Breeders

A novel by

Martha Taylor, soulcake@bellsouth.net

Part One: Halloween

Chapter 1

When Ginny finally rolled over to look at the clock on her bedside table, she saw that it was four a.m. The noise out on the street had been going on for more than an hour now. An orange light flickered on the upper surfaces of her bedroom blinds. Heavy engines droned, and men spoke to each other in flat, level voices that carried distinctly through the night air.

Ginny turned over on her back and adjusted the pillow under her head. Caesar was put out by her restlessness. He rose and stretched, yawning in her face, then stalked away in search of a more peaceful place to sleep. On the street, a manhole cover clanked, and a man's voice said, "Watch it there. Comin' up."

It was the last straw. Ginny got up and dressed in the darkness, finding the jeans and t-shirt she had left draped over a chair when she'd gone to bed, and slipped her bare feet into her loafers. They were too big without socks, and the heels flopped around her ankles.

The living room blinds were partially open, and here the flickering orange light from the street resolved itself into a regular, blinking rhythm. Ginny released the deadbolt on her front door, turned the lock and eased the door open. She didn't turn on the light in the stairwell, but crept her way down the stairs with her hand trailing the bannister. Her nerve failed her when she reached the courtyard, though, and instead of marching out to the street, she crept forward only as far as the front trellis. There she stood in the shadow of an ancient bougainvillea vine whose red blossoms looked charcoal gray in the darkness, and peeked cautiously out at the street.

Two plain white vans were parked in the center of the street. On top of both were blinking orange arrows, warning the few drivers out at this time of night of the closed lane of traffic. The back doors of the van closest to Ginny's apartment building were open. From the interior of the van snaked an orange tube a foot in diameter, which disappeared down the open manhole a few yards away. A man in a white hard hat stood nearby. There was nothing else but a line of orange traffic cones arching across the blocked lane of traffic as far as Ginny could see by the light of the street lamps.

Shivering, she crept back upstairs to her apartment, shed her loafers and blue jeans, and crawled into bed. She lay on her back and listened to the noise in the street droning in and out of her consciousness until morning.

***

Lack of sleep made Ginny feel dull and stupid the next morning. It took a Herculean effort to get dressed, make coffee and give the cat his breakfast. She was already late by the time she dragged herself down the stairs and out onto the sidewalk. It was a bright, hot October morning. She fumbled for her sunglasses while waiting for a break in the traffic, then darted across to the center median. She noticed a clot of freeway daisies had been torn up by the roots and lay on the median in a tangle of silver-gray leaves and yellow petals, and she wondered for the first time this morning about the men who had been working in the sewers last night.

The light turned red half a block away, and she ran across the last two lanes of traffic to her car parked on the far side of the street. She had the keys out so she could get the door open before cars began whizzing by again. She threw her purse over to the other seat and noticed how clean the passenger side window looked. Her heart sank. She looked around the interior of the little Honda and saw all the shining, jagged pebbles of broken glass. The window wasn't clean. It had been very neatly and thoroughly smashed out.

"Oh damn." Ginny rested her forehead on the top of the steering wheel, waiting for the first, sharp flash of anger to subside. She cried a few pointless tears, blotted her eyes carefully with her fingertips to avoid smearing her mascara, then turned the key in the ignition and drove to work.

She had hardly settled down at her desk when Reed Wallace came storming out of his office. Ginny braced herself.

"Where's the Whitmore complaint?"

Ginny looked over his left shoulder, where she could see through his office to the window with the distant, lovely view of the Pacific Ocean. "I haven't finished it yet."

"I wanted it on my desk first thing this morning. I was in here at eight looking for it. I couldn't believe you would have gone home last night before doing it."

"I didn't know you wanted it first thing this morning."

"Why did I give it to you yesterday if I didn't want it by today?" Reed's voice rose and his arms flailed, momentarily blocking Ginny's view of the ocean.

"I'll get right on it." Ginny said.

"I spent six hundred dollars on that new program for legal documents." Reed stepped up to Ginny's shoulder and gestured at her keyboard. He was standing too close. Ginny could smell his cologne, overlaid with the reek of the cigarette he'd just smoked on the sly in his office. "I thought all you had to do was punch a few buttons and the computer would just about write the complaint itself. I'm telling you, this doesn't seem any faster than the old days when the girls typed everything on the Selectric."

"I'll have it for you in half an hour," Ginny said, hoping he would go away. Reed hadn't yet finished griping about the expense and uselessness of modern office equipment, though, and as he ranted on, Ginny thought about offering to dig up a typewriter and some carbon paper for him.

He finally retreated to his office when the urge for another cigarette overcame him. Ginny knew the momentary peace and quiet weren't likely to last. The worst thing about an outburst from Reed was the way his air of exasperated self-righteousness would spread through the firm like an infection, making its way inexorably down the hall to all the secretarial cubicles and into the office of every other lawyer in the firm. Ginny wasn't surprised when, not fifteen minutes later, Lloyd Dado come out of his office and started fussing at his own secretary.

