To Lie and Dive in Highland Park

A good name is a terrible thing to waste.

Part I: Old Friends, New Names

Like an idiot, Shakespeare once asked, “What’s in a name?” That’s an easy question when you don’t know anyone with rap sheet. Or at least, back then, those who had a history with holes in it died soon enough. Such was the law of the land ruled by a furious woman dressed like a clown in a breathtaking corset, where the death penalty wasn’t exactly up for debate.

Meanwhile, in modern-day California, all anyone talks about is the weather, the disasters, and dying as soon as possible. Two out of three ain’t bad, seeing as how we’ve been guilted into life sentences in the Golden State, a penitentiary with one debatable wall and nearly 40 million inmates.

Seven of those loons wound up at a house on a hill where six of them weren’t liars. Those aren’t exactly good odds, but in Highland Park, that’s the best you can get. If you hope for more, they stick a greedy label on you and never ask for help with the poor.

These poor souls were standing around a dining room table that stood beneath a bad moon. There were the hosts, the Ballingers, a scientist and a scribe, married and mistrustful; Kim wore the lab coat, Matt wore the blazer. There was the old friends, a redheaded New Yorker named Kristen and a raven-haired Angeleno named Celeste, both socialites of the switchblade variety. Then there were the ruffians, three men with pinball eyes — Mr. Park, a local block-runner; Kilroy, a professional struggler; and Keith, a former paratrooper with a bad knee and a worst fist. The two barflies worked for the man who could afford to not have a first name, he who spoke first.

“So, this is…a party?” asked Mr. Park, unfolding his hands and revealing nothing, ever.

“If it is, it’s a lousy one,” barked Keith, rounding his sizable right over a cane topped with a severed horse head, adorned in gold, brilliant beneath the low light swinging in every Highland home.

“You didn’t have to come,” Kim informed her — for lack of a better word or social standing — guests.

“Tell me that two weeks ago when I got the invite,” Kilroy said with a roll of his eyes and tongue.

“Anything to dim the bright white of your calendar, I suppose,” Celeste called out.

“Hey, I go out,” shot Kilroy.

“Yeah, and I bet they cost you a fortune,” returned Kristen.

“Oh, har har. My insides, they’re splitting,” Kilroy muttered.

“Just like my headache,” said Matt. “So if everyone’s done with this extraordinarily small talk, there’s the big picture to discuss.”

Chills danced over the spine of the room, a table with eight RSVPs for seven seats.

“One of you has more names than you know what to do with,” Matt continued, waving his hand over the immaculately arranged pieces of paper.

“And this is a problem?” was the lingering question from Mr. Park.

“What, are you smuggling names now too?” asked Kristen.

“Ask me that again and you’ll be smuggled the opposite direction in a barrel,” Mr. Park answered. “At least then I’d know where the smell came from.”

Kristen thinned her eyes. So did Celeste, for solidarity.

“You can have my name,” said Kilroy. “It’s mud anyway.”

“Not really,” cracked Keith. “You can at least build something with mud.”

“Et tu, ya brute?” Kilroy asked with a cranked neck.

“I’ll ask my question once more and not again,” spoke Mr. Park. “This is a problem?”

“I’m actually, quite regrettably, with him,” said Celeste. “How is this a problem?”

“We want the exact numbers we’re told we’re getting,” answered Matt. “We received six affirmatives for only five invites.”

“Here, we included two additional pieces for Matt and myself,” clarified Kim, nodding toward the table, “mostly to not throw off Kilroy.”

“I only seem to be counting one on my fingers,” Kilroy drawled, his middle digit tall like a church spire.

The seven stared at the table’s eight replies. Keith was the first to look up.

“So one of us is a liar, huh?”

Part II: Best Friends Make the Worst Problems

“See, I don’t like the word…liar,” said Ballinger, the salty word grazing his lips like a bullet.

“And I didn’t invent English,” replied Keith.

“It’s a childish term,” said Matt. “I prefer fabulist.”

“All words are ‘made up’ anyway,” cooed Kilroy, in some apparent delusion of extra credit.

“Wow, thanks for blowing our minds,” scoffed Kim. “You must be the popular freshman.”

“I see the problem,” said Mr. Park.

“Every morning probably,” snarked Kristen.

“Problems don’t linger with me,” promised Mr. Park, “in case you want me as landlord of your underground studio.”

“If I wanted a view of your dirt, I’d visit a brothel,” returned Kristen.

“Do so,” said Mr. Park, “and then count your blessings on what remains of their fingers.”

Breaths escaped from everyone like wild dogs.

“The hand jobs are terrible there, especially at the uptown joint,” added Kilroy.

Eyes rolled like bowling balls in a tilt, and the Ballingers sighed so loudly their neighbors could’ve mistaken the collective exhaust for a ghost parade in the halls.

“With two replies, you get two votes,” said Kim, restarting the engine of conversation.

“So someone can’t count,” said Celeste.

A few eyes leaned on Kilroy, who actually seemed to be counting in his head.

“It’s not a miscount,” Kim clarified.

“It’s leverage,” Matt added.

“What we eat, what we do, where we go — it’s decided by The Group,” plotted Keith.

“So someone’s getting their way,” accused Celeste, her eyes slinging from right to left like a bow thunk. “Every time.”

“Every time,” said Matt.

“Ev-er-y-time,” added Kim.

“Can’t we just review everything we’ve eaten, done, and gone to?” asked Kilroy, his brain firing at full speed to make last.

