The Haunted Air by F. Paul Wilson.
I owe a debt to works by James Randi (An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, The Psychic Healers, and Flim-Flam!) and M. Lamar Keene (The Psychic Mafia). These acted as invaluable guidebooks on what to look for on my visits to Spiritualist churches and psychic mediums.
Thanks to the usual crew for their editorial help on the manuscript: my wife Mary; my editor David Hartwell; his assistant Moshe Feder; Elizabeth Monteleone; Steven Spruill; and my agent Albert Zuckerman. And thanks to Blake Dollens, typo master, for his help with this edition.
The bride wore white.
Only she wasn't a bride and the dress-two sizes too small at least-had faded to beige.
"Can I ask again," Jack said, leaning toward Gia, "why our hostess is wearing her wedding dress?"
Gia, seated next to him on the tattered, thirdhand-store sofa, sipped from her plastic cup of white wine. "You may."
A casual little get-together, Gia had told him. Some of her artist friends were going to gather at a loft in a converted warehouse on the fringe of the old Brooklyn Army Terminal, throw a little party for one of their clan who'd started to make it big. Come on, she'd said. It'll be fun.
Jack wasn't in a fun mood. Hadn't been for some time now. But he'd agreed to go. For Gia.
Maybe twenty people wandering about the space while Pavement's last album pounded from a boom box, echoing off the high ceilings, huge windows, and stripped-to-the-brick walls. The occupants sported hair colors that spanned the visible spectrum, skin that was either pierced or tattooed or both, and clothes that redlined the garishometer.
And Halloween was better than two months away.
Jack took a pull from his bottle of beer. He'd brought his own, opting to forego his usual Rolling Rock long necks for a six-pack of Harp. Good thing, too. The bridal-bedecked hostess had stocked Bud Light. He'd never tasted watered-down cow pee, but he imagined it tasted better than Bud Light.
"All right. Why is our hostess wearing her wedding dress?"
"Gilda's never been married. She's an artist, Jack. She's making a statement."
"What statement? I mean, besides Look at me?"
"I'm sure she'd tell you that it's up to the individual to decide."
"Okay. I've decided she just wants attention."
"Is that so bad? Just because you're frightened to death of attention doesn't make it wrong for other people to court it."
"Not frightened to death of it," Jack grumbled, not wanting to concede the point.
A tall, slim woman passed by then, a dead-white streak running along the side of her frizzy black swept-back hair.
He cocked his head toward her. "I know her statement: her husband's a monster."
"Karyn's not married."
A guy with gelled neon yellow hair slid by, each eyebrow pierced by at least a dozen gold rings.
"Hi, Gia," he said with a wave and kept moving.
"Let me guess," Jack muttered. "As a child Nick was frightened by a curtain rod."
"My, aren't we the cranky one tonight," Gia said, giving him a look.
Cranky barely touched it. He'd been alternating between bouts of rage and the way-down dumps for a couple of months now. Ever since Kate's death. Couldn't seem to pull himself out. He'd been finding it hard to get out of bed in the morning, and once he was up, there didn't seem to be anything he wanted to do. So he'd drag himself to Abe's or Julio's or Gia's and pretend he was fine. Same old Jack, just not working on anything at the moment.
The angry voice mail messages from his father, ragging on him for not showing up at Kate's wake or funeral, hadn't helped. "Don't tell me you had something more important to do. She was your sister, damn it!"
Jack knew that. After fifteen years of separation, Kate had come back into his life for one week during which he'd gotten to know her again, love her again, and now she was gone. Forever.
The facts said it wasn't Jack's fault, but the facts didn't keep Jack from blaming himself. And one other person...
He'd searched for the man he'd suspected of being in some way responsible, a man whose real name he didn't know but who'd called himself Sal Roma once, and maybe Ms. Aralo too. He'd put the word out but no one knew anything. Never heard of him. Jack wound up with a taste of his own medicine-Sal Roma didn't seem to exist.
Kate... she might still be alive if only he'd done things his way instead of listening to...
Stop. No point in traveling that well-worn trail again. He hadn't returned his father's calls. After a while they stopped.
He forced a smile for Gia. "Sorry. Pseudo-weirdos crank me off."
"Can't be much weirder than the people you spend most of your day with."
"Those are different. They're real. Their weirdness comes from inside. They wake up weird. They dress weird because they reach out a hand and whatever it touches first is what they wear that day. These people here spend hours in front of a mirror making themselves look weird. My weirdos have hair that spikes out in twenty directions because that's the way it was when they rolled out of bed this morning; these folks use herbal shampoo, half a gallon of gel, and a special comb to achieve their unwashed bed-head look. My weirdos don't belong; these people seem to want desperately to belong, but don't want anyone to know, so they try to outdo each other to look like outsiders."
Gia's lips twisted. "And the biggest outsider of them all is sitting right here in a short-sleeve plaid shirt, jeans, and work boots."
"And spending the evening watching pretensions collide with affectations. Present company excluded, of course."
One of the many things he loved about Gia was her lack of affectation. Her hair was blond by nature and short for convenience. Tonight she was wearing beige slacks and a sleeveless turquoise top that heightened the blue of her eyes. Her makeup consisted of a touch of lipstick. She didn't need anything more. She looked clean and healthy, a very untrendy look in this subculture.
But the subculture had percolated into the overculture, the fringe had become mainstreamed. Years ago construction workers threw bricks at longhairs and called them faggots, now the building trades were packed with ponytails and earrings.
"Maybe it's time I got myself adorned," Jack said.
Gia's eyebrows shot up. "You mean pierced? You?"
"Well, yeah. Sometimes I feel like I stand out because I'm not bejeweled and be-inked."
Everyone seemed into it, and if he wanted to remain invisible, he'd have to follow the crowd.
"But nothing permanent," he added. Didn't want to lose his chameleon capabilities. "Maybe a clip-on earring and one or two of those temporary tattoos."
"Didn't you do something like that to your fingers once?"
"You remember those?" Phony prison tats. With indelible ink. A one-time thing for a hairy job that left a couple of toughs from a Brighton Beach gang blazing mad and combing the five boroughs for a guy with hell bent tats on his knuckles. He hadn't been able to wash those off soon enough. "No, I think I need something big and colorful."
"How about a heart encircled with rose vines and gia in its center?"
"I was thinking more on the order of a green skull with orange flames roaring out of its eye sockets."
"Oh, how cool," Gia said, and sipped her wine.
"Yeah. Slap that on one deltoid, maybe get a bright red Hot Stuff devil for the other, put on a tank top, and I'll be set."
"Don't forget the earring."
"Right. One of those dangly ones, maybe with the Metallica logo."
"That's you, Jack. A speedmetal dude."
Jack sighed. "Adorned... accessorized... I was brought up thinking that real men didn't bother with fashion."
"So was I," Gia said. "But I have an excuse: I grew up in semi-rural Iowa. You... you're a northeasterner."
"True, but all the adult males I knew as a kid-my father and the men he knew-were plain dressers. Most had fought in Korea. They dressed up for things like weddings and funerals, but mostly they wore functional clothes. Nobody accessorized. You stayed in front of the mirror long enough to shave and comb the hair out of your eyes. Anything more and you were some sort of peacock."
"Welcome to twenty-first-century Peacockville," Gia said.
Nick drifted by again.
"What's Nick paint?" Jack asked.
"He doesn't paint. He's a performance artist. His stage name is Harry Adamski."
"Swell." Jack hated performance art. "What's his performance?"
Gia bit her upper lip. "He calls it stool art. Let's just say it's a very personal form of sculpture and, um, let it go at that."
Jack stared at her. What was Gia-?
"Oh, jeez. Really...?"
"Christ," he said, letting loose, "is there anything out there that can't claim it's an art? There's the art of war, the art of the deal, the art of the shoe shine, the Artist Formerly Known As Prince-"
"I think he's back to calling himself Prince now."
"-the art of motorcycle maintenance. Smearing yourself with chocolate is art, hanging a toilet on a wall is art-"
"Come on, Jack. Lighten up. I was hoping a night out would lift your spirits. You've got to rejoin the living. Lately your life's consisted of eating, sleeping, and watching movies. You haven't worked out or taken a job or even returned calls. I'm sure Kate wouldn't want you to spend the rest of your life moping around."
Jack knew Gia was right and looked away. He saw a willowy blonde in her mid twenties swaying in their direction. She carried a martini glass filled with reddish fluid, probably a cosmo. The bottom of her short, zebra-striped blouse did not meet the top of her low riding, skintight leopard miniskirt; in the interval a large diamond stud gleamed from her navel.
"Maybe I should pierce my navel," Jack said.
"Fine, but don't show me until you've shaved your belly."
"How about a pierced tongue?"
Gia gave him a sidelong glance and a sultry smile. "Now that could be interesting." She looked up and saw the blonde. "Oh, here comes Junie Moon, the guest of honor."
"That her real name?"
"Not sure. But that's the one she's used since I've known her. She was struggling along just like the rest of us until Nathan Lane bought one of her abstracts last year and started talking her up. Now she's about as hot as you can get."
"What's a Junie Moon original go for?"
"Twenty and up."
Jack blinked. "Twenty thou? She's that good?"
"Big difference between hot and good, but I like Junie's work. She creates this unique mix of hot and cold. Sort of a cross between De Kooning and Mondrian, if you can imagine such a thing."
Jack couldn't, because he couldn't recall any works by either.
"You sound happy for her."
"I am. She's a good kid. I've got almost ten years on her and she sort of adopted me as a surrogate mother over the past few years. Phones me a couple of times a week to chat, asks advice."
"And no hard feelings that she hit it and you haven't?"
"Not a bit. I won't say I don't wish it were me instead, but if it had to happen to someone else, I'm glad it was Junie. She's ditzy but she's got talent, and I like her."
That was Gia. The nurturer without a jealous bone in her body. Another of the many reasons he loved her. But even if it didn't bother her, it rankled Jack to see the crap that hung in the galleries and exhibits she was always dragging him to, while her own canvases remained stacked in her studio.
"Bet her stuff's not half as good as yours."
"Mine are different."
Gia made her living in commercial art. She did a lot of advertising work, but over the years she'd developed a reputation among the art directors at the city's publishing houses as a talented and reliable artist. She'd walked Jack through a Barnes and Noble last week, pointing out her work on half a dozen hardcovers and trade paperbacks.
Nice stuff, but nothing like the paintings Gia did for herself. Jack loved those. He didn't know a lot about art, but he'd picked up a little following Gia around, and her urban roofscapes reminded him of Edward Hopper, one of the few artists he'd pay to see.
Junie dropped into the narrow space next to Gia on the couch, spilling a few drops of her drink. Her blue-shadowed lids drooped slightly. He wondered how many she'd had.
"Hey," she said, and kissed Gia on the cheek.
Gia introduced her to Jack and they shook hands across Gia. She looked about as down in the dumps as Jack felt.
Gia nudged her. "Why so glum? This party's for you."
"Yeah, I'd better enjoy it now." She took a gulp of her cosmopolitan. "My fifteen minutes are so over."
"What are you talking about?"
"My lucky bracelet. It's gone. It's the whole reason for my success."
"You think it was stolen?" Jack said, glancing at her bare wrists and then at the partygoers. No shortage of jealousy here, he'd bet. "When did you last see it?"
"Tuesday. I remember taking it off after finishing a painting. I took a shower, then went out shopping. Next morning I went to put it on before starting a new work, and it was gone."
"Anything else missing?" Jack said.
"Not a thing." She tossed back the rest of her drink. "And it's not valuable. It's an old piece of junk jewelry I picked up at a secondhand store. It looks homemade-I mean, it's set with a cat's eye marble, of all things-but I liked it. And as soon as I started wearing it, my paintings began to sell. The bracelet made it happen."
"Is that so?" Jack said. He felt Gia's hand grip the top of his thigh and begin to squeeze, trying to head off what she knew he was going to say, but he spoke anyway. "So it's got nothing to do with talent."
Junie shook her head and shrugged. "I never changed my style, but I started wearing the bracelet while I worked, and the first painting I finished with it was the one Nathan Lane bought. After that, everything started happening for me. It changed my luck. I've so got to find it."
"You've looked for it, I presume," Gia said.
"Turned my place upside down. But tomorrow I'm getting professional help."
"A bloodhound?" Jack offered, which earned him another squeeze.
"No. I've got an appointment with my psycho." She giggled. "I mean my psychic."
Gia's fingers became a vise, so Jack decided to heed her. "I'm sure he'll be a big help."
"Oh, I know he will! He's wonderful! I left my old seer for Ifasen a couple of months ago and am I ever glad. The man's absolutely incredible."
"Ifasen?" Jack knew most of the major players in the local psychic racket, if not personally, at least by rep, and the name Ifasen didn't ring a bell.
"He's new. Just moved into Astoria and-oh, my God! I just realized! That's just up the road from here! Maybe I can see him tonight!"
"It's pretty late, Junie. Will he-?"
"This is an emergency! He's got to see me!"
She pulled out her cell phone and speed-dialed a number, listened for a moment, then snapped it closed.
"Damn! His answering service! So what. I'm going up there anyway." She pushed herself up from the couch and staggered a step. "Gotta find a cab."
Gia glanced at Jack, concern in her eyes, then back to Junie. "You'll never get one around here."
She grinned and hiked her miniskirt from mid-thigh to her hip. "Sure I will. Just like what's-her-name in that movie."
"Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night," Jack said automatically as he wondered when the last time was a cab had cruised the Brooklyn Army Terminal area at this hour. "And someone'll think you're looking for more than a ride if you do that. We'll call you a cab."
"They never come," she said, heading for the door.
Again that concerned look from Gia. "Jack, we can't let her go. She's in no condition-"
"She's a grown-up."
"Only nominally. Jack?"
She cocked her head and looked at him with big, Girl Scout cookie-selling eyes. Refusing Gia anything was difficult, but when she did that...
"Oh, all right." Donning a put-upon expression, he rose and offered a hand to help Gia to her feet; in truth he was delighted for an excuse to bail this party. "I'll give her a ride. But it's not 'just up the road.' It's on the upper end of Queens."
Gia smiled, and it touched Jack right down to the base of his spine.
Somehow, between saying good-bye to the hostess bride and reaching the sidewalk, they picked up two extra passengers: Karyn-the Bride of Frankenstein-and her friend Claude, an anorexic-looking six footer with a flattop haircut that jutted out over his forehead, making his head look like an anvil from the side. They both thought a jaunt to a psychic's house would be moby cool.
Plenty of room in Jack's Crown Vic. If he'd come alone, he probably would have traveled by subway. But Gia's presence demanded the security of a car. With Gia in the passenger seat, and the other three in the back, Jack wheeled the big black Ford up a ramp onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and headed north along the elevated roadway. He said he hoped no one minded but he was opening all the windows, and he did, without waiting for answers. His car; they didn't like it, they could walk.
This kind of summer night, not too humid, not terribly hot, brought him back to his teens when he drove a beat-up old Corvair convertible that he got for a song because too many people had listened to Ralph Nader and dumped one of the best cars ever made. On nights like this he'd drive with no destination, always with the top down, letting the wind swirl around him.
Not much swirling tonight. Even at this hour the BQE was crowded, but Junie made the creeping traffic seem even slower by rattling on and on about her psychic guru: Ifasen talked to the dead, and Ifasen let the dead talk to you, and Ifasen knew your deepest, darkest secrets and could do the most amazing, impossible, incredible things.
Not amazing or impossible to Jack. He was familiar with all the amazing, impossible, incredible things Ifasen did, and even had a pretty good idea how the man was going to get back Junie's bracelet for her.
Yeah, Junie was a ditz, but a lovable ditz.
Maybe some music would slow her Ifasen chatter. He stuck one of his homemade CDs in the player. John Lennon's voice filled the car.
"This happened once before ..."
"The Beatles?" Claude said from the back. "I didn't think anyone listened to them anymore."
"Think again," Jack said. He turned up the volume. "Listen to that harmony."
"... I saw the light!..."
"Lennon and McCartney were born to sing together."
"You have to realize," Gia said, "that Jack doesn't like anything modern."
"How can you say that?"
"How?" She was smiling. "Look at your apartment, your favorite buildings"-she pointed to the CD player-"the music you listen to. You don't own a song recorded after the eighties."
Karyn piped up. "What's a current group or singer you listen to?"
Jack didn't want to tell her that he had Tenacious D's last disc in the glove compartment. Time for some fun.
"I like Britney Spears a lot."
"I'm sure you like to look at her at lot," Gia said, "but name one of her songs. Just one."
"Got him!" Karyn laughed.
"I like some of Eminem's stuff."
"Never," Gia said.
"It's true. I liked that conscience song he did, you know where he's got a good voice talking in one ear and a bad voice in the other. That was neat."
"Enough to buy it?"
"Got him again," Karyn said. "You want to try the nineties? Can you name one song from the nineties you listened to?"
"Hey, maybe I wasn't exactly a Spice Girls fan, but I was one hell of a nineties kinda guy."
"Prove it. One nineties group-name one you bought and listened to."
"Easy. The Traveling Willburys."
Claude burst out laughing as Karyn groaned. "I give up!"
"Hey, the Willburys formed in the nineties, so that makes them a nineties group. I also liked World Party's 'Goodbye Jumbo.'"
"And hey, Counting Crows. I liked that 'Mr. Jones' song they did."
"That's because it sounded like Van Morrison!"
"That's not my fault. And you can't say Counting Crows weren't nineties. So there. A nineties guy, that was I."
"I'm getting a headache."
"Some Beatles will fix that," Jack said. "This disc is all pre-Pepper, before they got self-conscious. Good stuff."
The double-tracked guitar intro from "And Your Bird Can Sing" filled the car as Jack followed the BQE's meandering course along the Brooklyn waterfront, running either two or three stories above or one or two stories below street level. A bumpy ride over pavement with terminal acne. As they ran under the Brooklyn Heights overhang a magnificent vista of lower Manhattan, all lights ablaze, slid into view.
"I feel like I'm in Moonstruck," Karyn said.
"Except in Moonstruck the Trade Towers were there," Claude added.
The car fell silent as they passed under the neighboring on-ramps of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.
Jack had never liked the Trade Towers, had never thought he'd miss those soulless silver-plated Twix bars. But he did, and still felt a stab of fury when he noticed the hole in his sky where they'd been. The terrorists, like most outsiders to the city, probably had viewed the twins as some sort of crown on the skyline, so they'd aimed for the head. But Jack wondered how the city would have reacted if the Empire State and the Chrysler Buildings had been targeted instead. They were more part of the city's heart and soul and history. King Kong-the real King Kong-had climbed the Empire State Building.
Brooklyn turned into Queens at the Kosciusko Bridge and the highway wandered past Long Island City, then the equally unspectacular Jackson Heights.
Astoria sits on the northwest shoulder of Queens along the East River. Jack visited frequently, but rarely by car. One of his mail drops was on Steinway Street. As he drove he debated a side trip to pick up his mail, but canned the idea. His passengers might start asking questions. He'd subway back next week.
Following Junie's somewhat disjointed directions-she usually cabbed here so she wasn't exactly sure of all her landmarks-he jumped off the BQE onto Astoria Boulevard and turned north, running a seamless gauntlet of row houses.
"If this Ifasen's so good," Jack said, "what's he doing out here in the sticks?"
Junie said, "Queens isn't the sticks!"
"Is to me. Too open. Too much sky. Makes me nervous. Like I'm going to have a panic attack or something." He swerved the car. "Whoa!"
"What's wrong?" Junie cried.
"Just saw a herd of buffalo. Thought they were going to stampede in front of the car. Told you this was the sticks."
As the back seat laughed, Gia gave his thigh one of those squeezes.
They passed a massive Greek Orthodox church but the people passing along the sidewalk out front were dressed in billowy pantaloons and skull caps and saris. Astoria used to be almost exclusively Greek; now it housed sizable Indian, Korean, and Bangladeshi populations. A polyglotopolis.
They cruised into the commercial district along Ditmars Boulevard where they passed the usual boutiques, nail salons, travel agencies, pet shops, and pharmacies, plus the ubiquitous KFCs, Dunkin Donuts, and McDonald's, interspersed with gyro, souvlaki, and kabab houses. They passed a Pakistani-Bangladeshi restaurant; its front, like a fair number of others, sported signs written not just in foreign languages but foreign script. The Greek influence was still strong, though-Greek coffee shops, Greek bakeries, even the pizzerias sported the Acropolis or one of the Greek gods on their awnings.
"There!" Junie cried, leaning forward and pointing through the windshield at a produce shop with a yellow awning inscribed with English and what looked like Sanskrit. "I recognize that place! Make a right at the corner here."
Jack complied and turned into a quiet residential neighborhood. This street was lined with duplexes, a relief from the row houses. A train rumbled along a trestle looming above them.
"He's number 735," Junie said. "You can't miss it. It's the only detached single-family home on the block."
"Might be the only one in Astoria," Jack said.
"Should be on the right somewhere along-" Her arm lanced ahead again. "Here! Here it is! Awriiight!" Jack heard the slap of a high five somewhere behind him. "Told you I'd get us here!"
Jack found an empty spot and pulled into the curb.
Junie was out the door before he'd put the car in park. "Come on, guys! Let's go talk to dead folks!"
Karyn and Claude piled out, but Jack stayed put. "I think we'll pass."
"Aw, no," Junie said, leaning toward the passenger window. "Gia, you've got to come meet him. You've got to see what he can do!"
Gia looked at him. "What do you say?"
Jack lowered his voice. "I know this game. It's not-"
"You were a psychic?"
"No. I just helped one once."
"Great! Then you can explain it all afterwards." She smiled and tugged on his arm. "Come on. This could be fun."
"Fun like that party?" Gia gave him a look so Jack shrugged his acquiescence. "All right. Let's see if this guy lives up to Junie's press release."
Junie cheered and led Karyn and Claude toward the house while Jack closed up the car. He joined Gia at the curb. He started toward the house but stopped when he saw it.
"What's wrong?" Gia said.
He stared at the house. "Look at this place."
Jack couldn't say why, but he immediately disliked the house. It was colonial in shape, with an attached garage, but made of some sort of dark brown stone. It probably looked better during the day. Jack could make out a well-trimmed lawn and impatiens and marigolds in bloom among the foundation plantings along the front porch. But here in the dark it seemed to squat on its double-size lot like some huge, glowering toad edging hungrily toward the sidewalk. He could imagine a snakelike tongue uncoiling through the front door and snagging some unwary passerby.
"Definitely creepy looking," Gia said. "Probably by design."
"Don't go in there," said an accented voice from his left.
Jack turned and saw a slim, dark Indian woman in a royal blue sari, strolling her way along the sidewalk, being led by a big German shepherd on a leash.
"Excuse me?" Jack said.
"Very bad place," the woman said, closer now. Her dark hair was knitted into a long thick braid that trailed over her right shoulder; a fine golden ring pierced her right nostril. "Bad past. Worse future. Stay away." She didn't slow her pace as she came abreast of them. Her black eyes flashed at Jack-"Stay away"-then at Gia-"especially you."
Then she walked on. The dog looked back over his shoulder, but the woman did not.
"Now that's creepy," Gia said as an uncertain smile wavered across her lips.
Jack had always believed that in confronting a fear and facing it down, you weakened it. Recent events had given him second thoughts about the wisdom of that belief. And with Gia along...
"Maybe we should listen to her."
Gia laughed. "Oh, come on! She probably works for this guy; he sends her out to get us in the mood. Or maybe she's just a local wacko. You're not taking her seriously, are you?"
Jack looked after the retreating saried figure, now barely visible in the shadows. After what he'd been through lately, he was taking a lot more things seriously, things he'd laughed at before.
"I don't know."
"Oh, let's go," she said, tugging him up the front walk. "Junie's been seeing him for a couple of months and nothing bad's happened to her."
Jack put an arm around Gia's back and together they approached the house. They joined the others on the front porch where Junie had been jabbing at the bell button with no results.
She jabbed it again. "Where is he?"
"Maybe he's not home," Jack said.
"He's got to be! I can't-"
Just then the front door eased open a crack. Jack saw an eye and a sliver of dark cheek.
"Ifasen! It's me! Junie! Thank God you're here!"
The door opened wider, revealing a tall, lean black man, maybe thirty. He wore a white T-shirt and gray slacks; his hair was woven into neat, tight dreads that brushed his wide shoulders. Ifasen reminded Jack of Lenny Kravitz in his dreadlock days.
"Ms. Moon," he said with an unplaceable accent. "It's late."
Jack hid a smile at the obvious statement. This guy was experienced. The normal response would be, What are you doing here at this hour? But if you're supposed to be someone who knows all-or maybe not all, but a helluva lot more than ordinary people-you don't ask questions. You make statements.
But he wondered at the man's expression when he'd opened the door. He'd looked... relieved. Who had he been expecting?
"I know. And I know my appointment's tomorrow, but I had to come."
"You couldn't wait," he said, his tone calm, exuding confidence and assurance.
"Yes! Right! I need your help! I lost my good luck bracelet! You've got to find it for me!"
As he considered her plea, his gaze roamed among Jack and Gia and the others on the porch.
"I see you've brought company."
"I told them all about you and they're dying to meet you. Can we come in? Please?"
"Very well," Ifasen said. He stepped back and opened the door the rest of the way. "But only for a few minutes. I have to be rested for my early clients tomorrow."
That's right, Jack remembered. Weekends are busy times for psychics.
Junie led the way, followed by Karyn and Claude. Jack and Gia were just stepping over the threshold when a deep rumble filled the air, vibrating through their bones and shaking the house.
"Bomb!" Ifasen yelled. "Out! Everybody out!"
Then another sound, a deafening, high-pitched, echoing scream-whether of pain, fear, or joy, Jack couldn't say-filled the air.
Didn't sound like a bomb to Jack but he wasn't taking any chances. He grabbed Gia and hauled her back across the porch and onto the lawn. Junie, Claude, and a shrieking Karyn scurried behind them.
Ifasen was still at the front door, calling for someone named Charlie.
Jack kept moving, pushing Gia ahead of him up the walk toward the car. Then he noticed something.
He stopped. "Wait. Feel that?"
Gia looked into his eyes, and then at her feet. "The ground..."
"Right. It's shaking."
"Oh, my God!" Junie cried. "It's an earthquake!"
Just as suddenly as the tremors had started, they stopped.
Jack looked around. Across the street, up and down the block, lights were on and people were spilling out into their yards, standing around in all states of dress and undress, some crying, some looking simply bewildered.
Gia was staring at him. "Jack. An earthquake? In New York?"
"Don't you remember that one on the Upper East Side back in '01?"
"I read about it, but I never felt it. I felt this. And I didn't like it!"
Neither had Jack. Maybe people in places like LA got used to something like this, but feeling the solid granite bedrock of good old New York City rolling and trembling under his feet... pretty damn unsettling.
"What about that other sound? Like a scream? Did you hear that?"
Gia nodded as she moved closer and clutched his arm. "Like a damned soul."
"Probably just some old nails tearing free in the quake."
"If you say so. Sure sounded like a voice though."
Sure did, Jack thought. But he didn't want to add to her unease.
He looked around and saw Ifasen approaching with another, younger black man who bore a family resemblance. Both had similar builds and features, but instead of dreads the newcomer's hair was cut in a neat fade. He wore black slacks, black sneakers, and a lightweight long-sleeve turtle-neck, also black.
"An earthquake, Ifasen!" Junie said. "Can you believe it?"
"I knew something was going to happen," Ifasen said. "But impending seismic activity interferes with psychic transmission, so I couldn't get a clear message."
Jack nodded approval. The guy ad-libbed well.
Close up now, Jack noticed a horizontal scar along Ifasen's left cheek; his milk chocolate skin was otherwise flawless except for the stipple of whiskers shadowing his jaw.
"Can we go back inside now?" Junie said.
Ifasen shook his head. "I don't know..."
He sighed. "Very well. But only briefly." He put a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "This, by the way, is my brother Kehinde. He lives in Menelaus Manor with me."
Menelaus Manor? Jack thought, staring at the old house. This place has a name?
Kehinde led the way back to the house. Jack hung back with Gia so he could talk to Ifasen.
"Why'd you think it was a bomb?"
Ifasen blinked but his onyx eyes remained unreadable. "What gives you that idea?"
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe the fact that you yelled 'Bomb!' when the house started to shake."
"I'm not sure. Perhaps I was startled and it was the first thought that came to mind. The pre-seismic vibrations-"
Jack held up a hand. "Yeah. You told us."
Jack sensed Ifasen was telling the truth, and that bothered him. When your house starts to shake, rattle, and roll, it could be a lot of things, but bomb should not be first on your guess list.
Unless you were expecting one.
"And where's Charlie?"
Ifasen stiffened. "Who?"
"I heard you calling for someone named Charlie while we were evacuating."
"You must have misheard me, sir. I was calling for my brother Kehinde."
Jack turned to Gia. "Let's split. I don't think this is a good idea."
Before Gia could answer, Ifasen said, "Please. There's nothing to fear. Really."
"Let's do it, Jack." She glanced at Ifasen. "It'll take us, what-half an hour?"
"At most." Ifasen smiled. "As I said, I need my rest."
Half an hour, Jack thought. Okay. What could happen in half an hour?
"This is my channeling room," Ifasen said with a sweeping gesture.
Impressive, Jack thought as he looked around.
Ifasen had decked out the high-ceilinged first-floor room with a wide array of spiritualist and New Age paraphernalia along with some unique touches. Most striking were the host of statues-some looked like the real deal-from churches and Indian temples and Mayan pyramids: Mary, Saint Joseph, Kali, Shiva, a totem pole, a snake-headed god, cathedral gargoyles, and a ten-foot stone Ganesha holding a gold scepter in his coiled elephant trunk. Drapes covered the windows. The oak-paneled walls were festooned with paintings of spiritualist icons. Jack recognized Madame Blatavsky, the Mona Lisa of this Louvre of phonies.
At the far end of the room sat a round table surrounded by chairs; an ornate, pulpitlike podium upon a two-foot dais dominated the near end; Ifasen took his place behind it while Jack, Gia, Junie, Karyn, and Claude seated themselves among the chairs clustered before it.
"I am Ifasen," he said, "and I have been blessed with a gift that allows me to communicate with the spirit world. I cannot speak directly with the dead, but with the aid of Ogunfiditimi, an ancient Nigerian wise man who has been my spirit guide since I was a child, I can bring revelations and messages of peace and hope to our world from the place beyond."
"Ms. Moon's sitting with me was scheduled for tomorrow, but due to her dire need, I have moved it up to tonight. In gratitude, she has made a generous donation to the Menelaus Manor Foundation on behalf of you, her friends, to allow you to become part of her sitting."
Karyn and Claude clapped; Junie, alone in the front row, turned and waved.
"I will answer her question and yours in the form of a billet reading," Ifasen said. "My brother Kehinde is passing among you with billets, envelopes, and pens."
The billets turned out to be index cards. Jack took a couple from Kehinde for Gia and himself. He knew this game but decided to play along.
Ifasen said, "Please write your question on the billet, sign it, fold it, and seal it in the envelope. I will then contact Ogunfiditimi and ask him if he can find the answers in the spirit world. This is not a time for prank questions, or schemes to test the spirit world. Do not waste Ogunfiditimi's time by asking a question to which you already know the answer. And realize this: the mere fact that you have asked a question does not obligate the spirits to answer. They pick and choose. The worthier the question, the more likely it will be answered."
Great hedge, Jack thought. The perfect out.
"May I ask a question?" Gia said, raising her hand like a schoolgirl.
"Why do we have to seal the question in an envelope? Why can't we simply hand you the card and get the answer?"
Ifasen smiled. "Excellent question. Communication with the spirit world is not like a long-distance call. Words sometimes filter through, but often the communication is in the form of hints and feelings. To open the clearest channel, I need to empty my mind. If I'm thinking about the question, I'll muddy the waters with my own opinions and prejudices. But if I don't know the question, then my own thoughts can't get in the way. What comes through then is pure Spirit Truth."
"Smooth," Jack whispered. "Silky smooth."
Jack scribbled How is my sister? on his card and showed it to Gia.
"Is that fair?" she said.
"It's something I'd like to know."
Before he folded the card he tore a piece off the top left corner. As he slipped it inside the envelope he glanced at Gia and saw her sealing hers.
"What did you ask?"
She smiled. "That's between me and Ogunfiditimi."
He was about to press her when a soft musical chime filtered through the room. He looked up and saw Ifasen holding what appeared to be a large bowl of beaten brass on the tips of his fingers.
"This is a ceremonial bell from a temple deep in the jungles of Thailand. It is said that if properly mounted it will ring an entire day from a single stroke." He flicked a fingernail against the shiny surface and again the soft chime sounded. "But tonight we will be using it as a bowl to collect your billets."
He handed the bell to Kehinde who passed among them, collecting the envelopes. Jack kept an eye on him, watching closely as the younger brother placed the bell behind the base of the podium. He fiddled with something out of sight, then shook out a white cloth. The bell reappeared, covered with the cloth, and was handed up to Ifasen.
Jack leaned back, nodding. Gotcha.
Kehinde walked off and the lighting changed, the room growing dark while an overhead spot brightened, leaving Ifasen towering above them, bathed in a glow from heaven. He whipped off the white cloth and stared down into the bowl. After a moment he reached in and removed an envelope. He held it before him.
"I have the first question," he intoned. He lowered his head and raised the envelope on high where it gleamed like a star in the brilliant light. "Ogunfiditimi, hear me. These supplicants come before me, seeking knowledge, knowledge that only you can provide. Heed their requests and furnish the answers they seek."
He shuddered once, twice, then spoke in a flat, sepulchral tone.
"You are not yet ready. You must work harder, hone your craft, and above all, be patient. It will come."
Ifasen looked up and blinked. He lowered the envelope and picked up a slim gold-plated letter opener. He slit the top of the envelope and pulled the card from within. He unfolded it and, to Jack's chagrin, held it by the upper left corner. After reading it he smiled down at Karyn. "Does that answer your question, Karyn?"
She nodded enthusiastically.
Clause said, "What did you ask?"
"I wanted to know when I'll be as successful as Junie."
Junie turned to her. "Didn't I tell you? Isn't he just so amazing?"
"How does he do that?" Gia whispered.
Knowing pretty much how the rest of the act would go, Jack pulled out a folded pamphlet he'd picked up downstairs. The cover read THE MENELAUS MANOR RESTORATION FOUNDATION over a grainy picture of this old stone house. So that was where the donations went.
He opened the yellow tri-fold brochure and out fell another, smaller pamphlet, almost the size of the three-by-five billet he'd just filled out. The cover showed a crude illustration of a human silhouette falling into a pit next to the title, "The Trap." He flipped it over and almost laughed aloud when he saw the words "Chick Publications." A Born Again mini-comic. The. opening pages showed a Christian character debunking a self-described channeler.
Some prankster was slipping Jack Chick's fundamentalist tracts into Ifasen's brochures. How rich.
Jack checked Ifasen, who had a fresh envelope held on high, but this time he skipped the incantation. Maybe he was in a hurry. He shook his head as if trying to clear it, scrinched up his eyes, then shook his head again. Finally he lowered the envelope and cast a disapproving look at Claude.
"The spirits refuse to answer this. They want me to tell you to buy a calculator."
He slit the envelope and unfolded the card-again holding it by the upper left corner. He read: " 'What is the square root of 2,762?' " He frowned at Claude, his disdain palpable. "What did I say about frivolous questions that waste the spirits' time?"
Claude grinned. "It's a question that's plagued me for years."
Junie gave him a fierce look and slapped him on the knee. Jack decided he liked Claude.
He put aside the Chick pamphlet and was starting to read Ifasen's propaganda on this house and its history when Gia nudged him.
"Pay attention. You might be next."
Jack refolded the brochure and trained his attention on Ifasen who had raised another envelope. He gave a couple of shudders, then, "Your sister sends you her love from the Other Side. She says she is well and to get on with your life."
Jack couldn't help feeling a chill. He knew the game, knew Ifasen was winging it here, but this was exactly what Kate would say.
Ifasen was unfolding a card, holding it as usual by the upper left corner. "Does that answer your question, Jack?"
"Completely," Jack said softly.
Gia looked at him with wide eyes and grabbed his arm. "Jack! How could he-?"
He cocked his head toward her and whispered, "An educated guess. He's very good."
"How can you write that off as a guess?"
"Easy. Of course, if he'd said, 'Kate sends her love,' that'd be a whole other ballgame. Big problem writing that off."
Another envelope had been thrust into the light, and now Ifasen was frowning again.
"I'm having trouble with this. I sense a number trying to come through, but the seismic static has increased. I'm not sure, but I believe the number is two." He opened his eyes. "And that's all."
Ifasen wore a puzzled frown as he slit this envelope, but when he read the message, he smiled. "Two." He looked up. "Does that satisfy you, Gia?"
"I... I think so," Gia said.
Jack glanced at her and thought she looked a little pale. "What did you ask?"
"Tell you later," she said.
"Later. I want to see if he knows where Junie's bracelet is."
"The last envelope," Ifasen said, thrusting it up into the light. He closed his eyes, went through the shuddering deal, then said, "It is not stolen. You will find it in the large blue vase." He looked at Junie who was on her feet. "Do you have a large blue vase?"
"Yes! Yes!" She had her hands pressed against her mouth, muffling her words. "Right next to the door! But that can't be! How could it possibly get in there?"
"The spirits didn't say how, Ms. Moon," Ifasen told her. "They simply said where."
"I've gotta go! I've so gotta get home and check that vase!" She ran up to the podium and threw her arms around her psychic. "Ifasen, you're the best, the greatest!" She turned to Jack and Gia and Karyn and Claude. "Isn't he fantastic! Isn't he just so incredible!"
Jack joined the applause. Nothing incredible about Ifasen, but he was good. He was very good.
"Sweet Jesus!" Lyle Kenton said when their uninvited guests were finally gone. He'd already dropped his Ifasen persona; now he dropped into the recliner in the upstairs sitting room and rubbed his eyes. "What happened here tonight?"
His brother Charlie, no longer the subservient Kehinde, gave him a reproachful look from where he leaned against the couch, taking tiny sips from a Diet Pepsi. That was the way he drank: no gulps, just lots of quick, tiny sips.
"Ay, yo, Lyle. I thought you was eighty-sixin' it with taking the Lord's name in vain."
Lyle waved an apology with one hand and twisted one of his dreads in the other as he reran the past hour through his brain. Not the laid-back Friday night he'd planned. He and Charlie had been sitting in the living room, channel surfing in. search of something watchable on the tube when Junie Moon had come a-knockin'.
"I tell you, Charlie, when I saw Moonie standing there on the front porch with that crowd behind her, I thought we were cooked. I mean, I figured she'd tumbled to your little visit and brought down the heat."
Of course, on further reflection, he'd realized that if it really had been the heat, Junie Moon wouldn't have been with them.
"Coulda been worse," Charlie said, pacing back and forth in front of the couch, a deep purple velvet affair that had come with the house. Everything in the room-the furniture, the upright piano, the murky landscapes in gilded frames on the walls-had been here when they'd bought it ten months ago. "Coulda been the banger who done the drive-by."
Lyle nodded, feeling his neck tighten. Just last Tuesday night he'd been standing by the picture window in the waiting room downstairs when a bullet whizzed right by his head. It had punctured the pane without shattering it, leaving a hole surrounded by a small spiderweb of cracks. He'd dug it out of the wall, but since guns weren't his thing, he couldn't tell what" caliber it was. All he could be sure of was that it had been meant for him. The incident had left him shaken and more than a little paranoid. He'd kept the curtains pulled ever since.
The reason, he knew, was that a lot of well-heeled clients had started migrating from the Manhattan psychics to Astoria since Lyle had joined the game. None of those players was happy about it. A slew of angry, threatening, anonymous phone calls over the past few weeks had made that clear. But one of them-hell, maybe a group of them-had figured that phone calls wouldn't cut it and decided to play rough.
But Lyle hadn't called the police. They say the only bad publicity is no publicity, but this was an exception. A sensational story about his being shot at could be pure poison. People might stay away for fear of being caught in the middle of a shoot-out between warring psychics. He could imagine the quips: A trip to this psychic might put you a lot closer to the dearly departed than you intended.
Oh, yes. That would be a real boon to business.
But worse was the gut-clawing realization that someone wanted him dead.
Maybe not dead, he kept telling himself. Maybe the shot had been a warning, an attempt to scare him off.
He'd find that easier to believe if he'd been in another room at the time.
Nothing else had happened since. Things would settle out. He just had to keep his head down and give it time.
"But it wasn't," Lyle said. "It was just Junie Moonie and friends. So there I was, just starting to relax after finding out she's here because she can't wait till tomorrow for her session. I open the door, and what happens? Bam! The world starts to shake. I gotta tell you, bro, I almost lost it."
Charlie's grin had a sour twist. "I know you lost that busta accent."
"Did I?" Lyle had to smile. He'd been affecting a mild East African accent for so long now-used it twenty-four/seven-that he'd thought his Detroit ghetto voice dead and buried. Guess not. "Shows how much I was worried about you, man. You're my blood. I didn't want this whole house comin' down on your head."
"I 'predate that, Lyle, but Jesus was with me. I wasn't afraid."
"Well, you should have been. An earthquake in New York. Whoever heard of such a thing?"
"Maybe it's a warning, Lyle," Charlie said, still pacing and sipping. "You know, the Lord's way of telling us to get tight."
Lyle closed his eyes. Charlie, Charlie, Charlie. You were so much more fun before you got religion.
My fault, he supposed. My bad.
A few years ago, when they'd been working a low-budget spiritualist storefront in Dearborn, a faith healer came to town and he and Charlie had gone to see how the guy worked his game, Lyle had kept his eye on all the wheelchairs the healer had brought along, and how his assistants would graciously offer them to unsteady looking old folks who tottered in-the same folks who'd "miraculously" be able to walk again after the healer prayed over them. While he was doing that, his younger brother had been listening to the sermon.
Lyle had gone home and written up notes for the future when he opened his own church.
Charlie had bought a Bible at the tent show, brought it home, and started reading it.
Now he was a Born Again. A True Believer. A Big Bore.
They used to make the bars together, pick up women together, do everything together. Now the only things that seemed to interest Charlie were reading his Bible and "witnessing."
Yet no matter what he did or didn't do, Charlie was still his brother and Lyle loved him. But he'd liked the old Charlie better.
"If that earthquake was the Lord's work and aimed at us, Charlie, he sure shook up a lot of people besides us."
"Maybe lots of people besides us need shaking up, yo."
"Amen to that. But what was with that scream? You've got to let me know when you're going to pull a new gag. The house shaking and the ground rumbling were bad enough, but then you throw in the scream from hell and everyone was ready to run for the river."
"Didn't have nothing to do with no scream," Charlie said. "That was the fo' reals, bro."
"Real?" In his heart Lyle had known that, but he'd been hoping Charlie would tell him different. "Real what?"
"Real as in not something I cooked up. That sound didn't come from no speakers, Lyle. It come from the house."
"I know. A bunch of these old beams shifting in the quake, right?"
Charlie stopped his pacing and stared at him. "You connin' me? You really gonna sit there and tell me that sounded like wood creaks to you? Betta recognize that was a scream, man. A human scream."
That was what it had sounded like to Lyle too, but it couldn't have been.
"Not human, Charlie, because the only humans here besides you and me were our uninvited guests, and they didn't do it. So it just sounded human, but wasn't."
"Was." Charlie's pacing picked up speed. "Come from the basement."
"How do you know that?"
"I standin' by the door when it went down."
"The basement?" Lyle felt a chill ripple along his spine. He hated the basement. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Didn't 'xactly have time. We had guests, remember?"
"They've been gone for a while now."
Charlie looked away. "I knew you'd wanna go check it out."
"Damn right, I do." He didn't, not really, but no way he was going to sleep tonight if he didn't. "And would you sit down or something? You're making me nervous."
"Can't. I'm too jumpy. Don't you feel it, Lyle? The house has changed, yo. Noticed it soon as we come back inside after the quake. I can't explain it, but it feels different... strange."
Lyle felt it too, but wouldn't say so. That would be akin to buying into the same sort of supernatural mumbo jumbo they sold to the fish. Which he refused to do. But he had to admit that the room lights didn't seem quite as bright as before the quake. Or was it that the shadows in the corners seemed a little deeper?
"We've had a nerve-jangling week and you're feeling the effects."
"No, Lyle. It's like it ain't just us in this house no more. Like something else moved in."
"Don't you go crackin' on me. You know you feel it, dawg, don't tell me you don't!"
"I don't feel nothin'!"
Lyle stopped and shook his head at the double negative. He'd spent years erasing the street from his vocabulary, but every once in a while, like a weed, it popped through the Third World turf he'd been cultivating. Ifasen's accent said old Third World, his dreads said new Third World; Ifasen was an international man who recognized no barriers-not between races, not between nations, not even between life and death.
But Third World was key. The affluent, white, New Age yo-yos who made up the demographic Lyle was chasing believed that only primitive and ancient civilizations retained access to the eternal truths obscured by the technophilia of western post-industrial civilization. They'd accept just about anything an East African named Ifasen told them, but would brush off the same if it came from Lyle Kenton of Detroit's Westwood Park slums.
Lyle didn't mind the act; kind of liked it, in fact. But Charlie wouldn't make the effort, declining to become what he called an "oreo." So he became the silent partner in the act. At least he agreed to dress the part of Kehinde. Left on his own he'd be baggied out with a dukey rope, floppy fat sneaks, and a backward Tigers cap. A hip-hop Born-Again.
Lyle jumped and spilled some beer on his pants as the phone rang. Man, his nerves were jangled. He looked at the caller ID: Michigan. He picked up.
"Hey, sugar. I thought you'd be on the plane by now."
Kareena Hawkins's velvet voice slunk from the receiver. The sound gave Lyle a rush of lust. "I wish I were. But tonight's promotion ran way over and the last plane out is gone."
He missed Kareena. She ran the PR department of a Dearborn rap station. At twenty-eight she was two years younger than Lyle. They'd been just about inseparable before he moved east, and had been carrying on a longdistance relationship the last ten months, the plan being for Kareena to move east and get a job with a New York station.
"So take a morning flight."
He heard her yawn. "I'm beat, Lyle. I think I'll just sleep in."
Lyle couldn't hide his disappointment. "Come on, Kareena. It's been three weeks."
"Next weekend'll be better. I'll call you tomorrow."
Lyle pressed his case awhile longer but to no avail. Finally they ended the call. He sat there a moment, staring at one of the crummy pictures on the wall and feeling morose.
Charlie said, "Kareena ain't gonna make it, I take it?"
"Nah. Too tired. That job of hers is-"
"Hate to say it, bro, but she playin' on you."
"No way. Don't talk like that."
Charlie shrugged and mimed zipping his lip.
Lyle didn't want to admit it but he'd begun suspecting the same thing. He'd gotten the growing impression that despite all her early enthusiasm for a career move, Kareena had cooled to the idea of leaving her comfy niche in Dearborn and challenging the New York market. And now she was cooling on him.
Only one thing to do: Take some time off next week and head west. Sit her down, talk to her, show her how important she was to him and how he couldn't lose her.
He looked at Charlie and said, "Let's go check the cellar."
Charlie only nodded.
Lyle led the way down to the first level, through the old-fashioned linoleum-floored kitchen, and down the cellar steps. He flipped the light on and stopped, staring.
"Jeees-" Realizing Charlie was right behind him, he stopped himself, then added, "-and crackers."
According to the real estate agent who'd sold them the place, the cellar had been finished by a previous owner, two prior to Lyle. Whoever he was, he'd had no taste. He'd put in a drop ceiling with fluorescent lights, tacky fake wood paneling in some blah shade of pecan on the walls, and painted the concrete floor orange. Orange! It looked like a rec room out of a bad movie from the sixties, or maybe the fifties. Whatever, it did not belong in Menelaus Manor.
But now a huge crack split its orange floor.
"Peep this!" Charlie said as he brushed past Lyle and approached it.
The jagged crack ran the entire width of the floor, wall to wall, east to west, widening to a couple of inches near the center. Crack was an understatement. The concrete slab of the floor had been broken in half.
His brother was already crouched by the opening when Lyle arrived.
"Looks deep," Charlie said.
Lyle's heart stumbled over a beat as he saw his brother start to wriggle his fingers into the crack. He grabbed Charlie's wrist and snatched it back.
"What kind of fool are you?" he shouted, angry and frightened. "What if that floor decides to shift back? What are you going to do with a right hand that's got no fingers?"
"Oh, right," Charlie said, cradling his fingers as if they'd been hurt. "Good point."
Lyle shook his head. Charlie was so bright in so many ways, but sometimes, when it came to common sense...
Lyle studied the crack, wondering how deep the ground was split beneath it. He leaned over and squinted into the opening. Nothing but featureless darkness beyond.
Wait... was that-?
Lyle snapped his head up, momentarily dizzy. For a moment there he thought he'd seen stars... as if he'd been looking at a night sky, but someone else's sky, like no night sky ever seen from earth... a yawning well of stars that threatened to drag him down through the opening.
He backed away, afraid to look again, and as he moved he thought he felt a puff of air against his face. He placed his hand over the opening. A feather-light breeze wafted against his palm.
Damn! Where was that coming from?
"Charlie, look in there and tell me what you see."