Ginny couldn't hear what he was saying, but she could tell he was squawking from the way Kate's shoulders got stiff and her chin came up. When Reed yelled at Ginny, she usually tried to sink into the floor, and she was impressed by the way Kate just sat up straighter and straighter. Was it too late for her to develop a backbone of her own? Something to think about. She was smiling a little as she turned her attention back to the Whitmore complaint. Actually, Reed was right about the new program. It did turn out documents in almost no time. She stacked the legal paper in the printer, and the pages came out on top feeling warm and slightly crisp from the heat of the laser jet. She carried the document into Reed's office without knocking and caught him stubbing out a cigarette in the ashtray under his desk.

"I need you to sign this for me before I make copies."

Grumbling, Reed took the pages and pretended to look through them, then signed his name with a flourish and gave them back to her. "I still don't see why you couldn't have done this last night."

Ginny took the papers and walked around to the copy room, plastering a smile on her face as she passed the other secretarial cubicles. After six months in this firm, she still felt like an outsider. The other secretaries were never openly unfriendly, but Ginny could never shake the feeling that the other women had long since sized her up and found her somehow wanting.

Both of the Xerox machines were already being used. Betty Kane, the office manager, was copying a stack of flimsy pink receipts, and Jeremy Pike's secretary Celia was making copies of a bound deposition. Ginny settled down to wait her turn.

"Hiya Ginny," Celia said. "Sorry I can't let you in ahead of me. Jerry's been breathing down my neck all morning to get his stuff out."

"That's OK. It seems to be something in the air this morning."

Celia giggled uncomprehendingly. She was ten years younger than Ginny, tall and thin with an astonishing blonde perm that frizzled romantically around her face and spilled down past her shoulders in cascades of long, loose ringlets. The fingers on her left hand perpetually drooped with the weight of her engagement ring. "So'd you do anything fun this weekend?" she asked Ginny, moving to safer conversational grounds.

This was already Wednesday. It was an effort for Ginny to remember back that many days. "Rented videos. Played with my cat."

Betty looked up from her own copying. "Ginny, you're too young to be having weekends like that. You need to get out and have fun. You can't mope about that no-good husband of yours for the rest of your life."

Ginny was surprised. Betty was a stern, solid woman in her fifties who seldom interested herself in the gossip of the younger secretaries. She had dismissed Ginny months ago as someone unlikely to cause problems, and so not even worthy of the supervision she accorded the more flighty employees. Ginny hadn't realized that Betty even knew about her marriage. "I don't know," Ginny said. "After those miserable last few months with William, I kind of like being alone."

"Look at it this way," Betty said. "You're not getting any younger. You shouldn't let too much time go by before you get back out there on the market. When my first husband left me, I got my act together and found myself another fellow before the ink was dry on the divorce papers."

Celia giggled. Ginny smiled miserably and changed the subject. "Do either of you know a good place to get a car window replaced?"

"Oh no," Celia squealed. "What happened? Were you in an accident?"

"No. I found the passenger side window broken out when I got up this morning."

"Oh no," Celia said again. "Did they get your stereo?"

"They didn't even take anything. Just smashed the window."

"Was your car in a garage?" Betty asked. "Maybe you could get your building to pay for the damage."

"There's no parking at my place. I have to leave my car on the street."

"You want to get out of a place like that as soon as you can, Ginny," Betty advised her seriously. "A woman living by herself in this city, you ought to be in a security building. You're just not safe."

Ginny felt moved to defend her neighborhood. "Actually, I've always felt safe where I live."

"Where's that?" Celia asked.

"I'm in West Hollywood."

Betty snorted. "You're never going to meet a new husband living there."

"Oh, now, I like fags," Celia said. "They're all so sweet."

"Have you thought about moving to the Valley?" Betty asked. She had finished her copying, but stood leaning against the machine while she sorted her stacks of originals and copies. "I'm sure you could find a nice security building for less than you're paying now, and you'd have a much better chance of meeting someone."

"I don't think my car would make it over the hill every day," Ginny said, wondering how she had allowed herself to be dragged into this conversation.

Betty shook her head pityingly. Ginny had already decided that she much preferred being ignored to becoming the object of Betty's maternal advice. "Gin, listen to me. You need to get your act together."

Celia perked up, "Are you seeing a therapist? That might really help."

Lloyd Dado's secretary Kate came in then. She was a slight, dark woman, and Ginny envied her not only for her grace under fire, but because she seemed to be able to get away with slacks while every other woman in the firm wore dresses and skirts. Ginny had experimentally worn tailored linen pants one day before she had been working here very long, and the crushing weight of silent disapproval had been too much for her. Kate nodded a silent hello to the other three women, and turned to load a few pages into the fax machine.

"Kate, you'll never guess what happened to poor Ginny this morning," Celia said, eager to be the bearer of bad tidings.

Kate finished punching the number into the fax machine before looking up. Somewhat to Ginny's surprise, she gave her a sympathetic smile before turning to tell Celia, "I give up. Did she win the lottery?"

"Someone broke her car window out. Isn't it awful? They didn't even take the stereo."

"I'm sorry, Ginny," Kate said seriously. "What a rotten way to start the day. Have you gotten it replaced yet?"