“Sure, did you have that handy?” called Kristen

“Sounds like he’s had plenty,” muttered Celeste.

The glamorous duo locked eyes and choired a brash “ugh” in unison.

“We don’t keep records, because we don’t want a trail,” Mr. Park said, more fact than observation.

“This is true,” announced Matt. “But this time we had, let’s say, a courier.”

“I believe it’s pronounced ‘cour-y-eh’,” aired Kilroy.

“And everyone else believes it isn’t,” scolded Kim.

“We’ve always kept input anonymous, so it’s fair,” said Keith.

“That’s only if everyone plays by the rules,” said Mr. Park, his eyes lowering with his brain loading weaponry.

“This time, there were new rules,” Matt said.

“You were all made aware of the sole RSVP date,” added Kim, “with only an afternoon response delivery.”

“And our man inside ensured us, for an extra slap of green, a several-hour delay between receivings.”

“I didn’t know that,” said Celeste.

“Me neither,” said Kristen.

“None of us did,” Mr. Park, an easy grin cutting his face like soft cheese. “But one of us found that out too late, it would seem.”

“How do we know it wasn’t either of you?” barked Keith.

“Why would we reveal all this if it was?” Kim answered back.

“Huh,” said Keith. “I guess you’re right.’

“See how sharp this is?” asked Kim, index finger against temple.

“So what the hell does any of this means?” barked Kilroy.

“It means put out your postal card, bagpipe” said Mr. Park, removing his own.

“I actually don’t know what these are, what they’re for, or why you made us bring them,” announced Kilroy, holding up a teal postcard with no scenery.

“It’s so the post office can tell when you picked up anonymous mail. They have to keep some sort of record, but need to do so without a name,” explained Matt.

“That seems…well, I’ll just say it, insane,” said Kristen.

“It works well for a corrupt city,” said Mr. Park.

“That’s the price of doing business, huh?” asked Celeste.

“It’s actually a lot more expensive than you think,” answered Keith.

“The pay’s okay though,” said Jake. “The benefits-”

“No!” cried everyone else.

“Anyway, for same-day deliveries,” Matt explained, “they swap out your postal card.”

“How do you know all this?” asked Keith.

“Work at a newspaper and learn how the city works,” Matt answered.

“Maybe try reading a book instead of using it as a rolling station,” volleyed Kim.

“Wow,” exhaled Keith, adjusting his glasses from the curveball huck.

The room settled.

“Put ’em out,” said Matt, his eyes roaming through a fence of thinned eyes.

The postal cards came shucked from sleeves at various speeds, along with an inherent reluctance among the swindlers.

“Now initial them,” announced Kim, “and don’t try anything.”

Everyone did as they were told, a rare occurrence.

“Leave them where they are,” announced Mr. Park.

“Everyone, step away,” said Kristen.

“Back!” followed Celeste.

With shoulders straight and hearts unsteady, The Group eyed one another.

“So what aren’t you telling us?” asked Keith.

“The last hour of the day is only for replacement cards,” answered Kim, a smirk chalking her cheeks.

“Okay,” said Kilroy, nothing registering.

“Wait, so if there’s a delay…” started Celeste.

“…then whoever has the last time is the cheat,” finished Kristen.

“Bingo,” said Matt.

The locals hunched over the table. The final time of the day was revealed beside a sloppy attempt at the alphabet’s funniest couple — JK.

“You pinche sunnavabitch,” growled Mr. Park. His eyes moved like a sniper’s best friend, falling aglow on his formerly valued employee, Jake Kilroy.

“Wait, hold on! That ain’t right,” Kilroy scrambled.

“You’ve got that right,” agreed Kim, any half measure fully poured out now.

“No, actually, it’s impossible,” Kilroy rolled with a swing of heavy breath. “I was at the club that night.”

“Oh god, the uptown one?” asked Kristen.

Kilroy’s arms opened like his chest sprung a gas leak.

“I don’t know what you want me to say,” he muttered.

A symphony of groans played for the open windows.

“What are you saying?” asked Matt.

“Yeah, like, ever,” added Celeste.

“I couldn’t have been at the post office because I was…grinding the barley…?”

That’s your euphemism?” scoffed Kristen, simultaneously amused and appalled.

“I’m not quick on my feet!” Kilroy shot back.

“You’re slow everywhere, bucko,” said Keith.

“Well, I got an early start that night,” said Kilroy.

Everyone’s eyes lingered.

“What?” said Kilroy. “Business was good to me.”

“Someone has to be,” Keith tossed.

Mr. Park gritted his teeth loud enough to hear as he declared more than asked, “Can you prove it, you goddamn potato sack of potato mash?”

Kilroy dwelled on the thought like the world’s drunkest chicken on the world’s biggest egg. His eyes suddenly shot putted. “Yes!”

“Let’s hear it,” said Mr. Park.

“Okay, but you have to call one of your ladies,” added Kilroy much quieter, his confidence already handing the reins over to fear.

“Keep digging,” said Mr. Park, exiting the room to make a call from the study. “You’re either making a bed or a grave. We’ll see soon enough.”

“So how’s your mop in makeup going to make it over here?” said Celeste.

“Yeah, is she being driven here by the six-fingerless man?” said Kristen.

“You know, I’m starting think you all don’t respect me,” Kilroy mused.

A brash dialogue struck up, accusations flying like bullets in a standoff.

“So what is this?” whispered Kim.

“It’s his attempt to prove someone switched the cards,” sighed Matt.

Part III coming next week!