"Make like a Nike and just do it."
Charlie put his eye to the crack. "Nathan. Just black."
Lyle looked again and this time saw no stars, no strange sky. But what about a moment ago?
He straightened. "Bring me the toolbox, will you?"
"I'm not sure."
Charlie returned in less than a minute. Lyle opened the toolbox and found some two-inch nails. He pressed his ear to the crack and dropped one through. He listened for the clink of it hitting bottom, but it never came.
Lyle motioned his brother closer. "Get your ear down here and see if you hear anything."
A second try yielded the same nonresult for Lyle. He straightened and looked at Charlie. "Well?"
Charlie shook his head. "Could be soft dirt down there. Like sand."
"Maybe. But you'd think we'd hear something."
"Got an idea!"
Charlie jumped up and ran back upstairs. He returned with a pitcher of water.
"This gotta work."
Lyle fitted his ear against the crack; Charlie did the same and then began to pour. The faint trickle of the water through the crack was all Lyle heard. No splash, not even a hint of one, from below.
Lyle straightened to sitting. "Just what we need: a bottomless pit under our house."
"What we do?" Charlie stared at him, obviously expecting an answer from big brother.
Lyle didn't have one. He definitely didn't want the city to know about this. They might condemn the place and boot him out. He hadn't come all the way from Michigan to get kicked out of the first home he'd ever owned.
No, he needed someone discreet who knew his way around construction and could tell him what was wrong and how to fix it. But he'd only been in town ten months and-
"Dear Lord!" Charlie cried, jamming a hand over his nose and mouth. "What that!"
Lyle didn't have to ask. He gagged as the odor hit him. It lifted him to his feet and sent him staggering toward the stairs. Charlie was right behind him as he pelted up to the first floor and shut the door.
Lyle stood in the kitchen, gasping as he stared at his brother. "We must be sitting over a sewer line or something."
Charlie stared back. "One that run through a graveyard. You ever smell anything stink so bad? Even close?"
Lyle shook his head. "Never." He'd never imagined anything could smell that foul. "What next? A meteor through the roof?"
"Tellin' you, Lyle, the Lord's puttin' us on notice."
"With a stink bomb? I don't think so."
Although the odor hadn't reached the kitchen, Lyle didn't want to take any chances. He and Charlie stuffed wet paper towels into the spaces between the door and its molding.
When they'd finished, Lyle went to the fridge and pulled out a Heinie keg can. He could have done with a double deuce of Schlitz M-L right now, but that was way too street.
"You not gettin' bent, are you?" Charlie said.
He handed Charlie another Pepsi. "When was the last time I got bent?"
"When was the last time you had an earthquake open a bottomless pit under your house?"
"Good point." He took a long cold gulp from the can and changed the subject. "By the way, one of the guys with Moonie tried to pull a fast one tonight, and I don't mean Mr. Square Root."
"The bama-looking Joe?" Charlie said, resuming his pacing.
"Bama-looking Jack, if we're to believe the name he wrote. I knew he was trouble right from the start. Heard me calling you by your real name when we were evacuating and wanted to know why I yelled 'bomb' when the quake hit. I kept an eye on him after that. He didn't miss a trick. He watched your every move, then mine. Good thing I was onto him, otherwise I might have missed seeing him tear a corner off his billet."
"So that's why you was holding them by the top corner. You always hold them bottom center." Charlie frowned. "You think he here to make trouble?"
Lyle shook his head. "No. I got the impression he didn't even want to be here. I think he was bored and having a little fun with me. He knew exactly what I was doing but he was cool with it. Just sat there and let the show roll."
Lyle wandered into the waiting room; Charlie followed, saying, "Maybe he in the game."
"Not ours. Another game, but don't ask me what." Lyle had sensed something going on behind that white guy's mild brown eyes; something that said, Don't mess. "Some game of his own."
Lyle prided himself on his ability to read people. Nothing psychic about it, no spirits involved, just something he'd been able to do as long as he could remember. A talent he'd honed to a fine edge.
That talent had found the visitor named Jack a hard read. Bland-looking guy: nothing-special clothes, brown hair, mild brown eyes, not handsome, not ugly, just... there. But he'd moved with a secret grace inside a damn near impenetrable shield. The only thing Lyle had sensed about him besides the steer-clear warning was a deep melancholy. So when he'd seen his question-"How is my sister?"-Lyle's instincts shouted, Recently deceased!
If the reaction of the woman with him was any indicator, Lyle had scored a bull's-eye.
"But we came out okay," Lyle said. "We may have hooked a future fish or two, and after Moonie finds her long lost bracelet right where I told her it would be, she'll be singing my praises to anyone who'll listen."
Charlie sat down at the upright piano that had come with the house, and pounded the keys. "Wish I could play."
"Take lessons," Lyle said as he drifted to the front picture window.
He pulled back the curtain just enough to reveal the bullet hole at the center of its crack web. Before filling it with translucent rubber cement, he'd run a pencil through the hole with ease. So small, and yet so deadly. For the thousandth time he wondered-
Movement to his right caught his eye. What? God damn! Someone was out there!
"Hey!" he shouted as a burst of rage drove him toward the front door.
"Whassup?" Charlie said.
"Company!" Lyle yanked open the door and leaped.onto the front porch. "Hey!" he shouted again as he spotted a dark figure racing away across the lawn.
Lyle sprinted after him. Somewhere in his brain he heard faint cries of Danger! and Bullets! but he ignored them. His blood was up. Good chance this was the banger wannabe who'd done the drive-by, but he wasn't driving now, and he wasn't shooting, he was running, and Lyle wanted a piece of him.
The guy was carrying something. Looked like a big can of some sort. He glanced over his shoulder. Lyle caught a flash of pale skin, then the guy was tossing the can Lyle's way. It didn't go far-sailed maybe half a dozen feet then hit the ground with a metallic sound and rolled. Unburdened, the guy picked up speed and beat Lyle to the curb where he hopped into a car that was already moving before the door closed.
Lyle pulled up at the sidewalk, gasping for air. Out of shape. Charlie came up beside him, breathing hard, but not as hard as big brother.
"See his face?"
"Not enough to recognize. But he's white."
Lyle turned and headed back. "Let's go see what he dropped."
He squatted by the object and turned it over. A gasoline can.
"What he gonna do? Burn a cross?"
"Doubt it." Whites were in the minority on these streets. Another dark face moving in was a nonevent. "This is business. He was looking to burn us out."
He rose and kicked the can, sending it rolling across the grass. The New York psychic game had only so many players. One of them had done this. He just had to find out who.
"All right," Gia said. "We're finally alone. Tell me how Ifasen did what he did."
She'd been dying to know ever since they'd left the psychic's house, but they'd been stuck driving Junie home. Since Karyn and Claude lived on the Lower East Side as well, they'd tagged along. Jack had dropped all three outside Junie's apartment building and now he was ferrying Gia uptown on First Avenue.
Despite the late hour, progress was slow. Gia didn't mind. Time with Jack was never wasted.
"First let's decide where we're going," Jack said. "Your place or mine?"
Gia glanced at her watch. "Mine, I'm afraid. We're getting to the end of the sitter's time frame."
Vicky, her eight-year-old, still would be up. She rarely failed to cadge extra hours of TV out of her sitters.
Jack sighed dramatically. "Another celibate night."
Gia leaned close and nuzzled his ear. "But it's the last one for the next week. Did you forget that Vicky leaves for camp tomorrow morning?"
Gia had been trying to forget it. She'd hated the week Vicky had been gone last summer-the seven loneliest days of the year-and was dreading her departure tomorrow.
"I did. Forgot completely. I realize you'll miss her terribly, as will I, but I know just the thing to ease the pain of separation."
Gia smiled and twirled a lock of Jack's hair. "And whatever would that be?"
"That's my secret until tomorrow night."
"I can't wait. And speaking of secrets, what's Ifasen's?"
"No-no," Jack said. "First you tell me the question you asked. If 'two' was the answer, what was the question?"
She shook her head. She now found herself a little embarrassed by her question. If she could get away without revealing it...
"You first. Tell me how that man can give answers when he doesn't know the question."
"You're sure you want to know?" Jack said, turning his head to give her a smile.
A smile from Jack... so few of those since Kate's death. She missed them.
"Why wouldn't I?"
"Might spoil the fun."
"I can handle the truth. How does he do it?"
"Pretty much the same way Johnny Carson did when he pulled his Karnak the Magnificent shtick."
"But he was reading off cue cards."
"Exactly. And in effect, so is Ifasen."
Gia shook her head, baffled. "I don't get it. We sealed those envelopes. We heard him give the answer, we watched him open the envelope and read the question."
"Things aren't always as they appear."
"I know that only I knew what was written on my card."
"Not after his brother Kehinde did his work."
"Kehinde? But he just-"
"Appears to be a gofer? That's what you're supposed to think. But Kehinde is key. Ifasen put on the show, but he couldn't have done it without his brother's help. The method is called 'one ahead.' If you remember, right after Kehinde collected the sealed envelopes he took the bowl around to the rear of the podium and made a show of covering it with the cloth. That's the key moment. Because while you think he's fiddling with the cloth, he's really slitting open one of the envelopes and removing its card-or billet as the psychics like to call them. He was also tossing in a marked envelope containing a blank card."
"Think about it. When Ifasen-and by the way, if that's his real name, mine is Richard Nixon-when he removes the white cloth on the bowl, he looks down and reads the question on the card Kehinde opened for him. Then he picks up one of the sealed envelopes and raises it above his head. But he doesn't answer the question in the raised envelope; he answers the question on the card in the bowl."
"I get it!" Gia said, feeling a burst of pleasure as all the pieces fell into place. "After he answers the question in the bowl, he tears open the envelope and pretends to read the question he just answered, but actually he's seeing the next question."
"Exactly. And for the rest of the show, he stays one envelope ahead-which is how the method got its name."
"And the blank card in the extra marked envelope is so Ifasen won't wind up one short." She shook her head. "It's so simple."
"The best tricks are."
Gia couldn't hide her chagrin at being so easily fooled. "Am I so gullible?"
"Don't feel bad. You've got plenty of company. Millions, I'll bet. That trick's been conning people since the eighteen hundreds. Probably started as a sideshow mentalist gag, then the spiritualists picked it up and they've been milking it ever since."
"So Ifasen's a fake psychic."
"How do you know so much about it?"
Jack shrugged, but didn't look her way. "You pick things up here and there."
"You told me earlier you once helped a psychic. One of your customers?"
"No. I worked for one, as a helper, playing the gofer like Kehinde, plus doing behind-the-scenes stuff."
"No!" She'd never imagined. "When?"
"Long time ago, when I first came to the city."
"You never told me."
"Not necessarily something I'm proud of."
Gia laughed. "Jack, I can't believe this. After all the things you've done..."
She saw him glance at her, then train his eyes back on the traffic again. He said nothing, but that look said it all: You don't know all the things I've done. Not even close.
How true. And Gia preferred it that way. The Jack she saw on almost a daily basis was even tempered and good-natured, gentle and considerate in bed, and treated Vicky like his own daughter. But she knew he had another side. She'd seen it only once. That had been when-
Had it been almost a year already? Yes. It was last August when that filthy creature abducted Vicky. She still remembered Jack's face when he heard about it, how it had changed, how he'd bared his teeth, how his normally mild brown eyes had become flat and hard. She'd looked then into the cold harsh face of murder, a face she never wanted to see again.
Kusum Bahkti, the man Jack had gone after that night... he disappeared from the face of the earth, as if he'd never been.
Jack killed him. Gia knew that and, God help her, she'd been glad. She was still glad. Anyone who wanted to harm her little girl deserved to die.
Kusum wasn't the only man Jack had killed. Gia knew of one other for sure: the mass murderer he'd stopped in mid-slaughter on a subway car back in June. For a while the mystery "Savior" had been all the media talked about, but the furor had pretty much died down now.
Gia was sure there had been others. She didn't know this for a fact, but it was a reasonable conclusion. After all, Jack made his living fixing situations for people who'd run out of aboveground options. When that happened, some of them went underground in search of a solution. A few of those wound up with Jack.
So Jack's clientele-he insisted on calling them customers instead of clients-was hardly the cream of society. And to solve their problems he sometimes had to mix it up with some abominable lowlifes, people ready to kill to prevent Jack from doing his job. Since Jack was still alive, she had to assume that some of those others were not.
None of these were happy thoughts, and Gia preferred to tuck them out of sight where she didn't have to deal with them. She loved Jack, but hated what he did. When she'd stepped off the bus from Iowa to pursue her dream of being an artist, she'd never known a man like Jack could exist, let alone that she'd wind up with him. She was a tax-paying, law-abiding citizen; he was not.
She'd finally forced herself to face the truth: she loved a criminal. He wasn't on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list, or on anyone else's wanted list, for that matter-because none of the list makers knew he even existed-but he definitely lived outside the law. She couldn't imagine how many laws he'd broken and continued to break every day.
But strangely he was the most moral man-her father aside-that she'd ever met. He was like an elemental force. She knew he would never break faith with her, never leave her in the lurch, never allow her to come to harm. She knew that if it ever came down to it, he'd give his life for her. She felt safe with Jack, as if surrounded by an impenetrable shield.
No one else could give her that feeling. Last year at this time, they'd been split. Jack had told her when they first met that he was a "security consultant." When Gia had learned how he really made his living, she'd walked out. She'd dated other men during the hiatus, but they all seemed so insubstantial after Jack. Like wraiths.
And then, despite all the hurt and invective she'd heaped on him, when she and Vicky had needed him most, he'd been there.
"I mean," she said, rephrasing, "with all the scams you've pulled through the years-"
"Scamming a scammer is different. The fish these psychics hook don't know any better. I think people should get something real for their money, not just smoke and mirrors."
"Maybe smoke and mirrors is what they're looking for. Everybody's got to believe in something. And after all, it's their money."
Jack glanced at her. "Am I hearing right? Is this the Gia I know?"
"Seriously, Jack, where's the harm? Probably better than throwing it away at Foxwoods or Atlantic City. At least they can get some comfort out of it."
"You can lose the ranch in a casino and, trust me, you can lose just as much to a psychic. The bitch I worked for..." He shook his head. "Bitch is not a term I use lightly. It took me a while to realize what a foul, vindictive, small person she was, and when I did-"
"Did she cheat you?"
"Not me. I was already disillusioned with her and her crummy little game, but the icing came when she scammed some little old lady into signing over a valuable piece of property to her; convinced her it was what her dead husband wanted her to do."
"Oh, no." The image twisted inside Gia.
"That was when I walked."
"But they're not all like that."
"The open ones are."
"There's two kinds of mediums. The closed mediums really believe in the spirit world and what they're doing; they've bought the whole package. As a rule they limit themselves to readings-tarot cards, palms, tea leaves, that sort of thing. They don't put on a show. Open mediums, on the other hand, are all show. They're con men who know it's a scam, who trade background information on their suckers, and are always looking for bigger and better ways to hoodwink them. They knowingly sell lies. They promise a peek into the afterlife, but they use special effects like ectoplasm and voices and spirit writing to fool people into believing they've delivered."
"But Jack, I'll bet a fair number of people derive some comfort from them. Look at you tonight. If you didn't know what you do, and let's say you maybe half-believed, wouldn't you have found comfort in that message from Kate?"
"Sure. But here's my point: it wasn't from Kate. It was from Ifasen. He told a lie. If I'd come to him as a private client, all I would have got for my money was a lie."
"And peace of mind which, in a way, is priceless."
"Even if it's built on a lie?"
Gia nodded. "If a placebo cures your headache, you're rid of your pain, aren't you?" Jack sighed. "I suppose so." He shook his head. "The really sad thing about so many of these open psychics is that they're truly talented. They possess amazing insight into people, an instinct for reading body language and picking up on every nuance of speech and dress. They know people. They could be ace psychologists. They could make a great living in the straight world-you know, doing well while doing good. But they'd rather stay on the fringe, playing their games."
"Hmmm," Gia said. "Sounds like someone I know but I can't quite place the name. I think it begins with a J..."
"Very funny. Except I don't play games. I deliver. And if I don't, it's not for lack of trying." He shot her a rueful smile. "But you know, I do believe old Ifasen did something for me tonight. I know he just rattled off a stock message from the 'Other Side,' but to tell the truth, he happened to hit on exactly what Kate would have said."
"You mean about getting on with your life?"
"How many times have I told you that Kate wouldn't want you to spend the rest of your life moping around? And when was the last time I mentioned that very thing? How many hours ago? Two? Three maybe?"
He grinned sheepishly. "Yeah, I know. But sometimes you have to hear it from a stranger. Anyway, I think it's time for me to get back in the saddle again. I've got a couple of calls in my voice mail right now. I'll check them out tomorrow, and if one of them is right for me, I'll be back to work."
What am I saying? Gia thought.
She hated Jack's work. It was usually dangerous. Every time he hired on to "fix" a situation, he ran the risk of being hurt. But worse, because the police were as much a threat as any hoodlum he took on, he couldn't count on them for help if he got in over his head. When Jack went off to work, he went alone.
How many times had she pleaded with him to find something less dangerous to do? He'd compromised by promising to restrict his fix-it work to situations he could repair at arm's length, where he didn't have to show his face or get personally involved. Gia believed he tried his best to keep that promise, but too often the jobs didn't go as planned.
But his interest in returning to work meant he was pulling out of his funk. That, at least, was good.
"Maybe you should go back for a private session," she said. "Maybe he'll tell you to get into a safer line of work. And maybe you'll listen when he tells you. Heaven knows you don't listen when I do."
"I think we should stay away from Ifasen, but not for that reason."
"I think he's got trouble."
"You mean because he yelled 'bomb'?"
"That... and other things."
"A patched bullet hole in his front window, for instance."
He nodded. "It could have been there when he bought the house, but he's obviously renovated the place, so... someone's giving him a hard time."
"Other psychics. The lady-I use the term loosely-that I once worked for used to go berserk when she lost a sitter to another psychic. She called herself Madame Ouskaya but her real name was Bertha Cantore. I used to think she'd seen The Wolfman too many times and ripped off the name of that old actress Maria Ouspenskaya who played the gypsy, but that was giving her too much credit. I can't imagine her ever sitting though the credits of a movie. Finally one night, when she'd had a few too many gins and was sailing a few too many sheets to the wind, she told me that she'd cadged it off an ancient Russian neighbor who'd died when Bertha was ten. But you know how they talk about a leopard never changing its spots? That was Bertha. She may have called herself Ouskaya, but that didn't hide her true nature. Her father was Sicilian and she had a hitman's temper. She'd send me out to slash tires and break windows and-"
Jack didn't look at her. "Most of the time I just told her I did, but sometimes... sometimes, yeah, I did."
"Jack..." She couldn't keep the dismay out of her voice.
"Hey, I was hungry, stupid, and a lot younger. I thought what was bad for her was bad for me. I hadn't figured out yet that she was bad for me. Hell, if she knew how to make bombs, she'd probably've wanted me to plant them, or wire ignitions to blow the competition away." He shook his head. "What a nutcase."
"Could she be the one Ifasen's afraid of?"
"Nah. Couple of years ago I heard that she'd, as they say in the trade, migrated to the Other Side." A quick glance Gia's way, embarrassment in his eyes. "Let's not talk about her, okay? Makes my teeth hurt just to think about her."
Gia knew getting off the topic of this Madame Ouskaya would probably turn the conversation to her question to Ifasen. She cast about for a diversion and spotted the pamphlet Jack had brought from the psychic's house. She snatched it up.
"'The Menelaus Manor Restoration Foundation.' What's this?"
"Sounds like a scam. Take donations to renovate the house you're living and working in. A win-win proposition for Ifasen if I ever heard one."
"Is all this true?" Gia said, gathering flashes of the house's history of mayhem by the light of street lamps they passed.
"I never got a chance to get into it. What's it say?"
She turned on the console lamp and held the brochure under the glow. "It says the place was built in 1952 by Kastor Menelaus. He died of cancer, and was the last owner to 'pass on to the Other Side' due to natural causes."
Jack grinned. "This sounds like it's gonna be good!"
"His son Dmitri, who inherited the house, committed suicide in the early nineties. The next owners, a Doctor Singh and his wife, had the place for a few years, did some renovations, and then someone cut their throats while they were sleeping." She looked up at Jack. "This is awful! I hope it's fiction."
Gia was liking this less and less. "The previous owners, the ones before Ifasen, were Herbert Lom and his wife-"
"Not the actor-the guy who played in the Hammer Phantom of the Opera?"
"It doesn't say. He and his wife Sara disappeared after-oh, God." Something about a mutilated child. Her stomach turned and she closed the brochure.
"Never mind. Jack, this is sick! It's like the place is cursed. He has to be making this stuff up."
Jack was shaking his head. "Doubt it. Too easy to get caught. My guess is he's taken a few facts and embellished them to within an inch of their collective lives. Read on."
"I'd rather not."
"Just skip to some part that's not gory."
Reluctantly she reopened the brochure and skipped down a paragraph from where she'd left off. "Ifasen quotes himself here: 'I chose Menelaus Manor because the violent deaths have left behind strong psychic vibrations. The souls of those who died here do not rest easy, and their ongoing presence weakens the divide between our world and the Other Side, making Menelaus Manor the perfect site for the church I will establish here.'" Gia looked at Jack. "Church?"
Jack smiled. "The ultimate scam. Tax-free heaven, and completely legal. Like minting money. How do you think the Scientologists can afford to sue anyone who says a discouraging word about their racket?"
"He says here donations will go toward 'putting the Manor at peace with this world and in harmony with the next.' What does that mean?"
"It means renovations will probably go on forever. Or at least until Ifasen crosses over to the Other Side himself."
"Careful, Jack," she told him. "Keep talking like that and I'll start suspecting you're a cynic."
Jack pulled into Sutton Square and stopped before Gia's door. He pulled her close and kissed her.
"Thanks for dragging me out tonight. Earthquakes and psychics in cursed manors... you sure know how to show a guy a good time."
She returned the kiss. "Anytime. And tomorrow night I'll show you an even better time."
Laughing, they got out of the car. Jack put an arm around her shoulders; he started to walk her the short distance to her door, but stopped halfway there.
"Hey. Wait a sec. You never told me your question. What was it?"
"It was nothing. Just some silliness I was playing around with. Don't-"
"Who loves silly more than me? Tell, Gia. I won't go home until you do."
"All right." She could see no way out of it. "I asked, 'How many children will I have?'"
"And he told you two." Jack grinned. "I wish I believed in this stuff. That would mean I'd be the father of number two. At least I assume I'd be."
"He said it with such assurance."
"That's because he's a pro. And because he figured it was a safe number. Consider it from his angle: You look younger than your years; Ifasen figures you've got one child, maybe two. So even if you have no kids, if he answers two or three, he's golden. Three would be the safer number, but I've got a feeling this guy likes to play close to the edge. He took a chance and said two."
"But if I never have another child, he'll be proven wrong."
"By the time you know that for sure, you'll have forgotten about Ifasen. Or he can deny that's what he said. He can't lose. So don't waste brain time thinking about it."
But that wasn't so easy for Gia. She remembered feeling a little queasy this morning. But she couldn't be pregnant. She was on the pill, and she was faithful about taking it every morning...
Except back in June when she and Vicky had flown out to Iowa to visit the family. She'd forgotten to pack her pills. Unusual for her because she never forgot her pills. But it hadn't mattered because Jack wasn't with her. And as soon as she returned she'd immediately started back on them.
But right after she returned she and Jack had...
Gia felt a twinge of nausea. She could think of worse things that could happen, but she didn't want this, not now...
It wasn't possible...
Maybe not. But first thing tomorrow, as soon as Vicky was on that bus to camp, she was picking up a home pregnancy test kit.
IN THE IN-BETWEEN
For a long time it was not. But now it is.
For a long time it was not aware. But now it is.
Barely aware. It does not know what or who it is or was. But it knows that at some time past it existed, and then that existence was ended. But now it exists again.
It does not know where it is. It reaches out as far as it can and vaguely senses other presences, some like itself, and many, many more unlike it, but can identify none of them.
The disorientation makes it afraid, but another emotion pushes through the fear: rage. It does not know the source of the rage but clings to the feeling. Acceptance makes the rage grow. It nestles in the rage and waits for a direction in which to unleash it...
IN THE WEE HOURS
Lyle awoke shivering.
What was wrong with that damn air conditioner? It was barely cooling the room when he'd gone to bed, now it was freezing him out. He opened his eyes. His first-floor bedroom faced the street, so he kept the blinds pulled at night; the light seeping between the slats now was the yellow glow of the street lamps, not the pale gray of dawn. He blinked the glowing clock display into focus: 2:32.
He groaned softly. He couldn't find the energy to get up, so he pulled his sheet closer around his neck and tried to fall back into sleep. But thoughts of fires and attempts on his life wouldn't allow it.
Someone wanted him dead...
That had kept him up for a while. After a few more beers to take the edge off, he'd hit the rack; but sleep had played coy while he lay awake here in the dark listening for any unusual noises. Finally he'd drifted off.
The room grew colder still, its chill seeping through the sheet to wrap him in an icy embrace. He kicked his leg out over the edge of the bed. Damn it all, he'd have to get up and-
Wait. The air conditioner wasn't running. No mistake about that. This old place didn't have central air so he'd had to buy window units, and they were anything but quiet.
Lyle froze. Not from the cold but from another sensation: he was not alone in the room. He could feel a presence somewhere in the darkness at the end of the bed.
No response from the shadows, no rustle of clothing, no whisper of breathing, but the stiff hairs on his arms and the tight skin along the back of his neck told him that someone else was here. He knew it wasn't his brother-Charlie would never play with his head like this-but he had to ask again.
"Charlie, damn it, is that you?" He heard a tremor in his voice, in sync with his quivering heart.
As the cold became more intense, Lyle slid back against the headboard. He wormed his hand between the mattress and box spring and came up with the carving knife he'd placed there earlier. With its handle in a sweaty death grip, he fumbled his free hand toward the bedside lamp, and clicked it on.
Nothing happened. He clicked once, twice, half a dozen times more. Still no light. What was going on? It had worked just fine a few hours ago. Was the power out?
No. The clock display was still-
Then the clock blacked out, just for a second, as if a dark shape had passed in front of it.
Lyle's heart was pounding madly now. He sensed whoever it was coming closer, moving toward him around the side of the bed.
"I've got a knife, damn it!" His hoarse, dry voice cracked in the middle. "Stay back!"
But whoever it was moved relentlessly forward until he hovered over Lyle, leaning closer...
"Fuck you!" Lyle screamed and rammed the knife straight ahead.
Whatever the blade sliced into, it wasn't clothing or flesh; more like powdery snow, and cold-Lyle had never felt such cold. He drew back his hand and tried to drop the knife but his numb fingers wouldn't respond.
And then the lamp came on. Lyle jumped, gasped, and thrust out the knife again-to attack, defend, he didn't know, the blade seemed to move of its own will-but he saw no one.
Gone! But that couldn't be. And the cold-gone too, leaving cloying, humid air in its wake. He looked at the knife and cried out when he saw the thick red fluid oozing down the blade. He hurled it to the floor... and saw what else lay there.
Oh God oh Christ it was Charlie on his back, legs and arms splayed, his chest a bloody ruin, and his glazed eyes staring at Lyle in shocked surprise.
Lyle felt as if his bones had dissolved. He slid off the bed and crumpled to his knees beside his dead brother.
"Charlie, Charlie," he mumbled through a sob as he bent over him. "Why'd you do it? Why'd you do something so stupid! You knew-"
Charlie's voice. Lyle snapped upright.
"Lyle, what do you want?"
Behind him. He turned and there, across the room, in the doorway on the far side of the bed, stood Charlie. Lyle opened his mouth but couldn't speak. It couldn't be. It...
He turned back to the floor and found it empty except for the knife. No Charlie, no blood on the rug or the blade.
Am I losing it?
"What's going on, man?" Charlie said, yawning. "Why you callin' me this hour?"
Lyle looked at him again. "Charlie, I..." His voice choked off.
"Hey, you all right?" Charlie said, his expression concerned instead of annoyed as he stepped forward. "You look bust, bro."
Finally he could speak. "I just had the worst nightmare of my life. It seemed so real and yet... it couldn't have been."
"What happened? I mean, what it about?"
"Someone here, in the room, coming for me..." He decided not to tell Charlie how the dream had ended.
Charlie nodded. "Well, no mystery where that come from, yo."
Right. No stretch to interpret this dream, but Lyle couldn't shake its remnants... the cold... and the presence.
"But I was so sure someone was here." He pointed at the knife on the floor. "I even tried to cut him."
Charlie's eyes widened as they fixed on the blade. "Sweet Lord, I can see I better start locking my door at night case you start sleepwalking."
He grinned to show he was only kidding. Lyle tried to return the smile, and hoped it didn't look as sick as he felt. If Charlie only knew...
Lyle picked up the knife and turned it over and back, shuddering at the memory of the blood he'd seen coating it. He examined his worn reflection in the surface of the blade, as pristine as when he'd taken it from the cutlery drawer earlier tonight.
Okay, so he hadn't stabbed Charlie. Thank God for that. But against all reason he couldn't shake the feeling that someone else had been here in this room tonight.
Maybe he should go out and find himself a gun.
IN THE IN-BETWEEN
It still does not know who or what or where it is, but memory fragments flash like meteorites through its consciousness, frightening glimpses of sharp objects and gushing red liquid. It must leave here, must get out, OUT!
"I'll be fine, Mom," Vicky said as Gia gave her one last great big hug before releasing her to the camp-bound bus. "You're just having separation anxiety."
Gia had to laugh as she pushed her daughter back to arm's length. "I'm having what?"
"Separation anxiety. I read about it in the camp brochure."
"But you're supposed to have it, not me."
"I am. I'm worried you're going to cry when I leave."
"I won't. I promise."
Another kiss and a long hug-how she loved this little eight-year-old who sometimes acted forty-and then Gia backed up to stand with the other parents.
No tears, she told herself as she watched Vicky step up into the maw of the idling bus. It will only upset her.
She and Vicky had cabbed down to the pick-up spot by the UN Plaza, with Vicky doing most of the talking. A good thing, because Gia wasn't feeling so hot this morning. Her stomach felt queasy. Nerves because Vicky was leaving her, or something else?
Nerves, she'd told herself. Has to be.
Whatever the cause, the bumpy cab ride hadn't helped matters. She'd been very happy to listen to Vicky rattle on about how she couldn't wait to work with clay on the lathe at art camp this year, because she'd been too young last time.
Gia kept her emotions pretty well in hand until Vicky took a seat by a window and waved to her. Gia saw the dark hair she'd braided into a French twist this morning, saw that big smile and those sparkling blue eyes, and almost lost it. But she gamely forced a tremulous smile and blinked to keep the tears at bay.
What kind of a mother am I? She's only eight and I'm sending her off to stay with strangers for a week. I must be crazy!
But Vicky so loved art camp. She'd tried it for a few days last year and this time pleaded to stay for a week. Gia knew she had talent and wanted to give her every opportunity to nurture it.
But a whole week away in the Catskills... that was forever.
The door closed, the engine gunned, and the bus moved off. Gia waved till it was out of sight, then allowed herself the luxury of a few tears and sniffles. She looked around and noticed she wasn't the only one with moist eyes on this sultry summer morning.
She decided to walk back. It wasn't far and the exercise would do her good.
Besides... she had a stop to make along the way.
Half an hour later Gia stood at the antique white porcelain sink in the upstairs bathroom and stared at her third pregnancy test in fifteen minutes.
Negative. Just like the other two.
But she felt pregnant. That was why she'd stopped and picked up three different brands of home test kits, just to be sure.
They all told her the same thing, but that didn't change how she felt.
The phone rang. Thoughts of a bus accident, Vicky hurt, flashed through her mind and she snatched it up.
"Gia!" said a familiar woman's voice. "It's me, Junie!" She sounded excited, all but burbling.
"Oh, hi. Did you find-?"
"That's why I'm calling! When I got in last night I went straight to the big blue vase by the door and turned it upside down. Want to guess what dropped out?"
"Don't tell me-your bracelet?"
"Yes!" She laughed. "Right where Ifasen said it would be! I couldn't believe it! I hardly go near that vase. I don't know how it got in there but I was so happy I cried. Isn't he just so amazing?"
Gia didn't respond, thinking about what Jack had said last night, how he'd explained Ifasen's billet-reading trick. All fine and good, but how could he explain this? Gia wouldn't buy that it was an educated guess like when Ifasen told her she'd have...
Oh, God! He'd said she'd have two children... and here she was, feeling pregnant.
"Hey, Gia," Junie said. "You still there?"
"What? Oh, yes. Still here. I'm just wondering how this can be possible. How could he have known something like that?"
"He didn't. The spirits did. They told him, and then he passed it on to me. Pretty simple, don'tcha think?"
"Hmmm," Gia said. She felt a crawly sensation in her stomach that had nothing to do with morning sickness. "Right. Simple."
She ended the call as quickly as possible without being rude, then wandered to a front window and stared out. Her eyes fixed on the townhouses across the square from hers without really seeing them.
Maybe that was all this was... the power of suggestion. She'd screwed up her pills, a psychic said she'll have two children, and then her subconscious went to work, making her feel pregnant.
The tests-three of them, no less-said otherwise.
But home kits weren't all that accurate in the very early stages of a pregnancy. The labels did warn about false negatives.
A blood test... that was supposed to be extremely accurate, positive within days of conception.
She found her Daytimer and looked up her gynecologist's number. No way Gia expected Dr. Eagleton to see her on a Saturday, but no reason she couldn't order the test for her, maybe at someplace like Beth Israel, and Gia could run up there, have her blood drawn, and wait for the results.
Yes, she thought, punching in the number. Let's get this settled once and for all.
As much as Gia loved Jack, she did not want to be pregnant.
Lyle awoke hot and sweaty. He could hear the air conditioner in the window running like a bandit, yet the room felt like a steam bath. Damn thing was only a month old. Couldn't be going south already.
He opened his eyes and lifted his head. Someone had pulled up the blinds and opened all his bedroom windows.
Lyle rolled out of bed. What was going on here? Had Charlie done this?
He had no intention of cooling the rest of Astoria so he slammed his windows shut and stalked down the hall to the rear bedroom. He barged in and found Charlie sprawled on his sheets, both windows wide open, and his AC going full blast.
"Damn it, Charlie, what are you up to?"
Charlie lifted his head and blinked at him. "Whassup, bro?"
"The windows, for one thing! What's with opening the windows? It's gonna be ninety today."
"Didn't open no windows."
"Yeah? Well then who did? Ice-T?"
He slammed them closed, then stepped back into the hall. He was headed for his room when he felt a warm breeze flowing up the stairwell. He ran downstairs and found all the waiting room windows and the front door wide open.
"Charlie!" he shouted. "Charlie get down here!"
When Charlie stumbled in he gaped at the open windows and door. "Dawg, what you doing?"
"Me? I locked that door last night myself, chain lock and all. I didn't get up and open it. And since there's only two people in this house, that leaves you."
He shut and relocked the door as he was speaking.
"Don't look at me, yo," Charlie said, closing the windows. "I been racked out."
Lyle stared at his brother. Charlie used to be a def joker who could spin out a line like no one else. But ever since he'd been born again, he told the truth-about everything, even if it hurt.
"Then who...? Shit! Someone got in!"
Lyle raced to the channeling room. If they'd wrecked the equipment...
But no, the room looked fine. No obvious damage. A quick survey by Charlie and him revealed it to be just as they'd left it. Except for the windows. During the remodeling he'd painted the panes black and draped them with heavy curtains to block the tiniest ray of light. Now the drapes were pulled back and the windows thrown open, allowing sunlight to flood the room. It changed the look entirely, making all his carefully arranged mystical touches look... tacky.
Relieved that nothing had been damaged, Lyle closed the windows, pulled the drapes, and headed back toward the kitchen.
"We're running late, Charlie. We've got a noon sitting, so-"
Lyle almost tripped when he came back through the waiting room: the windows and the front door were open again.
Charlie stumbled to a stop behind him. "What in the name of the Lord-"
"The Lord's got nothing to do with this, Charlie. They're still here!"
Lyle darted into the kitchen-where the windows and back door all stood open-and grabbed two knives. He handed one to his brother.
"All right. We know he's not down here. So you plant yourself by the stairs to make sure no one sneaks down, while I sweep upstairs."
Lyle's heart was already running in high gear as he took the steps up two at a time; it further picked up its tempo as he moved down the hall, knife held before him. He'd grown up in a tough neighborhood, but he'd stayed away from the crazies, the crackheads, and the bangers. He'd had fights along the way, mostly shoving matches, one that got his face cut when someone pulled a boxcutter, but that was it. So he wasn't exactly practiced in knife fighting. He didn't even know if he could stab somebody, but he was mad enough now to find out.
He checked the hall closet-empty. Moved on to his bedroom. Shit! The windows were open again. How the hell? But the screens weren't pushed out so no one had gone out that way. He checked his closet, then closed the windows.
Same with Charlie's room: open windows, empty closet. Who was opening these things? After closing them he moved to their sitting room-actually a converted bedroom; what had been the living room and dining room downstairs was now the Channeling Room.
All clear here.
Downstairs he rechecked the kitchen and pantry, going so far as to look behind and under the sofa in the waiting room.
"Okay. Both floors clear. That leaves the cellar."
First he and Charlie locked up, front and back, then stood in the center hall before the cellar door.
"If he's still in the house, that's where he'll be."
Charlie shook his head. "The paper towels still there, yo."
Right, Lyle thought. To keep the stink in the cellar. Forgot about that.
"We'll look anyway."
He pressed his hand ever his nose and mouth as he pulled open the door. He started down the stairs and risked a sniff half way down. No stench, just the typical musty basement odor.
"It's okay," he told Charlie, close behind him. "The stink's gone."
Searching the basement was a snap: no closets, no heavy furniture, nobody hiding. The crack was still there, though, big as ever.
Relieved, Lyle let out a long, slow breath. Whoever had been in the house was gone.
But when they got back up to the main floor, Lyle felt a warm, humid breeze. Uneasy, he approached the waiting room.
Someone had opened the windows again.
"How're they doing this, Charlie? Did they rig our house while we were sleeping?"
Charlie was the mechanic half of their partnership. He made the otherworldly illusions happen. He hadn't done well in school-more for lack of interest than lack of ability-but he knew how things worked. He could break down any piece of machinery and put it back together. If anyone could explain this, it would be Charlie.
"Don't see nathan," Charlie said as he inspected one of the windows. "Even if I did, you know what it take to whip up this sorta rig overnight? Gotta have a whole crew with drills and pry bars and hammers."
"Okay, then maybe they did it some day when we were out for a while."
"Still don't see nothin' gonna open no window. I mean, it gotta be pushed or pulled, and ain't nothing here gonna do that."
"Take the windows apart if you have to. There's got to be some sort of servomechanism in there that's doing it."
He wasn't quite sure what a servomechanism was, but it sounded good.
"Maybe we got ourselfs a demon."
"Not funny, Charlie."
"Ain't kidding, bro. Nothin' in or on this window to make it move."
"Got to be. We both know that the only demons and ghosts in this world are the ones manufactured by the likes of you and me. Someone's trying to gaslight us, Charlie. Scare us off. Only we don't scare, right?"
Before Charlie could answer, Lyle heard the click of the front door latch, the door he'd locked just minutes ago. With his mouth going as dry as leather, he watched it swing open with a soft, high-pitched creak.
Lyle leaped through the opening onto the front porch. No one. Empty. He turned in a quick circle, looking for someone, something, anything to explain this. He stopped when he saw the plants.
"Charlie, come here."
Charlie had been inspecting the front door. He straightened and stepped up beside Lyle. "I can't find no-dear Lord!"
All the foundation plantings-the rhodos, azaleas, and andromedas-were dead. Lyle hadn't noticed anything wrong with them last night, but now they weren't simply wilted, they were brown and dried up as if they'd been dead for a month or more... as if something had sucked the juice of life out of them.
"Someone must've sprayed them with weed killer."
"When this gonna stop, Lyle?"
He heard the fear in his brother's voice and laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
"We'll be all right, Charlie. Things have never come easy for us, and I guess this is no exception. But we always come through, don't we. Somehow the Kenton brothers always manage to come through. We stick together and we'll be okay, Charlie."
Charlie smiled at him and held out his hand for a low five. Lyle gave him a dap.
But when he turned back to the yard he felt a deep rage begin to bubble through his blood.
Whoever you are, he thought, you go ahead and try whatever you can against me, but don't you hurt or frighten my little brother. You do and I'll hunt you down and squash you like the bug you are.
He stared at the dead plants. The sitters for the first session would be arriving in less than an hour and the place looked like hell. No time to spruce it up.
Shit. He'd hardly expected to be welcomed with open arms by the local competition when he moved here from Dearborn, but he never anticipated anything like this. Someone was using every dirty trick under the moon to run them out.
Well, they weren't budging. Do your damnedest, whoever you are. The Kenton boys are here to stay.
"You didn't feel a thing?" Jack said.
Abe shook his head. "Not even a wiggle. Some earthquake. A quakeleh, you should call it."
Abe Grossman, dressed as always in a half-sleeve white shirt and crumb-speckled black pants, sat perched on his stool, legs akimbo, one hand resting on his ample belly while the other guided a large piece of crumb cake into his mouth.
Jack leaned on the customer side of the scarred counter at the rear of Abe's store, the Isher Sports Shop. The morning papers lay scattered between them. It had become an irregular tradition of sorts, now and then during the week, but almost always on Saturday and Sunday mornings: Abe bought the papers, Jack brought breakfast.
Jack ran his finger down a column of type on page three of the Post and stopped when he found what he wanted.
"Says here the epicenter was located in Astoria. How about that? Gia and I were at ground zero."
"Ground less than zero, maybe," Abe said with a dismissive shrug. "No fires, no injuries, no tumel. This is a quake?"
"They clocked it at two-point-five Richter-about the same as the one that hit the East Eighty-fifth Street area in early '01."
"Another nonevent, as I remember." He pointed to the crumb cake. "You're not having?"
"I, uh, brought something different."
Jack pulled a sausage McMuffin from the sack; his mouth watered as he unwrapped it. He waited for the reaction. Took about two nanoseconds.
"What's this? Meat? Juicy meat for you and for your old friend Abe a fat-free coffee cake?"
"You don't need the meat. I do."
"I do. And I thought you were trying to lower your cholesterol."
"You're trying to lower my cholesterol."
True enough, Jack admitted. But only because the guy was riding the heart attack express, and Jack wanted him around for a lot more years-as many as possible.
"And even if I was," Abe said, "I should get a second-class breakfast on a Saturday morning?" He stuck out a hand. "Give. Just a bisel. A biseleh."
"Once you get into shape, I'll go out and buy you a whole-"
"What?" He patted his belly. "A sphere is not a shape?"
"Okay then, how about I buy you a sausage McMuffin when you can touch your toes?"
"If God wanted us to touch our toes he'd have put them on our knees."
There was no reasoning with this man. "Forget exercise. Forget cholesterol. I get the sausage because I have a special need."
"And that would be?"
"Last night we went to a party. But before the party we went out to eat, so to speak, at Zen Palate."
Abe made a face. "Nebachl Where they serve tofu in the shape of a turkey?"
"I don't remember seeing that."
"Stop by on Thanksgiving. Gia's idea, I assume."
"Yeah, well, she's off meat, you know."
"Yeah, and she wanted to try it."
"Nu? What kind of tofu did you have?"
"Fried is best. At least you're sure it's dead."
"Even worse: they don't serve alcohol. Had to pop out to the deli on the corner to get some beer."
"Should have grabbed a pastrami on rye while you were there."
Jack remembered the dirty looks he'd gotten from the couple at the next table when he'd popped the top on a forty of Schlitz. Imagine if he'd unwrapped a pastrami, or a cheesesteak. The horror.
"Tell me about it. I've been obsessing on meat ever since. So when I passed McDonald's this morning I couldn't resist."
"In that case I won't insist on a share. Eat. You deserve it after suffering through Zen Palate."
Jack wolfed down the sandwich without looking at Abe. Out of consideration he should have finished it before stepping through the door. Next time...
"Look at this," he said around a mouthful as he tried to move the conversation away from food. "A major fault runs right up the East River."
"So? There are a number of major faults on the local school board."
"No, seriously." Jack traced the fault line with his fingertip. "Says here it's called Cameron's Line. Supposedly it's where the continental plate of Africa bumped the North American plate."
"Nobody tells me anything. When did this happen?"
"About 320 million years ago. You were just a kid then. Says the fault line runs from Staten Island up into Connecticut and Massachusetts. But look here." He angled the page so Abe could see. "It makes a detour from the East River right through the heart of Astoria, then loops back to the river." Wonder filled him. "I'll be damned. That psychic's house sits right atop Cameron's Line."
"Psychic's house?" Abe said. "You're not-"
"Not a chance," Jack sad. "It was a lark of sorts."
He recounted Junie Moon's quest for her lost bracelet.
Abe shook his head. "The dumbing of America: government-accredited schools of astrology, school boards deciding to teach creationism in science, classes people paying hundreds of dollars for vials of water because someone labeled it 'Vitamin O,' the return of homeopathic cures-most of which are no more than Vitamin O-magic crystals, feng shui... Oy Jack, I'm losing hope."
"Well, you were never exactly Little Mary Sunshine to begin with."
Abe had been predicting-and was well prepared for-a civil and economic holocaust since Jack had known him.
"But one should be able to hope. I'd always thought that as the breadth and depth of human knowledge increased, people would gradually emerge from the darkness into the light. A lot of us prefer the shadows, it seems."
Jack said, "It's the whole New Age thing. Somehow it got mainstreamed. A bonanza for the bunko artists. But what I want to know is, why now? We were climbing out of all that mystical crap, but ever since the seventies it seems we've been sliding back. What turned us around?"
Abe shrugged. "Maybe science is the cause."
"I'd think science would be the solution."
"Maybe I should say it's a reaction to science. We're all looking for transcendence-"
"A life beyond this one. A noncorporeal existence. In other words, we want we should go on. You believe in transcendence, Jack?"
"Wish I could. I mean, I'd love to think that some spark in me was going to go on and on, but..."
"What? You don't have enough ego to believe you're eternal?"
"To tell the truth, I don't think about it much. Either way, I can't see how it would change my day-to-day life. I know only one way to live. But what's this got to do with science?"
"Tons. The more science pushes back the unknown, the more uncertain transcendence seems. So people overreact. The rational gives them no comfort, so they toss it out and cling to the irrational, no matter how potty."
Jack looked at Abe. "We both know there are things in this world that don't have an easy explanation."
"You mean like the rakoshi."
"Right. They didn't exactly yield to the scientific method."
"But they were real. Don't forget, I was down there at the Battery when that one came out of the harbor. I saw it with my own eyes, saw it slice up your chest. You go through something like that, who needs belief? And you, you still have the scars. You know."
Jack's hand instinctively moved to his chest and fingered the rubbery ridges through the fabric of his T-shirt.
"But a rakosh doesn't fit with what we know of the world."
"True. But the key word there is 'know.' I can't explain it, but maybe someone else can. A maven with special knowledge perhaps. I contend that everything is explicable-everything, that is, except human behavior-if you have sufficient knowledge. The knowledge part is critical. You and I both have some of that knowledge-you more than I because you've seen more of it. We know there's a dark force at work in this world-"
"The Otherness," Jack said, thinking about how it had intruded on his life over the past year. "But that's just a name somebody gave it."
"From what you've told me, it's not a thing; more like a state of being. The word 'Otherness' doesn't tell us much about it. Whatever it is, at this point it's unknowable. We do know that it can't be warded off by crystals and charms and it won't be summoned by incantations and sacrifices. So all the mumbo-jumbo these New Agers and the End of Days folk and the UFO culusts and all their fellow travelers immerse themselves in is useless. The real darkness in this world doesn't reveal itself; it abides by its own laws and follows its own agenda."
Jack found himself thinking about his sister. He blamed her death on the Otherness.
"I never told you what Kate said to me just before she died. Something about 'the dark' coming. She said the virus in her head was letting her see it. She said the 'dark is waiting but it will be coming soon.' Said it was going to roll over everything."
"With all due respect to your sister-and I should maybe never forgive you for not bringing that fine woman to meet me-she was in extremis. She probably didn't know what she was saying."
"I think she did, Abe. I think she was talking about the Otherness getting the upper hand here. It sort of fits with scraps I've been picking up since the spring. The events after that conspiracy convention, hints from the guy running the freak show, and what that crazy Russian lady said to me at Kate's graveside, they all hint at the same thing: a bad time coming, one that'll make all other bad times look like a picnic. The worst time ever for the human race, worse than all the plagues and world wars rolled into one."
Abe stared at him, his expression grim. This fit in with the civil holocaust he'd been predicting forever. "Did she say what we could do about it?"
Kate had also told Jack that only a handful of people were going to stand in the way of the darkness, and that he was one of them. But he didn't mention that.
Abe shrugged again. "Well, then?"
"That's not why I brought it up. I'm wondering if maybe people sense this darkness approaching. Not consciously, but on a primitive, subconscious level. Maybe that explains why so many people are turning to fundamentalist and orthodox religions-ones that offer a clear and simple answer for everything. Maybe that's why conspiracy theories are so popular. These people sense something awful coming but can't put their finger on what it is, so they look for a belief system that will give them an answer and a solution."