"No. I was just asking if anyone knew a good place to have it fixed."

"There's a body shop right around the corner from me where I've been taking my car for years. The owner's a good guy, and he won't overcharge you too outrageously. I could dig up the number for you if you like."

"Oh, thank you so much," Ginny said, pathetically grateful to be offered real help. "I really appreciate it."

"It's no problem. Remind me if I forget." The last page of Kate's fax slid through the machine. The confirmation page began curling out the bottom of the fax machine, and Ginny saw Kate do an odd thing. She put her index finger down in front of the feeder, and the flimsy sheet of thermal paper bunched up around her finger. Mildly astonished, Ginny simply watched until the inevitable happened. The feeder jammed and the fax let out an earsplitting whine.

Celia whirled around. "Oh, that darn machine. You'd think they could buy us a decent plain paper fax."

Kate popped open the lid of the fax machine, tore the crumpled end off the edge of the roll of thermal paper, fed the smooth sheet back under the guide and slammed the fax shut. The noise mercifully stopped.

"I really hate that thing," Betty said. "I don't know of anything that's so urgent that it can't just go in the mail."

Kate shrugged, shook her head and left. Ginny saw that she was carrying the crumpled confirmation sheet with great care, holding one edge with her thumb and forefinger as though to insure none of the wrinkles were inadvertently smoothed out.

"So," Celia said cheerfully to Ginny, "Got any plans for this weekend?"

***

After lunch, Ginny stopped by Kate's desk on the way back to her own cubicle. "Did you have a chance to get that phone number?"

"I already left it on your desk. Tabibzadeh's Auto Body. It's right around 28th Street and Pico. Ask for Mike Tabibzadeh and tell him you're a friend of Kate's."

"I will. I appreciate it. My husband always used to take the car down to Orange County for repairs, and I haven't gotten around to finding anyone out here yet."

"Mike's a pretty good guy." Kate shrugged. "At any rate, you could certainly do worse."

Then Ginny saw the crumpled sheet of thermal paper from this morning. It was lying on the far edge of Kate's desk, half-hidden by the monitor and keyboard, and it seemed completely out of place in her neat work space.

Kate looked up at Ginny and smiled and didn't say a word. With a slight, uneasy feeling, Ginny went back to her own desk.

Lloyd Dado, Kate's boss, came barrelling around the corner just then at his usual breakneck speed. While Reed's bad temper of this morning had worn off, Lloyd Dado had nurtured his into a full-fledged, ongoing tantrum. Ginny had seen him burst out of his office to fuss at Kate for probably mythical shortcomings at least half a dozen times this morning, and lunch had not noticeably improved his temper. He was clutching a microcassette recorder in one hand and dictating into it with terse, angry phrases as he went by.

And then a few steps beyond Ginny's cubicle, he tripped and fell headlong.

Ginny clapped her hand over her mouth and sat there rocking in silent amazement as Reed and a secretary from down the hall rushed to Lloyd's side and helped him sit up. Lloyd was cursing furiously. He had fallen so hard that there were carpet burns on the knees of his carefully creased slacks, and his recorder had broken open and lay in pieces on the floor.

Ginny glanced up the open corridor, but Kate had moved away from her desk. Ginny squeezed her eyes shut.

Before Lloyd had fallen, she had seen the surface of the tasteful gray carpet silently bunch up around the toe of his left foot. Ginny cautiously opened her eyes. The carpet was smooth again now, but she could have sworn that, just for an instant, it had crumpled like the thermal paper around Kate's index finger.

Chapter 2

Ginny was tired and out of sorts by the time she got home from work. She worried briefly about leaving the car parked on the street while the windowpane was still smashed out. Then she decided bleakly that if someone wanted to steal the car tonight it would save her the trouble of replacing the window. She darted through the rush hour traffic to her side of the street and pulled the day's mail out of the box at the foot of her stairs. It was the usual, the gas and electric bills, a wad of advertising circulars, pleas for money from Amnesty International and Planned Parenthood.

She trudged up the stairs and let herself into her apartment. Caesar sat in the middle of the living room with his back turned conspicuously in her direction. She dropped the mail on a side table, and reached down and scratched him behind the ears anyway. He flattened himself on the carpet, purring grudgingly for a moment before rolling over on his back and taking a swipe at her.

"And it's good to see you too, cat," she told him. Outside there was a cool wind blowing, but the apartment was stuffy and warm. She went back to the kitchen, hoping there was still some beer in the refrigerator. She found a single Tecate, its red label shining on the bottom shelf. She rooted around in the vegetable tray looking for a lime, and eventually found a single slice of one, only slightly mummified. She popped open the beer and managed to squeeze a few drops of juice into the can when the phone rang.

She stood indecisively in the kitchen and listened to it ring a second time. At this time of day it was almost certainly a salesman, wanting her to subscribe to the Times or buy light bulbs to help the handicapped, and she didn't feel like she had enough energy to beg off politely or even to be rude. But finally, on the off-chance that it might be someone to talk to, she answered the phone. This was the time of day when she missed William most. She couldn't imagine ever wanting to share her home with another person again, but she had to admit it would be nice just to have someone ask, "So how was your day, hon?" when she got in from work.

