattered her would-be attackers.
Game-Andrea retrieved a blue goblet from a recess in a flat stone stuck in the ground. It was the key she’d need to unlock a door leading to the next mystery.
The action figure snorted. “I solve crimes. I don’t fight like that.”
“It’s just a game,” Tony said.
“Not a very realistic one.”
Doll-Andrea looked miffed. Much like Mom, Tony thought, when he lost a job or failed a course or burned something in the oven. Miffed. Disappointed. Angry to the point that he knew he’d lost her support and now must win it back. He wanted to bask in Mom’s approval, as he had when he was younger and could do no wrong.
“I’ve got other games,” he said. He exited the one he’d been playing, quickly scanned the desktop icons of his other programs and found one he thought would make doll-Andrea happy.
The game’s title blazed across the screen. Doll-Andrea folded her arms across her chest. The monkey at her side fell over, the end of the steel leash half-severing its neck.
Murder on the Grand Express burst into view, the blood red title dissolving to depict a mountainous backdrop with a steam-powered locomotive climbing a steep incline in the distance. When the viewpoint changed, a dining car with a C-shaped bar and brass foot rail filled the screen.
“Why’re all the people dressed like that?” doll-Andrea asked.
Tony studied the scene for a moment before he realized what the doll meant. “It’s set in the 1880s,” he said. “Period piece.”
“What did I do, time travel to get there?”
Tony couldn’t answer her. He’d never heard of time travel in any of the games, comic book stories, novelizations or TV episodes that featured Andrea Florez. An intrepid crime solver, a tough lady who suffered no slight without hitting back, who took on organized crime, psychotic killers, terrorists, and others intent on mayhem, Andrea Florez waltzed through Tony’s brain with a precision he’d never mustered for himself.
Like Mom. Always there. Always right. Critical of him. Never satisfied with anything he said, or did, or thought. His fantasies weren’t to her liking.
“Not very realistic then,” he muttered.
“Speak up,” doll-Andrea demanded.
He spoke again, louder, repeating what he’d mumbled.
“When you have something to say to me, say it loud enough that I hear you.”
Tony nodded. He vaguely remembered Mom telling him something similar in the past. Or did she? For an instant, he didn’t know who spoke to him. Mom from memory? The Andrea action figure on the desk?
“Do you have anything that’s like what I really am?” Andrea said. “Game? Book?”
“Just the TV show,” Tony said.
“And the rest is fake?”
“What did I tell you? Speak up.”
“It’s not real. It’s not you. It’s – ” He stopped. “They’re just games. Just stories.” He waved his hand at the computer screen, where that version of Andrea Florez paced back and forth in the dining car barreling along the tracks through a mountain range. He motioned to the stack of comics on the floor. He pointed at the slim paperback books on a nearby bookshelf bolted to the basement’s concrete wall.
“Know what?” doll-Andea said. “Even the TV show isn’t more than a cartoon version of who and what I really am. Remember the actress in the jumpsuit?”
Tony nodded, recalling the small woman who’d been the stand-in for the computer-generated Andrea Florez. The cartoon.
Game-Andrea, dressed in a long green velvet dress with a lacey top, waited for Tony to make a decision about what she should do next. He had only to point the hand-cursor, click the mouse button, select an object on the floor, or a person seated at a table, or someone standing at the bar, or the other end of the car to move the game forward.
He pressed the keyboard’s escape key and the scene dissolved, the program closed. Eyes averted from doll-Andrea’s critical gaze, he adjusted the make-believe monkey’s neck, re-positioned the paper replica so it adhered once more to the clay, and set it upright, again joined to Andrea Florez by that steel leash.
Doll-Andrea neither moved nor smiled.
“Okay?” Tony said. Did anyone hear him? He looked around his basement refuge, the place where he’d taken residence years ago, when Mom prowled the house, long before she’d died and became a memory, became a ghost still nudging him to make something of his life.
Which he could, she often exhorted. He just needed to start.
Doll-Andrea stared at him.
“Make a choice, Tony.”
It wasn’t Andrea’s voice. Nor did his mother speak from memory. He’d spoken out loud, and what he heard sounded like an honor-bound oath, the kind of thing Andrea would say in her half-hour TV show. The villains she captured always had a choice and she always let them know it, let them understand how they’d failed themselves.
He couldn’t disappoint her. Disappointing Andrea would be worse than anything. Maybe Mom wouldn’t understand, and maybe the director of the show might be puzzled, and the wrinkly faced stand-in at the dining room table might be amazed to hear it, but Andrea was important to him. She was more than a cartoon.