"What about us poor schmucks who don't have a belief system to lean on?"
Jack sighed. "We'll probably be the ones stuck in the trenches dealing with the real thing when it comes along."
"You think this earthquake had something to do with it?"
"I can't see how, but that doesn't mean anything. Lately I've seen too many innocent-seeming situations take a sharp turn and head into the can at ninety miles an hour."
He thought about last night... and how that quake seemed to hit just as he and Gia stepped over the threshold of Menelaus Manor. He wanted to think that was coincidence, but it was not comforting to know that the house sat on a crack in the earth's crust, a direct channel down to a lode of ancient rock that was not resting easy.
He wondered if Ifasen was feeling any aftershocks.
"Now, if we will all place our hands on the table, palms flat down... that's it... when we're all relaxed, we shall begin."
Lyle looked at his three sitters arrayed around the round oak pawfoot table. The two middle-aged women, Anya Spiegelman and Evelyn Jusko, had been here before, and he knew all about them. Vincent McCarthy was new. A blank. All Lyle had known about him until his arrival a few moments ago was his name.
But now he knew a fair bit about him. And he'd learn much more in the next few minutes. Lyle loved the challenge of a cold reading.
"I want everyone to close their eyes for a moment and breathe deeply... just a few breaths to calm you. Turmoil interferes with spirit contact. We must be at peace..."
Peace... Lyle needed to be relaxed to do this right. At least the house was at peace. The windows and doors had stopped opening shortly before the sitters arrived. Now... if only he could be at peace.
Not easy after calling Kareena's apartment this morning and having a man answer, hearing him say Kareena was in the shower and ask if he was from the radio station.
He had to put his anger and his hurt on hold. He'd let Kareena screw with his emotions, he wasn't about to let her screw up his livelihood. Put aside the negative feelings and be positive... at least for now. Concentrate on Vincent McCarthy.
Lyle opened his eyes and studied him. He guessed his age in the neighborhood of forty, and knew he had a few bucks. His Brooks Brothers golf shirt and expensive lightweight summer slacks said so; so did the shiny new Lexus SC 430 hardtop convertible he'd parked in the driveway. No tattoos on his tanned forearms; no earring; just a simple gold band on the ring finger. And check out those fingers: clean, no calluses, manicured nails.
So we're dealing with a married, well-heeled white dude in his forties. He's come to Astoria to sit in a darkened room on a perfect Saturday for golf. That can only mean he's big-time worried about something.
Money? Not likely.
Business. Also unlikely. If Vincent is in business he either owns it or he's a high-up executive. He knows his way around a spreadsheet and a boardroom; he's not going to consult the spirit world about a territory where he considers himself an alpha male.
Marriage? Possibly. The skills that make him successful in the money end of his life do not necessarily transfer to the emotional side. He could be a klutz in the relationship arena.
Health? He looks well himself, but he could be worried about someone else's health. Wife, parent, or child.
Lyle closed his eyes and decided to go with health. Nudge around the perimeter witfi a series of try-ons and see what the man would reveal. If that didn't pan out, he could backtrack to the marriage, but he doubted that would be necessary.
"Since the spirits shun the light, we will make the room more inviting to them."
Back in Charlie's command post, a little room behind the south wall that he'd packed with all his electronic gizmos, his brother would pick up Lyle's words through the tiny microphone hidden in the chandelier directly above, and act accordingly. Sure enough, the overhead bulbs dimmed until only the faint glow of a single red bulb lit the table area.
"I feel it," Lyle said. "I feel the gates opening..." Charlie's cue to direct a little cold air at the table. "... to allow us contact with the Other Side." He let his head fall back, opened his mouth, and let out a long, soft, "Aaaaaaaaaaaahhhh."
The sound wasn't all show. A good deal of it was real, a pliant ecstasy easing from his soul, like leisurely sex-
That he wasn't having.
Stop! Don't blow this because of a cheating...
Easy... easy... he reminded himself that this was when he felt most alive, this was when he was in control, when he ruled this, his little corner of the world. The rest of his life might be in chaos right now, but in this time, in this place, he called the shots. He was the master...
Master of illusion... that was his self-declared moniker in his teens. And he hadn't been stroking himself. That was exactly what he'd become after Momma died. Or rather, was killed. She'd been carrying a sack of groceries through Westwood Park on her way back from the market, crossing the street with the walking green, when two cars out of nowhere, one chasing the other, trading 9mm slugs, ran the red and knocked her forty feet through the air. The hit-and-run bastards were never found.
To the rest of the city she'd been just another noncombatant fatality in Detroit's crack wars. But to Lyle and Charlie she'd been the world. Their father was a shadow in Lyle's memory and didn't exist at all in Charlie's. Dad's brother, Uncle Bill, used to stop by now and again, but nobody had heard from him since he left for the West Coast.
So there they were, the Kenton brothers, Lyle sixteen, Charlie twelve, all alone, existing on the help of the neighbors, but all too soon the Child Welfare folks came sniffing. He and Charlie could pretend no one was home for only so long before they missed one too many rent payments and wound up on the street or, worse, were split up and placed in foster care.
So Lyle decided to become his Uncle Bill. He'd been tall for his age then, and with the help of a fake beard and some make-up, he fooled the social worker. He still remembered Maria Reyes, MSW, a good woman with a sincere desire to help. She believed that Lyle was Bill Kenton; she believed that Saleem Fredericks-a friend from downstairs in the project he borrowed for the home inspection visits-was Lyle.
And Lyle learned something then: the power of belief, and the even greater power of the desire to believe, the need to believe. Ms. Reyes believed because she wanted to believe. She didn't want to split up the brothers; she'd wanted a blood relative as legal guardian, and so she'd believed everything Lyle tossed her way.
Or had she? Years later Lyle began to wonder if Ms. Reyes had seen through him all along. Wondered if she'd been taken in not by his performance but by his determination to hold together the remnants of his tattered family, and that was why she'd allowed him to become his own legal guardian. Someday he'd have to track her down and ask.
Whatever the truth, sixteen-year-old Lyle Kenton had found his calling: the scam. If he could scam the city, he could scam anyone. His first paying gig was as a slider for a downtown monte game, watching the street for the heat, ready to make the call that would fold the game. He quickly learned the shaker's verbal codes and moved up to the stick position where he'd stand around the table and shill the marks into the game, but all his off hours he spent practicing the moves so he could become a shaker and start his own game.
But after a particularly close call when he'd barely outrun one of the plainclothes D's who'd broken up their game, he cast about for something equally profitable but a little less risky. He found it: a psychic hotline. An audition with a phony Jamaican accent got him hired. After a few hours of practice with a list of cold-reading questions, he joined the crew of men and women-mostly women-in a loft filled with phones and baffle boxes.
Everything he was taught had been geared to keeping the mark on the line as long as possible. First, get the name and address so the mark can be put on a mailing list as a customer for everything from tarot decks to fortune-telling eight balls. Next, convince them you've got a direct line to the Afterlife and the wells of Ancient Knowledge, tell them what they want to hear, make them beg for more-more-more, say anything you want but keep them on the fucking line. After all, they were paying five or six dollars a minute to hear psychic wisdom, and Lyle was getting a piece of the action. In no time he was bringing down a grand or better a week without breaking a sweat.
He-as Uncle Bill-and Charlie moved out of the projects and into a garden apartment in the suburbs. It wasn't much, but after Westwood Park, it was like Beverly Hills.
That was when he'd begun calling himself Ifasen-he'd found it in a list of Yoruba names-and developing a West African accent. Soon hotline callers were asking for Ifasen.
No one else would do. This did not endear him to his bosses, who were in the business of selling a service, not creating star players.
So in his off hours he started looking for something new. On a sunny Sunday morning in Ann Arbor he stumbled across the Eternal Life Spiritualist Church. He sat in on a healing session. The needle on his bullshit meter immediately jumped into the red zone but he stayed for the worship and messages meeting. At the end, as he watched one person after another write "love offering" checks to the church, he knew this was his next step.
He joined the Eternal Life Church, signed up for medium development workshops, and hit it off with the pastor, James Gray. Soon he was serving the church as a student medium, which meant he became privy to and a participant in all the chicanery. After a year or so of this, the Reverend Doctor Gray, a big, burly white guy who thought having a young African-sounding black man as an assistant added to the mystical ambiance of his church, took him aside and gave him some invaluable advice.
"Get yourself educated, son," he told Lyle. "I don't mean a degree, I mean learning. You're gonna be dealing with all sorts of people from all walks of life with many different levels of education. You want to be a success in this you've got to have a wide range of knowledge on a lot of subjects. You don't need to be an expert in any of them, but you need a nodding acquaintance."
Lyle took that advice, sneaking into classrooms and auditing courses at U of M, Wayne State, and the University of Detroit Mercy, everything from philosophy to economics to western literature. That was where he began scouring the street from his speech. Didn't earn a single credit, but a whole world had opened up to him, a world he took with him when he and Charlie left Ann Arbor for Dearborn to strike out on their own.
There Lyle set himself up in a storefront as a psychic advisor. They worked their asses off to perfect their techniques. The money was good, but Lyle knew he could do better. So they moved on.
And landed here, in an upper corner of Queens, New York.
Do it before you're thirty, they said. Well, Lyle had turned thirty last month, and he'd done it.
And now, sitting in the first real estate he'd ever owned, Lyle Kenton slipped his hands forward along the polished oak surface of the table, allowing the ends of the metal bars strapped to his forearms within the sleeves of his coat to slip under the edge of the tabletop. He raised those forearms and his end of the table followed.
"There it goes!" Evelyn whispered as the table tipped toward her. "The spirits are here!"
Lyle eased back on his arms and worked one of the levers Charlie had built into the legs of the pawfoot table to raise its far side, right under Vincent McCarthy's hands. Lyle peeked and saw McCarthy's eyebrows arch, but he gave no sign that he was overly impressed.
"Whoops!" Anya giggled as her chair tilted in response to an electronic signal from Charlie's command post. "There it goes again! Happens every time!"
Then Evelyn's tilted, then McCarthy's. This time he looked perplexed. Table tipping he might be able to write off, but his chair...?
Time to make him a believer.
"Something is coming through," Lyle said, squeezing his eyes shut. "I believe it concerns our new guest. Yes, you, Vincent. The spirits detect turmoil within you. They sense you are concerned about something."
"Aren't we all?" McCarthy said.
Lyle kept his eyes closed but he could hear the smirk. Vincent wanted to believe-that was why he was here-but he felt a little silly too. He was nobody's fool and wasn't about to let anyone pull a fast one on him.
"But this is a deep concern, Vincent, and not about anything so crass as money." Lyle opened his eyes. He needed to start picking up on the nonverbal cues. "This wrenches at your heart, doesn't it."
McCarthy blinked but said nothing. He didn't have to; his expression spoke volumes.
"I sense a great deal of confusion along with this concern."
Again, he nodded. But Lyle had expected that. If McCarthy wasn't confused, he wouldn't be here.
Lyle half-closed his eyes and pressed his fingers to his temples, assuming his Deep Concentration pose. "I sense someone from the Other Side trying to contact you. Your mother perhaps? Is she still alive?"
"Yes. She's not well, but she's still with us."
That could be it. But now to salvage the remark about the mother.
"Then why do I have this sense of a definite maternal presence? Very loving. A grandmother, perhaps? Have your grandmothers crossed over?"
"Ah, perhaps that's who it is then. One of your grandmothers... although I'm not sure which side yet. But it will come, it will come... it's getting clearer..."
McCarthy, Lyle thought. Irish. Would Grandma McCarthy have been over here or back in Ireland? Didn't matter that much. Lyle knew a surefire Irish grabber. Never failed.
"I'm sensing a great love for an American president in this person... can that be right? Yes, this woman had a special place in her heart for President Kennedy."
Vincent McCarthy's eyes damn near bugged out of his head. "Gram Elizabeth! She loved Kennedy! She was never the same after he was shot. This is incredible! How can you know that?"
What Irish grandmother didn't love Kennedy? Lyle wondered.
"Oh, you wouldn't believe what he knows," Anya whispered.
"Ifasen's amazing," Evelyn added. "Knows everything, just everything."
"I know nothing," Lyle intoned. "It's the spirits who know. I am but a channel to and from their wisdom."
Lyle could see the hunger in McCarthy's eyes. He wanted more. He was knee deep in belief and wanted to take the plunge, but his Irish Catholic upbringing was holding him back. He needed a push, wanted a push. And Lyle would give it to him, but not quite yet.
Better to let him dangle for a while.
Lyle turned to Evelyn.
"But something else is coming through, a stronger signal, directed, I believe, at Ms. Jusko."
Evelyn's hands flew to her mouth. "Me? Who is it? Is it Oscar? Is he calling me?"
Yes, it was going to be Oscar, but Lyle intended to draw this out a bit. Oscar was her dear departed dog. Two months ago she'd come to Lyle wanting to know if he could contact her pet on the Other Side. Of course he could. Trouble was, she hadn't told him what breed Oscar was or what he looked like, and Lyle hadn't been about to ask.
He didn't have to.
During the first sitting-private at Lyle's insistence, because animals were so hard to track down on the Other Side-Charlie had sneaked in while the lights were out and borrowed Evelyn's handbag. Back in his control room he'd rifled through it and found a stack of pictures of a mahogany Vizsla. He'd relayed a description to Lyle's ear piece. Before returning the bag he appropriated a dog whistle he'd found lodged in the bottom of the bag.
Lyle had amazed Evelyn by describing Oscar to her, right down to his jeweled collar. The woman had been so grateful to learn that he was happy chasing rabbits through the Elysian Fields of the Afterlife that she'd left a $2,500 love donation on her way out the door.
"Yes," Lyle said now. "I believe it's Oscar. And he seems a little upset."
"Oh, no!" Evelyn said. "What's wrong?"
"I'm not sure. It seems you misplaced something of his and he wonders if you still care about him."
"Misplaced? What could I have misplaced?"
In a few moments, Evelyn was going to receive her first apport-an object magically transported by the spirit world from one place to another. Following Lyle's cues, Charlie-dressed all in black-would approach when the time was right and drop Oscar's old dog whistle onto the table.
"I'm not sure. Oscar's not telling me. No, wait, he's got something with him, holding it in his jaws. I'm not sure what it is or what he intends to do with it. He's coming closer... closer..."
Charlie too should be coming closer-
"Why is it so cold?" Anya said.
"Yes," Evelyn agreed, rubbing her upper arms. "It's freezing in here."
Lyle felt it too. A blanket of dank, frigid air had settled over the table. He rubbed his hands together. His fingers were going numb. But he sensed more than just a drop in temperature. A change in mood seemed to have moved in with the cold air. Anger... no, more than anger... a bitter, metallic rage...
Lyle jumped as Anya screamed. He saw her and her chair fly backward and crash against the wall. McCarthy's chair tipped back, dumping him onto the floor. Lyle felt himself pushed forward, as if by a hurricane-force wind, jamming his abdomen against the table, and then the table itself tipped, precipitating him onto Evelyn. As they tumbled to the floor, Lyle heard glass breaking all around him. He rolled over and saw the drapes flying back as the blackened window panes shattered, imploding one after the other and littering the floor with glittering shards of glass. Stark yellow sunlight poured in. The statues he'd arranged around the room were tumbling over, some of them cracking on the hardwood floor.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the tumult ceased. Dazed, Lyle struggled to his feet and helped Evelyn to hers. McCarthy was helping Anya up. No one looked seriously injured by the incident, but the Channeling Room... it was a shambles. Lyle did a slow turn and saw that every piece of glass in sight-the windows, even the two mirrors on the walls-had been smashed.
"It's your fault!" Anya screamed, pointing a trembling finger at Evelyn. "You angered your dog's spirit, and now look what happened!"
Evelyn began to cry. "I don't know what I did! I can't imagine what the poor dear could be upset about!"
"Let's stay calm, everybody," Lyle said. "I don't think Oscar was responsible for this."
He goddamn well knew no fucking dead dog had anything to do with it, but who was responsible? And how had they done it?
"This is incredible!" Vincent McCarthy was saying. "I never believed... thought this was all bullshit... but now..."
"I think it was the earthquake last night," Lyle said, trying to salvage the situation. "Seismic waves radiate into the spirit world and cause..."
What was the word he was looking for? He shoved his shaking hands into his pockets. His heart was pounding and his brain had been scrambled by this cataclysm. Think, damn it! Disruption-that was the word.
"... and cause disruptions in the transmission of information. Maybe it would be better if we rescheduled this for another time. Next Saturday, perhaps?"
"Oh dear, I don't think I can wait that long!" Evelyn said. "If poor Oscar is upset-"
"Maybe a private session tomorrow night, then," Lyle said. "The seismic disturbances will have faded by then. I believe I can squeeze you in. As a matter of fact, I'll make it a point to squeeze you in."
"Oh thank you, Ifasen! Thank you!"
Got to salvage something from this debacle, he thought.
"I want to come back too," Vincent McCarthy said.
"Me too!" Anya cried.
Lyle held up his hands. "I'll see that you're all taken care of. Let's just move into the waiting room so I can find places where I can schedule you."
"Tell me that was you, Charlie," Lyle said after he'd ushered the three sitters out the door. "Tell me that was some new gag that went wrong."
Charlie shook his head. "Nuh-uh. I was crawlin' my way to the table with the dog whistle when the spirits started wrecking things."
"The spirits'! Charlie, boy, have you lost your mind?"
"Forgive me, Lord, I know it's a sin to believe in such things, but how else you gonna explain what happened here?"
"Last night you said it was God sending us a warning, now it's spirits? Make up your mind, Charlie."
"Making up my mind ain't the point, yo. I don't know what's happenin', but you gotta be blind or stupid or both not to know something's happenin'!"
"Yeah. We're being gaslighted. You saw that guy running last night. You saw the gas can. You going to tell me now that was a spirit?"
"No. Course not. But that different. That-"
"No different. They couldn't burn us out, so they're trying to scare us out. First the doors and windows, now this. Same people behind everything."
"Yeah?" Charlie said. "Then we up against some real geniuses. Anybody who can open and close windows and doors and mess up a room like they did today should be workin' for the CIA."
"Maybe they once did. CIA's into everything." He gestured at the shattered windows. "Sound shatters glass, right? How about ultra-high frequency sound waves that..."
Charlie was shaking his head. "No way. We got company, man. Told you that last night. The earthquake opened a gate and shook somethin' loose. This house possessed, yo."
"And I told you I'm not going there! Some very human assholes tried to scare us and scare off our sitters. That's it, pure and simple. But guess what? It backfired. The fish thought they witnessed a bona fide, super-duper supernatural event and they're totally sold. They think Ifasen's the realest of the real deals and they want more-more-more!"
He started when the phone rang. Without thinking-normally he'd check the ID or let the voice mail pick it up-he snatched it off the cradle.
"Yeah, what?" he snapped.
"H-hello?" Gia said. She hadn't been prepared for such a gruff reception. "Is... is this Ifasen?"
A brief pause, the sound of a throat being cleared, then a more cultured voice. "Pardon me. Yes, this is he. Who is calling, please?"
Gia almost gave in to an urge to hang up. She had no clear idea why she had called in the first place. This was so unlike her...
She'd gone to the Beth Israel outpatient lab this morning where they drew her blood for the pregnancy test. Dr. Eagleton's service had said she'd requested stat results, but when 2 p.m. rolled around and Gia hadn't heard, she called in and learned that Dr. Eagleton was off call. The covering doctor did not return her calls. He left a message via the service that he knew nothing about Gia's lab test and saw no reason why it couldn't wait until Monday.
So she'd called the Beth Israel lab but they'd stonewalled her, saying they couldn't release results to patients, only the ordering doctor.
Burning with frustration, she'd paced the house. Normally she would have talked it over with Jack, but this was not a normal situation. And she didn't know how Jack would take all this. So out of sheer desperation she'd looked up Ifasen's number in his brochure and called him.
Crazy, she knew, but she could be pregnant... with her second child... and Ifasen had told her she'd have two. Jack's rational explanations from last night faded into background noise; he hadn't heard about Junie's bracelet then, how Ifasen had known exactly where it would be.
What else did Ifasen know? She had to ask. She could imagine Jack's expression when he learned that she'd called a psychic. But what could it hurt?
Besides, feeling crummy and worrying about being pregnant had thrown her off balance. The medical profession was doing its best to make her psycho, so she figured she'd give this a shot. Call it alternative medicine.
She swallowed and said, "I was there at your place last night. At the billet reading with Junie Moon. I was the one who asked how many children I'd have."
"Yes. I remember. What can I do for you?" His words came quickly, sounding clipped, impatient.
"I was wondering if I could ask you about your answer."
"Yes. You told me I'd have two children, and I was wondering how you knew that. I don't mean to insult you, but I need to know if you were guessing or-"
"I am sorry Miss, Mrs..."
"DiLauro. Gia DiLauro."
"Well, Gia DiLauro, I am afraid that now is not exactly a good time to discuss this. Perhaps later in the week, when things have settled down a little."
Settled down? Something in his voice...
"Has something happened?"
"Happened?" Abruptly his tone sharpened. "Why do you think something has happened?"
She remembered Jack's impression that Ifasen was afraid of something, and his theory of what and why.
"Did someone make more trouble for you last night after we left?"
"What?" The voice jumped a register. "What are you talking about?"
"One of your competitors, isn't it. Jealous because you're stealing their clients, am I right?"
The silence on the other end was answer enough.
Gia said, "You're probably thinking, 'Hey, I'm the psychic here,' right? But it's nothing like that."
"If you have anything to do with-"
"Oh, no. Please don't think that. I never heard of you before last night. But maybe I can help."
"This is not your concern. And even if it were, I do not see how you-"
"Oh, no. Not me." She laughed; it sounded high and nervous just like she felt. "I'd be no help at all. But I know someone who's very good at this sort of thing. I'll have him give you a call."
Ifasen hemmed and hawed, obviously not wanting to admit that someone with his connections to the Other Side needed help, but once he learned that the matter would be handled with the utmost discretion with no connection to the police, he relented. But he wanted to make the call, so Gia gave him Jack's voice mail number.
What did I just do? Gia thought after she hung up. Me, the one who keeps wanting Jack to find another line of work, I just got him a job. Maybe.
What on earth had possessed her to do such a thing?
Because as much as she hated Jack's work, she wanted to see him back to his old self. That meant getting off his butt and taking on fix-it jobs again. And this one sounded kind of safe. A couple of competing psychics duking it out over clients. Jack could handle them with his eyes closed.
But then, Ifasen had been worried about a bomb last night, hadn't he. She'd forgot about that. How could she be so stupid?
Call him back. Right. Tell him to forget the number she'd given him. Lose it. But why would he listen to her? If he was going to call, he'd call. But maybe he wouldn't call. Maybe he'd figure he could handle this on his own.
She could only hope.
Wondering at the damn funky turns life can take, Jack strolled through the dusk up the front walk of Menelaus Manor for the second time in twenty-four hours.
The first shock was hearing a message from Ifasen on his voice mail. The second was learning that Gia had given him the number. She'd explained the how and why of it between bouts of lovemaking late this afternoon and into the evening. He still didn't quite understand it. She seemed fixated on the two-children bit. Why? He sensed she wasn't telling him everything, but that was unlike her. Usually he was the one with the secrets.
Like the bullet hole in Ifasen's picture window, for instance. He'd spotted it on their way out last night. If he'd seen it going in he'd have turned her around and headed home immediately. Didn't want Gia anywhere near a house someone was using for target practice.
Ifasen's voice mail message had played it coy, saying he was being harassed but giving no specifics. When Jack had called him back the man had said he wanted to try to handle the matter without the police because of the risk of adverse publicity. Did Jack think he could help?
The idea of doing a fix-it job for Ifasen appealed to Jack. Psychics operated in the sort of quasi-legal demimonde he was comfortable in. Plus it offered the possibility of running a con on some scammers, and that was always fun.
So now he was back. A lot more lights on tonight-the front porch and most of the windows were aglow. As Jack stepped up on the porch he noticed that the windows running off to his right were covered in heavy black cloth. The "channeling room," if he remembered, and they hadn't been like that last night. Something must have happened since then. Something bad enough to prompt a call for help.
Jack reached for the bell, but the door opened before he rang.
Ifasen-or the guy who called himself Ifasen-stood in the doorway, staring at him. "You?"
The dark eyes widened in the dark face. "Lyle? I don't know who-?"
"You're Lyle Kenton, and I'm the one you called."
"But... you were here..."
"Last night. I know. Can I come in?"
Lyle stepped aside and Jack slipped past him into the waiting room. His brother stood inside, a few feet behind.
Jack extended his hand. "I'm Jack. You must be Charles."
Charles shook his hand, but his eyes were on his older brother. "How...?"
"Simple, really. All you need is a computer. It's a matter of public record that Lyle and Charles Kenton own this house."
Jack made it sound as if he'd done the search. But Abe had been the one. He was better at that sort of thing.
Jack wandered over to the picture window and examined the bullet hole, noticed how it had been plugged with some sort of glue.
"Looks like a .32." He turned to Lyle. "You have the slug?"
Lyle nodded. "Want to see it?"
"Did some checking up on you too," Lyle said. "Or tried to."
"Really." Jack would have been surprised if he hadn't. "Find my website?"
Another nod. "Charlie did."
"Repairmanjack.com," Charlie said with a hint of disdain. "Pretty beat site. Nothin' but a box to send you email."
"Serves my purposes."
Lyle fingered the end of one of his dreadlocks, twisting it back and forth. "I asked around some. Found someone who's heard of you, but he didn't think you were real. He heard you mentioned by someone who knows somebody whose sister's uncle hired you once. Something along those lines. Like you're some kind of urban legend."
"That's me. Urban legend." Jack hoped to keep it that way. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the pierced window. "Just one shot?"
"One's enough, don't you think? Tried to burn us out last night but I chased them off before they could get the fire started."
"Guns, fire...heavy stuff. You've really pissed someone off."
"I guess so."
"Makes the Chick pamphlets look like a joke."
Lyle frowned. "Chick? What're you...?"
Jack picked up one of the Menelaus Manor brochures and shook out another of the Christian fundamentalist tracts he'd found last night.
He saw Charlie grimace and gaze at the ceiling, so he handed it to Lyle, saying, "Got to be careful who you let into your waiting room."
Lyle frowned as he flipped through the pamphlet. "Yeah, I do." Then he flung it against his brother's chest. "How many times have I-?" He cut himself off and glared. "Later, bro."
Jack took a mental step back and watched the pair, trying to get an angle on what was going on. A little tension between the Kenton brothers. Then he noticed the WWJD pin on Charlie's shirt.
A Born Again? Part of a spiritualist con? Crazy. It explained the Chick pamphlets, but nothing else.
He wondered how or if that played into why he was here.
Jack cleared his throat. "Any idea which of your competitors might be behind your troubles?"
Lyle shook his head, setting his dreads in motion. "I don't recall saying it was a competitor."
Is this the way we're going to play it? Jack thought as he glanced around. He needed to break through the My-name-is-Ifasen-and-I-am-a-true-psychic facade if this was going to work.
"Okay, then... what else have these mysterious bad guys hit you with?"
"Tried to spook us out this morning by playing games with the doors and windows, then they wrecked the Channeling Room."
"That's why the windows are draped outside?"
Lyle nodded. "They're trying to scare off my clients."
"Clients?" Here was a chance to see if he could get a rise out of Ifasen. "That's probably how they think of themselves. But let's call them what you call them: sitters... marks... fish." As Lyle stared at him, Jack smiled and shrugged. "I used to be in the game."
"Game?" Lyle said, his expression going stony. "This is no game. This is my life."
"And your livelihood-a good one, most likely. But you probably already knew I was onto you. I figure you saw me notch my billet last night."
No reaction. The Kenton brothers might as well have been statues.
Time to push a little harder.
"By the way, which one of you sneaked into Junie Moon's apartment and hid her bracelet?" Jack pointed to the younger brother. "I'm betting it was Charlie here. Am I right?"
Charlie's gaze flicked to his brother and back, telling Jack he'd scored a bull's-eye.
"You're accusing us of a crime," Lyle said. His lips had thinned, eyes had narrowed to slits.
"One I've committed myself. The medium I worked for used to send me on errands like that." It was SOP: rifle the sitter's purse while the lights are out, cut a duplicate house key, then pay a visit when nobody's home. "When it works, it's a beaut, isn't it."
"I wouldn't know," Lyle said, still not giving an inch.
Jack tried again. He stepped back and checked out the overhead light fixture.
"That where you stashed the bug? Lady I worked for bugged her waiting room and listened to the sitters as they hung out. Pulled all sorts of inside info from their chatter."
The brothers went into statue mode again.
"Look, guys," Jack said, "if we're going to be working together, we've got to be straight with each other."
"We're not working together yet."
"Fair enough. How about I take a look at what they did to your Channeling Room?"
Lyle stared at him, obviously wary.
"Maybe this is a bad idea," Jack said, only partially faking annoyance as he turned toward the door. "You've already wasted some of my time. Don't see much point in letting you waste more."
"Wait," Lyle said. He hesitated again, then sighed. "Okay, but nothing you see here goes past these walls, agreed?"
"Consider me a priest. With Alzheimer's."
This pulled a grin from Charlie, which he hid behind a cough. Even Lyle's lips twisted a little.
"All right." He moved toward the door to the Channeling Room. "Take a look."
Jack stepped through ahead of the brothers and strode to the middle of the room. He could see that some of the statues had been damaged, and spotted a couple of gaps where mirrors had hung, but on the whole the room didn't look so bad.
"You have to understand that we spent the whole afternoon cleaning up," Lyle said. "Every piece of glass in this room was shattered."
"A bazillion pieces," Charlie said.
Lyle shook his head. "We haven't figured that out yet."
"Mind if I take a look around?"
"Be our guest. You get any ideas, we'd love to hear them."
Jack wandered to the oak seance table. He bent and examined the thick legs and paw feet.
"That area fine," Charlie said. "You wanna check out the windows and mirrors that-"
"I'll get to them."
He found the levers in one of the legs. He seated himself and worked them with his feet, tilting the table this way and that. He nodded his appreciation.
He checked the chairs and found the tip of a steel rod in one leg of each.
"How's this work? A little motor in the seat that pushes the rod down, right? Activate it with a remote and it tilts the sitter's chair. Sweet. You guys design this stuff yourself?"
Charlie glanced at Lyle, who sighed again. "Charlie's the mechanical guru."
Well, well, well, Jack thought. They've finally opened up. Let's hope it's smoother going from here on in.
"How do you handle vibrations from the motor?" he asked Charlie.
"Padding," he said. "Loads of it."
"Nice work," he said, giving him a sincere thumbs up. "Very nice."
Charlie's grin told Jack he'd made a friend.
He moved to the windows, pulled the drapes aside. Every pane was broken, blown into the room, not out. But the old-fashioned wooden mullions that had held them in place remained untouched.
He went from one window to the next; whether facing front, side or rear, the story was the same.
How the hell...?
He turned to the brothers and shrugged. "I've got no answer for you."
"You can't help us?" Charlie said.
"Didn't say that. Can't tell you how this was done, but I can help see it doesn't happen again."
"How?" Lyle said.
"Keep an eye on the place. I'm a one-man operation. I'll put in some personal watch time outside when I can, and set up some motion-triggered cameras for when I can't."
"Why not motion-triggered alarms?" Charlie said.
Lyle grunted. "How about motion-triggered machine guns?"
"Scaring them off isn't as important as finding out who they are. Once we know that, I track them down, and then you tell them to lay off."
"Oh, that'll work," Charlie said with a derisive snort. "Suppose they don't wanna lay off?"
"Then I convince them."
"How?" Lyle asked.
"That's my department. That's why you'll be paying me the big bucks. I can make life miserable for them. When I'm through they'll wish they'd never messed with, or even heard of the Kenton brothers."
Charlie grinned. "I'm down with that."
Lyle frowned, then turned to Jack. "Let's talk about these 'big bucks' you mentioned."
After they'd adjourned to the kitchen, where Lyle and Jack drank beers and Charlie sipped a Pepsi, Lyle tried to angle for a low-ball price, pleading financial straits after the major renovations to the old place, and now the repairs they'd need. Jack wasn't buying, but he did allow for three payments instead of the usual two: he'd take half down, a quarter when he identified the culprits, and the final quarter when he got them to stop.
Lyle still held out, saying he and Charlie would have to discuss it, go over the books, blah-blah-blah before making a final decision. But Jack sensed the decision had been made. He was on.
Damn, it felt good to be working again.
"Let's talk about possible bad guys," Jack said as Lyle handed him a fresh Heineken. "Could anyone local be behind this?"
Lyle shook his head. "There's an old gypsy on Steinway who reads palms and such, and that's about it. Astoria's got a lot of Muslims, you know, and if you believe in Islam, you can't believe in spiritualism."
Jack was thinking things must have been pretty tense around here after the World Trade disaster, but all that had gone down before the Kentons' arrival.
Which brought Jack to a question that had been niggling him since last night. "Then why Astoria?"
"Manhattan's too expensive. All the real estate agents told me rents had dropped after the Trade Center attack, but even so, they were still too high for the amount of space we need."
"For your eventual church."
From Charlie's uneasy expression and the way he started fingering his wwjd pin, Jack figured he'd hit a sore spot.
"When do you figure you'll get yours going?"
"Never, I hope," Charlie said, glaring at Lyle. "Because that's the day I walk out."
"Let's not get into that now, okay?"
Jack tried to break the sudden tension by gesturing at this house around them. "So you went out and found this place in the wilds of Queens."
"Yes. I wanted it because of its history. And because of its history, the price was right."
"All those murders in your brochure are for real?"
Charlie nodded. "Absolutely. This place got some evil history."
"Fine. But the real money's either in Manhattan or in Nassau County, and you're in the great nowhere between. How do you get the money people to make the trip?"
Jack sensed a combination of pride and pleasure in Lyle's grin.
"First off, it's not such a trip. We're handy to the Triboro Bridge, the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, the 59th Street Bridge, the BQE, and the LIE. But the main spur to get them coming here was by having someone tell them to stay away."
"Enlighten me," Jack said.
"My previous mediumship," Lyle said, leaning back, "was in a town-don't ask which because I won't say-that was also home to a fair-size population of Seventh Day Adventists."
"Who've got to believe that spiritualism is a sin."
"Worse. It's the work of Satan, a direct link to the Horned One. They'd post signs around town warning people away, even went so far as to picket my storefront one Sunday. I was pretty scared and worried at first-"
"For about ten minutes," Charlie said.
"Right. Until I realized this could be the best thing that ever happened to me. I called the local papers and TV stations-at the time I wished they'd chosen a Saturday for their protest, but Saturday is their Sabbath-but the media showed up anyway and the result was amazing publicity. People started asking, 'What is it about this Ifasen that has the Adventists so worked up? He must really be onto something.' Let me tell you: business boomed."
Jack nodded. "So, in a sense, you were banned in Boston. Works almost every time."
"Not Boston," Charlie said. "Dearborn." He looked at Lyle and found his brother glaring at him. "What?"
Jack leaned back, hiding a smile. So the Kenton brothers were from Michigan. In the psychic trade you tried to hide as much of your past as possible, especially if you were operating under a phony name. But also because lots of mediums had an arrest history-usually for other bunko scams-and a fair number had had careers as magicians and mentalists before discovering that, unless you were a superstar like Copperfield or Henning, conjuring tricks paid off far better in the seance room than in cocktail lounges and at kids' birthday parties.
He wondered what the Kentons' histories might be.
"Okay that's all fine for Dearborn," Jack said, "but I don't remember any stories about Astoria Adventists acting up."
"Because there aren't any," Lyle said, turning away from his brother, "or at least no group big enough to suit my needs. But I'd planned for that. Before leaving Dearborn"-another scathing look at Charlie-"I laid some groundwork by taking out an ad in the News-Herald to announce my departure. I said I was leaving because the local Adventists had turned so many people against me that I could no longer continue my mediumship in such an atmosphere. I was beaten. They'd won. They wouldn't have Ifasen to kick around anymore. Or words to that effect."
"But I thought you said business was booming."
"It was. Especially 1999. Man, the six months leading up to the millennium had been incredibly good. Best ever." Lyle's voice softened to a reminiscing tone. "I wish '99 could've gone on forever."
Jack knew a couple of grifters who'd told him the same thing. From palm reading to tarot to astrology and beyond, the millennium had proved an across-the-board bonanza for the hocus-pocus trade.
"But it was time to move on," Lyle said.
He rose and leaned against the counter. The more he talked, the more his detached Ifasen pose melted away. The guy probably had no one but Charlie to open up to, and he plainly longed to talk about this stuff. It came spilling out in a rush. Jack doubted he could have stopped him if he wanted to.
"So Charlie and I packed up our show and took it on the road. We bought this place ten months ago and spent most of our savings renovating it. Once we had things set up the way we wanted, I called up the Adventists who'd harassed me before. I told them-using another name, of course-that I was a fellow Adventist who wanted to let them know that the devil Ifasen they'd driven out of Dearborn had resettled in my neighborhood and was starting up his evil schemes to threaten the unwary souls of Astoria. They'd closed him down before. Couldn't they do it again?"
"Don't tell me they bussed in a crew of protesters?"
"That would have been okay, but I had a better idea. I'd already started advertising in the Village Voice and the Observer. I sent the Adventists copies of my ads and suggested they take out space on the same pages to tell folks God's truth."
"You didn't need the Adventists for that," Jack said. "You could have run your own counter ads."
"I could have. But I wanted them to be legit if the papers ever checked them out. Plus, those big display ads aren't cheap. I figured if I could get someone else to foot most of the bill, why not?"
"And did they go for it?"
"All the way. I sent them a hundred-dollar money order to get the ball rolling and they took off from there. Big weekly ads for a month."
Jack laughed. "I love it!"
Lyle grinned, the first real break in his studied cool, and it made him look like a kid. Jack found he liked the guy behind the mask.
"Serves them right," Lyle said, his smile fading. "Tried to ruin my game because it interfered with theirs."
"Difference is," Charlie said, frowning, "that they believe in what they're doing. You don't."
"Still a game," Lyle said, his mouth twisting as if tasting something bitter. "Just because we know it's a game and they don't doesn't change things. A game's a game. End of the day we both deliver the same bill of goods."
Tight, tense silence descended as neither of the brothers would look at each other.
"Speaking of delivering," Jack said, "I gather the ads served their purpose?"
"Oh, yeah," Lyle said. "The phone rang off the hook. The ones who made that first trip out here have mostly all come back. And they've been bringing others with them when they do."
"Mostly from the city?"
A nod. "Like ninety percent."
"I'm sure I don't have to tell you that most of these people were going to other mediums before you came along. And if they're your regulars now, that means they've left somebody else. I'll be very disappointed if you don't have a list somewhere of who they were seeing before you."
"Good. I'll be equally disappointed if you haven't run financials on every sitter who's walked through that door as well."
Lyle's expression calcified; he said nothing.
Come on, Jack thought. This guy was an overwound clock. Jack didn't know a player in the spiritualist trade who didn't use names, licenses, credit cards, bank accounts, and Social Security numbers if they could get them, to peek at their sitters' financials.
Finally Lyle's lips twisted into a tight approximation of a reluctant smile. "I can predict no disappointment on that score."
"Excellent. Then here's what you do. Divide your sitters up by their previous gurus; then list them in order of their net worth and/or generosity. Identify the psychics who've lost the most high rollers to you and we'll make that our short list of suspects."
Lyle and Charlie glanced at each other as if to say, Why didn't we think of that?
Jack tossed off the rest of his beer and rose. "Getting late, guys. One of you call me tomorrow about whether or not we're in business."
"Will do," Lyle said. "If we decide yes, when will you want the down payment?"
"Since tomorrow's Sunday, I can pick it up Monday. Cash only, remember. That's when I'll start."
On the way out, even though it was dark and he wasn't officially hired, Jack had Lyle give him a tour of the yard. As he stepped off the front porch he noticed that all the foundation plantings were dead.
"Hey, if you're into this look, I know a bar in the city you'll just love."
"Forgot to mention that. Happened overnight. They must have been poisoned."
"Nasty," Jack said, fingering a stiff, brown rhodo leaf. Felt as if it had died last month and spent the time since in the Mojave Desert. "And petty. I don't like petty people."
Something about the dead plants bothered him. He'd done some landscaping work as a teen. Remembered using defoliants now and again. Didn't remember anything that killed so quickly and thoroughly. Almost as if they'd had all their juices sucked out overnight.
The dead foundation plants aside, the rest of the shrubbery scattered about Menelaus Manor's double lot offered a number of good surveillance points at ground level, but he'd need a high perch. The pitch of the house roof was too steep; the garage roof looked better but was only one story high.
"That garage looks like an afterthought."
Worse than an afterthought. More like a one-car tumor off the right flank of the original structure, destroying its symmetry.
"According to the real estate agent," Lyle said, "that's exactly what it was. Built in the eighties by the original owner's son after he inherited the place-"
"And before he offed himself."
"Obviously. If I ever find a reason to buy a car, I'm sure it'll come in very handy after I've been shopping. Opens right into the kitchen area. Great for when it's raining."
"Or when you don't want anyone to see what you're unloading."
Lyle frowned at him. "Yeah, I guess so. Why'd you say that?"
"I don't know," Jack said. "It just came to me." And that was true. The idea had leaped into his head. He shook it off. "Let's check out that big maple," he said, pointing toward the street.
"Maple," Lyle said as they walked through the dark toward the street. "I'll have to remember that."
"Didn't have many trees where you grew up, I take it."
He sensed Lyle stiffen. "What makes you say that?"
"Your accent's good, but Charlie..."
"Yeah, Charlie," Lyle said through a sigh. "I couldn't do this without him, but I can't let him speak when a sitter's around. He just doesn't get it."
They arrived at the maple that hugged the curb and spread over the sidewalk and the street. It looked good and sturdy but the branches had been trimmed far up the trunk. The lowest hung about ten feet off the ground.
"Give me a boost," Jack said.
Lyle gave him a dubious look.
"Come on," Jack said, laughing. "I know how it's a matter of pride with you scammers about getting your hands dirty, but a little alley oop is all I need and I'll take it from there."
Shaking his head, Lyle laced his fingers together and boosted Jack up to where he could grab the limb. As Jack clambered onto the branch, he noticed Lyle stepping back between two parked cars and into the street.
"Where you going?"
"No offense, but I figured I'd get out of the way in case you and/or that branch come down."
"Aw, and I was counting on you catching me if-"
Jack heard an engine rev. He looked down the street and saw a car with its lights out racing Lyle's way.
Lyle looked around but didn't react immediately. Maybe he didn't see the car right away because its lights were out. When he finally did move, jumping back toward the curb, the car swerved toward him, missing him by a thin breeze as it creased the fender of the parked car to his right.
"That them?" Jack shouted as he swung down from the tree.
The car didn't stop, didn't even slow. Jack glanced at Lyle, who looked shaken but otherwise unscathed.
"I-I don't know."
Jack took off. I'm not even hired yet, he thought as he sprinted along the sidewalk.
He'd started running by reflex but didn't stop. Starting a job without a down payment was against Jack's rules, but after this, Lyle was a pretty sure bet to come across. And a look at the mystery car's license plate tonight might save Jack days of surveillance next week.
He kept to the sidewalk, hoping the driver wouldn't spot him. As the car passed under a street light he saw that it was either yellow or white, but he couldn't identify the make or model. Couldn't be something distinctive like a PT Cruiser, could it; no, had to be one of those generic-looking mid-size sedans that could be a Camry, a Corolla, a Sentra, or any of half a dozen other models. With its lights still off, the Camrollentra's license plate remained hidden in the shadow of the bumper.
Ditmars Boulevard lay maybe a hundred yards ahead. The traffic light showed red. Would the car stop?
Fat chance. Jack saw its brake lights glow as it slowed, but that was it. The Camrollentra cruised the red and turned right.
Jack kept moving, putting a little more juice into his stride. Probably a waste of energy, but who knew? Might get lucky and find that the mystery car had plowed into a cab and locked bumpers. Stranger things had happened.
He rounded the corner and skidded to a stop... just like the traffic. People out on the town for Saturday night had done what the red light hadn't.
Jack started moving again, at a more relaxed pace this time, sorting through the cars in the jam as he strolled past the brightly lit store fronts. Within the first twenty-five yards he found two Camrollentras, one white, one pale yellow. Swell.
But the yellow one had a dented front fender and its headlights were out. The woman in the passenger seat kept looking over her shoulder. Her gaze swept right past him. Looking for someone with lots darker skin, no doubt.
She faced front again, banging on the dashboard and pointing ahead, obviously telling her driver to get moving. But cars were lined up ahead and behind, and the opposite lane was no better. They'd move when everyone else moved.
Coming almost parallel, Jack ducked out of her line of sight and squatted, pretending to tie his shoe. After checking to make sure no one was paying attention, he crab-walked between two parked cars. This placed him two feet from the target car's right rear tire. He was close enough now to see that he was dealing with an aging Corolla. He wormed the black-handled Spyderco Endura Lightweight out of his back pocket, did a one-hand flick-out of the four-inch serrated blade, and jabbed it through the sidewall of the tire. Then he slunk back to the sidewalk, made a show of tying his other shoe, and rose again to his feet.
Without a glance back, he checked out the store signs and found a Duane Reade. He'd go with that. Hoped it had what he wanted.
It did. Gotta love these Duane Reades. Called themselves pharmacies but carried so much more. Just about everything anyone could need.
Like duct tape.
Jack walked along, noting that traffic had thinned. He paused by a trash receptacle to open the pantyhose package; he cut off one of the legs and threw the rest away. Then he moved on, searching for the yellow Corolla. He went three blocks without seeing it. Had they decided to keep driving, flat tire or no? He hadn't figured on that because it was sure to draw attention, maybe even a police stop, and they'd want to avoid something like that.
As he was crossing a side street, heading into block four, he heard a clank of metal off to his right. Stopped, listened, heard a man's voice cursing in English. Peered up the block and saw a man and a woman by the curb just past a streetlight. The man knelt by the wheel of a pale Corolla that had pulled in next to a fire hydrant, the woman stood, as if on guard.
"Come on, come on!" said the woman. "Can't you do this any faster?"
"Fucking lugs are rusted. I-" Another clank. "Shit!"
Jack stepped off Ditmars and crept up the other side of the street, keeping low behind the parked cars. When he came even with the Corolla he found a pool of shadow and watched from there.
The man was average height, maybe forty, with receding hair and a medium-size gut; she was pint-size, five-one, tops, and built like a fire plug. The mouth on her would make Eminem blush.
Obviously the guy hadn't changed too many tires, and his companion's constant bitching didn't help, but finally he got the spare onto the wheel. When the car was off the jack, the woman got back into the front seat.
As the man gathered up his tools, Jack pulled the pantyhose leg over his head; slipped his left wrist through the roll of duct tape and ripped off a six-inch length; stuck this to his left forearm and waited for the man to lift the flat tire.
When he did, Jack dashed across the street, straight at him. He didn't see Jack until he was in his face. Guy's mouth dropped open into a terrified O as he looked up but both his hands were burdened with tire, making him a sitting duck for the fist that rammed into his nose. Dropped the tire as his head snapped back. Jack grabbed his shirt, hauled him forward, and flung him into the trunk. Guy was dazed, didn't struggle as Jack pushed his legs over the rim and slammed the lid closed.
Without slowing Jack slipped around to the passenger side, pulling his knife and flicking out the blade as he moved. The raised trunk lid had hidden him from the passenger. Now he yanked open the door and slapped a hand over her unsuspecting yap.
He wiggled the knife blade before her terrified eyes and spoke, raising his pitch in a bad German accent, one that wouldn't have made the cut even on Hogan's Heroes.
"Vun peep unt you ah dead!"
She glanced at his stocking-distorted face, made a soft noise that sounded like, "Gak," then shut her mouth.
"Dat's da spirit."
Jack replaced the hand over her mouth with the length of duct tape. Then he pulled her out of the front and pushed her face down on the back seat where he taped her hands behind her back and wrapped up her ankles.
Final touch: flipped her face up and taped over her eyes-a vertical strip on each, then twice around the head. Rolled her onto the floor, then got her buddy out of the trunk and went through the same procedure on him.
All told, a two-minute process. Maybe less.
Jumped into the driver's seat, hit the ignition, and they were rolling. Pulled off the stocking and rubbed his itching face. Then he addressed his whimpering, struggling audience of two.
"You ah probably vondering vhy I haff brought us togezzer like zis. It iss a mattah of money. I need, you gots. So vee ah all going zumplace nize unt private vhere vee can make zee exchange. Nuzzing perzonal. Opportunity has knocked unt I haf anzzered. Do not giff me troubles unt you vill valk avay in vun piece. Zat iss clear, yah?"
He didn't care if they bought the accent; he simply didn't want them to recognize his normal speaking voice when they heard it. Because if his plans worked out, they'd be hearing it fairly soon.
After driving aimlessly for twenty minutes, making a succession of unnecessary lefts and rights, bogus three-point turns, Jack was fairly lost. He figured if he was confused, his passengers had to be completely disoriented.