"Hello?"

"Ginny? It's William."

And she was honestly happy to hear from him. "William. How are you? It's so good to hear your voice."

"Yours too. Look, I'm in the neighborhood, and I've got a bottle of wine and some spaghetti sauce from Trader Joe's, and I wondered if you'd like to have dinner tonight."

"If I supply the pasta?"

William laughed. The sound still made her heart ache. "Poor Ginny. You never did get any free rides from me."

"Dinner sounds great. I'm pretty sure I've got some spaghetti in the cupboard."

"Would you like me to stop and get anything else? Some french bread maybe?"

"How about some lettuce and salad dressing?"

"Great. I'll be over in about half an hour--is that all right?"

Ginny glanced around her apartment and calculated the amount of time it would take to get everything picked up. "Make it forty-five minutes."

"You got it," William said. "See you soon."

But it was more than an hour and a half later before William finally showed up. Ginny had run around frantically, gathering up a week's worth of newspapers, beer bottles and empty diet soda cans and then carrying them all out to the recycling bin behind the apartment. She'd picked up the dirty plates and glasses stacked on the coffee table and dumped them all in the sink, then thrown the dirty clothes into the closet hamper. She thought about changing into jeans, but by then she was expecting William at any minute, so she left her work clothes on.

After sitting on the couch for three quarters of an hour trying to watch CNN, she was so tired of the discomfort of her hose and the tight waistband on her skirt that she went back to the bedroom and changed anyway. She was standing barefoot and shirtless in her closet when William knocked at the door. She yanked the top shirt out of the dirty clothes hamper and pulled it on before going to answer the door, tucking it in tightly as she went as though that would hide the wrinkles.

William stood on the threshold holding a bag of groceries in one hand and the bottle of wine in the other. "Gin. It's been a long time."

"A couple of months," she agreed. He was as beautiful to her as ever, lanky and tall in faded jeans and printed camp shirt. He leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. Ginny gave him an awkward hug in return, patting his back and stepping away from him a little too quickly.

William said, "This wine probably needs to go into the freezer for a while before we drink it."

"Sure. Come on back."

"I like what you've done with the place. It's really starting to look nice."

"Thanks. I thought you always hated those exhibition posters."

"I didn't hate them. I just didn't think they looked right in our place. They look great here, though. Sort of the spare, clean look."

"You mean the no-furniture, no-money-for-decorating look?"

"We talked about this before, Gin. If you really wanted the living room set, you could have taken it."

"No, I'm sorry. Of course I don't have room for it here. Besides, I like starting out with new stuff. Well, new second-hand stuff anyway."

"Have you thought any more about my suggestion?" William shifted the Lean Cuisines in her freezer to one side to make room for the bottle of wine.

"What suggestion was that?"

"About a roommate. You could get a bigger place if you were splitting the rent with somebody."

"I like this apartment."

"I do too. It's got character. But just for me, I know I'm always glad to have someone to talk to when I get home in the evenings."

William was sharing a rundown three-bedroom apartment in Venice with a roommate he'd found through the newspaper. Ginny had met the roommate a couple of times, a chronically unemployed actor with curly brown hair and a face like Peter Pan, and Ginny had liked him well enough until the time he had taken her arm earnestly and said, "I can't tell you how much I admire you two."

Seeing the look on her face he had explained, "I just think it's great that you're still friends. Most people would get so hung up on bitterness and jealously. But not you. You're both so cool about it."

It was the first time that Ginny had begun to think that maybe she should become a little jealous and bitter.

"No," she said to William, returning to the present. "I like living by myself."

"And you never get lonely?" William asked gently.

Ginny felt a flash of anger. But she only smiled and said, "Lonely? With Caesar to keep me company?"

The rest of the evening went better. When most of the bottle of wine was gone, Ginny finally told him about her day at work, and what she thought she had seen when Lloyd Dado tripped on the carpet.

William took her seriously, as she had known he would. It was one of the things she still loved about him. "So do you think it really happened?" he asked at last.

Ginny shrugged. "I saw it with my own eyes."

"This woman Kate made the carpet bunch up under her boss's feet, just by crumbling a sheet of thermal paper as it came out of the fax machine?"

"I know. I took physics in high school. The world does not work that way, period. But I'm not crazy. At least, I don't think I am."

"So maybe you should just let it rest. I mean, you can't explain it, but lots of things happen that are hard to explain."

"You mean 'there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio'?"

"Not exactly. I was thinking more that just because something doesn't make literal sense doesn't mean it doesn't make wonderful poetic sense."

"It was certainly poetic justice."

"There you go. Why should you lose a satisfying moment just because you can't explain it?"

"I like that." Ginny smiled, and William grinned back. They stared at each other for a moment, then William looked away and said, "So, Ginny, tell me about all the new men in your life."

***

At three a.m. Ginny was awakened by the heavy clang of metal on asphalt. She sat up. Outside in the street it was beginning all over again. Men's voices spoke, and then the dreary hum of machinery began. It seemed even louder than it had been the night before. Ginny went to the window and peered through the blinds. There were no lights on in any of the other apartments. How could anyone sleep through this? Was she really the only person disturbed by that noise?

Eventually she lay down and put a pillow over her head. It didn't help. She lay wide awake for hours, thinking about William and the way her life was now. Seeing him this evening made their last year together seem more than ever like a bad dream, far away and indistinctly remembered. What had happened to them, anyway? They'd never fought, never even raised their voices to each other. Ginny remembered only her sense of incrementally increasing dread, a frightened conviction that something had gone awry, and was entirely beyond her power to put right again. In desperation she had finally given way to William's gentle nagging and stopped taking the pill.

In her more rational moments she realized it was a blessing she hadn't gotten pregnant. But lying awake alone in the middle of the night, after spending such a comfortable evening with William, it was hard not to think that they could have worked everything out if only she'd had a baby.

When the noise on the street finally stopped, she drifted off into a dreamless sleep. Her alarm clock went off two hours later. Waking up was like swimming up out of a brackish, black pond. She opened her eyes to see the familiar outlines of her bedroom in the pale light of dawn, and began to cry.

Chapter 3

"Forgive me for mentioning this, but you really look like hell this morning."

Ginny raised her eyes from her cup of bad office coffee. Kate was standing on the other side of the desk, regarding her with a slight smile.

"I had a bad night."

"It looks like it." Kate sat down on the edge of her desk. "Want to talk about it?"

"This is the second night in a row there's been some sort of street repair going on outside my apartment. Men working in the sewers or something. It went on practically till morning."

"And you've been putting up with this for two nights? Have you complained?"

"Who would I complaint to? Isn't street repair kind of like a force of nature? You might as well call up and complain about the weather, right?"

Kate laughed. "Well, I'm not saying it would do any good, but you're a citizen. You have rights. Not that they mean anything, but at least you'd know what's going on, and how long it's likely to last."

"That might be some sort of bleak comfort," Ginny agreed, smiling. "I guess I could call City Hall. Do you think they'd know about it?"

"I don't know. Sounds good to me."

"I think I'll do that." Ginny sat up straighter, cheered by the prospect of taking action. "I'll call during my lunch hour."

"Good luck." Kate turned to start back to her desk, then stopped. "Have you talked to Mike Tabibzadeh about your car window?"

"Oh no, I've been too groggy even to think about it."

"Well, I just had a thought. You know his shop is right around the corner from my apartment. If you want, you could drop your car off there tomorrow morning, and I'd be glad to give you a ride to work."

Ginny smiled with surprised gratitude. "That would be great. Are you sure it's no trouble?"

"How could it be any trouble? You might be taking your life in your hands by trusting my driving, but that's another story."

Attracted by the sound of their conversation, Reed Wallace came out of his office and asked peevishly, "Ginny, have you heard from Dr. MacDermott this morning?"

Kate rolled her eyes sympathetically behind Reed's back and slipped away. Ginny answered, "No, I haven't. Were you expecting him to call?"

"Get him on the phone for me, would you?" Reed snapped and then retreated to his office, his mission accomplished.

***

At lunch Ginny bought carrot sticks and celery, pre-packaged with ranch dressing on a styrofoam tray, and ate at her desk while she began making calls. The young men who answered the phones at City Hall in West Hollywood were all very pleasant, but no one seemed to know anything about the work under the streets.

"Street repair last night on San Ysidro? Gee, I don't know," Russell at the Community Information desk told her. "You say they were working in the sewer?"

"I'm not sure. I think so. I heard the manhole covers clanking all night long."

"You poor thing," Russell sympathized. "I know I'm not worth a thing the next day if I don't get in my eight hours."

"But you don't know what it was? How long it's likely to go on?"

"No, I'm sorry, I'm not seeing anything on my screen. Let me transfer you over to Calvin at the City Manager's desk. I think most projects need a permit from that office for street work."

Calvin was just as sympathetic, but in spite of his evidently sincere efforts, he could shed no more light on the matter. "No--no, I'm looking-- I just don't see anything. It doesn't look like anything this office authorized. What kind of work were they doing? Could you tell?"

"I don't know." Ginny was beginning to feel a little frustrated. "I didn't go down and ask them."

"Were there any markings on the trucks?"

"I don't think so. They were just plain white vans."

"I'm sorry. I'm really not finding anything. You might want to call Public Works downtown. It's possible that it was something to do with the storm drains or underground electrical wiring, and they'd be able to tell you about that. If they were actually working on the street and not necessarily in the sewer, the Department of Transportation might be able to help. Otherwise, let's see, you might want to try the gas company and Ma Bell, maybe City Hall in Beverly Hills--anything affecting their sewers affects our sewers, and vice versa, so it's possible that it was their people."

Ginny was noting down his suggestions as he made them, but looking at the list she finally said, "Isn't there one central authority who grants permission before you can block off a public street and start climbing down manholes in the middle of the night?"

"You'd think so, wouldn't you?" Calvin agreed. "In theory anybody who works on the streets in West Hollywood has to have a permit from our office, but we deal with dozens of agencies. I just don't have a way to cross reference each and every one and find out what's happening on your street without a little more information."