He found Ditmars Boulevard again, reoriented himself, then meandered back to the Kentons' house. When he pulled into the driveway, Lyle and Charlie hurried out onto the front lawn. Jack jumped out and motioned them to be quiet. He led them to the car and pointed through the rear window. The brothers started when they saw the two bound forms on the back seat and turned to him with wide eyes. Jack motioned them to open the garage door.
When the car had been moved inside and the door closed behind it, Jack motioned them into the house.
"They're the ones?" Lyle said, his voice barely above a whisper even though the car was far out of earshot.
"The ones who tried to run me down?"
"But how did they wind up...?"
"Part of the service."
"Who are they?"
"We'll find that out in a couple of minutes. By the way, I hope I'm hired. Otherwise I'll have to throw them back."
"Don't worry," Lyle said. "You're hired. You're so very hired. Do we sign a contract or something?"
"Yeah," Jack said, and stuck out his hand. "Here it is."
Lyle shook it, then Charlie.
"That's it?" Lyle said.
"Ay, yo, you kidnapped them!" Charlie said.
"Technically, yes. Does that bother you?"
"No, but the cops, the FBI-"
"Won't ever hear about this. Those people never saw me, and they don't know their car is parked in your garage." Jack rubbed his hands together. Time to learn a little about the Kenton brothers. "So, the question now is, what do you want to do to them? We can break their arms, break their legs, break their heads..."
He watched their expressions, was glad for the revulsion reflected there.
"Oh, man," Lyle said. "This afternoon I wanted blood. I wanted to kill them. Now..."
"Yeah," Jack said. "They are kind of pathetic looking. Personally I prefer messing with heads to breaking them."
"Mess with their heads," Charlie said, looking relieved. "Yeah, I'm down with that. Sound like the way to go."
Lyle nodded. "Fine with me. How?"
"First off, some rules. Only I speak in their presence, and I'll sound like Colonel Klink. Not a word out of you two because they might know your voices. We don't want them connecting you with this, right?"
They both nodded.
"Good. That settled, the first thing we'll do is take them out of the car, lay them on the floor, strip search them-"
"Yo. Rewind there. Strip 'em?"
"Right. I think a little humiliation will be good for the souls of a couple of attempted murderers, don't you? Plus, it'll keep them cowed; nothing makes you feel more vulnerable and helpless than being without your clothes. On top of all that, it'll scare the hell out of them, wondering if we've got some twisted sexual plans for them."
"But we don't, right?" Charlie said with a pleading look.
"You kidding?" Jack said. "You got a look at them. Having them lying around naked will be lots tougher on us than them."
"And after that?" Lyle said.
"We comb through their clothes, their wallets and pocketbooks, the glove compartment, learn everything we can about them, then decide how you guys get even."
Jack noticed their reluctant expressions. Like true scam artists, they didn't like getting physical.
"If it makes you too uncomfortable, I can do it alone. But things'll move much faster if I have some help."
Lyle glanced at Charlie, then sighed. "Lead the way."
Twenty minutes later they were back in the kitchen.
Jack dumped the man's wallet, the woman's pocketbook, and the contents of the glove compartment onto the table, then began sorting through them.
Lyle had this dazed expression. He'd looked that way since they found a .32 caliber pistol in the trunk's now-empty spare tire well.
"Those two people," he muttered. "They want me dead."
"What gives you that idea?" Jack said. "Just because they shot at you, tried to burn down your house, and run you down with their car?"
"This isn't funny."
Jack looked up from the car registration and driver licenses he'd collected. He had to lighten this guy up.
"Damn right it's not funny. Especially cutting their clothes off." He cringed at the memory of the woman's pale, squat, flabby body. "I had to keep mentally dressing her."
Finally a smile from Lyle. This was one major stiff.
"Okay," Jack said. "From what I can gather here, we're dealing with a married couple, Carl and Elizabeth Foster."
Lyle pulled a stack of business cards from the purse and shuffled through them. "I'll be damned!"
"Not if I can help it," Charlie said.
If Lyle heard, he didn't acknowledge the remark. "She's Madame Pomerol! I've heard of her. She was on Letterman."
Jack rarely watched talk shows. "She's big time?"
"Pretty much. Upper East Side. I hear she's been hot the past few years. Her name's popped up quite a bit from my sitters-a lot of them used to be Pomerol regulars."
"There you go," Jack said. "You know who, and now you know why."
"They Upper East Side?" Charlie said. "How come they got such a hooptie ride?"
Jack was about to explain that it was a city thing, but Lyle cut him off.
"The bitch!" he muttered, still staring at Madame Pomerol's business card. "She tried to kill me!"
"The husband was driving the car that just missed you, don't forget," Jack told him. "Looks like a joint effort to me."
"Yeah, but I bet she's been running the show."
Charlie said, "Yeah, well, don't really matter who was the shot calla. The right-now real is that our garage is holdin' two butt-naked honkies tied up like calves ready for slaughter. What we gonna do with them?"
"Not sure yet," Jack said. He was winging it here; usually he went into a job with at least half a plan, but events tonight had moved too swiftly. "The more immediate question is, What are we gonna do to them?"
Charlie was watching Jack. "What you mean, 'to'? I know they tried to hurt us-"
"They tried to kill us, Charlie," Lyle said. "Not hurt us, kill us! Don't you forget that!"
"A'ight. So they tried to off us. But that don't give us no right to off them." He was fingering his WWJD button again. "We gotta turn the other cheek and hand them over to the police."
Jack didn't like the way this was going. "Do that and you leave yourself open for charges like assault and battery, kidnapping, unlawful confinement, and who knows what else," he said. "You want that?"
"No way," Charlie said.
"And who said anything about killing them?"
"Well, the way Lyle talkin'-"
Lyle said, "I didn't mean we should kill them, Charlie. For Christ sake, you know me better than that! It's just that I don't know what we've accomplished here besides figuring out who they are. We let them go and they're right back on our asses tomorrow, trying to off us or run us out of town. I don't want to keep looking over my shoulder, man. I want this done with!"
"That's where I come in," Jack said. He felt the adrenaline start to flow, singing along his nerves as the beginnings of a plan took shape. He took one of the Madame Pomerol business cards from Lyle and waved it in the air. "We've got their address. We've got a set of their keys. Let's see if we can rig some surprises for them."
Charlie nodded. "I'm down with that. What you got in mind?"
"Still working on it, but I think I can find a few ways to keep Madame Pomerol too distracted to worry about bothering you. At least in the short run. We can worry about the long run later. But if I'm gonna make a move it's got to be tonight, and that means I'll need some help." He turned to Charlie. "Where's your key cutter?"
Charlie blinked and looked at Lyle. "Key cutter?"
"I know you've got one. Take me to it. We're wasting time."
"Do it," Lyle said.
Charlie shrugged. "Okay. We doin' copies of their crib keys?"
"You got it. And while we're at it, what do you keep in the way of spare parts for your magic tricks?"
Charlie grinned. "Got boxes and boxes."
"Swell. Show me your stock and let's see if you've got anything we can put to use."
Jack didn't know how the night would turn out, but he knew he'd be a lot later getting to Gia's than he'd planned. Had to give her a call soon. But not now. His blood was tingling and he felt more alive than he had in months.
Lyle ground his teeth as he wandered into the garage for another check on Madame Pomerol and her husband. Jack and Charlie had raced off to the city almost two hours ago, leaving him in charge of the... what? Prisoners? Hostages? Human garbage?
Whatever they were they were back in their car-the husband on the rear floor, Madame Pomerol on the back seat, both face down. Lyle had taken the tattered remnants of the clothes they'd cut off them earlier and tossed them over their naked bodies. But that hadn't been enough, so he'd found an old blanket to cover them. He didn't want to have to see their puckered, hairy asses every time he checked on them.
His fury frightened him.
Mainly because the windows and doors had started opening themselves again. Taking a shot at him, trying to run him down, he could handle that. Where he came from, you understood that. But sneaking into his house, changing it, wiring it to do strange things...
His house, goddammit! The first home he'd ever truly been able to call his own, and these pathetic lowlifes had invaded it, defiled it, made parts of it theirs instead of his.
It made him crazy, made him look long and hard at the carving knives in the kitchen, made him open their car trunk and stare at the nickel-plated pistol they'd fired at him.
But as much as he could think of murder, he knew he couldn't do it. No killer in his heart.
Yet God, how he'd love to scare the shit out of these two. Grab them by their scrawny necks and drag them through the rooms, holding their own piece to their heads, threatening to start busting caps on them if they didn't tell him what they'd done to his house, then stand over them and make them undo it, jab and poke them with the barrel when they didn't move as fast as he wanted.
But Jack had said the Fosters mustn't know where they were, mustn't connect their abduction to Lyle and Charlie Kenton. Lyle had never been one to take orders blindly, but this Jack guy... Lyle had to make an exception for him. You pay a man that kind of bread, you'd better listen to him. Besides, the man got things done.
The phone rang. Lyle checked the caller ID and picked up when he recognized Charlie's cell number.
"We through, bro," Charlie said. "We done our business and we headin' home."
"What'd you do?"
"Tell you when I get there, but lemme tell you, dawg, it fine! This Jack is righteous! Now, we took care of our end, you take care of yours. See ya."
Lyle hung up and took a deep breath. My end... Jack had laid it out before leaving with Charlie. Sounded easy then, but seemed risky now.
He took a deep breath and headed for the garage.
Lyle stopped the Fosters' car in the shadow of a construction Dumpster. With all the rebuilding still going on in the financial district, these things were on every other block; this one seemed particularly large and isolated. He killed the lights and checked the street: nothing moving. This part of Manhattan was just about the quietest spot in town on a Saturday night.
He checked his watch. He'd made good time. The BQE had been light so he'd followed it all the way down to the Brooklyn Bridge and across into lower Manhattan. He'd driven like a timid Sunday school teacher, sticking to the speed limit all the way, signaling every lane change, spending as much time looking in his rearview mirror as through the windshield. The last thing he needed was to get stopped for some minor violation and have to explain what was under the blanket in the rear.
Lyle picked up the carving knife from the seat beside him and thumbed the edge. He noticed the blade quivering in the faint light.
I've got the shakes, he thought. He cast an angry glance over his shoulder. They should have the shakes.
But he'd never done anything like this before.
Let's get this over with.
He pulled the blanket off Madame Pomerol's flabby body, turned her over, gripped her under the arms, and started dragging her from the car. She struggled and he could hear whimpers of fear through her gag, her breath whistling in and out her nose. She'd just spent hours stripped naked, bound, gagged, and blindfolded. Both of them had to be terrified beyond anything they ever could have imagined.
Too bad, Lyle thought as he laid her out on the pavement. Just too goddamn bad.
Next he dragged her husband from the car and rolled him over, face down like his wife. As soon as the man's belly flattened out on the asphalt, a puddle began to form around his mid-section.
What's the matter? Lyle wanted to shout. Think you're gonna die? Think what you planned for me is coming down on you?
He lowered the knife toward the woman and cut three quarters of the way through the tape binding her wrists, then did the same with the man. They'd be able to rip the rest of the way through without too much difficulty.
He hopped back into their car and roared away, looking around, looking over his shoulder, wondering if anyone had spotted him. Lyle was beginning to believe they might get away with this.
He drove to Chambers Street and parked by a fire hydrant. He left the windows down, the doors unlocked, and the trunk open; he left their cut-up clothes on the front seat but folded the blanket and took that along. He dropped the keys through a sewer grate on his way to the subway station on the corner. He'd chosen this spot because the W train stopped here. It also stopped in Astoria, six blocks from his house.
While he was waiting for the train, as per Jack's instructions, he found a pay phone and dialed 911. He noticed his fingers trembling as they dropped the coins into the slot.
Damn! He was still juiced.
He told the operator he'd heard something that sounded like gunshots up on Chambers Street... said he thought it had something to do with a yellow Corolla parked by a hydrant.
The first thing the cops would do would be to check the glove compartment where they'd find the car registration. Next they'd check the trunk and find the .32. Jack had said he'd give high odds that the gun was unregistered.
When the Fosters reported the car stolen, they'd have to explain the unregistered pistol found in their trunk, most likely with their prints on it. If it could be linked to a crime, so much the better. If not, Jack said he had further plans for Madame Pomerol.
Lyle was dying to know what he'd cook up next.
Jack let himself into Gia's house through the front door. He punched a code twice into the alarm keypad-first to disarm, then to rearm it. He glided upstairs and spoke a soft hello into the dark bedroom. Receiving a muffled mumble in reply, he ducked into the bathroom for a quick shower, then slipped under the covers and snuggled against Gia.
"You awake?" he said, nuzzling her neck.
She was wearing a short T-shirt and panties, and he was in the mood. He was definitely in the mood.
"How was your night?" she muttered through barely mobile lips.
"Great. How was yours?"
Jack slipped a hand under her shirt and cupped a breast. It fit perfectly in his hand.
"Just hold me, Jack, okay? Just hold me."
"Not in the mood?"
"Sometimes a girl just likes to be held."
Concerned, he released her breast and folded his arms around her. Couldn't remember the last time Gia had referred to herself as a "girl."
"Just lying here thinking."
"Oh? Got to be about a million of them out there for you. All good."
"I wish I were so sure."
"You're worried about something," he said, pulling her closer. "I sensed it this afternoon. What's up?"
"Like I said, just thinking about possibilities... and the big changes they might bring."
"Good changes or bad?"
"Depends on how you look at them."
"You're losing me here."
Gia sighed. "I know. I'm not trying to be mysterious. It's just... sometimes you worry."
She turned and kissed him. "Nothing. Everything."
"If something's bothering you, shouldn't I know?"
"You should. And when there's-when it's something real-you'll be the first to know."
She slid her hand down his abdomen and gripped him.
"What about just being held?" he said, instantly responding.
"Sometimes that's plenty... and other times it's not quite enough."
IN THE IN-BETWEEN
Other less frightening memories have filtered back to the nameless and placeless one... glimpses of tall buildings and sunlit yards, all so tantalizingly familiar, and yet so resolutely out of reach.
But as comforting as these memories are, they do not lessen the ambient rage. What they represent is gone, and the sense of loss intensifies the rage. The only thing that tempers the fury, keeps it from consuming the nameless one in a blinding explosion is confusion... and loneliness... and loss.
If it had eyes, it would cry.
Still unable to fathom its identity and location, it senses a vague purpose behind its awakening. Like the source of the flitting memory fragments, the nature of the purpose remains elusive. Yet it is there, ripening. Soon, nurtured by the rage, it will blossom.
And then someone, something must die...
IN THE WEE HOURS
Lyle awoke to the sound of music... a piano... something classical. The delicate melody sounded vaguely familiar, but he couldn't identify it. He'd bought some classical CDs for background music in the waiting room, but he'd picked them at random and never listened to them himself. Never understood why people liked classical; but then, he couldn't understand why people liked to drink Scotch either.
Charlie? Not a chance. Not Charlie's taste at all. And Charlie was in the sack. He'd come back from his night ride with Jack babbling about how bustin' he was, how they'd set it up to give Madame Pomerol a taste of her own medicine, and how he wished he could be there when it went down. But then he'd faded fast and said goodnight.
Lyle threw off the sheet and swung his feet to the floor. He didn't want to know the time. Whatever it was, it was too late. He'd given up on trying to keep the windows closed so he'd turned off the AC and gone to bed with them open. The temperature at the moment wasn't too bad, though.
But what's with the music? The same song over and over.
Had Madame Pomerol and her husband screwed with his music system as well? After last night he'd hoped he'd heard the last of them.
As Lyle pounded down the stairs toward the waiting room, he noticed something about the music... thin... just a piano. Where were the strings and the rest of the orchestra? And then he realized it wasn't a CD... it was live... someone was playing the piano in the waiting room.
He burst into the room and stopped dead on the threshold. The lights were out. The only illumination came from the faint glow of the street lights through the open front door. A dark figure sat at the piano, tinkling away on the keys.
Lyle's shakes from earlier in the evening returned, now more from dread than adrenaline, as he reached for the light switch. He found it, hesitated then flipped it.
He groaned with relief when he saw Charlie seated on the piano bench, his back to him. Charlie's head was turned, his eyes closed, a small smile playing about his lips as his fingers danced over the keys. He seemed to be enjoying himself.
The look on his face sent a trickle of ice water down Lyle's spine.
"Charlie?" Lyle said, closing the front door and moving closer. "Charlie, what are you doing?"
He opened his eyes; they were glassy. "I'm playing 'Fur Elise.' It's my favorite." Charlie's voice... but not his diction. He looked like he used to get back in his pre-born again days when he was doing a couple of blunts a night.
The cold spine trickle became a torrent. Charlie didn't play piano. And even if he did, he wouldn't be diddling this light-fingered tune with the funny name.
Lyle's tongue felt thick, sticky. "When did you learn to play piano, Charlie?"
"I had my first lesson when I was six."
"No, you didn't." He put his hand on his brother's shoulder and gave it a gentle shake. "You know you didn't. What are you pulling here?"
"Just practicing." He picked up the tempo. "I've got to play this note perfect for my recital."
"Stop it, Charlie."
He played faster, his fingers flying over the keys. "No. I've got to play it twenty times a day to make sure-"
Lyle reached over and grabbed his brother's wrists. He tried to pull them away from the keyboard but his brother fought him. Finally Lyle threw all his weight into it.
They both came away from the piano together, Charlie tipping over backward on the piano seat and landing on the floor, Lyle staggering but keeping his feet.
For an instant Charlie glared at him from the floor, his eyes blazing with rage, then his face cleared.
"Charlie, what on-?" Then Lyle saw the blood on the front of his shirt. "Oh, Christ! What happened?"
Charlie stared up at him with a bewildered look. "What goin' on, bro?"
He started to rise but Lyle pushed him back. "Don't move! You've been hurt!"
Charlie looked down at the glistening red stain on the front of his shirt, then looked up again.
"Lyle?" His eyes were afraid. "Lyle, what-?"
Lyle tried not to lose it. His brother, something awful had happened to his baby brother. They'd been through so much and now... and now...
He wanted to run for the phone to call Emergency Services, but was afraid to leave Charlie's side. There might be something he could do, needed to do right now to make sure he survived until help arrived.
"Take your shirt off and let's see. Maybe it's not so bad."
"Lyle, what wrong with you?"
Lyle didn't want to see this. If it was only half as bad as it looked it was still terrible. He yanked up Charlie's shirt-
The skin of his chest was unbroken, without a trace of blood. Lyle dropped to his knees before him and touched his skin.
"What on earth?"
Where had all that blood come from? He yanked the shirt back down and gasped when he found it clean and dry and pristine white, as if fresh from the dryer.
"Lyle?" Charlie said, a different kind of fear in his eyes now. "What happenin' here? Is this a dream? I went to bed, next thing I know, I'm here on the floor."
"You were playing the piano." He struggled to his feet and helped Charlie up. "Don't you remember?"
"No way. You know I can't-"
"But you were. And playing pretty well."
"I wish to hell I knew."
Charlie grabbed his arm. "Maybe that it. Maybe that crack in the cellar let a little bit of hell into this house. Or maybe there always been a bit of hell in this place, considerin' what happened here over the years. Whatever it is, it's gettin' to you."
Lyle was about to tell his brother to cool it with that shit when the front door unlocked itself and swung open.
Gia cleaned up the breakfast dishes. Not a task she minded as a rule, but today... scraping leftover scrambled eggs from the bottom of a frying pan roiled her already queasy stomach. The eggs had been for Jack; she'd whipped them up and mixed in crumbled soy bacon strips for a don't-ask, don't-tell breakfast. He hadn't asked if he was eating real bacon and she hadn't told. Not that he would have minded. Jack ate just about everything. Sometimes, when he was in his Where's-the-beef? mode, he'd complain about too many vegetables, but he rarely failed to clean his plate. A good boy. She never had to tell him about the starving children in China.
He'd said he had an appointment with a new customer this morning-someone who claimed he couldn't wait until Monday-and had wandered off to the townhouse's little library to kill some time before he had to leave.
"How about a shnackie?" he said as he wandered back.
She looked up and smiled at him. "You just ate breakfast an hour ago."
He rubbed his stomach. "I know, but I need a little shomething."
"How about a leftover bagel?"
"You've been reading one of Vicky's Mutts books, haven't you?"
"Well, get yourself out of Mooch mode and I'll toast you one."
He sat down. "After a week of this you'll never get me to leave." He looked at her. "Wouldn't be so bad if I stayed, would it?"
Oh, no. Their recurrent topic of contention: whether or not to live together.
Jack voted yes, and had been pushing for it-gently, but persistently-since late last year. He wanted to be a bigger part of Vicky's life, be the kind of father her real father had never been.
"It would be great," Gia said. "As soon as we're married."
Jack sighed. "You know I'd marry you in a heartbeat if I could, but..."
"But you can't. Because a man with no official existence can't apply for a marriage license."
"Is a piece of paper so important?"
"We've been over this before, Jack. Marriage wouldn't matter if I weren't Vicky's mother. But I am. And Vicky's mom does not have a live-in boyfriend, or manfriend, or significant other, or whatever the latest accepted term is."
An archaic mindset. Gia freely admitted that, and had no problem with it. The values by which she guided her life were not weather vanes, changing direction with every shift of the social climes; they were the bedrock on which she'd grown up, and they still felt solid underfoot. They formed her comfort zone. She didn't care to impose them on anyone else, and conversely, didn't want anyone else telling her how to raise her child.
She believed in raising a child by example. Definitely hands-on, setting rules and limits, but being bound by her own rules as well. None of this do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do nonsense. If Gia wanted Vicky to tell the truth, then Gia must never lie; if Gia wanted Vicky to be honest, then Gia must never cheat.
The perfect example had presented itself last week when she and Vicky had gone to the liquor store. Knowing Jack would be around a lot during Vicky's absence, Gia had picked up a case of beer, plus a couple of bottles of wine. On the way out of the store Vicky whispered that the cashier hadn't scanned one of the wines. Gia had checked her receipt and, sure enough, Little Miss Never-Miss-a-Trick was right. She'd turned around, pointed out the error, and paid for the extra bottle. The clerk was astounded, the manager had wanted to give her the bottle for free, and two other customers waiting on line had looked at her as if to say, What planet are you from?
"Why didn't you just keep the bottle, Mom?" Vicky had asked.
"Because it wasn't mine."
"But no one knew."
"You knew. And once you told me, I knew. And then keeping it would have made me a thief. I don't want to be a thief."
Vicky had nodded at the obvious truth of that and then started talking about the dead bird she'd seen yesterday.
But living the life she wanted Vicky to live meant sacrifices. It meant no moving in with Jack, no Jack moving in with her. Because if sixteen-year-old Vicky one day asked if her boyfriend could move into her bedroom, Gia wanted to be able to look her daughter straight in the eye when she said no.
How in the world could Gia ever explain to Vicky her love for Jack? She couldn't explain it to herself. Jack flouted all the rules, thumbed his nose at society's most basic conventions, and yet... he was the most decent, most moral, truest man she'd met since leaving Iowa.
But as much as she loved him, she wasn't sure she wanted to live with him. Or with anyone else, for that matter. She liked her space, and she and Vicky had plenty of that here on Sutton Square. This high-priced, oak-paneled, antique-studded piece of East Side real estate belonged to the Westphalen family, of which Vicky was the last surviving member. Her aunts had left the townhouse and most of their considerable fortunes to her in their wills, but they were listed as missing instead of dead. It would be years before the place and the fortunes were officially Vicky's, but until then the executor let them live here to keep up the property.
So... if Gia and Jack ever came to a living arrangement, she and Vicky would not be moving to Jack's little two-bedroom apartment. He'd come here. After they were married.
"What do we do, then?" he said.
She buttered the bagel and placed it before him. "We go on as we are. I'm happy. Aren't you?"
"Sure." He smiled at her. "But I could be happier waking up with you every morning."
That part she'd love. But the rest... she wasn't sure she could handle living with Jack. He kept bizarre hours, sometimes out all night if one of his jobs called for it. She became aware of these incidents only after the fact; she'd sleep through the night thinking he was safe in his apartment watching one of his strange old movies. Living with Jack would change all that. She'd be wide awake wondering where he was, if he was in danger, praying he'd come back in one piece, or come back at all.
She'd be a wreck. She didn't know if she could live like that.
Better this way. At least for now. But what if...?
Gia suppressed a groan of frustration. If only she knew the results of that pregnancy test. She'd sneaked a call to Dr. Eagleton's service while Jack was in the library and was told she was off until Monday. The same uncooperative doctor was covering for her, so Gia didn't bother calling him. She'd have to wait till tomorrow.
She watched Jack wolf down his bagel. If that test comes out positive tomorrow, she thought, what will you say?
"This is wack, dawg!" Charlie said angrily, slapping the newspaper against the kitchen table and rattling the breakfast dishes. "Totally wack!"
Lyle looked up at his brother over the edge of the Times sports section. "You okay?"
He'd been worried about Charlie since that strange episode last night, but Charlie seemed unconcerned; maybe because he didn't believe he'd been playing the piano. He thought Lyle had had another nightmare.
And who could blame him? Especially after Lyle wailing about blood all over his chest and then finding no wound. But this was the second time he'd seen Charlie with a hole in his chest. He didn't believe in premonitions, and considering what he'd been seeing, he didn't want to.
As he sat here with the sun and a summer breeze pouring through the open-what else?-windows, worrying about portents of future calamities seemed silly.
"Trip to this," Charlie said, a mixture of anger and disgust twisting his features as he shoved a section of the News across the table. "Top right column."
When Lyle saw the headline he had a premonition-oh, yes-as to what it was about. The first sentence confirmed it.
SHE SHOULD'VE SEEN IT COMING Elizabeth Foster, known to certain wealthy Manhattanites as psychic advisor Madame Pomerol, was picked up in the financial district last night wearing nothing but a large piece of cardboard. Her husband Carl was similarly attired. The couple explained that they had been driving near their home on the Upper East Side when suddenly they were "aported" out of their car-and their clothes as well!-by mischievous spirits who were angry at them. The spirits whisked them through the night and dumped them naked in Lower Manhattan. Madame Pomerol claims that certain spirits are angry at her for forcing them to return many items that they have previously stolen from her clients.
"I don't believe this!" Lyle said, looking up at Charlie. "She's turning the whole thing into a commercial for herself!"
He read on...
Two years ago, Madame Pomerol was just another among the scores of spiritualist mediums working the city's psychic beat until she appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman. Although Letterman generally made light of her psychic claims during her appearance, the exposure made her a celebrity and she has become one of the most prominent and prosperous mediums in the five boroughs.
Despite her claims of psychic abilities, however, Madame Pomerol didn't know where her car was. Police had to tell her that they'd located it shortly after they found her, not on the Upper East Side where she claimed to have been snatched from it, but on Chambers Street, a short distance from where the couple was found.
"The spirits must have apported the car after they apported us," Madame Pomerol said.
The psychic couldn't explain how this was done. Nor could she explain the .32 caliber pistol found in the trunk of the car, other than to say that, "The malicious spirits must have placed it there. They want to get me into trouble because they're furious at my ability to undo their mischief."
The Fosters were not charged at this time, but might be in the future, pending investigation of the weapon.
"They damn well better be charged!" Lyle said. "They tried to kill me with that gun!"
"She pretty quick on her feet, ain't she," Charlie said.
"Yeah. Too quick, maybe."
That harpy had turned what should have been humiliation into a publicity stunt. Lyle wondered if he would have been quick enough to do the same.
Charlie said, "Ay, yo, leastways now she got something else to think about besides us."
"Yeah. She and the mister have got to be worried about that gun. But even if they skate on that, maybe all this publicity'll help her pick up enough new business so she'll stop caring about the clients we siphoned off."
Charlie grinned. "She ain't gonna be so crazy about one new client comin' in today, know'm sayin'?"
"You mean Jack."
"Yeah, my whodi, Jack."
"You really like him, don't you."
Charlie nodded. "I first saw him I'm thinkin', this the guy gonna pull our butts outta the fire? Nuh-uh. But was I off. My bad. He rag out like some kinda bama, but he the furilla gorilla, bro."
Lyle felt a twinge of jealousy at the admiration in his little brother's voice.
"Think he's up to putting Madame Pomerol in her place?"
Charlie shrugged. "Sure had her in her place last night, yo. We checked her appointments when we was over her 'temple.' She got four flush fish set for a group sitting this afternoon. Jack gonna try to wheedle his way in." He grinned. "And that's when the fun'll begin, know'm sayin'?"
"We should be doing our own Sunday sittings," Lyle said. They'd been over this countless times before, but he couldn't help bringing it up again. "It would be a big day for us. People are home, it's a spiritual day, and if they're not going to church, maybe they'd come here."
Charlie's grin vanished. "I told you, Lyle, you do a sittin' on a Sunday, you do it without me. I hope someday I be forgiven for what I help you do the other six days of the week, but I know I'll burn in hell sure for luring Godfearing folks away from praising the Lord on a Sunday. If I ever-"
Lyle started as a voice spoke from the adjoining room. He gripped the edge of the table and was halfway to his feet when he recognized Bugs Bunny.
"The TV," he said, feeling his muscles start to uncoil. For some reason it had suddenly blared to life. He glanced at Charlie. "You got the remote in your pocket or something?"
Charlie shook his head. "No way. Never touched it."
They both jumped at the sound of gunfire, then Lyle realized that too came from the TV. He might have laughed then, but it wasn't funny. The TV room was what remained of the old dining room, which used to connect to what was now the waiting room, but they'd closed off the opening during the remodeling. No way in or out of the TV room now except through here, the kitchen.
Lyle stared at his brother for an uneasy moment, then he picked up a knife and straightened to his feet. No way anyone could be in there, but it never hurt to be ready.
"Let's go see what's up."
Knife held low against his thigh, Lyle stepped into the next room, but found it empty. On the screen the early, long-snouted Bugs was taunting a shotgun-toting Elmer Fudd. Lyle spotted the Cartoon Network logo nestled in the lower right corner.
"You been watching cartoons?" he asked Charlie.
He glanced around, found the remote on the recliner, and hit the number of the Weather Channel. "Might as well see what the weather's going to be."
The Weather Channel came on, but the set immediately flipped back to the Cartoon Network. Lyle tried again, with the same result. Annoyed now, he punched random numbers, but the set always returned to the Cartoon Network.
"What is this shit?"
He went to the window and peered outside.
"What you looking for?" Charlie said.
"Oh, I've heard stories of pranking kids using a universal remote on a neighbor's set."
The yard was empty.
"Yo, maybe it the Fosters, you know, messing with our heads again."
"This seems too petty, even for them. Besides, I'm pretty sure they've got other things on their minds this morning."
Hell with it, he thought, and hit the power button.
The screen went dark. But a second later it buzzed to life again. He hit power half a dozen times in a row but the damn set kept turning itself back on.
Charlie said, "Lemme deal with this."
He reached behind the set and pulled the power plug, killing the picture.
Lyle held out a hand for a five. "Now why didn't I think of-"
They both jumped as the screen lit again, this time with Jerry the mouse flattening the head of Tom the cat with a frying pan. Lyle pointed to the plug in Charlie's hand.
"You must have pulled the wrong one."
"The other's the VCR. Look at it. The display still lit."
"Pull it anyway."
Charlie reached back and yanked out the other cord, but Tom and Jerry kept up their nonstop mayhem.
Charlie threw down the cords as if they were live snakes. "I'm geese, man."
"Hey, don't bail on me. You're the electronics guru here. Figure this out." But Charlie kept moving, disappearing into the kitchen. "Where you going?"
"Where I go every Sunday at ten: church. You should give it a shot, bro, because there ain't nothin' electronic wrong with that TV. It's haunted, yo, know'm sayin'? Haunted?"
Lyle turned and watched the cartoon characters race about on the screen of the unplugged TV. After the last couple of night's crazy visions of Charlie with a hole in his chest, Lyle had begun to wonder if he might be cracking up. But he wasn't imagining this TV thing. They'd both seen it.
No way he was buying into a haunted TV set, though. There had to be an explanation, a rational one-like some kind of battery inside-and he was going to find it.
Lyle headed for the garage and his toolbox...
Jack sat in the rear of Julio's and sized up his latest potential customer. The man had introduced himself simply as Edward, without offering his last name, a precaution Jack could appreciate.
A few of the regulars were already at the bar getting their first dose of the day. Morning sun filtered through the funeral procession of dead ferns, Wandering Jews, and spider plants lining the front window, then moved on to light up the cloud of tobacco smoke hovering over the bar. Jack's was the only table without the burden of upended chairs. The relatively cool air back here in the shadows wouldn't last; the day was promising to be a scorcher. Julio had opened the rear door for cross ventilation, to waft out the smell of stale beer before he had to close up and turn on the AC.
He approached now with a coffee pot.
"You want anything in the Java, meng?" he said as he refilled Jack's cup. "Little hair o' the dog?"
Julio had his name on the front window. He was short and muscular, with a pencil-line mustache. And he stank.
"Had a canine-free night," Jack said, and tried to ignore the odor. He'd got his first cup up front, which Julio had poured from the far side of the bar. He hadn't noticed the smell then.
Julio shrugged and turned to the customer. "Top you off?"
"That would be lovely," Edward said with a Barry Fitzgerald brogue.
Come to think of it, he sort of looked a little like Barry Fitzgerald too: sixty-five, maybe even seventy from the look of his gnarled hands, white hair, compact frame, twinkling blue eyes. He was oddly dressed: on top he wore a graying T-shirt that might have been white once but had spent too many cycles in with the dark wash; below the waist he was dressed for a funeral with black suit pants-shiny in the seat from wear-and black socks and shoes. He'd brought a large manila envelope that lay between them on the table.
Edward frowned and sniffed. He rubbed his nose and looked around for the source of the odor. Jack felt he had to say something.
"Okay, Julio, what's the new aftershave?"
Julio grinned. "It's called Chiquita. Great, huh?"
"Only if you're trying to attract radical chicks who happen to be nostalgic for the smell of tear gas."
"You don't like it?" He got a hurt expression. He turned to Edward. "What you think, meng?"
Edward rubbed his nose again. "Well, I, um-"
"You ever been Maced, Edward?" Jack said.
"Well, no, I can't say that I have."
"Well, I have, and it's pretty close to Chiquita."
Just then the old Wurlitzer 1080 against the front wall roared to life with "Paradise by the Dashboard Light."
Jack groaned. "Meatloaf? Before noon? Julio, you've got to be kidding!"
"Yo, Lou!" Julio called, turning toward the bar. "You play that, meng?"
A rhetorical question. Everyone in the place-except Edward, of course-knew Lou had a jones for Meatloaf songs. If he had the money, and if the other regulars didn't strangle him along the way, he'd play them all day and all night. One night a couple of years ago he overdid it. Played "Bat Out of Hell" one too many times. Some writer from LA-a friend of Tommy's, this jolly-looking guy Jack never would have guessed had it in him-pulled out a .357 and killed the machine. Julio had picked up this classic Wurlitzer as a replacement and didn't want it shot up like its predecessor.
Lou shrugged, grinning and showing sixty-year-old teeth stained with fifty-nine years of nicotine. "Could be."
"What I tell you 'bout Meatloaf when the sun out, eh? What I tell you?" He strode over to the jukebox and pulled the plug.
"Hey!" Lou cried. "I got money in there!"
"You jus' lost it."
The other regulars laughed as Lou hamimphed and returned to his shot and beer.
"Thank you, Julio," Jack muttered.
Meatloaf's opuses were hard to take on any day-twenty-minute songs with the same two or three lines repeated over and over for the last third-but on a Sunday morning... Sunday morning required something mellow along the lines of Cowboy Junkies.
"So, Edward," Jack said after a sip of his coffee, "how did you get my name?"
"Someone mentioned to me once that he'd enlisted your services. He said you did good work and weren't one for telling tales."
"Did he? Mind telling me who that someone might be?"
"Oh, I don't think he'll be wanting me to talk about him, but he had only good things to say about you. Except for your fee, that is. He wasn't too keen on that."
"Do you happen to know what I did for him?"
"I don't think he'll be wanting me to talk about that either." He leaned forward and lowered his voice. "Especially since it wasn't exactly legal."
"Can't believe everything you hear," Jack said.
"Are you telling me then," Edward said, flashing a leprechaun's grin, "that you're as gossipy as the village spinster and you work for free out of the goodness of your Christian heart?"
Jack had to smile. "No, but I like to know how my customers find me. And I like to know which ones are shooting their mouths off."
"Oh, don't worry about this lad. He's a very careful sort. Told me in the strictest confidence. I might be the only one he's ever told."
Jack figured he'd let the referral origin go for now and find out what this little man wanted from him.
"Your call mentioned something about your brother."
"Yes. My brother Eli. I'm very concerned about him."
"In what way?"
"I fear he's... well, I'm not quite sure how to be putting this." He seemed almost guilty. "I fear he'll be after getting himself into terrible trouble soon."
"What kind of trouble and how soon?"
"The next couple of days, I'm afraid."
"And the trouble?"
"He'll be getting violent, he will."
"You mean, going out and beating people up?"
Edward shrugged. "Perhaps worse. I can't say."
"Worse? Are we talking about some sort of homicidal maniac here?"
"I can be assuring you that he's a rather proper sort most of the time. He owns a business, right here in the city, but at certain times he... well... I think he goes off his head."
"And you think one of those times is soon. That's why this couldn't wait till tomorrow."
"Exactly." He wrapped his fingers around his coffee cup as if to warm them. But this wasn't January, it was August. "I'm afraid it's going to be very soon."
"What makes you think so?"
Jack leaned back. Oh, no. He's not going to tell me his brother's a werewolf. Please say he's not.
"Why, is it full?"
"Quite the opposite. Tomorrow is the new moon."
New moon... that sent a ripple through Jack's gut, tossing him back a few months to when the drawing of some very special blood from a very special vein had to be timed to the new moon.
But this didn't sound anything like that.
"Lunatic... the origin of the word is lima... moon."
"Yes, I know," Edward said. "And it's not as if this happens every new moon. It's just that it's going to happen this one."
"How do you know?"
"Eli told me."
"He told you he's going to go wilding or something tomorrow night and-"
"It could be tonight. Or Tuesday night. The new moon phase lasts more than one day, don't you know."
"Why would he tell you?"
"He just... wanted me to know, I guess."
Jack knew the answer to the next question but felt obliged to ask. "Just where do you think I fit in?"
"Well, it's not something I can be going to the police with, is it now. And I'm too old to be doing it meself. So I was hoping you'd be watching over him."
Jack had been afraid of that. Guardian angel to some lunatic. Make that new lunatic.
"Afraid not, Ed. I'm not in the bodyguard business."
"Wait, now. It's not like a real bodyguarding job. You wouldn't be after protecting him from someone else. You'd only be protecting him from himself. And it's only for three days, lad. Three days!"
Jack shook his head. "That's the problem. No way I can spend three days baby-sitting some wacko."
"It wouldn't be three whole days. Just at night, after he closes his shop."
"Why do you need me at all? Why not just hire a professional bodyguard? I can get you a couple of numbers."
"Oh, no," Edward said, vigorously shaking his head. "It's imperative that he not know he's being watched over."
"Let me get this straight: you want me to bodyguard your brother without him knowing his body's being guarded?"
"Exactly. And the beauty part is, you might not be having to do a thing. He might not go off at all. But if he does, you can be there to restrain him, and perhaps be preventing him from hurting himself or anyone else in the process."
Jack shook his head. Too weird.
"Please!" Edward said, his voice rising. He reached into his back pocket and wriggled out a thick legal-size envelope. His trembling hands unfolded it and pushed it across the table. "I scraped together every spare cent I have. Please, take it all and-"
"It's not a matter of money," Jack said. "It's time. I can't spend all night watching this guy."
"Then don't! Just watch him from the time he closes his shop till, say, midnight. We're talking about a few hours a night for three nights, lad. Surely you can do that."
Edward's intense concern, almost anguish, for his brother wormed under Jack's skin. Three nights... not forever. The only other fix-it he had running was the Kenton brothers, and he didn't think watchdogging their place would be necessary after last night.
"All right," Jack sighed. "For three nights, I suppose I can give you something."
Edward reached across and grasped both Jack's hands. "Oh, bless you, lad, that's wonderful! Wonderful!"
"I said 'something.' No guarantees."
"I know you'll be doing your best. I know you won't let me down."
Jack pushed the envelope back toward Edward. "Give me half of that. I'll keep an eye on him for three nights. If nothing happens-that is, if I don't have to step in and restrain him-we'll call it even. If there's any rough stuff, any at all, you owe me the other half."
"Fair enough," Edward said as he lowered the envelope into his lap and began counting the bills. "More than fair, actually."
"And speaking of rough stuff, it may come down to putting the hurt on him if he decides not to listen to reason."
"Disable him. Put him down hard enough so that he won't be able to get back up."
Edward sighed. "Do what you must. I'll trust in your judgment."
"Right," Jack said, leaning forward. "Now that that's settled, where is he and what does he look like?"
Edward jutted his chin at the manila envelope on the table. "You'll be finding it all in there."
Jack opened the flap and pulled out a slip of paper plus a candid photo of a balding man who appeared to be about sixty years old. Jack stared at the upper-body shot; the man's face was partially turned away.
"Doesn't look much like you."
"We had different mothers."
"So he's really your half-brother."
Edward shrugged and kept counting bills.
Jack said, "Don't you have a better photo?"
"I'm afraid not. Eli doesn't like to be photographed. He'd be upset if he knew I took that one. I wish I could be telling you more about him, but we weren't raised together, so I hardly know him."
"But he came to you and told you he was going to do something crazy?"
"Yes. It's the weirdest thing now, isn't it?"
"I don't know about the 'weirdest,' but it earns a spot in the 'odd' category."
Jack glanced at the sheet of paper. "Eli Bellitto" was printed in large letters.
"Bellitto?" Jack said. "That's not an Irish name."
"Who said it was?"
"Nobody, but, I mean, you've got this Irish accent and that's an Italian name."
"And because the 'O' is on the wrong end you're after saying that Eli can't be Irish? Would you believe that where I grew up in Dublin we had a Schwartz on our block? God's truth. His accent was thicker than mine, don't you know. My American uncle came to visit and couldn't understand a word he said. And then there was-"
Jack held up his hands surrender style. "Point made, point taken." He tapped his finger on the downtown address below the name. "What's this 'Shurio Coppe' mean?"
"That's the name of his shop. He sells-"
"Don't tell me. Curios, right?"
Edward nodded. "Antiques, odd stuff, rare books, and all sorts of grotesque thingies."
"Where's his home?"
"Right over the store."
Well now, Jack thought. Isn't that convenient. It meant he wouldn't have to trail this bozo all the way out to someplace like Massapequa for the next three nights.
"When's close-up time?"
"The store? Usually at nine, but he'll close early tonight because it's Sunday. You'll be wanting to get there before six."
He handed Jack the thinned envelope and stuffed the remaining bills into his pants pocket. Then he leaned back, closed his eyes, and placed a hand over his heart.
"You all right?" Jack said, thinking he might be having a heart attack.
Edward opened his eyes and smiled. "I am now. I've been worried sick about this since he told me. I felt I had to be doing something, and now I have. I'd never be forgiving meself if he hurt some poor innocent..." He stopped, glanced at his watch, then slapped his hands on the table. "Well, I've taken up enough of your time, Mister Repairman. I'll be letting you get on with your day."
Jack waved and watched him thread his way through the tables and disappear out the door. He thumbed through the bills in the envelope and stared at the photo of Eli Bellitto. Two days, two fix-it jobs. Not bad. Although this Bellitto deal wasn't exactly a fix-it. More like preventive maintenance.
He glanced at the clock over the bar's free beer tomorrow... sign. Time to get rolling. Had to get home and fix himself up for his date with Madame Pomerol.
"Your dad gave a def sermon this morning," Charlie Kenton said.
He stood next to Sharleen Sparks at the sink in the basement of the New Apostles Church. After the morning service he'd come down here with her and a few other volunteers to pitch in on the church's weekly Sunday dinner for the poor and homeless. The sink was old and rusted, the big gas oven battered and scarred, but both did their jobs. The linoleum floor curled up in the corners, the old tin ceiling flaked here and there, but a spirit of love and giving that Charlie sensed around him made it all feel new. He'd just peeled his way through the first half of a bushel bag of potatoes; his fingers ached but he didn't mind at all. It was for a good cause.
"Yes, praise God," she said. "He was in rare form today."
Charlie glanced up from the potato he was peeling to steal a peek at her, wondering what to say next. Had to say something. He'd been waiting for a chance to talk to her alone, now he had it and his mind was flatlined. Maybe it was her beauty, inside and out, or the fact that she didn't seem to know she was beautiful.
She had corn-rowed hair, huge brown eyes, and a smile that made his knees go gumby. She was wearing a white T-shirt under her loose denim overalls, the bib front doing a poor job of hiding her full breasts. He tried not to look at them.
He'd never been this tongue-tied before his conversion. Back in those days he'd been some kinda playa, ragged out in chains and silk, always stocking a little powder and some boo-yaa weed. The women he called bitches and bizzos back then painted on their clothes and faces, wore wigs and big jingly zirconium earrings. Not one thing real about them, but they was easy. He'd sidle up to one, offer a taste of this or that to get her loose, mack her up and down with a few sweet lines, and soon they'd be heading to his place or hers.
He shook his head. A life of sin. But he had the rest of his life to make up for it.
"Sharleen," said a deep voice, "do you mind if Charles and I have a few private words?"
Charlie Kenton looked up to see Reverend Josiah Sparks, a big man whose black face was made all the blacker by the mane of white hair and beard that wreathed it. He'd just arrived after trading the clerical suit and collar he'd worn at the service for a work shirt and bib-front overalls like his daughter's.
Sharleen gave Charlie a concerned look. "Oh, um, sure Daddy."
After she'd moved away to one of the stoves, the rev peered at him through the thick lenses of his rimless glasses. "Have you given more thought to the matter we've been discussing?"
"Yes, Rev. Every day."
The Reverend Sparks took up a knife and began quartering the peeled potatoes, then throwing the pieces into a pot. Eventually they'd be boiled and mashed.
"And what have you decided?"
Charlie hesitated. "Nothing definite yet."
"It's your soul that's at stake, son. Your immortal soul. How can there be even an instant of indecision?"
"There wouldn't be... if Lyle weren't my brother, know'm sayin'?"
"It matters not that he's your brother. He's leading you into sin, making you an accomplice in his evil. You must break off from him. Remember, 'If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, for it is better to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than have two eyes and be cast into hell fire.'"
"Word," Charlie replied.
"Yes, it is. The Word of God, spoken through Matthew and Mark."
Charlie glanced around. Sharleen was out of earshot and no one else was nearby at the moment. The rev was keeping his voice low. Good. Charlie didn't want the whole congregation to know his problems. Especially Sharleen.
Sometimes he wondered if he'd made a mistake in opening up to the rev about Lyle's spiritualist act. The man now saw Charlie as a member of his flock in danger of losing his salvation, and he was determined to save him.
"But what about Lyle's soul, Reverend? I don't want him in the everlasting fire."
"You told me you've witnessed to him, is that correct?"
"Yes, many times. Many, many times. But he just ain't hearin'."
The reverend nodded. "Your words are seed falling on rocky ground. Well, you must not give up on him-never give up on a soul in need-but you must not neglect your own salvation. You must make sure your own soul is safe before you try to save your brother's. And to do that you must renounce his evil activities."
Charlie looked away, bristling. Reverend or not, no one should talk about his brother like that.
"Lyle's not evil."
"He may not appear so, but he's doing the devil's work. Jesus warned us against his sort: 'Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.'"
Charlie felt a hot stab of anger. "He's not a wolf, Rev."
"Son, you must face the fact that he's leading souls along a path away from Jesus, he is doing Satan's work. And as long as you're with him, you are an accomplice. You must first remove yourself from his influence, then you must strive to counter his evildoing. The best way to do that is to lead him to salvation."
Charlie stifled a laugh. Lead Lyle? Ain't nobody never led Lyle nowhere.
"That last part won't be easy."
"Do you want me to go speak to him? Perhaps I-"
"No!" The knife jumped and Charlie almost cut himself. "I mean, it's better if he don't know I been jawin' 'bout him. He won't like no outsider mixin' in, know'm sayin'?"
So far Charlie had kept Lyle's location from the rev. Didn't want anyone in the church connecting him to Ifasen the spirit medium. That was why he'd, joined a church in Brooklyn instead of Queens. The weekly ride on the subway was long, but worth it.
"Then it's up to you, son. I'll be praying for you."
"Thank you, Rev. I'll need those prayers, because leaving's gonna be so hard. First off, he's blood, my only brother. I'll be breaking up all that's left of the family."
What Charlie couldn't explain, because he was sure Reverend Sparks wouldn't understand, was that he and Lyle were a team. They'd been a team since Momma died. Lyle had scammed the Man to keep them from being split up, got them onto the government cheese to keep them from starving, and they'd been scammin' the world ever since. After Lyle had gone to such lengths to see that they stayed together, how could Charlie look him in the eye and say he was splitting?
And something else Charlie couldn't tell the rev, something dark and guilty: he liked running the game. Loved it, in fact. He loved piecing together new gags to wow the marks. When a sitting went according to script, when all the bells and whistles were working, it was so def. Lyle would have those people in the palm of his hand, and Charlie would know he had a big part in putting them there.