The antiquated phone mail system for City Hall in downtown Los Angeles cut Ginny off three times before she finally got through to a bored clerk who told her there hadn't been any work on the storm drains in West Hollywood for months, and that while the DWP had been working on La Cienega a few blocks east, that had only been during daylight hours. The women Ginny talked to at the gas and phone company were more sympathetic, but they didn't know anything about the men working in the sewers.

By then it was nearly one o'clock, and Reed was hovering unhappily around Ginny's desk, flipping through her files and paperwork while he waited for her to get off the phone. She could have insisted on the last five minutes remaining on her lunch hour, but it was hardly worth the aggravation. This is what she got for taking lunch at her desk.

***

When Ginny got home that evening she stretched out on the sofa, intending only to catch a nap before dinner, but when she woke up the room was dark. It took her a moment to figure out she had dozed right through the early evening and into the middle of the night.

The blinds were open. She could see the bloated crescent of the waxing moon sinking behind the rooftop on the other side of the courtyard. She yawned and stretched, trying to decide whether she should fix herself something to eat or just go to bed. Caesar heard her moving about and came padding silently into the living room to see if she were doing anything interesting. His eyes were shiny, flat discs in the darkness.

"Stop looking at me like that, you scary thing," Ginny told him sternly.

Caesar made a rumbling, half-purring sound deep in his throat, pleased to be noticed.

And then his eyes turned orange.

Ginny felt a cold knot twist in her stomach.

Steel clanked on asphalt, and then the noisy engine from some piece of heavy machinery began to whine up out of the darkness. The orange warning lights blinked monotonously, reflecting on the shiny black plastic of her stereo and blank oblong of the television screen.

She swore in anger, and Caesar turned tail and disappeared into the bedroom.

"All right, there," a man said out on the street. His voice could not have been clearer if he'd been standing in the room beside her. "Let's bring 'er on down."

"This is ridiculous," Ginny said to the empty living room. "This can't be starting all over again."

She sat for a little while longer, listening to the racket outside and getting angrier and angrier. Her telephone calls during lunch today had given her a sense of aggrieved self-righteousness, and at length she found her shoes in the darkness and then went downstairs, determined to find out once and for all what was going on.

But as before, when she got outside her nerve failed her. She stood in the shadow of the building and watched with a sense of despair that seemed out of proportion to the cause. Both white vans were back. Traffic cones blocked off an entire lane of traffic. Three or four men wearing white coveralls and hard hats were walking around the vans. The blinking of the warning lights made their motions seem jerky and unnatural. She could tell they were talking to each other by the way they gestured, but although their voices had been so clear up in her apartment, down here on the street they were lost against the drone of machinery. A manhole in the middle of the street was open and blockaded by white safety barricades.

Ginny looked for something that would indicate where the men were from and who they were working for, but their vans and coveralls were perfectly, completely anonymous, and the thought of simply walking out there into the street and asking them made Ginny feel a little sick. She told herself that she would get on the phone tomorrow and find out what was going on, no matter what. Standing out here in the middle of the night, though, everything seemed much too unsettled and threatening. All kinds of dreadful possibilities occurred to her as she watched the workmen, and her ideas were no less terrifying for being surely ridiculous. She imagined the workmen dragging her past the white plastic barricades and down the open manhole, her screams muffled by the noise of machinery.

She shook herself out of her morbid imaginings and turned around to face a grinning white death head who said, "Kind of creepy, aren't they?"

Ginny choked and staggered back.

"Oh god, I'm sorry." A skeletally thin hand gripped her shoulder. "I didn't mean to scare you."

"You didn't scare me," Ginny whispered, her voice cracking.

"Of course I did. I should know better than to sneak up on people in the middle of the night. I'd give anyone the heebie jeebies."

"No, it's not you," Ginny insisted. "It's them, out there."

"There is something a little weird about them. Do you know what they're up to?"

"Something down in the sewers, but I can't really tell." Then Ginny said, "Your name is Patrick, right?" even though she knew very well who he was. She had been furtively watching him dwindle ever since she'd moved in.

"I'm afraid you have the advantage of me."

"What?"

Patrick laughed softly. "I mean, I don't know your name. You're just the girl upstairs with the big orange cat. I see him sitting up in the window, lord of all he surveys."

"Caesar."

"That's the cat's name, I presume. It's very fitting."

Ginny smiled. "Thanks. I've always thought so. He even has a roman nose."

"I wouldn't have mentioned it myself, but he does have a very prominent nose for a cat. And those beady yellow eyes. Very commanding."

"I'm Ginny."

"Pleased to meet you, Ginny." His hot, bony hand found hers in the darkness and shook it firmly.

Ginny confessed, "I'm actually glad to know that they're bothering someone else. I was starting to think I was going a little crazy."

"You're not kidding. This is the third night they've been out here, isn't it?"

"It's the third night I've heard them."