Times like that he felt stoned, better than stoned, better than he'd ever felt back in the days when he was doing coke and weed.
But for the sake of his soul he was going to have to put all that behind him.
And do what?
That was the question. What else was he good for? Maybe work in the theater doing special effects? He couldn't list any experience so he'd have to start off as an apprentice at the bottom of the pay scale and work his way up... to what?
Nothing he could do in the straight world would ever touch the high he got from working with Lyle.
With Lyle... that was the real kicker, that was what made it real. The rev said he and Lyle had to part. And they'd never been apart.
But Reverend Sparks was right. For the sake of his soul, and to deserve Sharleen, he was going to have to make the break. And soon.
Jack stared at his reflection in the mirrored wall of the elevator as it made its way to the fourteenth floor. He blew a pink bubble with the big wad of gum he was chewing, then checked out his appearance. He'd wanted somewhat of an eccentric look today, so he'd chosen a reddish mullet-style wig, banged in the front and long and thick in the back; a thick, dark brown mustache draped his upper lip. He wore a light green, western-style shirt, buttoned all the way to the top, dark green twill pants, and Doc Martens. He'd strapped some padding around his waist to give him a medium-size gut. Too bad he didn't have a pierced ear-lobe; a rhinestone stud would have made a nice finishing touch.
He checked to make sure enough of the wig's long back was draped over his left ear to hide the earpiece. One of the tasks he and Charlie had completed last night was planting a bug in Carl Foster's command center. The receiver was taped to the small of Jack's back; its slim, almost invisible wire ran up to his collar and around the back of his ear.
He'd cabbed over from his place on the Upper West Side and arrived unannounced in the lobby of Madame Pomerol's building half an hour before the high-roller sitting she'd scheduled for this afternoon. He'd found a doorman waiting. Thankfully the building didn't keep one on duty around the clock, or he and Charlie would have had to abort their mission last night. As it was, all they'd had to do was use their copies of the Fosters' keys to unlock the glass front door and stroll in.
This afternoon the doorman, a dark Hispanic named Silvio, had allowed him to call upstairs from the lobby. Jack had told the man who answered-presumably Carl Foster-that he wanted to schedule a private reading in the very near future.
Come right up.
Carl Foster-looking so much better clothed-answered Jack's knock on the door of suite 14-B. He wore all black-black turtleneck jersey, black shoes, black socks-and Jack knew why. His skin appeared reddened around the eyes and mouth-irritated by, say, duct tape adhesive, Carl?-but otherwise he didn't look too much the worse for last night's wear.
Carl Foster's forehead seemed permanently furrowed, perhaps as a result of keeping his eyebrows raised, as if he existed in a state of perpetual surprise. Jack hadn't noticed it last night, but then, Foster had had good reason to be surprised then.
He ushered Jack into a small waiting room furnished with an antique desk and half a dozen upholstered chairs.
The muted colors on the walls and the thick Oriental rug lent an atmosphere of quiet comfort and tasteful opulence. Business appeared to be good for Madame Pomerol.
Foster extended his hand. "Welcome to Madame Pomerol's Temple of Eternal Wisdom. I am Carl Foster. And you are...?"
"Butler," Jack said, adding a hint of the South to his accent as he gave the hand a hearty shake. "Bob Butler. Pleased to meetcha." Jack chewed his gum with an open mouth as he looked around. "Where's the lady?"
"Madame? She's preparing for a reading."
"I wanna talk to her."
"I thought you wanted to schedule a private reading."
"I do, but I'd like to speak to the head honcho first."
"I'm afraid that's quite impossible. Madame Pomerol's time is very valuable. However, you should know that I have her complete trust. I screen all her clients and make her appointments."
Jack had figured that, but he wanted to seem like a rube.
"Screen? Why would I have to be screened? You mean to tell me I might not be good enough for this Madame Pomerol?"
"Oh, no, of course not. It's just that there are certain religious groups and even some atheist groups who do not approve of Madame's work. They've been known to try to waste her time and even disrupt her readings."
"I'd think she'd be able to sniff them out in advance herself. I mean, being a psychic and all."
Foster offered him a wan smile. "The word 'psychic' is so often misused. Madame is a spirit medium."
"There's a difference?"
"Of course. So many so-called psychics are charlatans, little better than sideshow performers. Madame has a special gift from God that allows her to speak to the souls of the departed."
"So she can't like, predict the future?"
"At times, yes. But we must remember that any special knowledge she might have comes from the spirits, and they do not tell her everything."
"Well, I ain't connected with no religious group. No worry there. I'm here because I got some important questions for my uncle. I can't ask him myself-him being dead and all-so I figured I need a psychic type."
This was Jack's cover story. He'd make an appointment for tomorrow but wouldn't keep it.
"What sort of questions?" Foster asked nonchalantly as he moved behind the desk.
There's a good helper, Jack thought. Finding out as much as he can in advance.
He smiled but let an edge creep into his tone. "If I thought you could answer them, I wouldn't need Madame Pomerol, would I?"
Foster forced a good-natured laugh. "No, I suppose not. Who referred you to Madame Pomerol, by the way?"
"Referred? No one. I read about her in the paper this morning. I figured if she was tight enough with the spirits that they're playing tricks on her, then she's the lady for me."
Foster nodded as he pulled a sheet of paper from the desk's top drawer. He indicated the chair on the other side.
"Please have a seat and fill out this questionnaire."
"Just a formality. It's a nuisance, I know, but as I explained, circumstances have forced us into screening our clients." He handed Jack a pen. "Please fill that out completely while I go get the appointment book and see about setting up your private reading."
"By the way," Jack said, "what's a private session cost?"
"Five hundred dollars for a half hour; one thousand for an hour."
Jack parked his gum in his cheek and gave a low whistle. "Pretty damn steep."
"She is the best," Foster said.
"I'll be counting on that."
Jack watched Foster leave, then turned his attention to the form, pretending to study it. He knew he was on camera. The overhead smoke detector housed a wide-angle mini-cam; he'd seen the monitor in one of the back rooms last night. He figured Foster was watching him now, waiting to see if he rifled through any of the desk drawers. But Jack already had been through them and knew they held nothing but pens, paper clips, and questionnaires.
The camera was a good way to check out a potential sitter who was an unknown quantity, but it also came in handy when using the three microphones that had been installed here and there about the room. Sitters tend to yak it up before a group session, allowing an eavesdropping medium to pick up invaluable information; but it wasn't really useful if you didn't know who was talking.
"What's going on out there?" he heard Madame Pomerol say through the tiny speaker in his ear piece. "Who's the dork?"
"Well, reel the fucker in, baby. Reel him in."
Yeah, Jack thought. Reel me in.
The questionnaire contained a run of standard intake questions-name, address, phone numbers, and so on-but tucked into the middle was a box for the client's Social Security Number.
Jack suppressed a smile. Yeah, right. He had a collection of SSNs, none of them legitimately his, but he wasn't about to use one of them here. He wondered how many people, in zipping through the form, unthinkingly filled in that blank along with all the others, unaware of the wealth of information, financial and otherwise, it laid open to the medium.
Jack had used the Bob Butler name because he'd once met a Robert Butler who lived in the Millennium Towers, a high-rent high-rise in the West Sixties. He wrote in that address and put down one of his own voice mail numbers for home phone.
Foster returned with the appointment book. Jack watched his eyes as he scanned the almost completed questionnaire, and saw an instant of disappointed narrowing-the blank SSN box, no doubt. But Foster said nothing. Wise. Better not to make an issue of the omission and risk showing too much interest in a client's worldly status.
"Now," Foster said, seating himself behind the desk, "I believe we can squeeze you in for half an hour on Tuesday. Would three o'clock be convenient?"
"How about now?"
"Oh, I'm afraid that's impossible. Madame has a group reading at three."
"Well, why don't I sit in on that?"
"That would not do. These four clients always book readings together. An outsider at the table would upset the spiritual dynamics Madame has worked so hard to establish. Quite impossible, I'm afraid."
This guy loved the word impossible. But Jack had something he was sure he'd like more.
"Oh, I don't want to take part in the session," Jack said, unbuttoning his shirt's left breast pocket. "I just want to watch. Won't say a word. I just want to be a, you know, fly on the wall. And I'm willing to pay for the privilege."
Before Foster could say impossible again, Jack slapped a coin onto the desktop. It landed with a weighty thunk. He saw instant recognition in Foster's eyes and watched his raised eyebrows stretch even further into his forehead when he saw the galloping antelope stamped into its gleaming gold surface. A one-ounce Krugerrand. He didn't have to know the spot price of gold to realize that this newcomer was offering a hefty price to be a mere observer.
"That's gold, Carl. And gold is what my uncle told me is the best way of dealing with the spirit world."
"That's very generous, Mr. Butler," Foster said, licking his lips-the sight of gold did that to some people. "Tell me: Did your uncle have many dealings with the spirit world?"
"All the time. Never met a medium he didn't like, is what my aunt used to say."
"And how about you?"
"Me? This'll be the first time I've been within a mile of a seance."
"Do you have any idea what to expect?"
"My uncle once mentioned seeing ectoplasm and stuff like that, but I was never sure what that was all about."
Foster reached out a finger and touched the coin. "I hope you realize it's a most unusual request."
He'd taken the bait. Now Jack had to set the hook.
"I wouldn't know about that. Way I figure, it's gonna take me a while to work out these issues with my uncle. A half-hour session won't hack it. I'm going to need hours of sessions, a bunch of them. But before I invest that kind of dough, I want to know what I'm getting into. I want a look at what the lady's offering. If I'm convinced she's the real deal, then I'll make an appointment for the next available slot she's got free so we can get to work tracking down my uncle in the Great Hereafter. That sound fair to you, Carl?"
"What I think doesn't matter," Foster said. "It's all up to Madame. I'll go ask her."
As Foster disappeared again, Jack leaned back and listened.
"You heard?" he said to his wife.
"Yeah, I heard. And he wants to pay with gold?"
"The real thing. Take a look."
"Lotta money just to sit and watch and get nothing out of it. You think this fucker's on the up and up?"
"Well, he's put hard currency where his mouth is. And maybe a Krugerrand's no big deal to him. Maybe he's got a closet full of them."
"All right. Let's do it. But keep him away from the table, in case he's some kinda nut case."
When I'm finished, Jack thought, you'll wish I'd been a nut case.
Foster returned and told Jack, yes, he could observe the group reading as long as he agreed to remain in his seat and speak not a word. Jack agreed and the Krugerrand went into Carl Foster's pocket.
He cooled his heels awhile till the sitters showed up for the group reading. The four middle-aged women, two blondes-one heavy, one a bulimia poster girl-a brunette, and a redhead arrived as a group, all oozing Prada, Versace, and other overpriced designer wear he didn't recognize. On Jack's visit here last night he'd found dollar signs drawn next to their names in one of the Fosters' notebooks. Not only did these four book regular sessions, but they were very generous with their "love donations."
Their names slipped past him but Jack did his best to be pleasant and charming when introduced to the four. They could queer his whole plan if they objected to his presence. At first they were cool to him-probably put off by his mullet head and odd attire-but once they learned he was a psychic virgin they warmed up, apparently delighted for the chance to make a believer out of him. They gushed about Madame Pomerol's powers, but not one of them mentioned her mishap last night. Apparently they didn't read the Daily News.
Soon enough the big moment came and they were ushered into the reading room. Jack hadn't fully appreciated the room last night because he and Charlie had used flashlights. Now that it was fully illuminated, he was struck by the sheer weight of the decor. Velvet drapes in heavy folds, thick carpeting, satin-flocked wallpaper-all in various shades of red. Suffocating, like the inside of a coffin.
So this is what it's like to be buried alive.
He watched as Foster seated the four ladies around an ornate round table under a huge chandelier suspended over the center of the room.
Four sitters at five hundred a pop, Jack thought. Beats my hourly rate by a parsec or two.
Foster then indicated a lone chair set against a side wall, maybe a dozen feet from the table, for Jack.
"Remember," he said in a low voice. "You are here to observe. If you speak or leave your chair you'll disrupt the spirit presences."
Jack knew the only presence he'd disturb would be Carl Foster, slinking around after the lights went out. But he simply nodded and looked serious.
Foster exited and a moment later he heard him say, "Okay, the fish are in the barrel. Get out there and start shooting."
Finally Madame Pomerol herself appeared, her short, dumpy frame swathed in a flowing, pale blue, gownlike get up, beaded to within an inch of its life; some sort of white turbanlike thing sat on her head. Jack barely recognized her. But then, he hadn't seen her at her best.
Madame greeted the four sitters warmly, smiling and chattering in a French accent that had not been in evidence last night when she was cursing at Carl and their car.
Finally she came over to Jack and extended a ring-laden hand, dangling at the wrist as if awaiting a kiss. Jack rose and gave it a quick shake as unbidden visions of the woman naked and bound with duct tape swam through his head. He shuddered and chased them away.
Clothes make the woman too.
"You are chilled, Monsieur Butler?"
Her ice blue eyes glittered at him. If she had any facial irritation from the duct tape, she'd hidden it with make-up. Her thin, lipsticked lips were curved into a smile.
"No, ma'am. I just never been to one of these things before."
"Nothing to be afraid of, I assure you. You are observing, yes? So just hold your seat and your tongue and I will show you wonders that are, quite simply, incroyable."
Jack smiled and nodded as he reseated himself, knowing nothing she could conjure here would come within light-years of the reality he'd experienced since last summer.
She hit a light switch on her way back to the table. This turned off the spotlights recessed in the ceiling, but the chandelier remained lit.
Madame Pomerol made some introductory remarks, explaining-"for the benefit of our guest"-how she would go into a trance that would release ectoplasm from her body and open a gateway to the Other Side. Her spirit guide, an ancient Mayan priest named Xultulan, would then speak to the living through her.
"One more thing before we proceed," she said in a grave tone. "I know my four dear friends at the table are well aware of this, but I must repeat it for the sake of our newcomer. Should ectoplasm manifest itself, please, please, please do not touch it. It exudes from my body and soul, and contact with anyone else will cause it to flee back into my body. The sudden return of so much ectoplasm can harm a medium. Some of us have actually been killed by recoiling ectoplasm that was touched by heedless clients. So remember: gaze upon it in wonder, but do not touch."
Jack tuned her out. The rap was standard stuff; only the names changed from medium to medium. He was waiting for the lights to go out and the show to begin. That was when he'd make his move.
Finally the four sitters and the medium had laid their hands flat on the table. The clear bulbs on the low-hanging chandelier faded, but the few dim red ones among them remained lit. Darkness swallowed the rest of the room, but the table and its occupants were bathed in a faint red glow.
Madame Pomerol began a tuneless hum, then let her head loll. Soon the table began to tip to the accompaniment of giggles and gasps of wonder from the sitters. Their chairs, however, stayed flat on the floor. Charlie had given his brother's operation a leg up, so to speak, over Madame's.
And then the lady let loose a long, low moan that echoed throughout the room. Jack realized then that she had a wireless microphone hidden on her-in that turban thing, he'd bet-and her husband had just turned it on. Impressive reverb effect. No doubt she had an earpiece just like Jack's so Carl could cue her when a sitter asked a tough question.
Another moan, and then something happened. Jack heard one of the sitters gasp as a pale glow appeared atop Madame Pomerol's head.
Hello, Mr. Ectoplasm, Jack thought.
The glow expanded to a rough circle behind her, framing her head like a halo. It hovered there a moment, then began to flow upward, streaming from her head in a ghostly plume, six, eight, ten feet into the air, and then it pulled free of the medium and began to undulate back and forth above her.
"Xultulan, hear my call," Madame Pomerol intoned, her voice echoing again. "Lend us your otherworldly wisdom as you lead us to the souls of the departed. I have with me four seekers after the dear departed..."
Yeah-yeah-yeah, Jack thought, reaching inside his shirt. No sense in waiting any longer. Besides, her phony accent was wearing on him.
He found the lipstick-size remote stashed inside his belly padding and located the business end. He fixed a shocked expression on his face, then pressed the button with his thumb.
The overhead spotlights blazed to life to reveal a shocking tableau.
The four sitters and Madame Pomerol sat in their places, but behind the medium stood a man dressed from head to toe in black-his turtleneck and slacks were remarkably similar to Carl Foster's, but he'd added black gloves and a black ski mask with narrow slits for eyeholes. He held two long black manipulating rods from which a billowy length of chiffon dangled. The sudden illumination revealed him swinging it in undulating arcs through the air above his wife. A scream from one of the women-she apparently thought the room had been invaded by some weird terrorist-froze him in mid-wave.
Jack caught a brief, sudden glare from Madame Pomerol as her eyes bored into his, and was glad he'd prepared his expression beforehand.
Suddenly she laughed. "You should see your expressions!" Another laugh. "Carl, our little demonstration really took them by surprise!" She began to applaud. "Magnifique! Magnifique!"
"I... I don't understand," one of the blondes said.
Madame Pomerol looked over her shoulder and laughed again. "Take off that mask, Carl, and put down those silly sticks."
"I demand an explanation," said the redhead.
"And you shall have one, Rose," Madame said, fully composed now. "If you read the papers, I'm sure you know that fake spirit mediums are popping up all the time, making fantastic claims to prey on the needs of gullible believers, trying to entice them away from those, such as myself, with the true gift. Carl and I arranged this little show to demonstrate how easily one can be fooled. I control all the lights here, of course, and when I deemed the time ripe, I turned them on so that you might witness charlatanry and fakery in media res."
Whoa! The lady throws in a little Latin.
Jack wished he had a way to work the remote again. Nothing he'd love more now than to start turning the lights off and on while she was spinning out her line of crap. But he couldn't allow himself to be seen reaching into his shirt.
It was such a weak line, though, straining toward the breaking point under the transparent weight of its own bullshit, that he didn't see any need to help it along. He had to strain to keep from laughing out loud.
Had to hand it to the lady, she was glib. Delivered her lines with utter conviction. But any minute now these four sitters would begin to scatter, fleeing this Temple of Eternal Wisdom to tell all their rich friends and everyone else they knew that Madame Pomerol was a class-A fake. Word would spread like a virus. If she was bent out of shape before about losing a few suckers, just wait till these four got through talking. She'll qualify as a Cirque du Soleil contortionist.
"Really?" said the other blonde. "You staged this all for us?"
"Of course, Elaine." She pointed to Jack. "And that was why I broke with my usual procedure and allowed a newcomer to observe a reading. I wanted Mr. Butler to witness firsthand the cheap tricks of the conscienceless swindlers who sully the reputations of all the truly gifted spirit mediums."
As the sitters stared at Jack he saw something in their eyes, something he didn't want to see.
No. This can't be. They're buying into her lame-o story. I don't believe this. How can they be so gullible?
An unmasked Carl approached the table with the material he'd been waving in the air.
"See?" he said, grinning as he held it out for the ladies to feel. "Nothing more than cheap chiffon."
"But it looked so real," the brunette said. "Exactly like when ectoplasm comes out of Madame during-"
Madame Pomerol cleared her throat and rose to her feet. "I think it is time for a little break. Please wait in the outer room while Carl removes these tools of chicanery. In a few minutes we will reconvene and make true contact with the Other Side."
Jack followed the women into the waiting room. As soon as the door closed behind them, he heard Madame Pomerol say, "What the fuck just happened?"
"I wish I knew," her husband replied. "/ can't imagine how-"
"Fuck imagine! Find out! I want the real story, not your fucking imagination! The electronics of this operation are your responsibility and obviously you fucked up!"
"I didn't fuck up! I haven't changed anything!"
"Well, something's changed. Find out what!"
"I'm going to check that switch."
"Shit! I've never been so embarrassed in my whole fucking life!"
"But you handled it beautifully."
"Yeah, I did, didn't I. And those four bimbos swallowed it. Do you believe that? Sometimes I'm ashamed of the caliber of people we have to deal with. I mean, how fucking stupid can you get?"
Jack wished he had the ability to play this conversation through a speaker in the waiting room. If only he'd thought of that. He'd heard Madame Pomerol's salty tongue last night and should have seen this as a golden opportunity to let her clients know what she really thought of them.
The Fosters lapsed into silence while Jack wondered how to play Madame Pomerol's sitters. He decided to listen first. Maybe he could find a way to salvage the day. He sidled up to the redhead whose name he remembered was Rose.
"Well," he asked in a low voice, remembering the hidden mikes, "what do you make of this?"
"I think it's stunning," she said. "What courage!"
"I feel so honored," said the dumpy blonde. "To think, she chose us-us!-for this demonstration! I can't wait to get into my psychic chat room and tell everyone how wonderful she is!"
The will to believe, Jack thought, fighting a wave of leaden chagrin. Never underestimate the will to believe.
And that was just what he'd done.
He remembered an experiment James Randi once ran on psychics and their marks. He set up a pair of sitters with a psychic, and after the reading they emerged very impressed with how the psychic had been able to see right into their minds. When Randi showed them a videotape of the session and pointed out that the psychic averaged fourteen or fifteen erroneous statements for every correct one, the sitters were unfazed. Even with the evidence of a poorly done cold reading staring them in the face, they remained impressed by the handful of correct guesses and disregarded all the wrong ones.
The will to believe...
Jack saw two options. He could show the women his remote and tell them he'd rigged the lights to expose Madame Pomerol as a fake. But he doubted very much that he'd sway them.
The will to believe...
The other was to play it cool and return for another go at the Fosters.
He decided on number two.
"Shit!" Jack heard Foster say. "Look what I found in the light box!"
"A remote control on-off switch!"
"Fuck me! You've gotta be kidding!"
"Believe me, I know these switches."
"You think it's that new guy?"
"Could be, but how would he have got in here to install the switch? And don't forget, he paid us in gold."
"Gotta be those niggers then! Fuck!" She then began stringing together innovative combinations of every four-, ten-, and twelve-letter expletive known to humankind.
"You think so?" Foster said when she ran out of breath.
"Fuck, yes! They're the ones who tied us up last night and-"
"That was a white guy."
"Did you see him!"
"Then what the fuck do you know?"
"It was a white guy's voice."
"It was them, I'm telling you! They must've taken our keys and come here and fucked us up. Who knows what else they've done! They're gonna pay for this. Oh, are they gonna fucking pay!"
This wasn't going the way Jack wanted. The whole idea of coming here had been to distract them from the Kentons.
"All right," Foster said. "Let's just say it was them. After what happened, do you really want to risk going back to Astoria? Our car's impounded, all our credit cards are gone, not to mention the humiliation of having to walk around Lower Manhattan dressed in cardboard."
"They're gonna pay! Maybe not this week, and maybe not next, but first chance we get, we're gonna fuck those niggers over good!"
Conversation between the two Fosters stopped, and Jack assumed that the Mrs. had stomped off while Carl reassembled the light switch.
Jack and the four women hung out for another ten minutes or so, then Foster reappeared to welcome them back into the reading room.
Jack hung back.
"Is something wrong, Mr. Butler?"
"Yeah. I think I've seen enough."
"I hope there's no misunderstanding here. You see-"
Foster thought Jack was bailing out. He cut him off to put him straight.
"I think that was real gutsy of her to pull that stunt. That shows me she's got real confidence in her powers. I'm totally impressed."
Foster switched gears like a Formula One driver. "Well, I took you from the start as a man of intelligence and discrimination."
"So when's the soonest I can book my own private session with the lady? You told me you had half an hour open Tuesday afternoon. Nothing at all tomorrow?"
Foster pulled the appointment book from the desk drawer and thumbed through the pages. He frowned.
"I'm afraid not. Tuesday is the soonest. Is three o'clock good for you?"
This lady was doing gold-rush business.
"I guess it'll hafta be. I'd really prefer an hour but, maybe a half-hour session for starters is best. You know, to see if she can make the right contact."
"Oh, she can, I assure you."
"Okay, see you then."
Jack let himself out and made for the elevator. Once inside and headed down, he slammed a hand against the wall of the car. Damn. He'd read this one all wrong. He saw what his mistake had been: He'd tried to strike at the Fosters indirectly, through their clientele. Wrong angle. He knew now he'd have to take the battle directly to them.
He had a half-formed plan of how to do that. He'd need the Kenton brothers' help to fill in the rest. He just hoped Madame Pomerol wouldn't be able to wriggle free next time.
Jack stood outside the screen door and watched Lyle's cautious approach.
"Can I help you?"
"Lyle, it's me. Jack."
Lyle stepped closer, his expression saying, Who is this fool kidding? Then he grinned.
"Well, I'll be damned. It is you. Come on in."
Jack stepped inside. "Didn't have time to change my clothes." He started to peel off his wig. "Man, this thing is hot."
"And beat ugly too."
He turned to see Charlie popping in through the front door behind him.
"So you're back," Lyle said to his brother. He glanced at his watch, thinking. "Finished your good works for the day?"
Good works? Had he been to church?
"Yowzah." Charlie turned to Jack. "Yo, G. How'd it go down?"
He hated reporting less than complete success, but they had a right to know.
"Well, the good news is the remote light switch worked perfectly..."
They all had a good laugh as he described exposing Carl in the act of waving fake ectoplasm through the air, then...
"But the rest didn't pan out. The lady cooked up some lame story about setting all this up in advance to demonstrate how other fake mediums will try to fool them."
"And they bought it?" Lyle said.
Jack nodded. "She's pretty glib."
"Aw, maaaan," Charlie said.
Lyle's voice took on a bitter edge. "So last night was all for nothing then?"
"Not quite. I've got an afternoon appointment Tuesday, and there's a lot I need to do between now and then if I'm going to bring them down."
"More electronics?" Charlie said, his eyes lighting.
"Not this time. This is going to be all manual-sleight of hand stuff. But I need your help with the setup. Do you subscribe to the Blue Directory?"
Lyle's expression was blank. "Blue...?"
"The medium I worked for used to subscribe to a book that had all sorts of information on hundreds of sitters."
"Oh, right. I saw a copy years ago, but I don't get it. We use a website-"
Should have figured, Jack thought. It was the computer age.
"You mean the directory's online now?"
"What we use isn't run by the Blue Directory people, but it's the same sort of thing. All you do is pay an annual fee for a password and-"
"Let's check it out," Jack said. "I need to find a dead guy to fit a certain profile."
Lyle looked at his brother. "Charlie's the computer guy. Want to take care of this?"
"Sure." He started toward the kitchen. "This way, my man."
Lyle grabbed his arm. "Use the one in the command center."
"But this one's closer."
"We've got a little problem in there."
Charlie gave him a look. "The TV's still...?"
Lyle nodded. "Simpler if we all just head for the Channeling Room."
Jack felt as if he were missing every other word. "What's wrong?"
"Electrical problems in the TV room," Lyle said. "That' all."
Jack was sure that wasn't all, but obviously they wanted to keep it between themselves.
Charlie led the way to his command center off the Channeling Room. Jack knew this was where he controlled the sound, the lighting, and all the mechanical effects during the sittings. The computer's monitor was just one of many screens among the wires, the key cutter, the cameras, the scanner, the photocopier, and mysterious black boxes racked around the room. The swimming fish of the screen saver showed that the computer was already up and running.
Charlie seated himself before it and tapped the keyboard. Half a minute later the screen filled with the welcome page of a website with the innocuous name of www.sitters-net.com. The page contained boxes for user name and password set against wallpaper of a blue sky with fluffy white clouds.
"Kind of obvious, isn't it," Jack said.
Lyle shrugged. "Probably gets hits from baby-sitters now and again, but 'sitter' is pretty much an inside term."
Jack knew the practice of listing the vital stats of sitters went back half a century at least. It started with mediums keeping private data on card files; then they started sharing cards with other mediums. Finally someone began collecting stats from all over the country and publishing them in a blue-covered directory sold only to mediums. His old boss, Madame Ouskaya, had been a subscriber. The Internet was the inevitable next step.
Charlie hit some keys and "d-town" appeared after user id, followed by a string of asterisks in the password box. He hit enter and a few seconds later a search page appeared.
Jack said, "I remember the old Blue Directory used to hang onto the names of sitters even after they were dead-just in case some relative decided later to try and contact them."
"This one does the same thing."
Charlie clicked the mouse pointer on an icon near the top of the screen. "This take us to the O-S section."
"Got it." Jack rested a hand on Charlie's shoulder. "Okay, do a search for 'coin collector' and see what comes up."
"'Coin collect' might get us more hits, yo."
He typed in "coin+collect." A few seconds later a list of half a dozen names appeared.
Only half a dozen? Jack was disappointed. He leaned closer to the screen searching for dates.
"I need a guy who's died in the past year or so."
"Ay, yo, trip this," Charlie said, tapping a finger on the screen over the fourth name down. "Matthew Thomas West. Died January twenty-seventh."
Jack looked and saw the typical documentation: name, address, date of birth-and, in this case, date of "crossing over"-along with Social Security number, the names of his wife-deceased sixteen years before him-and his brother and parents, even his dog, but no kids. Plus a list of his interests. Matthew West's big passion, besides his wife, with whom he'd been communicating through mediums for many years, was rare coins.
This guy looked perfect except for the address. Minnesota...
He shook his head. "I was hoping for something closer. Let's check out the others." He stared at the screen awhile, then shook his head again. "Nope. Looks like I'll have to make do with Uncle Matt from St. Paul."
"Uncle Matt?" Lyle said.
"I talked up a fictional uncle to Foster that I wanted Pomerol to contact for me. Fortunately I never gave his name. Well, now we have a name. Uncle Matt the Minnesotan. Can you print him out for me?"
"Done deal," Charlie said. "But what you got going?"
"A sting. If things go right, I hope to tempt Madame Pomerol into pulling the old Spanish handkerchief switch on me."
Charlie frowned. "Spanish handkerchief? Whuddat?"
"An old Gypsy con," Lyle said. "And I do mean old. Probably been running a couple hundred years now, and grifters are still working updated versions on the street." He looked at Jack. "But how's that-?"
"Once she sets up the switch on me, I'm going to work a double switch right back at her-one with a nasty barb at the end."
"Okay, but I still don't see what that's gonna do for us-me and Charlie."
Jack held his hands high like a preacher. "Have faith, my sons, have faith. I can't tell you all the details because I haven't figured them out yet. But trust me, if this works, it will be a sting of beauty."
Charlie handed Jack the printout. "You a natural at this. Why ain't you still in?"
Jack hesitated. "You really want to know?"
You're not going to like this, he thought.
"I got out because I found it an empty enterprise. I wanted to be doing something where I gave value for value."
"We give value," Lyle said, a bit too quickly.
Charlie shook his head. "No we don't, bro. You know we don't."
Lyle appeared to be at a loss for words, a new experience for him, perhaps.
Finally he shrugged and said, "I could use a beer. Anyone else?"
Jack had a sense this was mere courtesy-did Lyle want him to leave?-but took him up on it anyway. A beer would be good right now, and maybe he could find out why he was so on edge.
Instead of drinking in the kitchen as they had last night, Lyle sat him down in the waiting room. And like last night, Charlie had a Pepsi.
"So," Jack said after they'd popped their tops and toasted the coming downfall of Madame Pomerol, "what kind of electrical problem you having?"
Lyle shrugged it off. "Nothing serious."
"Yeah right," Charlie said. "Like a haunted TV ain't serious."
Lyle glared at his brother. "No such thing as haunted anything, bro."
Lyle held up a hand. "We'll talk about it later."
Haunted TV? Sounded interesting. Then again, maybe not if that meant it played nothing but "Casper the Friendly Ghost" cartoons.
"Anything I can do?"
"I'll straighten it out," Lyle said, but he didn't look convincing.
"If I may quote: 'Philosophy will clip an angel's wings, Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, Empty the haunted air, the gnomed mine.'"
"The gnomed mine... gnomed with a G?"
Lyle nodded. "With a G."
"I like that."
"You're quoting Keats?" Jack laughed. "Lyle, you've got to be the whitest black guy I've ever met."
Jack had expected a laugh, but Lyle's expression darkened instead.
"What? You mean I'm not a real black man because I know Keats? Because I'm well spoken? Only white men are well spoken? Only white men quote Keats? Real black men only quote Ice-T, is that it? I'm not a real black man because I don't dress like a pimp and drive with a gangsta lean, or drape myself in dukey ropes and sit on my front porch swiggin' forties?"
"Hey, easy. I was just-"
"I know what you were just, Jack. You were just acting like somebody who's got this MTV image of what's black, and if a guy doesn't fit that he's some kind of oreo. You're not alone. Plenty of black guys look at me that way too. Even my own brother. Better get over it-you and him and them. It's a white man's world, but just because I'm making it in that world doesn't mean I'm trying to become white. I may not have a degree, but I've audited enough courses to qualify for one. I'm educated. Just because I didn't major in Black Studies doesn't make me a whitey wannabe; and just because I refuse to let the lowest black common denominators define me doesn't make me an Uncle Tom."
"Whoa!" Jack held up his hands. He felt as if he'd stepped on a mine. "Sorry. Wasn't looking to offend."
Lyle closed his eyes and took a breath. When he let it out he looked at Jack. "I know you weren't. You didn't deserve that. I apologize."
"I'm sorry. You're sorry." Jack rose and extended his hand. "I guess that makes us even then?"
"Even." Lyle's smile was tinged with embarrassment as they shook. "See you tomorrow. I'll have the first half of your fee ready."
Jack tossed off the rest of his beer and headed out, making a mental note: Lyle Kenton = short fuse.
As soon as Jack was out the door Lyle grabbed Charlie's arm and dragged him toward the TV room.
"You've got to see this."
Charlie snatched his arm free. "Yo, what up with you, bro? Whatchu go and gaffle Jack like that for?"
Lyle felt bad about that. Jack had said white and he'd seen red.
"I'm a little on edge, okay? A lot on edge. I apologized, didn't I?"
"You mad at him for what he say 'bout value for value?"
"No. Of course not."
Not mad... but it had stung. Maybe that was why he'd gone off about the "whitest black guy" remark.
Lyle didn't kid himself. He was a flimflam man, but he wasn't a cad. He didn't go after people who couldn't afford it-no poor widows and the like. His fish were bored heiresses, nouveau riche artists, yuppies looking for a New-Age thrill, and dowagers seeking to contact their dead poodles in the great boneyard of the Afterlife. They'd probably spend the money on a trip to Vegas or another fur coat or a diamond or the latest status toy-like so many of his clients who never eat at home but simply must have a Sub-Zero refrigerator in their kitchen.
"And why keep this licked TV a CIA secret?"
"Our business. Not his."
More than that, he didn't want to distract Jack with any of their side problems. Keep him focused on getting Madame Pomerol out of their lives, that was the most important thing.
"Take a look."
He led Charlie to the entryway of the room and stopped. He let him see the basketball game that was running on the set.
"Yo, it stopped playing the Cartoon Network. What you do?"
"Nothing. It switched on its own." He watched his brother's face. "Okay. You spotted that. What else do you see?"
His gaze lowered to the floor. "All kinda circuit boards and junk." He glanced at Lyle. "You been messin' with my stuff?"
Lyle shook his head. "That's all from inside the set."
"Uh-huh. I took it apart after you left. Damn near cleaned out the box. Practically nothing but the tube left in there, but it keeps on running. Still unplugged, by the way."
He saw Charlie's Adam's apple bob as he swallowed. "You messin' wit' me now, ain't you."
"Wish I were."
Lyle had had most of the day to adjust to the craziness of their TV, but watching it still gave him a crawly sensation in his gut.
"Hey," Charlie said slowly, staring at the screen. "Who that playing?" He stepped closer. "That look like... it is-Magic Johnson with the Lakers."
"You finally noticed."
"What you got on-Sports Classics?"
Lyle handed him the remote. "Flip around the channels. See what you get."
Charlie did just that, and wound up on CNN where a couple of talking heads were discussing Irangate.
"Something that happened when you were too young to care." Lyle barely remembered it himself. "Keep surfing."
Next stop was a close-up of a big-haired blonde crying so hard her make-up was running down her cheeks.
Charlie's eyes widened. "Ain't that...? What's her name?"
"Tammy Faye Baker," Lyle said. He'd known what to expect, but even so, his mouth was growing drier by the minute. "Keep going."
Then came a football game. "Hey, the Giants. But that look like snow on the sidelines."
"It is," Lyle said. "And check out the quarterback."
"Simms? Simms ain't played for..."
"A long time. Keep going."
He picked up speed, flashing through a news show where the Bork nomination was being discussed, then to a review of Rain Man, a Dukakis-for-President ad, and then two dreadlocked guys prancing around on MTV.
"Milli Vanilli?" Charlie cried. "Milli Vanillil This is like Trek, man. We in some kinda timewarp or somethin'?"
"No, but the TV seems to be. Everything showing on that tube comes from the late eighties."
Lyle stood with his brother and watched Milli Vanilli swing their plaits and lip-synch "Girl, You Know It's True," but he heard next to nothing. His mind was too busy rooting through everything he had learned or experienced in his thirty years to find an explanation.
Finally Charlie said, "Now do you believe me? We haunted."
Lyle refused to board that train. Had to quell this queasy, uneasy buzz in his gut and stay calm, stay rational.
"No. Crazy as all this seems, there's got to be a rational explanation."
"Will you give it up! You always laughing at the sitters who believe any fool thing we throw at them. You call them compulsive believers, but you just like them."
"Don't talk like a fool."
"It's true. Listen yo'self! You a compulsive nonbeliever! If it don't fit with how you want things, you deny it, even when it smacks you upside the head!"
"I don't deny that this TV is running without power or cable and showing stuff from the eighties. I'm just not jumping right off the bat to some supernatural explanation, is all."
"Then why don't we haul it to some scientists and have them look at it and see what they can come up with?"
Some scientists... what did that mean? Where do you find "scientists"?
"I'll look into it in the morning."
"You do that," Charlie said. "I don't wanna squab. I'm steppin' off. Gonna do some reading."
"No. The Good Book."
As Lyle watched Charlie head for the upstairs, he almost wished he had something like that to comfort him.
But all he had was an impossible TV.
Jack made good time driving downtown. He wanted the car along in case Bellitto took off in a cab. He found Eli Bellitto's antique store in the western reaches of Soho. His Shurio Coppe occupied the ground floor corner of an old triple-decker ironclad that had seen better days. A couple of the cast-iron columns on the facade looked as if they were coming loose from the underlying bricks. Odd to see an ironclad here; most of them were further east.
Still in his Bob Butler outfit and mullet wig, Jack wandered up to the store's main front window. Under the elaborate gold-leaf script of "Shurio Coppe" was the phrase, "Curious Items for the Serious Collector." Holding center court in this window was a large stuffed fish, a four-foot sturgeon with hooded brown eyes, suspended on two slim wires so that it looked as if it were floating in midair. The thick down of dust on its scales said that it had been swimming in that window for a good long time.
Jack moved on to the front door and checked the hours card. Eli's brother had been right. Sunday hours were noon to six. Jack checked his watch. Five-thirty now. Why not kill the remaining half hour till closing by browsing the shop? Might find something interesting.
He stepped up to the front door and pushed it open. A bell jangled. A man in the aisle directly ahead looked up.
Here was the brother himself. Jack recognized him from the photo Edward had given him: Eli Bellitto. At six feet he looked sturdier in person, and the photo had missed his cold dark eyes. He wore a perfectly tailored three-piece charcoal gray business suit with a white shirt and a striped tie. With his sallow skin, high cheekbones, dark brown hair-dyed?-and receding hairline he reminded Jack of Angus Scrimm. Sure as hell looked nothing like his brother. Edward had said they had different mothers, but Jack wondered if they might have different fathers as well. Maybe somebody's mother had fooled around with the local peat cutter, or whoever straying Dublin wives might have fooled around with sixty years ago.
"Good evening," Eli Bellitto said. "Can I help you?"
His voice surprised Jack. A trace of an accent, but not Irish. He remembered that Edward had said they were raised apart. Maybe in different countries?
"Just browsing," Jack said.
"Go right ahead. But please be aware we close promptly at six and-" As if on cue, a number of clocks began to chime. The man pulled a pocket watch from a vest pocket and popped open the cover. He glanced at it and gave Jack a thin-lipped smile. "Exactly half an hour from now."
"I'll watch the clocks," Jack said.
On the other side of the store he saw a heavyset older woman with a loud voice and a tragic resemblance to Richard Belzer giving instructions to a younger red-haired man as she guided him through the store, pointing out price tags.
New help, Jack guessed.
He turned away and meandered among books, plaques, mirrors, dressers, desks, lamps, vases, sculptures of stone and wood, ceramic bowls, china cups, stuffed birds, fish, and animals, clocks of all shapes and vintages, and more, curios ranging from the splendid to the squalid, from Old World to New, Far East to Near, patrician to plebeian, ancient to merely old, exorbitant to bargain priced, Ming Dynasty to Depression Era.
He fell in love with the place. How long had this store been here and why hadn't anyone told him about it? Hundreds of square feet crammed with a vast and eclectic array of truly neat stuff.
He wandered the aisles, opening book covers, angling mirrors, running his fingers over intricately carved surfaces. He stopped in a corner as he came upon an antique oak display case, oval, maybe five feet high, with beveled glass on all sides. The case itself carried no price tag, and the items within were untagged as well. These were of much more recent vintage than the rest of the stock and seemed jarringly out of place. Arrayed on the three glass shelves within were what might best be described as trinkets, knick-knacks, baubles, and gewgaws, none of which were more than ten or fifteen years old and could have been picked up at any garage sale.
He looked closer and saw a stack of Pog disks, a Rubik's cube, a Koosh ball with purple and green spikes, a bearish looking Beanie Baby, a red Matchbox Corvette, a gray Furbie with pink ears, a red-sneakered Sonic the Hedgehog doll, a tiny Bart Simpson balancing on an even tinier skateboard, and a few other less identifiable tchotchkes.
But the item that grabbed Jack's attention was a Roger Rabbit key ring. For an instant, as his eyes drifted past it, he thought he saw it shimmer. Nothing obvious, just the slightest waver along its edges. As he snapped to it, he saw nothing unusual. Probably just a defect in the window. Old glass was like that, full of ripples and other defects.
He stared more closely at the little plastic figure and noticed that some of the red had rubbed off its overalls, and off the yellow gloves at the ends of his outstretched arms. But what struck him and grabbed him was the intense pale blue of Roger's eyes. Supine in his somewhat cruciform pose, he seemed to be staring at Jack, imploringly. Real pathos there, which was way out of character since Roger was pretty much a moron.
The little key ring made him think of Vicky, who'd taken to the Roger Rabbit video lately. Watched it a minimum of three times a week and could do a fair mimic of Roger's saliva-laden, "Pppppleeeeease, Eddie!" Vicky would love this key ring.
Jack looked for the knob on the door and found instead a sturdy padlock. Odd. Every other piece in the store, no matter how small, had to be more valuable than all of these put together. Why the lock?
"We're getting ready to close now," said a voice behind him.
Jack turned to face the proprietor himself. The older man's expression was neutral.
"Six o'clock is closing time today," Bellitto said. "Is there anything I can help you with before we lock the door?"
"Yes," Jack said, turning back to the display case. "I'm interested in one of these doo-dads."
"I can't imagine why. They are beyond question the least interesting items in the shop. Remnants of recent fads. Detritus of pop culture."
"Exactly why I want one."
"Which, may I ask?"
"The Roger Rabbit key ring."
"Oh, yes." His thin lips curved into a small, tight smile. "That one's special. Very special."
"Not so special. I'm sure half a zillion were sold, but no one's making them any more, and I know someone who'd really-"
"I'm so very sorry. It's not for sale."
"I assure you that I do not... kid."
"Then why put them on display?"
The anemic smile returned. "Because it pleases me."
"Oh, I get it. Kind of like a joke. Lock up the junk and leave the valuables lying around. You didn't strike me a postmodern dude."
"I should hope not. Let's just say that these tiny treasures carry a certain sentimental value for me and I like to leave them out where people can see them."
"Does the sentimental value of that Roger Rabbit Key ring exceed ten bucks?"
"I'm afraid it does."
"How about fifteen?"
He shook his head. "No."
A head shake. Bellitto's smile had broadened. He was enjoying himself.
This was crazy. The guy couldn't mean it. Turn down a hundred bucks for that little piece of junk?
Jack took a quick look at Bellitto's ears. Nope, no hearing aids.
Okay, time to call his bluff.
"How about five hundred?"
Another head shake.
Smug son of a bitch, Jack thought. How can he say no? All right, one more try. This one has to get him.
"Mister, I will give you one thousand dollars-are you listening?-one thousand US dollars for that key ring. And that's my final offer. Take it or leave it."
"I prefer to leave it, thank you."
Jack's shock was tinged with relief. He'd allowed himself to get carried away here. A thousand bucks for a worthless little, tchotchke like that? Who was crazier here?
He looked back at Roger Rabbit, whose eyes still held that imploring look.
"Sorry, guy. Maybe next time."
"No next time," Bellitto said. "When I said, 'Not for sale,' it was not a sales ploy. I meant it."
"I guess you did. Still, can't blame a guy for trying."
He glanced at his watch. "Past closing time, I'm afraid."
Jack said, "Yeah," and started for the door.
"Tell me, Mr...?"
"Butler," Jack said.
"Tell me, Mr. Butler. Would you really have paid me a thousand dollars for that key ring?"
"That's what I offered."
"Talk is cheap, Mr. Butler."
"So it is. And this is just more talk. So I guess we'll never really know, will we."
Jack gave him a wave and stepped through the door into the twilight.
Eli Bellitto... the man seemed a model of cool control. Jack sensed no seething cauldron of violence readying to erupt. Sensed no passion at all, in fact. Admittedly it had been a brief meeting, and in his experience he'd found that people were rarely what they seemed, but Eli Bellitto seemed a long way from a new-moon lunatic.
He hoped he was right. He'd play watchdog for three nights and that would be that.
He made a show of casual window shopping, doing a slow sidestep to the end of the building, then crossing the street to a furniture store, already closed. At six sharp Jack saw the redheaded trainee clerk step out and head up toward Houston, followed by the older woman. With a clattering chorus, metal shutters began unrolling from their cylindrical bins over the windows. Bellitto came out a moment later and locked them down. Then he rolled down a similar shutter over the door by hand. After that was locked, he strolled right, turning the corner and moving a dozen paces down the side street to where he entered a doorway.
Home sweet home, Jack thought. Now be a good boy, Eli Bellitto, and stay in for the night. Catch up on all those Sopranos episodes you missed during the season.
He crossed back over to Bellitto's side, to check the street number, and he heard something crunch beneath his feet. He looked down and found a scatter of broken glass, some pieces frosted, some clear. As he moved on he glanced up and found the source: the lens of the street light had come loose and fallen. No... the bulb was missing, or broken off. He thought he could make out a couple of deep dings in the metal casing. Yeah. No question. Someone had shot out the street light. With a pellet gun, most likely.
Jack looked around. Didn't like this. The dead light would leave Bellitto's end of the street in darkness. Who'd done it? Bellitto himself? Or someone out to get him?
Jack continued to move down the block until he came to a small bistro across the street. A few couples sat around the white resin tables on the sidewalk. Jack positioned himself at one that gave him a view of Bellitto's door, and ordered a Corona, no lime. He'd nurse a few, eventually have dinner, killing the hours till darkness. Then he'd find a shadowed spot with a view of the doorway-not too hard with the street light out-and camp there till midnight.
Jack kicked himself for taking this nothing job. Instead of sitting alone at this rickety table, he could be hanging at Gia's, having a drink with her and playing sous chef as she fixed dinner.
But Edward had been so frightened that his brother might hurt somebody, and Jack had responded to that. Still, he could have let this one go by. He'd promised Gia he'd stay away from the rough jobs. At worst, this one might involve a little roll and tumble, but he didn't think he'd have too much trouble controlling Eli Bellitto.
He wished all his fix-its were like the Kentons'. He was looking forward to Tuesday's encounter with Madame Pomerol. That had all the makings of a fun fix.
IN THE IN-BETWEEN
She realizes she is female, but nothing beyond that. She knows she once had a name but she can't remember it.
She also knows that she did not live in this place, this old cold house. She had a warm home somewhere but cannot remember where it lies. And even if she did, she could not-go there.
She cannot leave. She has tried, but she is tied to this awful house. She wishes she knew why. It might explain this terrible sourceless rage that envelops her.
If only she could remember her name!
She is lonely, but not alone. There are others in this place. She has reached out but cannot make contact. Yet she keeps trying...
IN THE WEE HOURS
Lyle awoke to the sound of running water. His room was dark, the windows open to the night, and somewhere...
"Now what?" he muttered as he pulled the sheet aside and hung his legs over the edge of the bed.
He blinked and brought the display of his clock radio into focus: 1:21. He stared dully at the red LED digits. He felt drugged. He'd been way down in deep, deep sleep and his brain and body were still fumbling back to alertness. As he watched the display, the last digit changed to a zero.
But just a few seconds ago it had been... or at least he'd thought it had been...
Never mind. The shower was running. He jumped off the bed and hurried to the adjoining bathroom.
Lyle felt the steam before he saw it. He fumbled along the wall, found the light switch, and flipped it on. Billows of moisture filled the bathroom, so thick he could barely find his way. He made it to the shower and reached out toward the curtain...
And hesitated. Something told him not to pull it open. Maybe one of those premonitions he didn't believe in, maybe the result of seeing too many horror movies, but he sensed something besides running water behind the curtain.
Feeling suddenly cold despite the enveloping hot mist, Lyle backed away, one step... two...
No. He wasn't giving in to this. With a strangled cry that anticipated the terror of what he might see, Lyle leaped forward and slashed the curtain aside.
He stood there in the steam, gasping, heart pounding, staring at a shower running full blast at max heat. But the spray wasn't running straight into the tub. It was bouncing against something... something that wasn't there and yet was. And after the spray struck whatever it was, the water turned red and ran down into the tub to swirled away into the drain.
Lyle closed his eyes, shook his head, then looked again.
The shower continued to run and billow up steam, but the spray now flowed uninterrupted into the tub, and remained clear all the way down to the drain.
What's happening to me? he thought as he reached in and turned the knob.
And then he sensed someone behind him in the steam.
He spun and found no one. But movement to his left caught Lyle's eye. Something on the big mirror over the sink... dripping lines forming on the moisture-laden glass... connecting into letters... then...
Who are you?
Lyle could only stare, could only think that this wasn't happening, he was dreaming again, and pretty soon-
Three more question marks, each bigger than the last, added themselves to the end of the question.
Who are you????
"I... I'm Lyle," he croaked, thinking, It's a dream, so play along. "Who are you?"
I dont know.
"Why are you here?"
The same words were rewritten below.
I dont know. Im scared. I want to go home
I DONT KNOW
Then something slammed against the mirror with wall-rattling force to create a spider-web shatter the size of a basketball. The lights went out and a blast of cold tore through the bathroom, plunging the climate from rain forest to arctic circle. Lyle leaped for the light switch but his bare foot hit a puddle; he slipped and went down just as he heard another booming impact break more of the mirror. Glass confetti peppered him with the third impact. He crouched on his knees with his forehead against the floor, hands clasped over the back of his head as whatever was in the room with him pounded the mirror again and again in a fit of mindless rage.
And then as suddenly as it began, it stopped.
Slowly, cautiously, Lyle raised his head in the echoing darkness. Somewhere in the house-down the hall-he heard running footsteps, and then his brother's voice.
"Lyle! Lyle, you all right?" The bedroom light came on. "Dear God, Lyle, where are you?"
He rose to his knees but could find neither the strength nor the will to regain his feet. Not yet.
He heard Charlie's approach and called out, "Don't come in. There's glass on the floor. Just reach in and hit the light."
Lyle was facing away from the doorway. When the light came on he looked over his shoulder and saw a wide-eyed and slack-jawed Charlie staring at him.
"What the fuck-" Charlie began, then caught himself. "Dear Lord, Lyle, what you done?"
Charlie's use of a word he had expunged from his vocabulary since he'd been born again told Lyle the true depth of his brother's shock. Looking around, he couldn't blame him. Glittering slivers and pebbles of glass littered the floor; the big mirror looked as if Shaq had been bouncing a granite basketball against it.
"Don't know. See if you can find a blanket and throw it on the floor so I can get out of here without making hamburger of my feet."
While Charlie went looking, Lyle pushed himself to his feet and turned, careful to stay in the glass-free circle of floor under him.
Charlie reappeared with a blanket. "This one pretty thin but-"
He stopped and stared, a look of abject horror stretching his features.
Charlie pointed a wavering finger at Lyle's chest. "Oh, God, Lyle, you-you cut yourself!"
Lyle looked down and felt his knees soften when he saw his T-shirt front soaked in crimson. He pulled up the shirt and this time his knees wouldn't hold him. They buckled and he crumbled to the floor when he saw the deep gash in his chest, so deep he could see his convulsively beating heart through the opening.
He looked up at Charlie, met his terrified eyes, tried to mouth a word or two but failed. He looked down again at his chest...
And it was whole. Intact. Clean. No hole, no blood, not a drop on his skin or his shirt.
Just like what had happened to Charlie last night.
He looked up at his brother again. "You saw that, right? Tell me you saw it this time."
Charlie was nodding like a bobble-head doll. "I saw it, I saw it! I thought you was buggin' last night, but now... I mean, what-?"
"Throw that blanket down. I want to get out of here."
Charlie held onto one end and tossed the rest toward Lyle. They spread it out atop the glass-littered tile and Lyle crawled-he didn't trust his legs to support him so he crawled-to the door.
When he reached the carpet Lyle stayed down, huddling, shaking. He wanted to sob, wanted to vomit. Things he'd always disbelieved were proving true. The pillars of his world were crumbling.
"What just happened in there, Lyle?" Charlie said, kneeling beside him and laying an arm across his shaking shoulders. "What this all about?"
Lyle gathered himself, swallowed the bile at the back of his throat, and straightened his spine.
"You know what you said about this house being haunted? I'm beginning to think you're right." He looked up at the clock radio, which now read 1:11. Who knew how long it had been running backwards. It could be three in the morning for all he knew. "Fuckit, I know you're right."
"What we do about it, man?"
Something strange and angry had invaded their house. Was that anger directed at him? At Charlie? He hoped not, because he sensed it ran wide and frighteningly deep. Charlie wanted to know what they were going to do. How could he answer that without even knowing what they were facing?
He grabbed Charlie's arm and got to his feet.
"I don't know, Charlie. But I know one thing we're not doing, and that's leaving. This is our place now and nobody, living or dead, is chasing us out."
Gia was staring at the clock when the phone rang.
She sat at the kitchen table, a mug of green tea cooling next to her elbow. An hour, almost to the minute, since she'd called Dr. Eagleton's office about her pregnancy test. The receptionist had said her results weren't in yet, but she'd call the Beth Israel lab and have them fax it over.
Jack was gone. After making a few cryptic calls earlier this morning, he'd gone out to run a few errands, and since then Gia had barely moved.
But she moved now, rising, stepping to the phone, checking the caller ID, seeing the name A. Eagleton MD on the display. Her breath caught a moment, she hesitated, then snatched up the receiver.
"Ms. DiLauro?" A girl's voice. She sounded like a teenager.
"Speaking." Her hand felt slick on the plastic.
"This is Dr. Eagleton's office returning your call. Doctor says to tell you that your pregnancy test is positive."
Gia felt her body go rigid. She brought up her second hand to help grip the receiver, to keep it from falling.
"You're... you're sure?"
"Positive." She giggled. "I mean, yes. Doctor wants you to arrange an appointment for some routine preliminary blood work. When do you think you can-?"
Gia hung up on her and sat down.
I'm pregnant. With Jack's baby... Jack's and mine.
She should be bursting with joy, she knew, but she wasn't. Instead she felt uncertain, and maybe a little afraid.
Gia closed her eyes. I'm not ready for this... the timing's all wrong.
She picked up the mug of tea, looking to warm her chilled hands, but the cup was nearly room temperature. She took a sip of the pale yellow liquid but it tasted sour on her tongue.
Of course this wasn't just about her. There was Jack. Telling him wasn't a matter of if-because he had every right to know-but a matter of when. It was so very early in the pregnancy, a time when too many things could go wrong and end in miscarriage. She'd had two of those before Vicky was born.
Then the question of how he'd react. She knew Jack, probably better than anyone else in the world. Even better than Abe. But she still wasn't sure how he'd deal with it in the long run.
She knew his first reaction would be joy. He'd be happy for her, for himself. A baby. She wanted to see him grin, see his eyes glow. And she knew it might be enough to drag him out of his funk over losing Kate. One life ends, then a new one begins.
But telling this early carried risks. What if, say, next week, she miscarried?
Jack, you're a father-to-be! You're first child is on the way!
No, wait. Never mind. Your child is gone. Sorry.
Considering how down he'd been, was it right to risk putting him on that sort of emotional roller coaster? Wouldn't it be better, kinder after what he'd just gone through to wait until she was sure her pregnancy was firmly established?
Or was she just buying herself more time before she had to face up to the task of telling him?
So those were the short-term issues. But what about long term? When it sank into Jack what raising a child, what true fatherhood would mean to his independence, his treasured autonomy... what then? Would he think the cost too high?
The yellow plastic sandwich board sign stood in the middle of the sidewalk, its red letters reflecting the morning sun.
ERNIE'S PHOTO I-D
Jack cut around it and stepped through the open doorway into a tiny store packed to the ceiling with miniature Statues of Liberty, New York City postcards, customizable T-shirts, sports caps, and anything else Ernie could cram into a rack or onto a shelf. Ernie's shop made Abe's seem like the wide open range.
The skinny, droopy-faced man behind the counter wore an ugly orange Hawaiian shirt and had a Pall Mall dangling from the corner of his mouth, J-P Belmondo style. He looked up and winked.
"Witcha in a minute, sir," he said and went right back into his spiel to an old Korean tourist about a pair of Ray Ban Predators.
"We're talkin' big savings here. Real money." He pronounced it monnay-like "Monday" without the d. "I'm tellin' you, these list for ninety bucks. I can let you have 'em for fifty."
"No-no," the old man said. "I see down street for ten. Ten dollah."
"But they're knock-offs. They ain't the real thing. You buy 'em today and tomorrow morning the lenses'll fall out and the temples'll break off. But these, my friend, these are the real deal."
Jack turned away and pretended to browse through a rack of bootleg videos. Nothing Ernie sold was the real deal.
His mind wandered back to Gia. He'd slept over again last night. Nice. He loved waking up next to her. But she'd seemed so jumpy this morning. She'd looked impatient when he'd been making calls, and he'd gotten the impression she'd been waiting for him to leave. He didn't consider himself the easiest person to live with, but was he getting on her nerves already?
The old guy had haggled Ernie down to thirty-five and left wearing his cool shades.
"Hey, Jack," Ernie said, folding the money into his pocket. Too many years of unfiltered cigarettes had given him a frog's vocal cords. "How y'doin'. How y'doin'." He shook his head. "Tough t'make a buck these days, y'know? Real tough."
"Yeah," Jack said, easing up to Ernie's combination display case and counter. Half a dozen faux Rolexes glittered through the crisscrossed scratches in the glass. "Things are tight all around."
"These street guys are killin' me. I mean, what overhead they got? They roll out a blanket or set up a cardboard box and they're in business. They're sellin' the same stuff as me for a fin over cost. Me, you wouldn't believe the rent I gotta pay for this here closet."
"Sorry to hear that." Ernie had been crying poverty since a number of his fake ID sources dried up after the World Trade Center catastrophe. He'd been Jack's main source of driver's licenses and photo IDs for many years. "You get the queer we talked about?"
"Sure did." He pointed to the door. "Make us look closed, will ya?"
Jack locked the door and flipped the open sign to closed. When he returned to the counter, Ernie had a stack of currency on the glass.
"Here she be. Five K of it."
Jack picked up one of the hundred-dollar bills. He snapped it, held it up to the light. Not too crisp, not too limp. "Looks pretty good to me."
"Yeah, it's good work but they're cold as bin Laden's ass. Every clerk from Bloomie's to the lowliest bodega's got that serial number tacked up next to the cash register."
"Perfect," Jack said. Just what he wanted. "What do I owe you?"
"Gimme twenty and we'll call it even." He grinned as he started stuffing the bills into a brown paper bag. "I'll knock the price down to fifteen if you take more off my hands."
Jack laughed. "You're really looking to dump this junk, aren't you."
"Tell me about it. Stuff was golden for a while, but 'bout all it's good for now is lightin' cigars and stuffin' cracks in a drafty room. Can't even use it for toilet paper. Liability having it around."
"Why don't you just burn it?"
"Easier said than done, my man. Especially in the summer. First off, I ain't got no fireplace in my apartment, and even if I did, I wouldn't want to burn it there. And the bums ain't lightin' up their trashcans in this heat, so I can't just walk by and dump a few stacks into the fire. I'm gonna hafta wait till winter. Till then, I'm glad to have someone take even a little off my hands."
"What are friends for?" Jack said, handing him a twenty and taking the paper bag.
Ernie looked at him. "I don't get it. Why you want bad queer when I can get you good? Whatta you gonna do with it?"
Jack smiled. "Buy myself a stairway to heaven."
"You're sure you want to go in?" Jack said as he pulled his car into an empty parking spot about half a block from Ifasen's house.
Gia thought about that a second. "Of course. I wouldn't have come otherwise."
He shook his head. "You've never, ever done anything like this before."
She smiled at him. "First time for everything, right?"
Like being a father, she thought.
She was such a coward. Jack had said he was going to pay a call on Ifasen-although he was calling him Lyle now-to pick up a fee, and she'd told him she wanted to come along. She'd explained it as some sort of proprietary interest-after all, she'd found him the job-and had kidded him about collecting a finder's fee.
But she had a more serious reason for going with him. Two of them, in fact.
First, she'd decided to tell him about the pregnancy now rather than later. She wasn't good at hiding things or keeping secrets. It wasn't her nature. Best to put it out in the open where they both could deal with it.
But she hadn't found an opening. Or so she'd told herself during the trip from Midtown to Astoria. Truth was, she simply hadn't been able to admit that she'd been so careless.
She'd tell him on the way home for sure.
The second reason was that she wanted to ask Ifasen-Lyle-about his two-child prediction. The rational part of her brain knew it had been a trick or a lucky guess, or whatever, but another part kept asking, Did he know? And if so, was there any more he could tell her? She knew the questions would keep bouncing around her mind until she had some answers.
Yes, she knew it didn't make sense, and that this wasn't like her, but...
Hey, I'm pregnant. I've got hormones surging every which way. I don't have to make sense.
Jack had his arm around her waist as they walked along the uneven sidewalk toward Lyle's yard.
Lyle... it carried nowhere near the spiritualistic ring, the psychic vibrations of Ifasen.
"You have returned?"
Gia jumped at the sound of a lilting woman's voice behind her. She and Jack turned as one.
"Pardon me?" Gia said.
An Indian woman in a red sari. Gia thought she looked familiar, and then remembered she'd seen her Friday night. Right here in fact. She'd worn a blue sari then, but she had the same big German shepherd on a leash.
"You must not go in there," the woman said. "Very bad for you."
"You told us that the other night," Jack said, "but nothing happened. So why are you-?"
"Something did happen!" Her black eyes flashed. "Earth tremble!"
"So what are you telling us?" Jack said. "If we go in there again there'll be another earthquake?"
"I am telling you it is a bad place, dangerous for both of you."
The woman seemed so sincere, and that struck an uneasy chord within Gia. When her dog looked up at her with his big brown shepherd's eyes and whimpered, it only added to her disquiet.
"Thank you for the warning," Jack said. He took Gia's arm and guided her away, toward the house. "Let's go."
Gia complied, but as they moved away she glanced back over her shoulder to see the woman and her dog staring after them.
She leaned against Jack. "What was she talking about?"
"She could be talking about the house's history, or she might think we're heading in to attend a seance and because of that our salvation is in jeopardy. Who knows?"
Gia glanced back again but the woman and her dog were gone. Moved on, she guessed.
As they headed up the walk toward the house Gia tried to put her unease behind her. To lighten up she pointed to the dead brown leaves on all the foundation plantings.
"Who's his gardener? Julio?"
Jack laughed. "No. Just one phase of the harassment he's been suffering. If all goes well, that will come to an end real soon."
"But no rough stuff, right?"
"Pure subterfuge, my dear, and nothing more."
Good, she could have said. I don't want your child growing up without a father.
But she didn't want to lay that on him just as they walked through Lyle Kenton's door.
The man who had been Ifasen answered Jack's knock. He wore a cutoff Spartans sweatshirt, blue running shorts, and was barefoot.
"Jack," he said, but his smile was weak, distracted. "Right on time. Come on in."
"I don't know if you remember Gia," Jack said. "She was here Friday night with Junie and the rest of us."
"Yes, of course." He gave Gia a fleeting smile and a quick little bow. "Nice to see you again." He seemed tense.
Jack must have noticed it too. As he guided Gia ahead of him through the door he said, "Something wrong?"
Lyle shook his head. "Some strange stuff going on with the house last night."
"You think it's the Fosters?" Jack looked surprised. "They should be-"
Lyle shook his head. "Definitely not them."
"That's good. Anything I can do?"
His eyes took on a strange look. Not fear, not anger.
More like dismay. "Not in your field. I'll go get your money."
Whatever was going on, he didn't seem to want to talk about it. But maybe he'd talk about Friday night.
"Before you go," Gia said as Lyle started to turn away, "can I ask just one question?"
He stopped and looked at her. "Certainly."
"It's about Friday night... when you were answering those questions we'd written on those cards."
"The billet reading. What about it?"
"Well..." She glanced at Jack who was watching her with a puzzled expression. She felt foolish. He'd already answered the question for her, but she had to hear it again, in the flesh. "I don't know if you remember my question... I asked-"
"'How many children will I have?' Correct? And I told you it would be two, I believe." Another quick half-smile. "Did you want a different answer?"
"I... I want to know why you said that number. Was it just a guess, or was it, I mean, do you know something?"
"Gia," Jack said, "didn't I-"
"I know, Jack, but just let me hear it from him."
Lyle was looking at Jack.
"Go ahead," Jack said. "Tell her." He paused, then added, "The truth."
Lyle hesitated, then shrugged. "Just a guess. Nothing more."
"You're sure? No little voice, no psychic emanations?"
"Just a guess. Anything else?"
"No. That's all. Thanks for your honesty."
Lyle gave another of his little bows and opened a door behind him. As he receded down a hallway, Gia saw what looked like a kitchen and windows opening onto the rear of the house.
"Told you," Jack said when they were alone. He looked a little annoyed that his explanation hadn't been enough.
"I'm sorry, Jack."
"Nothing to be sorry for." He was staring at her. "But is that why you wanted to come along today? To ask him that?"
She nodded. "Dumb, huh."
Maybe it wasn't so dumb, considering her present condition, but she sure felt dumb.
He smiled at her. "Nothing you do is dumb. It's just that I don't understand this sudden fixation on something a complete stranger said."
"I'll explain later... on the way home." I hope.
Jack was still staring at her. "I don't get it. What-?"
Just then Lyle returned with a white, legal-size envelope. He handed it to Jack.
"Here you go. First half. When do you think the second payment will be due?"
"Assuming all goes well," Jack said, "in a few days."
"Phase two is still on for tomorrow afternoon?"
Lyle obviously was trying to be cryptic. He probably didn't know that Jack had told her about the Kentons' problems with Madame Pomerol on the drive out. Gia decided to leave it that way.
She didn't catch Jack's reply because movement in the hallway behind Lyle caught her attention. She rose on tiptoe and craned her neck for a better look.
A pale-skinned girl with long blond hair was walking down the hall toward the kitchen. She was dressed in what looked like riding clothes-breeches and boots. Was there a stable nearby? She looked to be about Vicky's age-couldn't have been more than eight or nine. Gia wondered where she'd come from and what she was doing here.
As the girl turned the corner into the kitchen, she glanced over her shoulder and her blue eyes locked with Gia's. And Gia saw in them a depth of need, of longing that pierced her heart.
Lyle's glance flicked toward her. He must have seen something in her face. "Something wrong?"
"Who's the little girl?"
Lyle whirled as if he'd heard a shot behind him. "Little girl? Where?"
"Right there, in the hall." He was blocking her view now. Gia leaned left to see and found the hall empty. "She was there a second ago."
"There's no girl in this house, big or little."
"I saw her. A little blonde." Gia pointed down the hall. "She was right there, walking toward the kitchen."
Lyle turned and hurried down the hall.
"Charlie!" he called. "Come down here a sec, will you."
Gia followed Lyle, noting the stairway to the second floor on her left. It struck her as an odd design until she realized that the house had been remodeled to accommodate the Channeling Room. She heard Jack behind her.
Lyle angled through the kitchen and leaned into an adjoining room for a quick look. Apparently satisfied no one was there, he went to the open back door. He pushed on the screen door and stood on the small stoop to survey the backyard. The midday sun gleamed off his dreadlocks. After a moment he stepped back inside and stared at Gia as the screen door slammed closed behind him.
"You're sure you saw a little girl?"
He turned toward the rear door again. "Then she must have run out through the backyard."
"I doubt that," Jack said.
Gia turned to see him standing next to a door that opened onto a down staircase.
"Why?" said Lyle.
"Because we didn't hear the screen door slam. Unless she took the time to ease it closed before running away, she's still here." He jerked a thumb toward the cellar stairs. "And I bet I know where."
Lyle's brother arrived from the second floor. He wore a tank top and sweat pants with the legs bunched up under the knees; his black-and-white Lugs, with the tongues lolling over their untied laces, looked like thirsty dogs.
Lyle quickly introduced Gia as "Jack's friend" and she was struck by the warmth in Charlie's smile when he bumped knuckles with Jack. The smile faded as Lyle told him about the little girl Gia had seen.
Jack and Gia waited in the kitchen while Lyle and Charlie searched their basement. Jack stepped to the back door and peered through the screen at the small backyard.
Without looking at her, he said, "Did you ever sneak into a stranger's house when you were a little girl?"
"Are you kidding?"
"Did you ever even think about doing such a thing?"
"Never. I'd be scared to death."
"You mean, sort of like Lyle and Charlie are right now?" He turned toward her and lowered his voice. "I'm not saying they're scared to death, but they're sure as hell frightened by something. I don't know about you, but I don't find little girls particularly frightening. So what's really-?"
She heard footsteps on the stairs and turned to see the Kenton brothers emerge from the cellar.
"Empty," Lyle said. "She must have ran out the back door."
"Without making a sound?" Jack said.
Lyle shrugged. "There's no place else she could go." He gave Charlie an uneasy look. "Is there?" Then he turned to Gia. "Are you-?"
"Yes, I'm sure," she said, more sharply than she intended. "I'm not in the habit of hallucinating."
Gia described her fully, leaving out only the longing in the child's eyes.
"A blond kid," Charlie said, rubbing his jaw. "Not many blondes around here, know'm sayin'?"
"Maybe you should keep your doors locked when you're upstairs," Gia said.
Lyle's expression was bleak. "I wish we could."
"I hate to break this up," Jack said, pointing to his watch, "but I've got to pick up some props for my date with Madame Pomerol."
The good-byes seemed strained and strange, with Gia feeling that the Kenton brothers wanted them to go and yet somehow didn't want to be left alone in the house.
"Something going on with those two," Jack said as they walked toward his car. "They're jumpy as mice."
"I wonder why," Gia said. "And I know I saw that little girl, Jack. I can't explain how she got in or how she got out, but I know what I saw."
"I believe you. And the strange thing is, I think the brothers Kenton believe you too, although it seems they'd rather not."
She looked around for the Indian woman. She wanted to say, See? We went in and here we are out again, and nothing happened. But she was nowhere in sight.
Jack opened the car door for her and she slipped into the passenger seat. When he'd seated himself behind the wheel, he turned to her.
"And speaking of belief, now do you believe that his guess about two kids was just that: a guess?"
"I do," she said, thinking, here it is, this is the moment. "But you've got to understand where I'm coming from and why I was obsessing on it."
Jack started the car. "Tell me."
Gia hesitated, then blurted, "I'm pregnant."
Jack started to laugh-for a second there he thought Gia had said she was pregnant-and then he saw the look in her eyes.
"Did you say... pregnant?"
She nodded and he saw a glimmer of tears. Joy? Dismay? Both?
Some tiny corner of Jack's brain realized that this was a fragile moment, and it was laboring to find the right thing to say, but the remainder of his brain had gone to mush as he struggled to grasp, to comprehend the meaning of those words...
"M-mi-" He caught himself. He'd been about to say, Mine? A reflex. Of course it was his. "We're having a baby?"
Gia nodded again and now her lower lip was trembling as the tears started to slip down her cheeks.
Jack slipped across the seat and folded her into his arms. She sobbed as she pressed against him and buried her face against his neck.
"Oh, Jack, I didn't mean for this to happen. Don't be mad. It was an accident."
"Mad? Jeez, Gia, why would I be mad? Shocked, yes, baffled too, but mad is the last thing. It's not even on the map."
"Thank God! I-"
"How long have you known about this?"
"Since this morning."
"And we rode all the way out here together and you didn't say a word? How come?"
"I meant to, but..."
"I didn't know how you'd react."
This was a new shock. "What did you think I'd do? Walk out? Why on earth-?"
"Because of all the changes you'll have to make if you stay on."
"Hey." He held her tighter. "I'm not going anywhere. And I can handle any changes. But let's just say I did stomp out, what would you do? Would you... end the pregnancy?"
She jerked back to stare at him with red-rimmed eyes. "Have an abortion? Never! That's my baby!"
"Mine too." He couldn't bear the thought of anyone killing their baby. He hugged her again. "I'm gonna be a daddy. Me. I can't believe it. You're sure you're pregnant?"
She nodded. "Beth-Israel sure."
"Wow." The word popped out of his mouth. He laughed. "Hey, am I articulate, or what? But really... wow! A little somebody made with part of me, walking and talking and growing up."
A piece of him moving beyond him, heading toward infinity. Wonder filled him, buoyed him.
The beep of a horn brought him back to earth. He looked around.
A big guy in a little Kia pointed to Jack's parking space and called, "You stayin' or goin'?"
Jack waved, started the Crown Vic, and pulled away.
"What do you think little Jack will be like?" he said.
"'Little Jack'? What makes you think it will be a boy?"
"If it's a girl it'll mean you've been fooling around with somebody else."
"Oh, really? How's that work, pray tell?"
Jack puffed out his chest. "Well, I'm so manly I produce only Y sperm."
She smiled. "No kidding?"
"Yep. Never told you before because I didn't think it mattered. But now I feel you deserve to know the truth."
"I've got news for you, buddy. It's a girl. My Amazon ova castrate Y sperms."
Jack laughed. "Ouch!"
With Gia snuggled against him they drove and talked about when it could have happened and what sex it might be and began throwing out girls' names and boys' names and Jack cruised through a changed world, brighter and more full of hope and promise and possibility than he'd ever imagined.
Lyle was standing in the kitchen, tossing out the aluminum foil that had wrapped the leftover pizza slices he and Charlie had finished for dinner, when he heard the voice.
He froze and listened. Definitely not Charlie's voice. No... a child's. A little girl's. And it sounded as if she was singing.
A little girl... Gia had seen a little girl this afternoon. Was she back?
Lyle eased toward the center hall, where the sound seemed to be coming from. No doubt about it. A little girl was singing. The melody was tantalizingly familiar.
As he moved into the hall her voice became clearer, echoing from beyond the closed door at the end of the hall, from the waiting room.
And the words...
"I think we're alone now..."
Wasn't that from the sixties? Tommy somebody?
He slowed his pace. Something odd about the voice, its timbre, the way it echoed. It sounded far away, as if it were coming from the bottom of a well. A very deep well.
At the door, Lyle hesitated, then grabbed the knob and yanked it open. The voice was loud now, almost as if the child were shouting. The words bounced off the walls, seeming to come from all directions. But where was the child?
Lyle stood in an empty room.
He stepped over to the couch and looked behind it, but found nothing but a couple of dust bunnies.
And now the sound was moving away... down the hall he'd just passed through. Lyle moved back to the door but saw no one in the hall. And still the sound kept moving away. He followed it.
"Charlie!" he called as he passed the stairs. He told himself he wanted a witness, but deeper down he knew he didn't want to be alone with this. "Charlie, get down here. Quick!"
But Charlie didn't respond-no voice asking, Whussup? No footsteps in the upper hallway. Probably holed up in his room with his head stuck in a pair of headphones listening to Gospel music while he read the Bible. How many times was he going to read that book?
Lyle followed the voice, still singing the same song, into the kitchen. But once he reached there, the voice seemed to be coming from the cellar.
Lyle paused at the top of the stairs, staring into the well of blackness below. He didn't want to go down there, not alone. Not even with someone else, if the truth be known. Not after last night.
He wondered if this delicate little voice was part of whatever had written on the bathroom mirror before smashing it. Or was the house haunted by multiple entities?
But again, no response.
Lyle and Charlie had spent most of the morning talking about whether or not they were really haunted. In the warm light of day, with the shock and the fear of the night before dissipated, Lyle had found it hard to believe in such a possibility. But one look in the bathroom at the maniacally shattered mirror was enough to make him a convert.
The big question was, what could they do about it? They couldn't exactly call Ghostbusters. And even if such a group existed, think of the publicity: Psychic afraid of ghosts! Calls for help! A PR nightmare.
The voice was fading now. Where could it go from the basement?
Lyle took a deep breath. He had to go down there. Curiosity, a need to know, pushed him for an answer. Because knowing was better than not knowing. At least he hoped so.
Flicking the light switch he took the stairs down in a rush-no sense dragging this out-and found himself in the familiar but empty basement with its orange-painted floor, pecan paneling, and too-bright fluorescents. He could still hear the singing, though. Very faintly. Coming from the center of the room... from the crack that ran the width of the floor.
No... couldn't be.
Lyle edged closer and gingerly crouched near the opening. No question about it. The voice was echoing from down there, in the earthquake crevasse under his house.
He bent his head and rubbed his eyes. Why? This house was fifty-some years old. Why couldn't this have happened to the last owner?
Wait, the last owner was dead.
All right, the next owner, then. Why me? Why now?
The voice faded further. Lyle leaned closer. It was still singing "I Think We're Alone Now." Why that tune? Why a bubblegum song from the sixties?
And then the lights went out and the strange little voice boomed from an anemic whisper to a floor-rattling scream of rage that knocked Lyle onto his back. A noxious cloud plumed around him in the dark, the same graveyard odor as the night the crack first appeared, sending him scrambling across the floor and up the steps toward light and air.
Sweating, panting, he slammed the cellar door and backed away until his back hit the kitchen counter. This was getting way out of hand He needed help, and fast, but he hadn't the faintest idea where to turn.
Sure as hell couldn't call on a psychic. He'd never met one who wasn't a lying son of a bitch.
He had to shake his head. Just like me.
Okay, there were some who really believed in all the crap they fed their sitters, but they were deluded. And he'd found that people who lied to themselves were far more unreliable than those who simply lied to others. He'd take a con man over a fool any time.
Lyle stared at the door and calmed himself. Time to get a grip and face this situation head on. Because what he'd said this morning was true. He was not leaving his home.
He took a deep breath. So. Look at what he had: Assuming that some sort of spirit world was real-and he was being backed into accepting that now-it still had to follow some rules, didn't it? Every action had an effect. Every incident had a cause.
Maybe not. But that was the only way he knew how to approach this. If other rules applied, he'd have to learn them. But for now, he'd go with cause and effect.
That said, what had caused all this? What had awakened this demon or ghost or entity, or attracted it to his home? Was it something he or Charlie had done? Or was someone else behind it?
Those were the first questions. Once he had those answers, the next step would be finding out what, if anything, he could do about them.
"More kashi?" Gia said.
Jack held up his plate and said in his best Oliver Twist voice, "Please, ma'am, could I have some more?"
Gia had whipped up one of her vegetarian dinners. She was on a kashi kick these days, so tonight she'd fixed kashi and beans with sides of sauteed spinach and sliced Jersey beefsteaks with mozzarella. All delicious, all nutritious, all as good for a body as food could possibly be; and though he'd push away from the table with a full belly, these meals always left Jack feeling like he'd missed a course.
Jack watched Gia as she scooped more kashi from the pot. The old townhouse had a small kitchen with cabinets and hardwood floor all stained unfashionably dark. Jack remembered when he'd first seen the place last year. Vicky's two old spinster aunts had been living here with their maid, Nellie. The interior looked pretty much the same then, the furnishings hadn't changed, but the place had a real lived-in look now. A child will do that.
Jack let his eyes wander down Gia's trim frame, wondering when she'd start to show, to swell, marveling at the stresses women put their bodies through to bring a child into the world.
He shook his head. If men had to go through that the world would be damn near unpopulated.
Still looking at Gia, he noticed an uncharacteristic tautness in her posture. Her uncertainty over the weekend as to whether or not she was pregnant would explain the mood swings he noticed, but he'd have thought finding out and telling him would have broken her tension. Something else was bothering her.
Jack got up and pulled another Killian's from the fridge.
"You don't mind that I'm drinking, do you?"
This was his third Killian's while Gia was still working on her first club soda. The bottle of wine he'd picked up on the way over sat unopened on the counter. Gia had told him that, as much as she loved her Chardonnay, she wouldn't be drinking for the next nine months.
"Not if it's beer. Wine might tempt me, but if the world suddenly forgot how to make beer, I'd never miss it."
"A world without beer... what an awful thought."
He wondered how hard it would be for him to give up beer for nine months. One of life's great pleasures was wrapping his hand around a cold one toward the end of the day. He could swear off, but he sure as hell wouldn't like it.
He decided to float the idea past Gia, praying she'd shoot it down.
"If you're abstaining, maybe I should too."
She gave him half a smile. "What would that accomplish? My drinking could affect the baby; yours won't."
He raised his fist. "But how about solidarity, sharing the sacrifices of parenthood and all that?"
"If you intend to be a real parent to this child, you're going to have to make a lot more sacrifices than I will, so drink your beer."
That had an ominous ring. Jack took a grateful gulp of his Killian's. "I already am a real parent. One of them, at least."
"No, you're the father. That's the easy part. You haven't begun being a parent yet. That's a whole other matter."
Gia seemed edgy. What was she getting at? "I'm aware of the difference between fathering a child and raising a child."
"Are you?" She reached across the table and clasped his hand. "I know you could be a great parent, Jack, a wonderful father figure. But I wonder if you see what lies ahead for you if you make that commitment."
Now he knew where this was going.
"You're talking about the Repairman Jack thing. No problem. Look, I've already cut out certain kinds of fix-its, and I can make other changes. I can-"
She sat there shaking her head. "You're not seeing the big picture. Usually you're way ahead of me on things like this."
"What am I missing?"
She glanced away, then back at him. "I wish I didn't have to say this because it makes me feel like I'm forcing you into something you won't want to do, and maybe even can't do."
"Telling me something isn't forcing me. Just tell me: What am I missing?"
"Jack, if you're going to be a real parent, you'll have to really exist."
Jack's first reaction was to say that he did exist, but he knew what she meant.
"Become a citizen?"
She nodded. "Exactly."
A citizen. Christ, he'd spent his whole adult life avoiding that. He didn't want to change now. Join the masses... he didn't know if he could.
"That sounds pretty radical. There must be some way..."
She was shaking her head. "Think about it. If this baby was born tomorrow, who could I put down as the father?"
"And who are you? Where do you live? What's your Social Security number?"
"Numbers," he grumbled. "I don't think you need the father's numbers on a birth certificate."
"Maybe not. But don't you think the baby would prefer a father who doesn't change his last name every week? Who doesn't fade away when he sees a cop car?"
"All right, I'm exaggerating, I know, but my point is, even though no one knows you exist, you live like a hunted man, Jack. Like a fugitive. That's fine when you're single and are responsible only for yourself, but it doesn't work for a parent."
"We've been over this before."
"Yes, we have. In the context of our future together. But it was all conjectural, with no set timetable." She patted her abdomen. "Now we've got a timetable. Nine months, and the clock is ticking."
"Nine months," Jack whispered. That seemed like no time at all.
"Maybe less. We'll have a more precise idea once I have a sonogram. But let's go past nine months. Let's jump ahead five years. And let's just say that you leave your situation the way it is. We don't get married but we're living together here-you, me, Vicky, and the baby. One big happy family."
"But what if I get breast cancer, or fall off a subway platform in front of a train, or-?"
"Gia, come on." What a thought.
"Don't say it couldn't happen, because we both know it could. And right now, if something happens to me, Vicky goes to my parents."
Jack nodded. "I know."
It was logical, and probably the right thing. Her grandparents would be Vicky's only living blood relatives. But it would burn a hole in his life to watch that little girl be taken off to Iowa.
"But what if my folks aren't around when something happens to me? If they're dead, then it's not just Vicky who's at risk, but our baby as well. What happens to those two children?"
"I take them."
"No. You won't be able to. They'll be orphans and they'll become wards of the court."
"What are you going to do? Abduct them? Take off with them and hide out? Change their names and have them live like fugitives? Is that the kind of life you want for them?"
Jack leaned back and sipped from his beer. It tasted sour on his tongue. Because he was seeing it now, all of it, the knotty immensity of the problem. How could he have missed it? Maybe because the quotidian rituals of having no official existence, of pursuing an under-the-radar lifestyle had become to him as natural and reflexive as breathing.
Was he going to have to change the way he breathed?
He stared at Gia. "You've obviously given this a lot of thought."
She nodded. "It has consumed me for three days." Tears welled in her eyes. "I'm not pushing you, Jack. It's just that if anything happens to me I want to know my babies are safe."
Jack rose and moved around the table. He lifted Gia from her seat, slid beneath, then settled her onto his lap. She clung to him.
He put his arms around her and said, "Our babies. I couldn't love Vicky more if she were my own. And I don't feel pushed, okay? Fatherhood wasn't in my immediate plans, but that's okay. I'm flexible. I've learned to adjust quickly to unexpected situations in my work, and I can do it here. It's a responsibility and I'm not about to walk away from it."
"How will you do it?"
"Become a citizen? I don't know. I'm sure my father has my birth certificate squirreled away somewhere, so I'm pretty sure I can show I'm native-born. But I can't exactly show up at the local Social Security office and ask for a number. Folks down there will want to know where I've been these last thirty-six years. And why I've never filed a 1040. I can't just say I've been living abroad. Where's my passport? Records will show I was never issued one. At worst they'll think I'm some sort of terrorist. At best, a wide array of city, state, and federal agencies will be lining up to file tax evasion charges and investigate me for drug or arms trafficking. I don't know how well my past will hold up under that sort of scrutiny. Some law firm will get rich defending me. And in the end I could wind up either broke or in jail or both. Most likely both."
"I won't let you do that. I'd rather take my chances with you as you are than see you risk your freedom. You can't be a parent from behind bars. There's got to be another way. How about false documents?"
"They'll have to be awfully damn good if I'm going to rest my whole future on them. But I'll start looking into it."
Gia tightened her arms around him. "What a spot I've put you in."
"You? You haven't put me anywhere I haven't chosen to be. This is a situation I was going to have to face sooner or later. When I opted out I was, what, twenty-one? I wasn't looking ahead then. I never thought about how I'd get myself back in because I didn't care. Tell the truth, I didn't think I'd be around long enough to have to worry about it."
"Were you trying to get yourself killed?"
"No, but to someone watching me it might have seemed that way. I was reckless. No, that doesn't even touch it. I was nuts. I look back at some of the risks I took and wonder how I ever survived. I had this feeling of immortality then that gave me the confidence to try anything. Anything. A few nasty close calls eventually woke me up, but for a while there..." He shook his head at the memory. "Anyway, I'm still kicking, and now that it looks like I might actually survive this lifestyle, I can't see myself wanting to go on living in the cracks when I'm seventy."
Gia let go a little laugh. "A semi-senile Repairman Jack. Not a pretty picture."
"Can you see me stopping in at Julio's for my afternoon warm milk, then hustling around, dodging the IRS and AARP in my walker? What a sight."
They laughed, but not for long.
"Is there a way out of this?" Gia said.
"Has to be. It needs a fix. I earn my living fixing things. I'll figure something out."
Jack hoped he sounded a lot more confident than he felt. This could be his biggest fix-it job-his own life.
He stared out the back door at the fading light in the reddening sky, then glanced at the old oak clock on the wall above the sink.
"Oops. Speaking of fix-its, gotta go."
He felt Gia stiffen. "That bodyguard job you told me about?"
"More like baby-sitting than bodyguarding."
She leaned back and looked at him. "You be careful."
He kissed her. "I will."
"Remember, you're Daddy-To-Be Jack, not Wildman Jack."
At the moment, Jack wasn't quite sure who he was.
Ensconced in his sidewalk seat at the bistro down the block from Eli Bellitto's Shurio Coppe, Jack was nearing the bottom of his first Corona-no lime, please-with his eye on Bellitto's door. He'd ditched the mullet wig and odd clothes he'd worn in the store last night. He wore a baseball cap to hide his hair and keep his eyes in shadow, but otherwise he was pretty much himself tonight.
He'd watched the older woman and new clerk leave, seen Bellitto lock up and make the around-the-corner trip home. Twilight had faded into night, clouds had curdled in the formerly clear sky and then fused into a lumpy, low-hanging lid. Bellitto's door floated in a deeper pool of darkness due to the broken street lamp at that end of the block.
More traffic tonight than last. A battle-scarred delivery truck rolled by, retching a tubular cloud that lingered in the air behind it, slowly drifting Jack's way, obliterating the delicious odor of sautLed garlic that had been wafting from the kitchen. Jack coughed. The joys of dining al fresco.
More people too, so he engaged in his favorite pastime: watching them. He saw a couple of pale-faced, black-lipped goth chicks swish by in ankle-length black dresses. Then an odd interracial couple wheeling a baby carriage: he very dark in a button-down shirt, tie, and khakis with his hair processed as straight as Fifth Avenue, she porcelain white in bib overalls and long, puffy, light brown dreadlocks trailing down her back. A trio of teenage girls bounced by in off-the-shoulder blouses, bellbottoms, and cork platform soles-the seventies were back.
Jack checked the placement of the slapper resting inside his loose plaid shirt. The eight-ounce lead weight in its head pulled the fabric out and down, giving him a bit of a gut. He'd worn his black twelve-inch Fryes with the classic harness and ring tonight, and his .38 AMT Backup sat strapped inside the right one. He hoped he wouldn't have to use either. All quiet on the block. Everything pointed toward another nothing night, which was not, except for the boredom, such a bad thing.
His mind turned to his conversation with Gia, and the spot he was in: How did he legitimize his existence without risking his freedom? The obvious way was to become somebody else-take over the identity of a legitimate, law-abiding, Social Security numbered, tax-withholding, 401(k)-contributing, 1040-filing citizen. Obvious, but not very feasible. Impossible if said citizen were still alive.
But what if he were dead?
That might work. But how? As soon as this good citizen's death certificate was registered, his Social Security number would be added to the Social Security Death Index; anything Jack tried to do with the dead man's SSN after that would ring alarms throughout the credit industry, and eventually in the Department of the Treasury.
No thank you.
The ideal candidate would be a nutso recluse with no wife, no kids, no living relatives of any sort. He had to be within ten years either side of Jack's age and had to die unnoticed in his newspaper-crammed apartment-
No, wait. Better yet, he dies alone in his remote, Ted Kaczynski-style cabin deep in the woods. Jack would come upon his corpse, give him a decent burial, and walk away with the deceased's identity.
Yep, had a bit of a mental breakdown and hid myself away for a while, but now I'm back and ready to rejoin the rat race.
Jack snorted. Yeah, right... that'll happen. And who'll lead me to the cabin? The Easter Bunny?
Had to be a way, damn it.
He heard a distant rumble. The air smelled of rain and he remembered hearing on the radio that some was expected. He wished he'd paid more attention. Now tonight held the prospect of being wet as well as bored.
He was about to order a second Corona, and maybe some steamed shrimp to wolf down before the rains came, when he saw a car pull into the curb by the fire hydrant near Bellitto's door. He couldn't scope out the make and model because of the headlights and the broken street lamp.
Jack dropped a five on the table and started up the street. He had a feeling about this car. He might be wrong, and if he was, no big deal. But if right, he'd be left flatfooted if he stayed put here.
As he approached the end of the block he made the car as a maroon Buick Park Avenue. Bellitto stepped out of his doorway and the driver-big guy with a shaved head, putty-colored skin, and no neck-unfolded himself from the front seat. Wore a tight black T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up a couple of turns, which only emphasized the length of his arms-the knuckles practically brushed the ground, like a gorilla's. He obviously worked out and God forbid someone might not notice those biceps and triceps.
Jack had parked his car in a lot on the corner of West Houston, a block further up. To avoid attracting attention, he waited until he'd passed the Buick before breaking into a run. His boots weren't designed for running but he was doing all right. Chanced a backward glance to memorize the Buick's plate number but couldn't make it out because of the mud smeared across it. Accidental, or on purpose? Also noticed Bellitto getting into the driver seat while the big guy headed for the passenger side.
Seemed to Jack that Eli Bellitto was not likely to get hurt if he hung around with a guy that size. Unless of course he started picking on Mr. Gorilla Arms himself.
But Eli's brother Edward had been more concerned that he might hurt someone else. And if these two here were to gang up on someone, a heap of hurt could go down.
At the lot, Jack waved to the attendant, jumped into his Crown Vic, and hit the ignition. He'd paid in advance so he could get moving fast if needed. Right now he needed.
He kicked up gravel leaving the lot and caught up to Eli Bellitto and company as they waited at a red light three blocks down. The mud-smeared plate bothered him. The splatters did too good a job of hiding the numbers.
Jack followed them downtown. The rain started as they crossed Canal Street into Chinatown. He thought they might be heading for Brooklyn but they passed the turn for the Manhattan Bridge. Crossed the Bowery and merged onto Catherine Street. With the hulking lit-up forms of the Al Smith Houses looming ahead on the right, the Buick slowed to a crawl, hugging the curb as if looking for something or someone. Finally it stopped dead.
Were they going to add a third rider? This was getting complicated.
Jack looked around for options. Eli and his buddy Gorilla Arms would pick him up if he stayed right behind them. Not many people out on a drizzly Monday night. He wished it weren't raining. Maybe then he could get some clarity on what they were looking for.
He had an impression that Gorilla Arms had turned in his seat and looked his way, so Jack flashed his high beams, as if impatient for them to move on. Bellitto's hand snaked out the window and waved him around.
With an angry blare of his horn, Jack swung around the Buick and glided up the block.
Jack spotted a tiny store, lights still on, newspapers racked out front under an awning. As good an excuse as any to stop and keep Bellitto in sight.
Double-parked and left the engine running while he hopped out and trotted across the wet sidewalk. Approached the narrow storefront and noticed not a word in sight was English, not even the newspaper headlines. Couldn't tell if the ideograms were Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese. Not that it mattered. He was only going to pretend to shop, maybe buy a pack of gum at most.
At the open door, Jack stepped aside to let a little Asian boy scoot past; a white plastic shopping bag dangled from his wrist. He watched the kid stop under the awning and open a small red umbrella, then hurry off into the rain.
Kind of young to be out alone at this hour, Jack thought.
Stepped inside, smiled and nodded to the wizened old Asian woman inside, and said, "I'm just going to look around."
She gave him a little bow, waved her hand, and babbled something he hadn't a prayer of understanding.
Jack turned back to the window. Through the grime and the rain he noticed the Buick starting to move again.
He threw a buck on the counter and grabbed a newspaper on the way out. Holding it over his head as a makeshift umbrella-and to shield his features from Bellitto and his passenger-Jack dashed back across the sidewalk. As he moved he glanced left and right along the deserted sidewalk.
Where was the kid?
He saw something on the curb, protruding from between two cars, right near where Bellitto had been idling. The Buick was pulling away, but the alarms ringing through Jack's instincts forced him to make a quick detour. He ran over to the spot and saw what it was: a little red umbrella, upside down in the gutter, collecting rain in its bowl. But no kid.
Had Bellitto and Gorilla Arms grabbed him? Jack knelt and checked under the cars, found nothing but water and oil spots, then rose and stared after the retreating Buick's red rear lights.
Shit! That had to be it. Those two fuckers had snatched that little kid.
Grinding his teeth, Jack ran for his car.
Now he saw why Edward had said he wanted to hire Jack to protect his brother not so much from other people as from himself. His fear had been for the harm that might befall an innocent victim. He must have known his brother was a creep. And known he was getting ready to strike.
Damn him! Why hadn't Edward just called the cops? But obviously he'd wanted to keep it secret. After all, who wanted to go public that his brother was a pedophile? So Edward was trying to have it both ways-prevent another crime but do it under the table. Fine. Jack could appreciate that. But if he'd had the facts in advance, he would have handled this differently. He sure as hell wouldn't have let that little boy walk past Bellitto's car alone.
Shit! Shit! Shit!
He jumped into his car and spun his tires getting back into the traffic flow.
"Where are they?" he muttered, anger welling as he strained to see through the rain-smeared windshield. He pounded on the steering wheel. "Where the fuck are they?"
He wound further downtown and ran parallel to the on-ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge, but couldn't find them. Gambling that they'd be returning to Bellitto's place, he raced back uptown.
He let his high, tight shoulders drop and allowed himself an instant of relief when he spotted the Buick turning onto Bellitto's block. But only an instant. Who knew what condition that kid was in, or what they'd done to him already.
Again, the flare of anger. If only I'd known.
Jack killed his headlights and double-parked. Used the same newspaper to cover his head as he traveled the last block on foot.
Watched Bellitto pull into the curb before his door. Crossed the street in time to see Bellitto step out and open the rear door. Gorilla Arms emerged carrying a blanket-wrapped bundle in both arms. A child-size bundle. He kicked the door shut as Bellitto led the way across the shadowed sidewalk. Now Jack knew the reason for the shot-out street light.
Closer now, he searched for some sign of movement within the blanket but saw none. His gut gave a lurch as an ankle and a little sneaker fell free of one of the folds and dangled in the rain.
Shit, he might be too late.
A dark place within him cracked open, leaking boiling fury into his bloodstream. Wanted to pull his .38 and charge in and start capping faces, but it was two to one and a kid in the middle who might be salvageable. So instead of charging he slowed his pace and put a weaving stagger into his step. He reached inside his shirt, slipped his hand through the slapper's wrist loop, and gripped the hard leather handle.