"Me too. Sean's slept through it every night. Tonight I was almost tempted to wake him up myself, just so I'd know there really was something going on out in the street, and it wasn't simply an early sign of dementia. I'd hoped that if my mind started to go, I'd find myself happily reliving the scenes of my misspent youth. It seemed just too grim if I was going to be tormented by the noise of phantom street repair instead. So what do you think they're up to out there?"

They were both whispering. Ginny said, "I called City Hall and the gas and phone company while I was at work today. Nobody seems to know anything about it."

Patrick's wide, sunken eyes reflected the lights flashing out on the street. "Well, how mysterious. They must be up to no good, then. Who do you think they are? CIA? Out-of-work KGB agents? Satanists? No, I've got it. They're fundamentalists plotting to blow up West Hollywood for the greater glory of our lord Jesus Christ."

Ginny giggled, then clapped her hand over her mouth, worried about the noise. Patrick whispered back to her, "Careful. We wouldn't them to realize that we're on to them."

"I was actually going to march out there and ask them what they were doing," Ginny confessed, keeping her voice down. "Do you want to go out with me?"

Patrick glanced out at the street. "Frankly, no. Do you think that's cowardly of me?"

Ginny was relieved. "Well, if it is, we can be cowards together. I don't really want to go out either. I was standing here just now thinking that no one would ever find me if they decided to just toss me down the open manhole."

"Yikes. You're almost as morbid as I am. And with less cause, I hope."

Out on the street a second engine roared into life. Ginny and Patrick both turned to look. Whatever it was, it was hidden by the white vans, and it made a racket like a tremendous pump groaning and laboring in the darkness.

"I don't think we're going to get any more sleep tonight," Ginny said. "Would you like to come up for a cup of coffee or something and meet Caesar?"

"Thanks, but no, I don't do stairs anymore if I can help it."

"Oh." Ginny hesitated. "Should you even be out here, do you think? Can I help you back to your apartment?"

"We just met two minutes ago," Patrick complained gently. "Don't go all maternal on me already."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be. You're right, actually. It's probably time for me to get back in bed whether I can sleep or not. It's been nice chatting, Ginny. We'll have to do it again sometime."

"Good night," Ginny said softly as Patrick made his way across the courtyard to his apartment. He moved with great care, as though he were a very old man. After he was inside, Ginny turned and looked once more at the street. The workmen were clustered around the open manhole, their faces blank, pale ovals under the street lights.

And then while she watched, two of the men turned towards her apartment building and gestured in her direction. Ginny's heart began to pound in her chest. She fled up the stairs and locked the door behind herself with exaggerated caution. In the safety of her apartment, the moment of terror seemed a little absurd. Nevertheless, she didn't even try to get back to sleep. Instead, she made sure that all of her blinds were carefully closed, then turned on a light in the living room and read until morning.

Chapter 4

When the first light of dawn edged in beneath the blinds, Patrick gave up trying to sleep. He got up, showered and shaved, then went to the kitchen to fix himself a cup of coffee. The little flurry of activity left him feeling tired and wrung out, but he was still pleased with himself for having managed to begin the day on his own, without needing to pester Sean for anything.

He sat down at the little breakfast table and opened the front blinds so that he could watch the light of the early October morning shining down into the courtyard. The hard, blue glint in the sky meant that the day would soon get hot, but now there was still a chill in the air that numbed his fingers and toes. He wrapped his hands around the coffee mug, enjoying the feel of the warm ceramic. He didn't often treat himself to coffee these days. It usually upset his stomach, and he was so sensitive to the caffeine that he could feel his heart begin to race after half a cup. This morning he felt entitled.

The noise out on the street had gone on for hours. He didn't know if it was only because of his conversation with Ginny, but he began to think half-seriously that perhaps there was something malevolent about it all. What business did anyone have making that kind of noise in the middle of the night? It was some sort of cruel plot to deprive him of his sleep, weaken him, hasten the end that was certainly near enough, in spite of the brave face Sean insisted on putting on things. But the light of day and the hot cup of coffee were going a long way towards banishing his sense of gloomy self-importance, and he even managed a smile for Sean when he came stumbling into the kitchen, still rumpled from sleep.

"You're the early bird this morning." Sean leaned over the table and laid the back of his hand on Patrick's forehead. "You look a little flushed. You think your temperature's gone up?"

"I was awake most of the night."

Sean poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down at the table. "Was it the street repair again?"

"Uh-huh."

"I can't believe I slept right through it."

Through the kitchen window, Patrick saw Ginny come out of the stairwell across the courtyard and pause for a moment, blinking in the sunlight. He watched her go under the bougainvillea trellis to the sidewalk, half-hoping that she would turn around and see him. He felt a certain sense of camaraderie with her after the night's adventure, but she dashed across the street and out of sight without looking back.

Sean glanced at Patrick and said archly, trying to make him laugh, "Someone should tell that girl to nix the kelly green blazer."

"Ginny."

"What?"

"Her name's Ginny. She heard the street repair last night too. Except it's not really street repair. They're going down in the sewers."

"How do you know that?"

"They had the manhole covers up."

"Did you actually go out there or something? Patrick." Sean's voice was reproving.

"I couldn't sleep. I thought I might as well see what was going on. That's how I met Ginny-girl. She came down to see what was happening too."