The two men froze on the one-step front stoop when they noticed Jack's approach. Bellitto's hand hovered before the lock as he stared Jack's way. Jack kept shuffling by, head down under the paper, ostensibly lost in an alcohol or drug-induced fog, but watching them from the corner of his eye.
"C'mon!" Gorilla Arms hissed to Bellitto. "I'm getting soaked."
As soon as he passed them, Jack peeked over his shoulder, saw their backs turned, and made his move. Spun, pulled out the slapper, and darted toward the stoop. Door just starting to swing open. Had to take out Gorilla Arms first.
Jack slipped in close and put everything he had into a kick behind Gorilla Arms' left knee. Felt the square toe of his boot sink deep into the nerve-, vessel-, and tendon-loaded concavity.
Gorilla Arms let out a loud sharp cry, something like, "Ahhh!" as his knee buckled under him. He went down on that knee, still cradling the blanket bundle, and that lowered his skull to perfect home-run height. Jack took aim at the bald head hovering before him and put shoulder, arm, and a snap of the wrist behind the slapper. Like swatting a T-ball. The leather-clad lead weight landed with a meaty thwak! and Gorilla Arms keeled over sideways with a groan. The blanket bundle landed atop him.
Heard Bellitto's keys drop and turned to find him fumbling in the side pocket of his suit coat. Jack gave a quick, backhanded swing of the slapper that grazed the side of his head. Bellitto lurched away, stumbled, and landed on his back.
Jack turned back to Gorilla Arms, saw him shake his head and push himself up on one elbow. Tough. Or maybe he had a two-inch-thick skull. Gave him another shot behind the ear and that crumpled him. Down for the count.
Jack suppressed the boiling urge to work the two of them over, mess them up royally, but even with the dead street lamp overhead, enough light leaked up and down the block from the live ones to make him feel exposed out here. Someone might have seen this little tussle and be calling 911 right now. Plus the kid was limp as a sack of grain inside that blanket. No time for fun. Had to find some help, the medical kind.
Stuffed the slapper back into his shirt and bent to lift the kid, caught a blur of movement behind and to his right, twisted away and felt a sharp pain score his right flank.
Bellitto-rearing back to stab at him again with a knife that would have been sticking out of the center of Jack's back now if he hadn't moved.
Jack rolled to his feet and took it to Bellitto, headbutting him as he grabbed his knife hand and slammed him back against the door. He pressed against Bellitto, chest to chest, belly to belly, trapping him. He had Bellitto's left wrist locked in his right hand, low, against their thighs. His left fingers were wrapped around the knife hand, higher, at shoulder level.
He spoke through his teeth. "Care to dance?"
Bellitto shook his head. Blood trickled from his nostrils. "You hurt me." He seemed surprised... shocked.
"That's only the beginning."
Jack had been cut and though the pain was minimal, it only stoked his fury. He wanted-needed-to hurt back.
He glanced at the long slim blade. Looked like a stiletto, a seven-incher. Dark streaks on the blade. Blood. Jack's.
"But I'm invincible... invulnerable."
He tried to knee Jack in the groin, but Jack had his own knees locked against him. He tried to angle the blade toward Jack, grunting with the effort, his breath rasping in Jack's face.
Jack was stronger, turned the angle back toward Bellitto as he forced the knife downward. Between them.
Bellitto struggled more violently but sagged back when Jack headbutted him again. Goddamn that felt good. Wished he had a steel plate in his head so he could keep that up. Smash his face to creep jelly.
The knife was now between their chests but Jack kept forcing the blade lower. Bellitto's half-dazed eyes grew large as he realized where the point was headed.
"'Fraid so," Jack said.
"No, please! You can't!"
"This isn't happening!"
"Not like dealing with little boys, is it. That's what you prefer, right. Little boys... someone you can have total control over?"
"No, you don't understand."
Bellitto tried to release the knife but Jack squeezed his fingers, keeping them wrapped around the handle.
"Oh, but I do," Jack cooed. "I do, I do, I do. And now the control's on the other side. And how does that feel, you piece of shit?"
"It's not like that! Not like that at all!"
"Then call for help. Go ahead. Scream at the top of your lungs."
Bellitto shook his head. The rain had plastered strands of his thin hair over his forehead.
"Right," Jack said. "Because the cops would want to know about the kid, how he got here, what you did to him."
Jack knew the cops could already be on their way. Had to wrap this up and move.
Tightened his grip on Bellitto's knife hand. "I just hope you didn't do something like this."
Drove the blade downward into Bellitto's groin, deep, felt it slice through fabric and flesh, then broke free, taking the knife with him.
Bellitto's eyes bulged as his jaw dropped open. With a long, high-pitched gasp of agony he doubled over, knees knocked, hands clutching his crotch.
"Next time you look at a kid-every time you look at a kid-remember that."
Jack folded the bloody knife and stuck it in his pocket. Some of that blood was his and he didn't want his DNA profile ticking like a time bomb in some computer criminal database for all eternity. His right flank stung as he turned. Looked and saw a dark stain spreading through his rain-soaked shirt.
Damn. How had he let that happen?
Moved to the blanket bundle draped across the still unconscious Gorilla Arms. Loosened some of the folds and exposed the kid's round face. His eyes were closed. Looked like he was sleeping. Touched the forehead. Still warm. Placed his cheek over the slack little mouth. Warm breath flowed. Caught a sweet chemical smell. Chloroform?
Relief flooded through Jack. Still alive. Drugged up until Bellitto and Gorilla Arms could get him inside for whatever sick games they had planned.
No games tonight.
But now what? Instincts screamed to take off and call 911 as soon as he reached his car. But that meant leaving the kid alone with these two oxygen wasters. One of them might decide that dead kids tell no tales. Gorilla Arms was out cold and a whimpering Bellitto lay doubled over in the fetal position on the stoop; neither seemed in much condition to harm anyone at the moment, but Jack didn't want to risk it.
He picked up the kid. The movement caused a jab of pain in his flank. Checked the street for cars. One coming. Waited for that to pass, then dashed through the rain around the corner; keeping low behind the parked cars, he carried him one block east, then up toward Houston. When he got within half a block of the lights and traffic there, he found a sheltered doorway and gently placed his burden on the dry steps. The kid stirred, then went limp again.
Jack ran the three blocks back to his car. As soon as he got it rolling he picked his cell phone off the front seat and dialed 911.
"Listen," he told the woman who answered. "I just found an unconscious kid. I don't know what's wrong with him. You better get here fast." He rattled off the address, then hung up.
He drove to a spot around the corner from the kid's street where he double-parked again. He left the engine running and hurried back to the corner where he found another doorway that offered a view of the kid. Exactly twelve long minutes before he heard the sirens. As soon as the howling EMS rig flashed into view, Jack scooted back to his car.
Just as he was turning the ignition, he heard another siren and saw an ambulance flash by, heading in the direction of the Shurio Coppe. Bellitto must have called for help on his own cell phone. Should have thought of confiscating that as well as his knife. Let him lie there and bleed a little longer.
Speaking of bleeding...
Jack pressed his hand against his side and it came away red. He didn't have to take off his shirt to know a few butterflies weren't going to do the job. He needed stitches. That meant a visit to Doc Hargus.
Jack reached for the phone and hoped Hargus was on the wagon this week. Doc could probably sew up a cut like this in his sleep, but still...
Jack didn't insist that his doctor have a license. Hargus's had been revoked, and that was fine; it meant that the rules about reporting certain kinds of wounds would be ignored. But he also preferred that the person passing needle and thread through his flesh be reasonably sober.
After Doc did his work, Jack intended to go straight home, find Bellitto's brother's phone number, and give him a call. He had a bone to pick with Edward Bellitto.
IN THE IN-BETWEEN
Finally, she knows her name. Stray bits and pieces of her life are floating back, but not enough. Not nearly enough.
She yearned for these memories in the hope they would tell her why she is here, and why this boundless rage suffuses her. But these bits of flotsam on the featureless sea of her existence yield no answers.
And no comfort. The flashes from her past life and memories of the joy she took in day-to-day existence only emphasize the enormity of what she has lost.
But her abilities have grown. She can manifest herself in the physical world that surrounds her. She did it earlier today. And she can make herself heard, but not in the way she wishes. She cannot speak, but for some strange reason she can sing. Why is that? And why that song? She seems to remember that it was her favorite once, but she cannot understand why. She hates that song now.
She hates everything. Everything, and everyone.
But even more she hates being here, being a shadow among the living. She realizes that she was once alive and is now dead. And she hates that. Hates all the living for having what she does not. For having a past, a present, a future!
That is the worst part. She has no future. At least none that she can see. She is here, she is now, she has a vague, undetermined purpose, but after that is completed, what happens to her? Will she be cast back into the darkness, or must she remain here, forgotten, alone?
She drifts on... waiting...
IN THE WEE HOURS
Charlie awoke in the dark and listened.
Was that...? Yes. Someone was crying. The sound was echoing down the hall. High-pitched, like a child.
Charlie couldn't be sure if it was a boy or a girl. He sat up and listened more closely. Not so much a sound of sadness as a whimper of terror, and so devoid of hope it tore his heart.
Not a real child, he thought. It's a spirit, a demon sent here to lead us astray.
He pulled the covers over his head and shivered in the warm darkness.
Gia wiped a tear from her eye as she hung up the bedside phone.
After hearing from Jack last night about the child he'd saved, Gia had called Vicky's camp first thing this morning, just to make sure everything was okay there. She trusted the camp and its security, trusted the counselors, but she'd had this steamrolling urge to hear her daughter's voice.
The director had told her that Vicky and the other kids were at breakfast. Was it an emergency? No, just ask her to give her mother a ring when she was through.
Gia had spent the next ten minutes thinking about child molesters and how the horrors they subjected their little victims to should be visited upon them a hundred-no, a thousandfold.
The call came while she'd been making the bed. Vicky was fine, great, wonderful, having the time of her life, and wanted to tell her about the hippo she'd made in her clay modeling class, rattling on about how she'd started out making a pony but the legs wouldn't hold up because she couldn't get the body right so she'd made the legs thicker and thicker and shorter and shorter until the horse could stand without collapsing or tipping over but by then it looked like the fattest horse in the world so instead of calling it a horse she told everyone she'd made a hippo. Wasn't that the funniest, Mom?
It was. So funny it had been all Gia could do to keep from breaking down and sobbing.
God, she missed her little girl.
Gia couldn't remember the last time she'd felt lonely, but with Jack out running an errand, and Vicky off in the Catskills, the house seemed more than empty. It was barren, a wasteland, an echoing shell with no heart, no life.
Get a grip, she told herself. It's not that bad. Vicky will be back soon. In just four days and three hours, to be exact. It seemed like forever.
And when Vicky returned, should she tell her about the baby?
No. Too soon.
All right, but if not now, when? And how? How to tell her daughter that Mommy screwed up big time and got pregnant when she hadn't wanted to.
Who's the daddy? Why, Jack of course.
Which meant that the new baby would have a daddy while Vicky didn't. Vicky's father, Richard Westphalen, was missing and officially presumed dead. Gia knew, unofficially, that Vicky would never see her father again.
No big loss. While alive, Richard had been a nonparticipant in his inconvenient daughter's life. Over the past year and a half, Jack had become Vicky's father figure. He doted on her and she loved him fiercely. Partly, Gia was sure, because Jack was in many ways a big kid himself. But he took time with her, talked to her instead of at her, played catch with her, came along and sat with all the other kids' parents to watch her T-ball games.
He was everything a good father should be, but his real child was now growing inside Gia. Would Vicky see the new baby as a threat, someone who'd come between her and Jack and usurp his love? Gia knew that would never happen, but at eight years of age, could Vicky grasp that? She'd already had one father abandon her. Why not two?
All excellent reasons for Vicky to hate the new baby.
Gia couldn't bear the thought of that. One possible solution was marrying Jack. A hopelessly mundane, pedestrian, bourgeois solution, she knew, cooked up by a terminally mundane, pedestrian, bourgeois person, but as her husband, Jack could officially adopt Vicky as his daughter. That symbolic cementing would give Vicky the security she needed to accept the new baby as a sister or brother rather than a rival.
The marriage was a problem, though. Not a matter of would Jack marry her, but could he? He'd said he'd find a way. She had to trust that he would... if he lived long enough.
Some godawful mess I've made.
She yawned as she finished tucking in the sheets and straightening the spread. Little wonder she wasn't sleeping.
Bad enough to be worrying about Vicky and the new baby, but then Jack comes in last night with a thick bandage on his side. Told her he'd been stabbed by the very man he'd been hired to protect, who'd turned out to be some sort of pedophile.
She'd changed his dressing this morning and gasped at the four-inch gash in his flank. Not deep, just long, he'd told her. Doc Hargus had sewn him up. Gia inspected the neat running suture that had closed the wound. She'd never liked the idea of Jack going to an old defrocked physician, but last summer she'd come to trust Hargus after he guided Jack's recovery from other, worse wounds.
She was angry with Jack for getting hurt. Would he ever learn?
But then, if he did learn, did change, would he still be the same Jack? Or would some fire within him go out and leave her with a hollow man, a wraithlike remnant of the Jack she loved?
Add that to the list of things to keep her awake at night.
And then, last night, when she'd finally fallen asleep... visions of the mysterious little girl she'd seen in the Kenton house drifted through her dreams. Her eyes... Gia had caught only the briefest glimpse of them as the child had glanced back over her shoulder, but their deep blue need haunted Gia, in her dreams, and even here and now in her waking hours.
Who was she? And why such longing in those eyes? It seemed a need Gia might fill if she only knew how.
No question about it, she had to go back to that house.
"Got it," Jack said, tapping his finger on a story in the newspaper.
He'd grabbed the Daily News from Abe's counter as soon as he'd walked in and thumbed through it, looking for stories about the little Asian kid and the wounded Bellitto.
He'd found a two-inch column reporting that a Mr. Eli Bellitto of Soho had been stabbed and a companion, Adrian Minkin-so that was Gorilla Arms's name-had been bludgeoned by an unknown assailant last night. Both were admitted to St. Vincent's.
Predators playing victims, Jack thought. Smart.
But the story about the recovery of a kidnapped Vietnamese boy got big play, with a picture of little Due Ngo and another of his mother.
"Nu?" Abe said as he arranged-with surprising delicacy for his pudgy fingers-strips of lox across the inner surface of a sliced bagel. "Got what?"
"A story about the kid those pervs snatched last night. He's okay."
Abe didn't look up. He was busily smearing the other half of the bagel with cream cheese-the lowfat kind. Although, considering the amount he was slathering on, he wasn't sparing himself any calories or fat.
"Hey, leave some for me," Jack told him.
He'd brought breakfast, as usual, splurging on lox-not Nova, because Abe liked the saltier kind-but trying to help Abe in the calorie department with the lowfat Philly.
"What kid?" Abe repeated, ignoring him. "What pervs?"
Jack gave him a quick rundown of last night's events, then ended by quoting from the News story.
"Listen to his mother: ' "I was so worried," said Ms. Ngo. "Little Due insists on going out every night to buy ice cream. He has gone a hundred times and never had trouble. It is so terrible that children are not safe in this city." ' " Furious, Jack slammed his hand on the paper-and winced as he felt a tug on his wound. "Can you believe that? What a load of crap!"
"What's not to believe?"
"He's seven years old! It was ten o'clock and pouring! Like hell he wanted to go out. The real deal is she and her boyfriend send that little kid out every night so they can get it on while he's down on the street. But she's not going to tell that to the News, is she!"
He hit the paper again, harder this time-resulting in another painful yank on his wound-his fist landing on the picture of the kid's mother. He hoped she felt it, wherever she was.
"You saved him from death, maybe worse." Abe chomped into his freshly constructed bagel-and-lox sandwich and spoke around the bite. "You performed a mitzvah. You should be happy instead of angry."
Jack knew Abe was right but as he stared at the grainy black-and-white photo of little Due-taken at school, most likely-all he could see was his limp body wrapped in a soggy blanket.
"She calls herself a parent? She should be protecting her kid instead of putting him in harm's way. Oughta be an exam you have to take before they let you become a parent. Guy shoots a couple million sperm and one of them hits an egg and bam!-a baby. But are either of the two adults capable of bringing up a child? Who knows? Children are a big responsibility. They should only be entrusted to people who can be responsible parents."
Listen to yourself, he thought. You're ranting. Stop.
He looked up and found Abe staring at him.
"Wu? Is there some part of this story I'm missing? What's all this tumel about parents?"
Jack wondered if he should tell Abe, then instantly decided he had to. How could he not? He knew it would go no further. Abe was as tightlipped as a clam.
"I'm going to be one."
"You? A father?" Abe grinned and wiped his right hand on his shirt before thrusting it across the counter. "Mazel tovl When did you find out?"
Jack gripped the hand, still slightly slick with salmon oil. "Yesterday afternoon."
"And Gia, she's comfortable with the prospect of saddling the world with a child who has half your genes?"
"She's fine with the child part. It's what kind of a father I can be that's causing problems for us."
"You as a good father? There's a question about this? Look at the training you're getting already with Vicky. Like a daughter she is."
"Yeah, but there are, you know, legal issues I'm going to have to deal with."
He explained those while Abe finished his bagel and began preparing another.
"She makes sense, that Gia," Abe said when Jack finished. "I have to give her that. But what I think I'm hearing here is the end of Repairman Jack."
Jack winced inwardly at hearing it so starkly put, but...
"I guess that pretty well sums it up."
"Citizen Jack," Abe said, shaking his head. "Doesn't have quite the same ring as Repairman Jack."
Jack shrugged. "The name wasn't my idea anyway. You're the one who started calling me that."
"And now I'll have to stop. So when do you become Citizen Jack?"
"First I have to figure out how. Any ideas?"
Abe shook his head. "A tough one, that. To make you a newborn citizen with no illegal baggage... this will take some thought."
He cut the second lox-and-bagel combo in half and gave part to Jack.
Jack took a bite, relishing the mixture of flavors and textures. He relaxed a little. Knowing that someone else was working with him on this eased some of the weight from his shoulders.
"While you're thinking," he said, "I'm going to call Eli Bellitto's brother and give him some hell."
Jack had gone straight to Gia's last night after Doc Hargus had finished stitching him up. He'd stopped by his apartment this morning and picked up Edward Bellitto's number on the way to Abe's. He wormed his Tracfone and the slip of paper out of his jeans, started to dial, then...
"He only wrote down nine digits."
Jack stared at the paper. Edward hadn't used hyphens, putting all the numbers in a straight string. Jack hadn't noticed till now that he'd been shortchanged one digit.
Abe leaned forward and looked at the paper. "A two-one-two area code-that means he's here in the city. Maybe he was in such a hurry or maybe he was a 'ti'tx'tefarblondzhet from worrying about his brother so he left off the last digit. If that's the case, you can try all the possibilities. Only ten."
"But what if he left off a number in the middle? How many calls will that take?"
"Millions, you're talking."
Jack wondered if the missing digit was an accident at all. Maybe Edward didn't want Jack contacting him. Maybe he'd planned a vanishing act all along. If so, there went the second half of Jack's fee.
Very few of his customers ever tried to stiff him, and none of those had succeeded. Edward might be the first.
Abe pointed to Jack's cell phone. "Your new Tracfone, it's working out?"
"So far, so good. They should call it the Untraceable-fone."
Jack had picked up his at a Radio Shack along with a prepaid airtime card. He'd activated his phone online from a computer terminal in the Public Library without giving his name, address, or any credit information. Per-minute charges were higher than calling plans from Verizon and the like, but you had to sign contracts and go through credit checks for those. For Jack, the Tracfone's anonymity was priceless.
"I should maybe get one. For when I call you. You gave me that number, right?"
"You, Julio, and Gia have it, and that's it."
An idea struck Jack as he finished his bagel. He picked up his phone.
"You know, maybe I don't have to make a million calls to track down Edward Bellitto. Maybe I can simply ask his brother Eli."
"You think he'll tell you?"
"Can't hurt to try."
After information gave him St. Vincent's main number, Jack called and asked for Eli Bellitto's room.
A hoarse voice answered. "Hello?"
"Mr. Bellitto? This is Lorenzo Fullerton from the St. Vincent's accounting office. How are you this morning?"
Abe raised his eyebrows, rippling the bare expanse of his scalp, and mouthed the name: Lorenzo Fullerton?
Jack shrugged. It was a name he'd come up with years ago and used whenever he was pretending to represent officialdom.
"What do you want?" The voice sounded weak as well as hoarse.
Good. In pain too, Jack hoped.
"Well, your intake form isn't clear. We can't make out the name and address of your brother Edward. We'd all be terribly grateful if you could please clarify this little matter for us."
"Brother? I don't have a brother named Edward or anything else. I'm an only child."
Eli Bellitto slammed the receiver back onto its cradle. The abrupt movement evoked a jab of pain from his heavily bandaged groin. He groaned and looked at his doctor.
"You have idiots in your administration."
Dr. Najam Sadiq smiled. "You will hear no argument from me," he said in decent English.
Dr. Sadiq had been making late rounds in St. Vincent's when Eli arrived in the emergency department; as the most immediately available urologist, he'd been assigned to Eli's case.
Eli tried to shift his position in the bed and that ignited another bonfire of pain. He glanced at the morphine pump attached to the pole next to his bed. A PCA pump, the nurse had called it. Patient Controlled Analgesia. A button clipped to the bed rail allowed him to self-medicate-within limits-but he'd been holding off because the drug made him foggy and he feared saying the wrong thing. He didn't think he could hold off much longer though.
At least he'd had the presence of mind last night to demand a private room. He didn't care how much it cost. The last thing in the world he needed now was a nosy roommate.
"As I was saying," Dr. Sadiq said, "you are a lucky man, Mr. Bellitto. Very lucky. If that knife had sliced but a quarter of an inch further to the left, we would have had a much bigger problem."
Eli thought, I've got oxygen running into my nose, morphine hooked into my left arm, an IV running into my right, and a tube in my bladder draining bloody urine into a bag hanging near the floor. This is not lucky.
Dr. Sadiq went on. "The knife sliced into the base of your penis, just missing your urethra. We saved your penis without much trouble, but we could not save the right testicle, I'm afraid. It was too badly lacerated. I had to remove it."
The room seemed to darken around Eli as he listened. Not so much the details-that he had been sexually maimed and mutilated, that a piece of him had been amputated-but that it had occurred at all. What had happened to his invulnerability? Why had it failed him?
More importantly, who was that man last night? Had it been a chance encounter, or could he have been following him and Adrian? Could he know about the Circle?
Eli forced a smile. "I'm not thinking about starting a family. Not at my age."
"But you do not have to worry too much about sexual function. There will be scarring, of course, and that may interfere with erections, but with proper care and therapy, you should be able to resume normal sexual function within a couple of months."
Eli didn't care about sexual function. Last night had not been about sex, although the man who had attacked them seemed to think so. Not that Eli could blame him. Two men in the dark with an unconscious boy... the prosaic, untutored mind would naturally leap to such a conclusion. But the Circle was devoted to concerns far more profound than mere sex.
Eli wanted no more talk about his wounds or his chances for full recovery. He changed the subject.
"My friend, Mr. Minkin, the one with the head injuries... how is he doing?"
Adrian was an ox, yet their attacker had felled him in an instant and left him senseless.
Dr. Sadiq shook his head. "That I do not know. He was admitted to the neurology service. Is he your... partner?"
Now why on earth would Dr. Sadiq think Adrian had anything to do with the shop? Unless... could he be even considering that he and Adrian were lovers! Yes, that had to be it.
Anger flared in Eli. What's wrong with this world? Everything is not about sex!
"Oh, no," Eli said. "He's just an old friend."
A tiny shift of his hips was rewarded by a disproportionate shock of pain. He was suddenly very tired.
"I think I'd like to rest now, doctor."
"Of course," Dr. Sadiq said. "I'll look in on you again during my evening rounds."
As soon as the door closed Eli grabbed the morphine delivery button and began jabbing at it like a telegraph operator. Soon a delicious lethargy suffused him, pushing away the pain and worries about strange men who lunged out of the darkness.
Jack stopped in front of Municipal Coins on West Fifty-fourth. He'd planned to come by yesterday but Gia's revelation had blown that plan clear out of the water.
Midday sun gleamed off the polished gold and silver coins in the window display, but Jack's attention was more focused on Eli Bellitto's last words than on precious metals.
I don't have a brother named Edward or anything else. I'm an only child.
Somebody was lying.
Eli Bellitto was a child molester, most likely a child killer-you go to the trouble of abducting a child as Bellitto and his buddy had, you're not likely to let him go-so lying was hardly a stretch. But why lie about having a brother to someone you thought was a hospital administrator? Unless you didn't want to acknowledge that brother.
But Eli Bellitto hadn't sounded like he was lying. Edward, on the other hand...
The phone number he'd given Jack was bogus, as was no doubt much of the story he'd laid on him. Edward had a Irish accent, Eli didn't. The two supposed brothers looked nothing alike.
No question... Edward had lied.
What particularly rankled Jack was that he'd made Edward-if that was his real first name; his last sure as hell wasn't Bellitto-for a straight shooter. Every so often a customer tried to pull a fast one, but Jack usually found out before any damage was done. Since many of his jobs involved getting even, with maybe inflicting a little hurt on someone if necessary, Jack made sure to do a fair amount of backgrounding before he took any action. But Edward had wanted Jack to keep people from being hurt, so he'd taken the man at his word.
But if he wasn't Eli Bellitto's brother, who the hell was he? Had he hired Jack to be there when Bellitto snatched that child? Seemed so. But how had he known?
Jack figured chances were slim to none he'd ever find out.
Still, he wasn't quite ready to write this off as a bad deal. Not yet. The phone number Edward had given him wouldn't allow that. If you're going to leave a phony number, you simply write down an area code and seven random digits. Why leave one out? It didn't make sense.
Jack's brain held a closetful of things that didn't make sense. He'd pitch this in with the rest.
He pushed through the door and entered the cool interior of Municipal Coins.
"Mr. Blake!" said a man who had been rearranging a tray in a long row of display cases. He bustled forward and shook Jack's hand. "So good to see you again!"
"Hello, Monte. Call me Jack, okay?"
He'd been telling Monte for years to call him Jack but the man must have been born with an extra formality gene that made it impossible for him to address a customer by his first name.
"I'll do that," he said. "Yes, I'll do that."
Monte was half owner of Municipal Coins. Every time Jack looked at him, the word thick sprang to mind: thick body, thick lips, even his curly black hair. But he moved like a ferret. Had a numismatic database for a brain and an MBA from Yale, but the only business he had any desire to administrate was rare coins.
"Just bought a big collection," he said, motioning Jack toward the rear of the store where he kept the cream of his inventory. "Some incredible pieces came in last week. You've got to see them. Absolutely gem."
Jack was one of Monte's regular customers. Probably saw him as a well-heeled collector of rare coins, but Jack's stash of coins was more than a collection. They were his life savings..
Without a Social Security number-a real one-he couldn't invest in CDs or stocks; he wouldn't have wanted to under any circumstances because that would mean paying taxes, a burden Jack had managed to avoid thus far in his life. So whenever he accumulated a lump of cash, he put it into gold coins, some of them bullion type, like Krugerrands, but mostly the rare and collectible. Not an exciting investment, but other facets of his life provided enough adrenaline and he saw no need to look for more in the investment realm. He'd missed the rocketing stocks of the nineties, but he'd also missed the crash of the aughts.
"Not looking for coins today, Monte," Jack said.
And I won't be buying many more if I keep allowing myself to get stiffed by customers who lie to me.
"Just a social call then?" Monte said, doing a fair job of hiding his disappointment. "Always good to see you, Mr. Blake, no matter what the occasion."
"But I am in the market for something to display my coins. Where are those clamshell cases you've been telling me about?"
Monte had been pushing a new line of pocket-sized display cases on Jack for months, telling him they were the latest and greatest thing for the collector who wanted to safeguard his coins when he showed them off. Jack had repeatedly turned him down.
"What're you planning?" Monte said, grinning as he reached up and pulled a cardboard box from a wall rack. "Taking them to a show? Or maybe give the relatives a peek?"
The last thing Jack wanted to do with his collection was display it, but he was going to have to bite the bullet and bring some of them out for the Madame Pomerol sting.
"Relatives," Jack told him. "Gonna give my Uncle Matt a peek."
From the box Monte removed a pair of keys and an oblong metal case that ran eight inches long and was just shy of five inches wide; its tapered brushed chrome surface gleamed under the lights.
"See?" Monte said, pointing. "Recessed hinges at this end and a lock at the other."
He stuck one of the keys into the keyhole and turned it. The lid popped open revealing a clear plastic shield. Under that, gray felt molded into angled slots that would display coins of varying sizes.
"But the real beauty of it is this shield here: Tough clear plastic that keeps people's hands off. Remember that old song, 'You can look but you'd better not touch'?"
"'Poison Ivy,' " Jack said. "The Coasters. Atco label. Nineteen-fifty-nine."
"Oh. Right. Yeah, well, that's what this case is all about. And if anyone, God forbid, knocks the case over, the shield will keep your coins from rolling all over creation."
Jack turned the case over in his hands. Perfect.
"How do I open the shield?"
"Another beauty feature. See that little lever recessed into the side? You turn your key over and use the edge to pull it up to where you can grab it. No one 'accidentally' popping open the lid."
"Beautiful," Jack said. "I'll take two."
Jack stepped out of the Sports Authority on Sixth Avenue in Chelsea with his purchases tucked into the same bag as the coin cases. He now had the raw materials for his encounter with Madame Pomerol this afternoon; all he had to do was assemble them. That would take half an hour, tops, which meant he still had a couple of hours to kill.
A trip down to the Shurio Coppe might be in order. Chat up the staff. See how the boss was doing. Maybe even cop a shurio.
He decided to walk. He liked to stroll the city, especially on warm days like this when the sidewalks were crowded. It fed his people-watching jones and kept him in tune with what the average New Yorker was wearing.
Average New Yorker... right. If such a creature existed, it was a chimerical beast. Take a simple item like men's headwear, for instance. In the first few blocks heading downtown Jack passed a gray-suited Sikh wearing a red turban, a three-hundred-pound black guy in a tiny French beret, a skinny little white guy in a Special Forces beret, a rabbi type wearing-despite the heat-a long frock coat and a wide-brimmed black sealskin hat, and then the usual run of doo-wraps, Kangols, kufis, and yarmulkes.
But Jack was gratified to see that the most common headwear by far was what he was wearing: the baseball cap. Yankee caps outnumbered Mets, but not by much. Jack's sported the orange Mets insignia. Although ninety percent of the caps he saw were worn backwards or sideways, and although Jack tended to avoid nonconformist looks, he wore his beak first. Backwards, the adjustable strap irritated his forehead; beak first it shadowed his face.
He figured in his Mets cap, aviator mirror shades, white Nike T-shirt, jeans, and tan work boots he was as good as invisible.
Jack walked through the door of the Shurio Coppe at around 1 p.m. He didn't see any customers. He found the red-haired assistant behind the marble sales counter unpacking a box. Jack noticed the return address: N. Van Rijn-Import/Export.
"Is Eli in?"
"Are you a friend of his?"
"I ran into him last night."
The clerk blinked. "You did? When?"
"Last night. Why? Is something wrong?"
"Yes! He's in the hospital!"
"Really? Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that. This is shocking! Did he have a heart attack or something?"
"No! He was stabbed! It happened right around the corner. Right on his own doorstep!"
Jack slapped his hands against his cheeks. "Get out! Is he all right?"
A nod. "I think so. He called earlier and said he should be home in a few days, but he won't be back to work for a while. It's terrible, just terrible."
"Isn't it, though," Jack replied, shaking his head sadly. "What kind of a world is it when an innocent man gets stabbed for no reason at all?"
"I know. Terrible."
"I'll have to stop by and see how he's doing."
"I'm sure he'd like that." The assistant shook his head again, then took a deep breath and looked at Jack. "In the meantime, is there something in particular I can help you with?"
"No," Jack said. "I think I'll just browse." He looked around. "You're here alone? Where's...?"
"Gert? She's off and I can't reach her. She'll be back tomorrow." He looked around uncertainly at the laden shelves. "I wish she were here now."
I don't, Jack thought. This is perfect.
He placed the bag with his purchases on the counter. "Would you watch this if I leave it here?"
"I'd be happy to."
Of course he would. Shops like this paid extra attention to browsers with shopping bags. All it took was the flick of a finger to push an expensive little item off a shelf and into a bag. Giving up the bag would make the clerk less watchful and free up both of Jack's hands.
The object of Jack's desire lay in the locked display case rightward and rearward, so he headed left front. He found an old, wooden, owl-shaped clock whose eyes moved counter to the pendulum. Or at least they were supposed to. It appeared to have been overwound. The price wasn't bad. He already had a black plastic cat clock with moving eyes at home; this would make a good partner. An owl and a pussy cat.
Jack carried the clock to the counter.
"If you can get this working, I'll buy it."
The clerk smiled. "I'll see what I can do."
That should keep him occupied, Jack thought as he sidled away to the right, toward the old oak display case.
Had his shim picks ready by the time he reached it. Checked the second shelf and, yes, the Roger Rabbit key ring still lay among the other tchotchkes. And the padlock still locked the door.
He'd noted Sunday that the lock was a British brand, a B&G pin tumbler model. Good, solid lock, but hardly foolproof. Opening it was a five-second procedure: two to find the shim with the right diameter for the shackle, one to slide the little winged piece of steel into the shackle hole of the lock housing, one to give it a twist, and another to pop the lock.
Jack pocketed the shims. A quick glance around-the clerk was bent over the clock and no one else in sight-then another five seconds to slip off the lock, open the door, grab Roger Rabbit, close and relock the door.
He stared at the cheap little key ring. It felt strange in his hand... just a bit too cool against the flesh of his palm, as if he'd pulled it from a refrigerator. And still that imploring look in Roger's wide blue eyes.
Originally he'd wanted it for Vicky. But Vicky wasn't involved anymore; he didn't want her near anything Eli Bellitto had owned, touched, or had even looked at. Jack wasn't sure why he wanted it now. Bellitto had turned down a ridiculous amount of money for the silly thing. That meant it was important to him. And what was important to Bellitto might be important to Jack. Or maybe Jack wanted the key ring to harass Eli Bellitto, just for the sheer hell of it.
Before turning away he let his gaze roam once more over the shelves of the display case and the junk they carried... the Pogs and Matchbox car and Koosh ball and...
A notion struck Jack, a possibility so sick and cold he felt a layer of frost form on his skin.
These were all toys... kids' stuff... all belonging to a guy who'd snatched a kid last night.
Jack stood before the cabinets and swayed with the vertiginous certainty that these were trophies, mementos emptied from the pockets of other missing kids. And Eli Bellitto was flaunting them. How many hundreds, even thousands of people had walked by this case and stared at its contents, never guessing that each one represented a dead child?
Jack couldn't bring himself to count the items. Instead he looked down at the key ring in his hand.
Who did you belong to? Where is your little owner buried? How did he die? Why did he die?
Roger's eyes had lost their imploring look. They were a flat dead blue now. Maybe Jack had simply imagined that look, but it had served its purpose: He wasn't through with Eli Bellitto.
He wondered what his own face looked like. He had to compose his expression, look calm, casual.
He took a deep breath, let it out. Tossing the key ring casually in his hand, he headed for the counter.
"Sorry," the clerk said as he approached. He tapped the owl clock before him on the counter. "I can't get it working."
Jack shrugged. "I'll take it anyway." He knew a clock-smith who'd have it ticking in half a minute. "What's your name, by the way?"
"I'm Jack, Kevin." They shook hands. "You're new here, aren't you."
Chalk one up for me, he thought. He'd got the impression on Sunday that this fellow was new.
"Well, good luck here. It's a great store. Oh, yeah," he said, as if suddenly remembering. He tossed the key ring onto the counter. "I'll take this as well."
Kevin picked it up and turned it over, examining it. "Never seen this before."
Jack let out a breath. He'd been counting on that. Even if Kevin had been working here awhile, he might not have paid attention to the contents of a cabinet he couldn't open.
"I found it on a shelf back there."
Jack jerked a thumb to the right. "Back there."
"Hmmm. Trouble is, there's no price on it. I don't even think we carry anything like this."
"I'll give you, oh, say, ten bucks for it."
Kevin reached for the phone. "I'd better just check with Mr. Bellitto first."
Jack stiffened. "Hey, don't bother Eli. I'm sure he needs his rest."
"No, it's okay. He told me to call if I have any questions."
Jack suppressed a groan as Kevin tapped in the numbers. He'd wanted to slip away with the key ring-no fuss, no hassle. That might not be possible now. But if he had to grab it and walk out over Kevin's objections, that was what he'd do. One way or another, Jack and Roger were leaving together.
Apparently Kevin called Bellitto's room directly because seconds later he said, "Hello, Mr. Bellitto, it's Kevin. Sorry to bother you, but I've got an item here with no price tag and I was wondering-"
Even from his spot across the counter Jack could hear the angry squawking from the ear piece.
"Yes, sir, but you see-"
"I understand. Yes, sir, I will." He hung up. "I'm afraid this is going to take a while. I'm going to have to go through the inventory and find similar items and price this accordingly." He shook his head as he gazed at the key ring. "Trouble is, I'm pretty sure we don't-"
"Let me make it easy for both of us," Jack said. "I'll pay for the clock and give you ten bucks for the key ring. If it comes to more, I'll settle up. If it's less, I get a refund. Sound fair?"
"I guess so..."
Jack picked up the key ring and dangled it between them. "Hey, let's face it, Kev, we're not talking about a Ming vase here. Just find some paper and write down, 'Roger Rabbit key ring-ten bucks-Jack.'"
"I'll put it in the sale book," he said, opening a black ledger. Kevin dutifully wrote it all down, then looked up. "Just Jack?"
"Sure. Eli will know."
Maybe not right away, Jack thought as he pulled out his wallet. But soon. Very soon.
Jack wanted Bellitto to know the key ring was gone. Because that was when he would begin wondering and worrying.
Jack planned to give him lots to worry about.
Morphine might help pain, Eli Bellitto thought as he pressed the PCA pump's button for another dose, but it does nothing for anger.
Imagine Kevin calling him in the hospital with a question like that. Why couldn't you get good help?
He wondered if it might have been unwise to castigate Kevin as severely as he had. With Gert off today and not answering her phone, he was minding the store on his own. No telling what untold damage a disgruntled clerk might do.
Eli was reaching for the phone to call him back when Detective Fred Strauss made his second visit of the day. Strauss managed to be lean and yet paunchy. He wore a green golf shirt under his wrinkled tan suit. As he closed the door behind him, he removed his straw fedora, revealing thinning brown hair.
"It's safe to talk?" Strauss said in a low voice as he pulled a chair closer to the bed.
Eli nodded. "Did you learn anything?"
Strauss worked Vice in Midtown South. He, like Adrian, was a member of Eli's Circle.
"I checked with every emergency room from the Battery into the Bronx. No guy with the kind of stab wound you describe. Are you sure you nailed him?"
"Of course, I'm sure." Eli knew what it felt like to drive a steel blade into human flesh. "He may think he can take care of the wound himself, but he'll need professional care."
"Yeah, but if he knows the right people, he won't need an ER."
How different things would be, Eli thought, if the stranger hadn't rolled aside at that last instant. The knife would have sliced into his lungs once, twice, many times. Eli would now be sitting comfortably at home, and Strauss's only concern would be how to dispose of the stranger's body.
"Well, they found a witness who says she saw a guy running with a child-size bundle in the area, but with the dark and the rain she couldn't even give the color of his hair."
Eli tried to dredge up some distinguishing feature about his attacker but came up empty. What little light had been available had come from behind, leaving his face in darkness. His hair had been drenched with rain. Dry, it could have been brown or black.
But he remembered the voice, that cold, flat voice after he'd driven Eli's own knife into his groin...
Next time you look at a kid-every time you look at a kid-remember that.
Eli ground his teeth. He thought I was a child molester! A common pervert! The idea infuriated him. It was so wrong, so unjust.
"All I can tell you," he said, "is that he wasn't blond."
Strauss leaned close and lowered his voice even further. "That's not what you told the local guys. You said he was blond."
Eli leaned back from the onions on Strauss's breath. Everything he'd told the local detectives had been false. He'd sent them looking for a six-foot-three, two-hundred-and-fifty-pound bruiser with long, bleached-blond hair. He hadn't mentioned a word about wounding him.
"Exactly. Because we don't want him caught, do we. At least not by anyone outside the Circle. He might start babbling about the lamb. Fibers from the blanket might be linked to me or Adrian or the car."
"Speaking of cars, the witness said she saw him dump the bundle in a doorway and run back to a car."
Eli stiffened. The movement stabbed a spike of pain through his morphine curtain. "Tell me she didn't see the plates."
"She thought she did. Wrote down the number, but when we traced them we found they belonged to Vinny the Donut."
"Vincent Donate A Brooklyn wise guy."
"You mean mafia?" The thought terrified Eli.
"Don't worry. It wasn't him."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Because Vinny doesn't leave witnesses. Our lady must've missed a number or two in the dark. I'm checking other possible combinations but it's not looking good."
"What about his phone? Someone called EMS about the lamb. It had to be him. Don't those switchboards have caller ID?"
"They do. And they got the number, which looked like a pretty good lead until we found out he used a Tracfone."
"A pay-as-you-go cell phone. The only personal information you have to give when you sign up is the zip code you'll be calling from most frequently. The one he gave was for Times Square."
"It's like the guy is some kind of ghost."
"I assure you he's not a ghost," Eli said. "Can you get his phone number from EMS?"
Strauss shrugged. "Sure. Why?"
"I don't know yet. I just want it. It's our only link to him." Eli shifted-very carefully-in the bed. "What about Adrian? What did he see?"
"Adrian's useless. He gets dizzy every time he makes a quick move and won't believe it's August. The last things he remembers were in July."
"Just as well, I suppose," Eli said. "That way he can't contradict my story."
"Never mind your story," Strauss said, rising and pacing at the foot of the bed. "Who is this guy? That's what I want to know! From what you tell me, he knows how to handle himself. Took out Adrian one-two-three. And it sounds like he came prepared, which means he must have been following you two."
"If he was following anyone, it must have been Adrian," Eli said. "He must have spotted Adrian while he was researching the lamb."
All that work, Eli thought. All wasted.
Adrian was such an excellent scout, always keeping an eye out for the next lamb. When the time for a new Ceremony neared, everyone in the Circle began watching the sidewalks. But Adrian was always on alert, even when a new Ceremony wouldn't be necessary for almost a full year, he kept watch. He'd been so excited with this latest find: the right age, adhering to a predictable schedule. The perfect lamb.
They'd watched and waited, and last night they knew the time had come: a rainy night near the new moon. The pickup had gone off perfectly, they'd been almost through Eli's door, and then...
"Doesn't matter who he was following," Strauss said. "He knows about you and Adrian now. Who else does he know about?"
Eli didn't want Strauss feeling too comfortable, so he said, "And if he's been watching this room, he probably knows about you as well."
Strauss stopped his pacing. "Shit! I thought it was safer than the phone."
"It is. You did the right thing. Let's face it, for all we know, he may already know about all twelve members of the Circle. But I have a bigger concern: Why didn't he turn us in? We know he had a phone. Adrian and I were helpless. All he had to do was simply step back and call 911."
"But he didn't," Strauss said, rubbing his neck with his jittery, skinny fingers. "He carried the kid away and then called. Could've been a hero, but he just faded away."
"Taking the knife with him," Eli added. "Why? It was covered with my prints, not his."
"But his blood was on it, along with yours."
A wave of cold rippled up Eli's spine. My blood... did he want a sample of my blood... for some ceremony of his own, perhaps?
Strauss tapped his fist on the footboard of Eli's bed. "None of this makes any sense. Unless..."
"Unless the guy knows about the Circle, and how connected we all are. I, for one, would not want to get on the wrong side of us."
True. The twelve men-Eli rather liked the idea of having twelve disciples-who made up the Circle were a diverse lot, with their hands on strings that ran to and from very high places-media, judicial, legislative, even the police. Only Eli lacked civic influence. But Eli had started the Circle, and he controlled the Ceremony.
"What about the lamb?" Eli said. "Will he be a problem?"
Strauss shook his head. "Remembers being grabbed, a smelly cloth pushed against his face, and that's it." He glanced toward the closed door and lowered his voice. "And speaking of lambs, do we have a backup?"
"Gregson has one under watch but he didn't think it was ready for pickup."
"Maybe he can accelerate things. If we miss this window-"
"I know. Only one more new moon before the equinox." The Ceremony had to be completed each year during the phase of a new moon between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox. "But we still have time."
What a catastrophic shame to lose the little Vietnamese lamb. He'd been ripe for picking, everyone in the Circle had been on standby; the Ceremony could have been completed last night, and they'd all have been set for another year.
"But you know what bothers me the most?" Strauss said.
"You, here, in a hospital bed. Because of the Ceremony you're supposed to be protected, immune to harm. At least that's what you've been telling us." He waved his hand in the direction of Eli's IVs. "How do you explain all this?"
The same question had tortured Eli since the blade of his own stiletto had cut into his flesh.
"I can't," Eli said. "In the two hundred and six years that I have been performing the Ceremony, nothing like this has ever happened. I have come through wars and floods and earthquakes unscathed. Yet last night..."
"Yeah. Last night you were anything but protected. Care to explain?"
Eli didn't like Strauss's tone. A note of hostility, perhaps? Or fear?
"I believe the problem is not with me but with the man who attacked me. After personally experiencing his superior strength, and after what you've told me about his elusiveness, I'm beginning to believe that we were not attacked by an ordinary man. I-"
Eli stopped as he experienced an epiphany. Suddenly it was all clear.
"What's wrong?" Strauss said, leaning forward, his expression tight.
"The only way to explain last night's events is to assume that we are dealing with someone who is using the Ceremony himself."
Yes, of course. That had to be it. It explained why the attacker had moved the child away, why he didn't turn in Eli and Adrian to the police; it might even explain his taking the knife. He didn't want to expose the Circle-he wanted to control it. He wanted to usurp Eli's position, and he probably thought some of the leader's blood would aid him in accomplishing that.
"Oh, that's great!" Strauss said, his voice rising. "Just fucking great! How are we supposed to handle something like that?"
Eli kept his tone low and even. This was no time for panic. "The way you would handle anyone else. You have at your disposal the resources of one of the greatest police departments in the world. Use them to find this man. And when you do, bring him to me."
"But I thought you were the only one who knew the Ceremony."
"What I can discover, so can others. You are not to worry about that. Your task is clear: Find him, Freddy. Find him and bring him to me. I will deal with him."
Gia stepped out of Macy's with a loaded shopping bag in each hand and headed for the curb to look for a cab. She'd picked up some good bargains that Vicky could wear back to school next month.
She wondered if the driver on the way home would give her the same strange look as the one who'd brought her down here. Probably. She couldn't blame them: Women who lived on Sutton Square did not go to Macy's for a Red Tag sale.
Probably thinks I'm a live-in nanny, she thought.
My address may be one of the best in the city, guys, but I'm living on the income of a freelance commercial artist. I have an active little girl who wears out what she doesn't outgrow. So when Macy's advertises a sale, I go.
As she moved toward the curb she noticed a black woman with a microphone; a burly fellow stood beside her, peering through the lens of the camera on his shoulder. The woman looked familiar but she was oddly dressed-the blouse and jacket on her upper half did not go with the denim shorts on her lower half. Herald Square was jammed and the crowd seemed even thicker around this woman.
Then Gia recognized her as one of the on-the-scene reporters from a local TV station-channel two or four, she couldn't remember which. The woman spotted Gia and angled her way with the cameraman in tow.
"Excuse me," she said, thrusting the microphone ahead of her. "I'm Philippa Villa, News Center Four. Care to answer the Question of the Day?"
"Depends on what it is," Gia said, still edging toward the curb.
"You heard about the kidnapping and return of little Due Ngo?"
"Okay." Ms. Villa pushed the microphone closer. "The Question of the Day is: Should child molesters get the death penalty?"
Gia remembered how she'd felt this morning, imagining what it would have been like if Vicky had been abducted. Or if someone ever molested the baby growing inside her...
"You mean after they've been castrated?" she said.
The woman blinked as a couple of onlookers laughed. "We're just talking about the death penalty. Yes or no?"
"No," Gia said through her rising anger and revulsion. "Death's too good for anyone who'd hurt a child. The guy who snatched that little boy should be castrated. And after that he should have his hands cut off so he can never touch another child, and then his legs cut off so he can never stalk another child, and then his tongue ripped out so he can never coax another kid into his car, and his eyes put out so that he can never even look at a child again. I'd leave him his nose so he can breathe in the stink of his rotten body."
The surrounding gaggle cheered.
Did I just say that? Gia thought. I've been hanging around Jack too long.
"You seem to have a lot of support," Ms. Villa said, glancing around at the crowd. "We might want to air your comments on the news tonight." She smiled. "The late news. We'll need you to sign a release to-"
Gia shook her head. "No thanks."
She didn't want to be on TV. She just wanted to get home. She turned as a cab nosed in toward the curb to drop off a passenger.
"Can I at least have your name?" Ms. Villa said as she and the cameraman followed Gia to the cab.
"No," Gia said over her shoulder.
She slid into the rear of the Cab as soon as it was empty. She closed the door and told him to head uptown. She didn't look back as the cab pulled away.
What had possessed her to say something like that? On camera, no less. She'd been telling the truth-those had been her exact feelings at the moment-but they were nobody else's business. She certainly didn't want her face on the tube. If she had fifteen minutes of fame coming, she wanted it through her paintings, not from flapping her gums on local TV.
Can I handle fatherhood? Jack thought as he knocked on the door to Madame Pomerol's Temple of Eternal Knowledge.
He'd dodged bullets and been punched, stabbed, sliced, and gouged during the years since he'd moved to the city. He should be able to handle fatherhood. At least he hoped he could.
The prospect of being responsible for raising a child to be a decent human being without screwing up along the way filled his mind, made dodging knives and bullets seem an easier task. At least then the choices were clear.
Thank God he'd be only partly responsible and could defer to Gia's hands-on experience.
But what if something happened to her?
Jack shuddered at the possibility and wondered why he was borrowing trouble. This wasn't like him. Was that what parenthood did to you?
Leave all that for later, he told himself. Focus on the now.
He checked the wig so that the long rear strands of its mullet were again draped over his ears, especially the left with its ear piece.
The door opened and Carl Foster stood there. "Ah, Mr. Butler. Right on time."
Mr. Butler? Jack thought. He almost looked around, then remembered that he was Butler.
Focus, damn it!
He half wished Gia had waited till tonight to tell him. This was going to be a delicate fix, with pinpoint timing. He had to keep his mind off the future and concentrate on the moment.
"Time and tide don't wait for nobody," Jack said, snapping into character. "That's what I always say."
"Well put," Foster replied, ushering him in.
Today Jack wore jeans, cowboy boots, a white Walking Man collarless shirt, and a plaid sport coat with two deep inner pockets, each heavy with their cargo. He followed Foster to the desk.
"Let's attend to mundane matters first," Foster said. "You have Madame's fee?"
"What? Oh, sure." Jack drew an envelope from a side pocket and handed it to Foster. "Here you go."
Foster opened it and quickly fanned through the five counterfeit one-hundred-dollar bills inside. He looked disappointed.
"I thought you said gold was the best way to deal with the spirit world."
"Yeah well, that's what my Uncle Matt used to tell me, but you know how hard it is to put together a bunch of gold coins that total an exact amount? Too much trouble, if you ask me."
"I could have given you change."
"Never thought of that. Okay, next time it's gold."
"Excellent!" Foster said, brightening as he pocketed the envelope. "You mentioned wanting to contact an uncle? Was he the one you mentioned who used to frequent spiritualist mediums?"
"Yep. Uncle Matt."
"Certainly not Matt Cunningham?"
Oh, you're good, Jack thought. Slick way to draw out some details.
But Jack wanted to be drawn out. He was primed to babble.
"Naw. His last name was West. Matthew West. Great guy. Shame he had to go."
"When was that?"
Jack wondered if Foster was taking mental notes or if Madame herself was seated at their computer, listening to the bugs and typing Matthew Thomas West's name into www.sitters-net.com even as they spoke.
"Early in the year-not sure if it was late January or early February. I just know I never been so cold in my life as at that funeral. Standing outside in that wind at the graveside-boy!" Jack rubbed his hands and hunched his shoulders as if remembering the chill. "I tell you, I thought I'd never feel warm again."
"Really," Foster said. "I recall this past winter being rather mild."
"Here, maybe, but we were freezing our butts off in St. Paul."
"Minnesota? Yes, they certainly do get cold winters out there. Is that where you're from?"
"Me? Nah. Born and raised in Virginia."
"How do you like Manhattan?"
"Love it. Never seen so many restaurants in my life. And they're all crowded." He laughed. "Don't anybody ever eat in around here?"
Foster smiled. "Yes, the Upper West Side offers every cuisine known to man."
Jack narrowed his eyes in a display of suspicion. "How do you know where I live?"
"Why, from the questionnaire you filled out yesterday."
"Oh, yeah." He gave a sheepish grin. "Forgot about that."
Jack had expected the Fosters to check up on him. He'd been the only new face yesterday when the lights had come on, so he had to be a prime suspect. That was why he'd used the name of a real person... just in case he had to come back.
But he'd given himself plausible deniability: the remote rig in the light switch could be activated from outside the seance room.
He was sure they'd checked up on him. Foster no doubt took a trip to the Millennium Towers and found that a Robert Butler did indeed live there. If he'd seen the real Robert Butler, the jig would have been up. But obviously he hadn't. If he'd called the number Jack had written on the questionnaire-someone had done just that last night and hung up-he heard an outgoing message from "Bob Butler" confirming the number and instructing him to leave a message after the beep.
The Krugerrand yesterday and today's envelope full of cash should have laid any residual suspicions to rest. At least that was what Jack hoped. These two were the type who tried to kill the competition. What would they do to someone they thought was trying to pull a sting on them? Jack took comfort in the little .38 automatic nestled in his right boot.
Foster said, "You were close to your uncle?"
"Oh, yeah. Great guy. Split his estate between me and my brother when he died. Great guy."
"Is that why you wish to contact him? To thank him?"
"Well, yeah. And to ask him..." Jack reached into the left inner breast pocket of his jacket and pulled out one of Monte's clamshell cases. "... about this." Foster's eyes fixed on its chrome finish. "Interesting." He reached for it. "May I?" Jack handed it to him and watched his hand drop as it took the full weight of the box. But Foster made no mention of how heavy it was. The fingers of his free hand glided over the tapered surface, caressing the seam, running across the inset hinges, and coming to rest on the keyhole at the opposite end.
"Do you have the key?"
"Really. I'll bet there's an interesting story behind this case."
Jack put on a guilty expression as he held out his hand for the case. "You might say that. But that's between me, my uncle, and the lady."
"Yes, of course," Foster said, handing it back to him. He glanced at his watch. "I'll see if Madame is ready."
He stepped away from the desk and entered the seance room, closing the door behind him. Jack listened in on a hurried strategy meeting between Mr. and Mrs. Foster beyond that door.
"He's telling the truth," Madame Pomerol's voice said in his left ear. "I found the uncle on sitters-net. And get this: He was a coin collector."
"You should feel the weight of that case he's got. I'm betting it's stuffed with gold coins. Trouble is it's locked."
"That shouldn't be a problem for you. Get a look inside that case. I'll handle the rest."
A moment later Foster reappeared and motioned Jack toward the door.
"Come. Madame is ready."
He ushered Jack into the room. Again that claustrophobic feeling from all the heavy drapes. This time only two chairs huddled against the table.
Foster pointed to the case. "Did that belong to your uncle?"
"I'm pretty sure it did. That's one of the things I want to find out."
"Then I'll have to ask you to place it on that settee over there until later in the session."
Jack looked at the little red velvet upholstered couch against the wall about a dozen feet away. Jack knew what lay on the other side of that wall: Foster's command center, much like Charlie's but not as sophisticated. He'd found it Saturday night when he'd searched the place.
"Madame finds her gift works better if she is not in proximity to objects that once belonged to the departed she is trying to contact."
Good line, Jack thought as he clutched the case against his chest.
"No kidding? I'd think they'd be a big help."
"Oh, they are, they are, but later. Once she is one with the Other Side, they are invaluable. But early on, when Madame is making the transition, the auras from these objects interfere with her connection."
"I don't know," Jack said, drawing out the words.
Foster pointed to the little couch. "Please. Place it on the settee for now. When Madame has the ear of the spirits, she will ask you to bring it to the table. Have no fear. It will be quite safe there."
Jack made a show of indecision, then shrugged. "All right. If it's gonna help make this work, what the hey."
He walked to the settee and settled the case on the cushions, but his eyes were searching the wall behind it, looking for seams in the wallpaper. He found none, but noticed that the molding here ran in a box pattern just above the level of the settee. He knew one of those rectangles hid a little trapdoor; he'd seen its other side Saturday night.
Empty-handed, he returned to the table and seated himself in the chair the smiling Carl Foster was holding for him.
"Madame will be with you shortly."
And then Jack was alone. He knew he was on camera so he looked nervous, drumming on the table, fiddling with his jacket. While doing that he checked the stack of counterfeit bills inside his left sleeve, and the second metal case in his left inner breast pocket.
A moment later the overhead spots went out and Madame Pomerol made her entrance in another flowing beaded gown, pink this time. She wore the same turbanlike hat as on Sunday.
"Monsieur Butler," she said in her faux French accent as she extended her bejeweled hand, "how good to see you again."
"Nice to be up close and personal, as it were."
"I understand you wish to contact your late uncle, yes?"
"That I do."
"Then let us begin."
No preliminaries this time, no speech aoout not touching the ectoplasm. Madame Pomerol seated herself opposite Jack and said, "Please lay your hands flat on the table." When Jack complied she said, "I will now contact my spirit guide, the ancient Mayan priest known to me as Xultulan."
As they had Sunday, the clear bulbs on the chandelier faded, leaving the dull red ones lit. Once again shadows crowded around the table, held off only by the faint red glow from above. Jack glanced toward the settee and his case but could make out no details in the darkness.
Madame Pomerol began her tonal hum, then did her head-loll thing.
Jack guessed the reason for the hum: to help mask any sound of the trapdoor opening in the wall by the settee. Foster was probably reaching for the metal case right now.
This was SOP in the spook trade: snatch the purse, rifle through it for whatever information it contained: driver license, SSN, bank account number, address book, pictures of family members. Foster's command center had a photocopier and a key cutter, just like Charlie's; he could copy documents and keys in minutes.
If the remote switch were still in place it might have been fun to turn on the lights and catch Foster with his hand in the till, but Jack had already played that scene. He was going for a bigger sting today.
The table tipped under his hands and so he felt obliged to let out a startled, "Whoa!"
And then the low, echoey moan from the lady. The amp had been turned on.
"O Xultulan! We have a seeker after one who has crossed over, one with whom he shares a blood tie. Help us, O Xultulan!"
Jack tuned her out and concentrated on time. Foster should have snatched the case by now. He'd have had his pick set open and ready and would be working on the lock. Jack had a key but he'd done a couple of test runs picking the lock himself-and had purposely left a few crude scratches around it. As expected, the little lock turned out to be an easy pick, complicated only by its small size. If Foster had any talent, he should be turning those tumblers just... about... now.
And now he's lifting the top... and freezing at the sight of rows of gleaming gold coins. Not bullion coins like yesterday's Krugerrand, but numismatic beauties from Jack's own collection, worth far more than their weight in gold.
He wants to touch them but the plastic dome stops him. He tries to lift it but it won't budge. It's locked down. But there has to be a catch somewhere, a release...
"My case," Jack said, straightening and running jittery hands over his jacket like a man who'd just discovered that his wallet is missing. "I want my case!"
"Please be calm, Monsieur Butler," Madame Pomerol said, suddenly alert and aware and free of her trance. "Your case is fine."
Jack rose from his chair. He put a tremor in his voice. "I-I-I want it. I've got to find it!"
"Monsieur Butler, you must sit down." That was a warning to her husband to put his ass in gear and get this turkey's precious case back on the settee. "I am in touch with Xultulan and he has located your uncle. You can retrieve the case in a few minutes when-"
"I want it now!"
Jack feigned disorientation and wandered in the wrong direction first-he wanted to give Foster enough time to close the case and return it-then lurched around and stumbled toward the settee.
"We're okay," Foster's voice said in his ear. "It's back on your side."
Jack couldn't see the settee in the darkness so he traveled by memory, and made sure he banged into it when he reached it. He felt around on the cushion and found the case.
"Here it is!" he cried. "Thank God!"
As he was speaking he slipped that case into his left breast pocket and removed its identical twin from the right. He'd filled the mounts within the first with gleaming pristine beauties that anyone would recognize as valuable for their bullion weight alone. But when Foster saw the dates he'd know they were old. And since they'd looked up Matthew West on sitters-net.com, he'd assume they were rare.
The second case, however, he'd filled with lead sinkers.
"Shit, that was close!" said Foster's voice. "But worth it. You should see what's in that case. Gold coins. Not more Krugerrands, but old collectibles. They must be worth a fucking fortune. Think of something. We have got to get our hands on those coins!"
As Jack waded back toward the faintly glowing pool of red around the table, he noticed a look of concentration and distraction on Madame Pomerol's face as she listened to her husband.
She'd probably been ready to scold her sitter, but now she gave Jack a warm, motherly smile.
"See, Monsieur Butler? There was nothing for you to get upset about. You feel better now, yes?"
"Much." He took his seat and used the moment to pull the stack of thirty bogus hundreds from within his sleeve and lay it on his lap. Then he put both hands on the table and clutched the case between them. "I'm real sorry about that. Don't know what came over me. I just got scared, I guess. You know, the darkness and all."
"That is perfectly understandable, especially on your first visit." She covered her eyes with a hand. "I have made contact with your uncle."
Jack jerked upright in his seat. "Really? Can I talk to him?"
"The connection was broken when you left the table."
"But that is not a terrible thing. I can reestablish it. But it was not a good connection, so I must ask you a few questions first."
"Your uncle, his middle name was Thomas, yes?"
"You know, I believe it was. Yes, Matthew Thomas West. How'd you know that?"
She smiled. "Your uncle told me."
"Damn! That's scary."
"He seemed upset about something. Do you know what it could be?"
Jack averted his eyes, hoping he looked guilty. "I don't think so."
"Something about an inheritance, perhaps?"
Jack looked awestruck. "You know about that?"
He was perfectly aware that he'd told Foster about sharing the estate with his brother, but it was common for sitters to forget that their own loose lips were the source of most of what a medium told them.
"Of course, but communication was garbled. Something about you and your brother..."
Jack started with his story. It jibed with all the available information on sitters-net.com; he'd looked at it from different angles and couldn't see any holes. He hoped Madame Pomerol wouldn't either.
"Yeah. We were his only living relatives. Our folks were gone, and he had no kids."
No kids, Jack thought. Must've died a lonely old man, going to mediums in a vain attempt to contact his dead wife. But that's not going to happen to me. Not now...
The realization lit a warm glow in his chest.
Jack snapped to. He'd drifted away. Jeez. Not like him. Couldn't afford to do that or he'd blow the sting.
"Sorry. I was just thinking about Uncle Matt. After he died, his will divided his estate between me and my brother Bill."
"Yes, he told me his wife Alice had died many years before him. They are reunited now."
"You know about Aunt Alice? This is amazing. And they're together again? That's great."
"They are very happy. The inheritance?"
"Oh yeah. Well, I got the house and everything in it." Jack frowned and pushed out his lower lip, just shy of a pout. "Bill got the coin collection. Uncle Matt always did like him better."
"These two things, they were not equal?"
He sighed. "Yeah, they were about equal in dollar value. But all Bill had to do was find a coin dealer to unload the collection. Know what he walked away with? A quarter of a million dollars." Jack snapped his fingers. "Just like that."
"And you had to sell the house. Not so easy."
"Damn right. Had to sell off all the furniture as well. I wound up with the same amount of cash, but I had to keep flying back and forth to Minnesota and it took me until just last week to get it. That's almost six damn months!"
Madame Pomerol gave a Gallic shrug. "But still you have much money now, yes? You should be happy. But none of this tells me why your uncle is so upset."
"Well..." Jack looked away again. "I guess it has to do with this little case."
He took a deep breath and sighed again. "Last week, as I was cleaning out the last of Uncle Mart's stuff before the closing, I came upon the case. It was locked and I couldn't find the key, so I brought it back with me. I was planning on finding a locksmith to open it for me, but..."
"But what, Monsieur Butler?"
"I don't think Uncle Matt wants me to have this."
"Why do you say that?"
"You won't believe this." He gave a nervous laugh. "But then again, maybe you will, seeing as how you're a medium and all." Another deep breath, a show of hesitation, then, "It's the case." He tapped its shiny surface. "Someone or something keeps moving it on me."
Jack nodded. "I keep finding it in places where I never put it. I mean that: never put it."
"Perhaps your wife or-"
"I live alone. Don't even have a cleaning lady. But I'm looking for one. You know of anybody? Because I-"
"Please go on."
"Oh, yeah. Well, it kept moving and I kept making excuses, blaming my memory. But Saturday... Saturday really got to me. You see, I'd planned to take it down to a locksmith that day, but when I was ready to leave, I couldn't find the case. I looked everywhere in that apartment. And finally, when the locksmith was closed and it was too late to do anything, I found the damn thing under my bed. Under my bed! Just as if someone had hidden it from me. In fact I know it was hidden from me, and I have a pretty good idea who did it."
"It was your Uncle Matt."
"I think so too."
"No. It was your uncle. He told me."
"You mean to tell me you knew about this all along? Why'd you let me go on so?"
"I needed to know if you were telling me the truth. Now I do. What you say agrees with what your uncle told me."
Foster said, "There were a bunch of scratches on the case lock. Looked like this jerk tried to pick it himself. Hit him with that."
Madame Pomerol cleared her throat. "But you left out a few things."
Jack wished he knew how to blush on cue. Probably wouldn't be noticed in this light anyway.
"How you tried to open the case yourself and failed."
He covered his eyes. "Oh, man. Well, yeah. Tell Uncle Matt I'm sorry about that."
"Also, you believe the case holds valuable coins, and if so, they belong to your brother, yes?"
"Now wait just a minute, there. Uncle Matt left the coin collection to Bill and the house and its contents to me. This here case was part of the contents. So it's rightfully mine."
"Your uncle disagrees. He tells me they are silver coins of little monetary worth."
Jack could feel her eyes on him, looking for some sign that he already knew what the case held. He avoided a quick, negative reaction, but he didn't want to appear too accepting.
"Yeah?" he said, frowning as he hefted the case. "Seems kinda heavy for just silver."
The lady brushed past his doubt. "I know nothing of such things. All I know is that your uncle told me they were of great sentimental value to him. They are the very first coins he collected as a boy."
"No kidding?" Jack was getting an idea of where she might be heading with this.
"Yes, your uncle was hoping to take them along with him when he crossed over, but he could not manage it. That was why they remained in the house."
"Take them into the afterlife? Is that possible?"
She shook her head. "Sadly, no. No money in the afterlife. At least not permanently."
"Can't take it with you, eh? Well, I guess that settles it. I'll just have to give this to Bill."
"Don't let him get away!" Foster cried. "I'm telling you there's a small fortune in that case!"
Jack slapped his hands on the table, picked up the case, and made as if to stand. Wasn't she going to say anything? Was she going to let him walk out with all those rare gold coins? A mook like her? He couldn't believe it.
"One moment, Monsieur Butler. Your uncle wishes me to apport the case to the other side so that he can see them one last time."
"I thought you said that was impossible."
"I can do it, but only for a very short while, then they return."
"All right. Let's get to it."
"I am afraid that is impossible right now. It is a grueling procedure that takes many hours, and for which I must be alone."
"You mean I just give you this case and walk away? I don't think so. Not in this lifetime."
"You do not trust me?"
"Lady, I just met you two days ago."
"I have promised your uncle this favor. I cannot break a promise to the dead."
Madame Pomerol closed her eyes and let her head fall forward. As they sat in silence on opposite sides of the table, Jack debated whether to ask for some security. He decided against it. Better to let her come up with the idea.
Finally Madame Pomerol raised her head and opened her eyes.
She released a heavy sigh. "This is most unusual. Embarrassing almost. But your uncle thinks-"
"Wait. You were just talking to him?" He didn't ask how she'd managed to do that without all the amplified moaning and groaning.
"Yes, and he says I should provide you with a show of good faith."
Even better! Let the idea come from Uncle Matt.
"I don't think I understand."
"As a show of good faith I will put one thousand dollars in an envelope for you to keep while I apport the case to the other side. When I return the case, you will return the envelope."
"A thousand dollars... I don't think that's enough. What if the case doesn't come back from the other side? Then I'm out everything." He tapped the case. "I'll bet the coins in here are worth a couple-three thousand."
"Twenty-five hundred then, but ask no more, for I do not have it."
Jack made a show of considering this, then nodded. "I guess that'll do."
She rose with an air of wounded pride. "I shall get it."
"I hope you're not mad or anything."
"Your uncle is annoyed with you. And so, I must say, am I."
"Hey, it's not like it's for me, you know. I just feel I've got to look out for my brother's interests. I mean, seeing as how the coins in this thing are his and all."
She walked off into the darkness without another word.
She's good, he thought. Just the right mix of arrogance and hurt. And smooth.
He heard a door shut, then the lady's voice started in his ear.
"Do you believe this shit?" she said. "A thousand ain't enough for that dickhead bastard! Twenty-five hundred fucking dollars! Have we got that much in cash?"
"Let's see," Foster said. "With the cash donations from this morning and his own five hundred, we just make it."
Damn, Jack thought. They were going to give him back his own queer. Oh, well, that had been a risk all along.
"All right, stick it in an envelope for me. I'll make up the dummy." Jack heard rustling paper, then, "I tell you, I'd love to shove this twenty-five hundred right up that geek's ass!"
Carl Foster laughed. "What difference does it make how much he wants? He's not going to walk away with a cent of it."
Madame added her own laugh. "You've got that right!"
That's what you think, my friends.
While apparently adjusting his position in the chair, Jack counted five bills off his pile of queer and shoved them back into his sleeve, leaving twenty-five in his lap.
"It's the principle, Carl. He should have trusted me for a thousand. It's the fucking principle!" More rustling paper, then, "All right. I'm set. Showtime."
With that, the overheads and chandelier came on, flooding the room with light.
What the hell?
Jack glanced down at the pile of bills in his lap. He'd been counting on the semi-darkness of the seance; now he'd have to do his work in full light. This complicated matters-big time.
He leaned forward to cover the bills as Madame Pomerol returned. She carried a white legal-size envelope and a small wooden box. With a great show of noblesse oblige, she tossed the envelope onto the table.
"Here is your good faith. Please count it."
"Hey, no, that's-"
"Please. I insist."
Shrugging, Jack took the envelope and opened it. He noticed it was the security kind with a crisscross pattern printed on the inner surface to keep anyone from scoping out the contents through the paper.
Now the hard part... made harder by all this damn light... had to play this just right... be cool and casual...
He removed the wad of bills from the envelope and lowered it beneath the level of the table top. As he pretended to count them he felt the muscles along the back of his neck and shoulders tighten. He knew the Fosters had a camera in the chandelier, but he couldn't remember if it was a simple, wide-angle stationary, or a remote-controlled directional. If Carl Foster spotted Jack's switch, he might do something rash. Like shoot him in the back.
Jack decided to risk it. He'd come too far to back down now. And his ear piece would give him a heads-up if Foster got wise.
Keeping close to the table, Jack switched Madame Pomerol's bills with the counterfeits waiting in his lap.
"It's all here," he said as he brought the stack of queer onto the tabletop and shoved it into the envelope.
He listened for comment from Foster, but the husband remained silent. Had he got away with it?
The lady picked up the envelope, took a quick look inside, then ran her tongue over the glued flap.
"Please check to make sure the lock on your case is secure," she said. "For I wish to return it to you in the exact condition that you gave it to me."
Jack bent over the case, pretending to examine the lock, but kept watch on the lady's hands. There! As soon as his head dipped, he saw her switch the cash envelope with another from her billowy sleeve.
One good switch deserves another. But I'm still one ahead.
"Yep," he said, looking up. "Still locked up tight."
"Now," she said as she opened her little wooden box, "I am going to seal the envelope."
She withdrew a purple candle from the box, followed by a book of matches and something that looked like a ring. She struck a match and lit the candle. She dribbled some of the wax onto the back of the envelope, then pressed the ring thing into it.
"There. I have affixed a spirit seal to the envelope. You are not to open it. Only if the case does not return from the other side may you open it. If you break the spirit seal before then, your uncle will punish you."
Jack swallowed hard. "Punish me? How?"
"Most likely he will make the money disappear. But he may do worse." She wagged a finger at him as she pushed the envelope across the table. "So do not open it before you return."
Very clever, Jack thought. She's covering all exits.
"Don't worry. I won't." He put the envelope in his lap, then quickly transferred that plus her twenty-five-hundred dollars to his side coat pocket. "Oh, hey, I got a little business trip tomorrow-overnight to Chicago-so I can't come back till Thursday. Will you have ap-whatevered it by then?"
"Apported. Yes, and I believe it will have returned by then."
You mean, he thought, that you believe you will have been able to replace the gold coins with junk silver by then.
He pushed the case toward her. "Then fire away. And good luck, Uncle Matt, wherever you are."
Jack rose, waved to Madame Pomerol, and headed for the door. "See you Thursday."
He felt laughter bubbling in his throat as he strode through the waiting room and hurried down the hall, but he suppressed it. He didn't want to arouse their suspicions. He took the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator because a load of shit was poised over a windtunnel fan and he wanted to be out of range when it dropped.
"Lock the front door," Madame Pomerol said through Jack's earpiece, "and let's take a look at those coins."
Jack had made it to the lobby when he heard Foster say, "Shit! Something's up with this lock!"
"Like it's jammed."
Good diagnosis, Carl, Jack thought as he waved to the doorman and stepped out onto the street. He'd broken off a pin tip in the lock of the second case.
Instead of hurrying away, Jack loitered on the sidewalk outside. He wanted to hear this.
"Look at that," Foster said. "Wonder how that got in there. No matter, it's out now. Only take me a few seconds to... there. Now, feast your eyes on-oh, shit! Oh, no!"
"Let me-" Madame Pomerol cut herself off with a gasp. "What the fuck? You told me this was packed with gold coins! Are you fucking blind?"
"It was! I swear it was! I don't know what-"
"I do! The shit pulled a switch! He was conning us from the get-go! And you let him in!"
"Yes, you, you needle-dick jerk! You're supposed to screen these assholes!"
"I did! I checked out his address, I called the phone number he gave me."
"Yeah, well, you can bet your sorry ass the Robert Butler at that address ain't the guy we had here today, and the phone you called is not at that address. Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!"
"Hey, let's look on the bright side. He thinks he walked out of here with two-and-a-half large, but all he's got is sliced-up newspaper. And we've still got his five hundred. I wish I could see his face when he opens that envelope. He may have pulled one over on us, but we're the ones that come out ahead."
"You think I give a shit about that? I don't give a rat's ass about five hundred bucks. What I care about is he scammed us. He's out some cash, but as far as I'm concerned, he came out on top. He walked into our place and fucking scammed us-in our own place! Like we were punk amateurs. If word of this gets out we'll never be able to hold our heads up. We look like big fucking jerks."
That's right, Jack thought, plucking out his ear piece as he moved on. But soon you're going to look like even bigger jerks.
He hoped they stayed good and mad, too mad to see the barb still waiting at the end of Jack's sting.
He pumped his fist as he danced across the street. This was sweet, and going to get sweeter.
Gia awoke from a dream about blue eyes.
She yawned and stretched in the big leather recliner where she and Jack would often snuggle together and watch one of his weird movies.
She yawned again. She never napped. She'd sat down and closed her eyes, just for a minute, and suddenly it was forty minutes later. Maybe it was the pregnancy, combined with being up late with Jack last night. She remembered being very tired carrying Vicky.
Whatever the reason, the nap hadn't refreshed her. Images of the blond child from yesterday had filled her sleep, her sad, lonely blue eyes calling to Gia, beseeching her...
For what? Why couldn't she get that little girl out of her head?
The pregnancy again. Sure, blame everything on the hormonal shifts. Being alone in the house on a summer day with no prospect of seeing Vicky till the end of the week didn't help either.
Gia pushed herself up from the chair and grabbed her purse. She didn't want to stay in the house. As soon as she stepped out into the warm humid afternoon she knew where she wanted to go.
She'd never liked the subway-the closed-in feeling of the dark tunnels made her edgy-but today it seemed to be the way to go. A quick walk over to Lexington took her to the Fifty-ninth Street station which she knew to be a stop for the N and R trains, known citywide as the "Never" and the "Rarely." She wasn't familiar with the Brooklyn and Queens lines, but the map by the token booth showed her that the N would take her right to the heart of Astoria.
She was just ahead of rush hour and her car was nearly full; the rocking made her queasy until the tracks broke free of the tunnel and into the air. She sighed with relief as sunlight filtered through the spiderweb-fine graffiti scratches on the windows.
The elevated tracks ended at her stop, Ditmars Boulevard. She stepped out of the car and headed for the stairs down to street level. She had a pretty good idea of Menelaus Manor's location in relation to Ditmars. She'd have to orient herself once she reached-
She jumped at the sound of her name. When she turned she saw a man with long red hair and a mustache approaching her. For an instant she didn't recognize him, then-
"Gia, what are you doing here?"
His heels beat a staccato rhythm as he strode toward her along the platform. Were those cowboy boots?
He leaned in to kiss her but she held up a hand. "Without the mustache, please?"
He smiled. "Oh, yeah."
He peeled it off and they kissed.
He kept his hands on her waist and looked into her eyes. "You're the last person I expected to see here. What's up?"
"I'm not sure," she said.
She felt off balance. What had she been thinking, anyway? That she'd just knock on the Kentons' door and ask if they had any little blond girls wandering around their house today? She hadn't thought this through. She'd been operating on impulse and that wasn't like her.
"It's that little girl you saw, isn't it?"
She stared at him. "How on earth did you know?"
"You've mentioned her a number of times since yesterday. She seems to be stuck in your head."
"She is. I don't know why, but I can't stop thinking about her. Maybe if she hadn't disappeared and we'd spoken to her, it would be different. But now, the way it is... she's a mystery."
"Not one we're likely to solve. And maybe not something you should be worrying about and traveling to Astoria for. I mean, you being pregnant and all."
"Jack, it's just half a dozen stops from home."
"Yeah, but subways are full of people, some of them sick. I don't want you catching anything."
"You never seemed to worry about that before I was pregnant."
"I did, but now I'm twice as worried, if you know what I mean."
She was touched by his concern for her and the baby, but he was going a bit overboard.
She sighed. "I just wanted to have another look, I guess."
"Well, since I'm on my way to see Lyle and Charlie myself-" he offered her his arm with exaggerated courtliness-"I shall be delighted to escort you there."
Gia batted her eyes and got into the game. "That's very kind of you, sir, but I sorely fear for my reputation if I'm seen walking with a man with that sort of haircut. I might never again be able to hold up my head in polite society."
"A new haircut? Say the word, madam, and it is done."
With a flourish Jack pulled off that hideous wig and shoved it into the pocket of his equally hideous sport coat. She combed her fingers through his tousled hair to straighten it.
"By the way, who picked out your clothes today?"
"I suspected." She took his arm and they continued toward the stairway. "You seem to be in a good mood."
"So far it's been a pretty good day."
As they walked he told her about how he'd reversed a scam on an Upper East Side psychic. This was the liveliest she'd seen him in months. The old Jack was back, and Gia was glad.
At Menelaus Manor they found a pair of workmen just leaving; apparently they'd been replacing the broken windows.
Charlie welcomed them in. He didn't ask why Gia had come along, and Jack didn't offer an explanation. Anyway, Charlie seemed too taken with Jack's outfit to care.
"Ain't you ragged out!" he said, pointing to the plaid jacket and grinning. "Oh, you some ragged-out mack today!"
When he finally stopped laughing he said Lyle would meet Jack upstairs instead of in the Channeling Room, which was under repair.
Jack turned to Gia. "Do you mind waiting here while I go upstairs? Got to talk some business. Only take me a minute."
"Talk away," she said. "I'll just hang here and... look around."
Jack winked at her and followed Charlie into the hall and up the stairs. When they were gone, Gia casually wandered down the hall and into the kitchen. She poked her head into an adjoining room that held a dismantled TV. The screen was lit, though, showing a Dukakis-for-President ad. Probably the History Channel or a documentary. She went to the rear door and looked out into the backyard: a plot of dry, scrubby grass bordered by a privet hedge. No little girl.
Disappointed, Gia wandered back to the waiting room.
Well, what did she expect, anyway? Still she felt better for coming. She'd made the pilgrimage, now maybe she could stop thinking about that child.
Gia idly picked up one of the Menelaus manor pamphlets to read up on the house again, and a little booklet fell out. The cover read, WHO, ME? with "By J. T. C." in the corner. She flipped it over and saw a drawing of a church and the words, "Fisherman's Club" and "A Ministry for Laymen." Published by Chick Publications.
Gia flipped through it and realized immediately that it was a born-again tract exhorting its Christian readers to start "personal ministries" and become "soul winners" by bringing nonbelievers to Jesus.
What was it about fundamentalist sects, she wondered, that made them feel they had to get others to believe what they believed? The drive to convert other people to their way of thinking... where did it come from?
A more immediate question: Who was leaving these things here? And what did he or she hope to accomplish? People seeking out spirit mediums like Ifasen had most likely tried out the major religions and rejected them.
She searched through the Menelaus brochures and found another Chick pamphlet called "This Was Your Life!" As she opened it she heard a child's voice begin to sing.
"I think we're alone now..."
Gia turned and her heart tripped over a beat. There she was-the little blond girl. She stood in the doorway to the hall, her blue eyes bright as she stared at Gia. She wore the same red and white checkered blouse, the same brown riding breeches and boots as yesterday.
"Hello," Gia said. "What's your name?"
The girl didn't smile, didn't respond. She kept her hands clasped in front of her as she sang and stared at Gia.
"Do you live around here?"
The song went on. She had a good voice, a sweet tone that stayed on key. But the single-mindedness of the singing was making Gia uncomfortable. As the child went into the verse her hands fluttered to her neckline and began unbuttoning her blouse.
The nape of Gia's neck tightened. "What are you doing?"
The relentless singing and the blank look in the child's eyes were all disturbing enough. But now this... opening her top...
Was she demented?
"Please don't do that," Gia said.
The air in the room thickened as the last button popped free of its hole and the child gripped the two edges of the blouse and spread them, revealing a bare flat chest with a wide, ragged red gash down its center-
No-no-no, not a gash, a gaping bloody hole, a gaping bloody empty hole with nothing where her heart should be-
Jack was in the middle of describing his doubling back on Madame Pomerol's variation of the Spanish handkerchief scam when he heard Gia's scream. Before he knew he was moving he found himself up and racing for the stairs, leaving behind his rapt audience.
He pounded down to the first floor, his feet barely touching the stairs, and found her in the middle of the waiting room, doubled over, face buried in her hands, sobbing.
Jack spun, saw no one else about, then grabbed her wrists and pulled her to him.
"Gia! What's wrong? What happened?"
Her tear-stained face was the color of a freshly shucked oyster when she looked up at him. "She had no heart! She opened her blouse and her heart was gone!"
"The little girl!"
"The one you saw yesterday?"
Gia nodded. "She... she-" Her eyes widened and she pointed toward the hall. "Look! There's her blood!"
Jack turned just as Lyle and Charlie piled down the stairs. He saw a glistening red trail on the hardwood floor of the hall, saw Charlie's sneaker land in it and slip. Charlie went down but bounced back up again, staring in horror at his bloody hands.
"Blood! Dear Lord, where-?" He looked at Jack. "Who?"
Lyle, poised on the bottom step, pointed toward the kitchen. "It runs that way!"
He and Charlie moved down the hall, gingerly sidestepping the red splatters. Instinctively Jack started to follow, but Gia clutched his arm.
"Don't leave me!"
Jack wrapped an arm around her back and held her closer, trying to absorb her Parkinsonian shakes.
"I won't. Don't worry."
But within him every angry cell was pulling toward the hall to follow that wet red trail. He wanted-needed-to find whoever had frightened Gia like this. He didn't know how they'd done it-faking up a little girl so it looked like she had no heart-and he didn't care. Anyone who terrified Gia like this was going to answer to him.
He watched Lyle and Charlie enter the kitchen and follow the trail to the left, heard Lyle say, "It goes down the steps." Jack heard their feet on the cellar stairs, their voices crying out in shock.
"Jack!" Lyle called. "Jack, you've got to see this! It's... it's..." Words seemed to fail him.
Jack glanced at Gia but she shook her head. "Don't you leave me alone here! Please!"
He had to see what they were talking about. He turned and called out, "How about Gia? Is it all right for her?"
"No... yeah... I don't know if it's all right for anyone, but I guess so. Just come quick! I don't know how long it will last!"
He looked at Gia again. "Come on. I'll be right at your side, holding on to you."
"Damn right you will," she muttered. She shuddered, then straightened. "All right, let's go. But if it's awful, we get out of here, promise? We head home and we never come back."
They moved like Siamese twins, edging down the hall hip to hip, avoiding the blood on the floor. Stepped into the kitchen, then made the turn and stopped at the top of the cellar steps. A single bulb lit the narrow stairwell. A two-inch railing ran along the right wall. Below, near the bottom steps, he could see Lyle and Charlie, their postures tense, hunched, as they stared into the basement. The steps made a turn where they stood, putting the basement out of Jack's line of sight.
"I'll go first," he said, and started down. He felt Gia close enough behind him to be riding piggyback, a hand on each of his shoulders, squeezing. He steadied himself by gripping the wobbly railing.
Below, the Kenton brothers looked up at him. Lyle's face was tight with strain, Charlie's was slack and beaded with sweat. They looked like frightened kids. Jack wondered what could put these two grown men in such a state.
A few more steps and he found out.
"Oh, dear God!" Gia said into his ear and she leaned against him and peered over his shoulder.
The basement floor was awash in bright red liquid. It rose to the level of the bottom stair tread and lapped at the one above it. And it moved, circulating in a slow, counterclockwise rotation.
Jack said, "That's not..."
"Damn right it is," Lyle said. "Can't you smell it?"
Gia's fingers suddenly turned into talons, digging into Jack's shoulders.
"There's someone in there!" she cried.
Jack leaned forward, squinting at the surface of the red lake. "Where?"
"There!" An arm speared over his right shoulder, finger pointing. "Dear God, don't you see it? Right there! A hand, reaching up from the surface! It's a child! That little girl! She's in there!"
"What you talking 'bout?" Charlie said. "Ain't nobody in there."
Jack had to agree. Barely a ripple on the surface from wall to wall.
"I don't see anything either, Gi."
"Are you all blind?" Her voice was taking on a panicky tone. "That little girl is drowning! There's her arm, reaching up for help! Can't you see it? For God's sake, somebody grab it! Please!"
Lyle turned to her. "I don't see a thing. I'm not saying you're not, okay, but even if somebody were in here, it's only a foot deep, tops."
Her eyes wild, Gia began trying to squeeze past Jack. "I can't stand this, Jack! I've got to do something!"
Jack wouldn't let her pass. "Gia, no. We don't know what's going down here, and you're too close already." He didn't know what effect whatever was happening might have on the baby.
"You know what I'm talking about. You shouldn't-"
"The level's rising!" Charlie cried.
Jack turned and saw that the blood had reached the tread of the next to last step.
"Let's all back up a little," Lyle said.
But as he stepped up, his foot slipped. He let out a startled cry as he fell back, arms out, one hand clawing for purchase on the wall, the other reaching for his brother. But Charlie had turned his back and by the time he responded it was too late.
With pinwheeling arms, Lyle hit the pool and sank from sight. Charlie shouted and crouched to jump in after him, but Jack reached out and grabbed his shoulder.
Jack stared in mute shock at the crimson froth where Lyle had disappeared.
What the hell? Even though the level continued its rise, faster than ever now, the pool couldn't be more than two feet deep. And was it his imagination or was the blood circulating faster too?
Seconds later Lyle broke the surface, splashing and gasping, his head and face coated with blood.
"Praise God!" Charlie cried. He gripped the rickety railing with one hand and leaned out over the pool, reaching with his other. "Get up here!"
But Lyle continued to splash about, trying to shake the blood out of his eyes as the flow pulled him away from the stairs.
"Lyle!" Jack called. "Stand up!"
"Can't! Floor's gone! No bottom!"
"Jack!" Gia said. "The little girl-I don't see her arm anymore! She's gone!"
The blood was lapping at the fourth step now. The flow had rotated Lyle to the far side of the cellar, and as Jack watched he saw an eddying depression begin to form in the center of the blood. The velocity of the rotation accelerated.
"A whirlpool!" Charlie shouted. He leaned further out over the blood, stretching his arms, reaching toward his brother. "Lyle! Grab hold when you come 'round!"
A bottomless whirlpool of blood, Jack thought. Turning counterclockwise. With the level rising instead of falling. In a cellar in Queens.
Not the weirdest sight he'd ever seen, not by a long shot, but he knew of only one thing that could be behind something like this.
He'd deal with that later. Right now he had to get Lyle out of that pool and Gia out of this house.
He gripped Charlie's arm as Lyle started to float toward them. "I've got you. Grab him as he comes by."
But as Lyle rotated their way, the sucking center of the whirlpool pulled him closer to it and further from the walls. He tried to swim toward Charlie's outstretched hand; Jack could see the desperation in his blood-soaked features as he reached for it, heard his cry of dismay as his fingers fell short by inches and he swirled away.
"Swim!" Charlie shouted. "Swim toward the walls!"
Jack could see Lyle struggling in the thick fluid, doing a crude dog-paddle. He was a lousy swimmer.
"Can't!" he gasped. "Current's too strong!"
"We need rope!" Jack told Charlie. "Got any?"
"Rope?" Charlie's panic seemed to ease as he concentrated on the question. "No... we've got string but-"
"Never mind," Jack said. The solution had been right in his hand. He turned to Gia. "I need you to go back up to the kitchen for a minute."
"I'm not leaving-"
"Just stand in the doorway. Please. I need you out of the stairwell to do this. Hurry. We may not get another shot."
She turned and padded back to the top step and turned, watching him with frightened eyes. Jack followed her a few steps, then grabbed the railing with both hands.
"Charlie-help me rip this out of the wall."
Charlie frowned, then brightened. "Right!"
Ten seconds later Jack was easing toward the red pool with the ten-foot railing in his hands. The blood had risen past the halfway mark on the walls and was moving faster. Lyle had rounded the far side of the whirlpool and was coming their way again, but now he was even closer to the black-hole center.
"Quick!" Jack said to Charlie as he stepped onto a blood-covered step. His stomach clenched-it was warm. "Grab my belt so I don't go in too."
"Oh, Jack, please be careful!" Gia called from above.
With Charlie steadying him from behind, Jack gripped one end of the railing and thrust the other toward Lyle as he swirled by. The far end struck the surface, splashing blood into Lyle's face. He whipped his arms about blindly, slapping his hands on the surface, grasping only air. Jack leaned farther out and felt a tearing pain in his right flank but kept trying to steady the railing against the current and push it closer to Lyle. He hoped he hadn't popped his stitches.
And then one of Lyle's flailing arms made contact. His fingers clutched the wood, then wrapped around it.
"You've got it!" Jack said, feeling himself tilting toward the pool by the extra pull on the railing. Over his shoulder he said to Charlie, "And I hope you've got me."
"Don't worry," Charlie said, then raised his voice. "Get both hands on it, Lyle!"
Lyle did just that, and then Jack and Charlie began hauling him in.
But the pool didn't seem to want to give him up. The maelstrom turned faster and the level began to drop as a loud sucking sound echoed from the center. It took all of Jack and Charlie's combined strength to hold onto the railing, but they were losing this tug of war. Jack tried to put more of his back into it but the pain in his side worsened. He shifted and that caused his feet to slip on the blood.
No! With the speed of that whirlpool now, if he went in too they'd both be lost.
Gia cried, "Jack!"
He heard a thumping behind him and then a slim arm wrapped around his neck, pulling him back.
With Gia hanging on as ballast, Jack and Charlie were able to pull Lyle clese enough so he could grab Charlie's hand. Jack tossed the railing into the pool and helped Charlie drag Lyle out. As his brother lay gasping and retching on the steps, Charlie placed his hands on him and bent his head. He seemed to be praying.
Jack slumped back against Gia. "Thanks."
She kissed him on the ear and whispered, "You saved him."
"And you saved me."
As Jack watched the level of the blood fall, he noticed something.
"Look at the walls," he said. "They're dry... and no stains."
"Not quite," Gia said, pointing over Jack's shoulder. "What about those?"
Jack saw them too. Halfway up the pecan paneling... oddly shaped blotches, evenly spaced around the room. They reminded him of-
"Crosses!" Charlie cried. "Praise God, my prayers have been answered! He's driven the evil from this house!"
Jack wasn't so sure about that.
He watched the current slow and stop as the sucking center of the maelstrom stretched and lengthened into a line. An orange concrete floor slowly appeared as the blood rushed down through the large crack in its center.
"I'll be damned," Jack said. "It split the floor wide open."
"No," Charlie said. "That already there. It cracked in the Friday night quake."
Jack saw Lyle uncoil his blood-soaked body from its exhausted slump into a sitting position.
"The floor wasn't there a couple of minutes ago. I swear, the floor was gone when I was in there."
"We believe you," Jack said.
The remaining blood seemed to evaporate, leaving the concrete dry and unstained.
Lyle moved down a couple of steps and poked the toe of his shoe against the orange floor. Apparently satisfied with its solidity, he stepped onto the concrete and walked around in a tight circle that did not cross the large crack.
"What happened here?" he said to no one in particular. "Why? What does it mean?"
Jack thought he had an answer, one he didn't like. If he was right, he wanted Gia far, far away from here.
"We'll try to figure it out later, Lyle," he said, then turned to Gia. "Let's get out of here."
"No, wait," Gia said, rising and moving past him down the stairs. "I want to see those crosses."
"Gia, please. This isn't a healthy place, if you know what I mean."
She gave him one of her smiles. "I know what you mean, but this involves me."
"No, it doesn't. It-"
"Yes, it does," Lyle said.
Jack gave him a hard look. "Would you mind staying out of this, Lyle?"
"I can't. I'm in it up to my neck. And Gia's in it too. She's the only one who's seen the little girl. Doesn't that say something?"
"It says she should get the hell out of here."
Gia stepped out onto the floor. "I just want to look at these crosses, okay?"
"No," Jack muttered, rising and following her. "Not okay. But I don't seem to have much say in the matter."
Jack joined her where she'd stopped before one of the glistening red cross-shaped stains on the cheap paneling. The upright part ran about two inches wide and maybe ten inches high; the eight-inch crosspiece flared upward at each end and was set high, almost at the top of the upright. Jack counted eleven of them ringing the cellar wall, maybe six feet apart and about five feet off the floor.
"What a strange kind of cross," Gia said. "And they're the only things in the room still wet."
"Not the only thing," Lyle said. His clothes and dreads were still drenched in thick red blood. "I've got to go change and take a shower." He started to turn away, then swiveled back to them. "That's known as a tau cross, by the way. Named because it looks like the T in the Greek alphabet; it's also the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet."
Jack stared at him. How did he know all this stuff?
"Tau..." Charlie said. "I remember reading in the prophet Ezekiel how the faithful of God would all be signed on the forehead with the letter tau" He looked around, nodding. "Yes, this definitely shows that we were saved by the hand of the Lord."
Jack took a closer look. "But the cross piece doesn't quite make it all the way up." Each showed a little nubbin of the upright on top. "Not quite a capital T."
As if on cue, all the bloody crosses faded away.
"Look!" Lyle cried, holding out his arms. His clothes were clean and dry, and not a trace of red on his skin or hair. "The blood! It's gone! As if it never happened!"
"Oh, it happened," Jack said, pointing to the banister railing on the floor. "And now it's time to go."
"No, you can't," Lyle said. "We need to talk about this. Everything that's been happening here since the earthquake-"
"'Everything'?" Jack said. "You mean there's more?"
"Yes. Lots more. And I believe it's all connected to Gia. Maybe even the earthquake."
Jack glanced at Gia and saw her startled look. He turned back to Lyle. "Look, I know you just had a bad experience, so-"
"Listen to me. It's all starting to fall into place. We've been living here almost a year now and in all that time we've experienced not one strange thing." He looked at his brother. "Am I right, Charlie?"
Charlie nodded. "True that. But since Friday night it been one thing top another."
"Right. All the weirdness started Friday night when Gia stepped into this house. The instant she crossed the threshold we had an earthquake, for Christ sake!"
"I crossed with her. We entered together, if you remember. Maybe it's me."
Jack knew it was him, but didn't want to go into that now. He wanted Gia out of here.
"But you're not the one who's seen the little girl. On any other day in my life I'd say Gia's arrival with the earthquake was pure coincidence, but not today. Not after what I just went through. And she's the only one who's seen this little girl. I'm telling you, I feel it in my gut: that child is connected to what's been going on, and Gia's connected to the child. I want to know how."
"So do I," Gia said. "I mean, that is, if it's true. Because I saw a hand sticking out of that pool. It was right in front of you three but none of you could see it. So either I'm crazy or I'm connected. Either way, I want some answers too."
"Okay, fine," Jack said. He knew Lyle was wrong, but could see from the way this conversation was going that he wasn't going to get Gia home any time soon. "We'll discuss it. But not here. I don't think this house is a healthy place for Gia. There's got to be a restaurant or someplace where we can get a booth and hash this out."
Charlie turned to Lyle. "How about Hasan's up on Ditmars?"
Lyle nodded. "That'll do. On a Tuesday night we can have our pick of the tables. But first I want to take a shower."
"Why?" Jack said. "You look perfectly clean."
"Maybe, but I don't feel clean. You three go ahead. It's a easy walk. I'll catch up with you."
Jack nodded absently. Lyle's theory was beginning to bother him. Could Gia have been the trigger? T