Sean smiled. "Pretty adventurous for a man who can't stay on his feet long enough to load the dishwasher."

"Oh, we were very brave. You should have seen the two of us cowering in the shadows to spy on some perfectly innocent city workers as they mucked around in the sewers." Patrick's own smile faded a little. "It didn't seem so innocent last night. We were joking about them being up to something sinister, but after I came back to bed I was laying there listening to the noise, and there was something that seemed so lonely and sad about it."

Sean got up and came around the table. He wrapped his arms around Patrick's bony shoulders from behind and rested his chin lightly on Patrick's head. "You idiot," he said, affectionately. "Promise you'll wake me up next time, all right? There's no point in you feeling like that when I'm in the very next room."

"Yeah, right. I'm sure you really want me to wake you up every time I have intimations of mortality. Besides, you're the one who's gainfully employed. If you don't get your beauty sleep we'll end up on the street."

***

Mike Tabibzadeh's bald head was tanned a dark, even brown. He beamed at Ginny from behind his bushy salt-and-pepper mustache as she stood at the counter and filled out the paperwork.

"Of course! You're Katie's friend! Don't you worry about a thing. I'm going to take good care of you, you wait and see."

The waiting room was elbow to elbow with people dropping off their cars before work. There was the smell in the air of coffee spilled on a burner, and the only chair in the room was occupied by a shaggy gray dachshund with a bristly snout that bore an uncanny resemblance to its owner's mustache. Ginny was a little intimidated by all the bustle and noise, and felt absurdly pleased to be recognized. The lot outside was just as crowded, and she'd nervously left her car parked right in front, squeezed in between the chain link fence and a tow truck.

Mr. Tabibzadeh took the paperwork from her. "Some bad man broke your window out? Well don't you worry. We're going to get you fixed up just fine."

"Do you think it'll be done by this evening?"

"Sure, sure," Mr. Tabibzadeh promised expansively. "Come by after four-thirty. We'll have it good as new for you. The keys are in the car?"

"They're in the car, yeah. "

"You have a way to get to work? You need to have someone drive you?"

"Actually, Kate said she was going to meet me here."

"Guilty as charged." A hand took her elbow briefly, and Ginny turned to see Kate standing beside her. "Are you ready to go? I'm double-parked out front."

"Go ahead, you beautiful ladies, don't be late to work." Mr. Tabibzadeh waved them away.

Kate and Ginny made their way out through the lot. Ginny was wearing a long full skirt which she had to gather up to avoid brushing against dirty cars on both sides. The pavement underfoot was buckled and broken, and she had to step carefully in her heels, envying Kate's gray slacks and sensible flats. "It's really nice of you to meet me like this," Ginny said.

"I told you it was no trouble. Besides," Kate grinned back at her, "I usually don't have anyone to harangue on the way to work, and I have to get out my frustrations by yelling back at the radio."

"Oh, well, harangue away," Ginny encouraged her with a slightly nervous smile.

Once they were underway Kate said only, "You look like you finally got a decent night's sleep last night. I take it the workmen stayed away?"

"Well, I did get eight hours. From seven o'clock when I got home to three a.m. when the work started up again."

"Oh god. You might as well be working third shift keeping hours like that."

"You know, that's a thought. I could come in and do Reed's legal documents in the middle of the night, and avoid the pleasure of his company altogether."

"Reed is something, isn't he?" Kate agreed. "But I'm sure he has a lovely soul, buried somewhere beneath that scaly exterior of his."

"Lloyd is just as charming."

"Two peas in a pod. But I manage to keep him under control." She glanced sideways at Ginny, smiling slightly.

Ginny thought of the crumpled carpet, and felt slightly sick. She turned and looked out the window to hide her face.

Kate laughed softly. "It's OK, Jennifer. I thought you saw it. I don't mind."

Ginny grabbed at the opportunity to change the subject. "Actually, it's not Jennifer."

Kate kept her eyes on the road, but looking over at her, Ginny saw that she was still smiling. "Oh, I'm sorry. Let's see. Virginia?"

"No. But if I tell you, you have to promise not to spread it around."

"Well, that's a pretty steep request," Kate said gravely. "You know my reputation as the office gossip."

"OK--it's Guinevere."

"You're kidding."

"I wish I was."

"Well, it's kind of romantic, really. King Arthur and the knights of the round table, all of that."

"Exactly. My father's a medievalist at Boston U. I'm just lucky I wasn't born a boy. My little brother got saddled with Percival."

"Ouch. Didn't your mom have a say in any of this?"

"Mom's a mathematician. I love her, but believe me, she doesn't have a spark of imagination in her soul. If it was up to her I probably would have been Little Baby Cosine. As it was, they called me Gwen until I was ten years old. That's when I saw Richard Burton and Vanessa Redgrave in Camelot."

"That's right, he calls her Ginny in the movie, doesn't he?"

"Uh-huh. That's when I decided I was going to grow up to be Vanessa Redgrave."

"Oh, I know what you mean. I remember that first scene when she's in the middle of the snowy forest, all wrapped up in the white furs, with the icicles hanging down from the trees. It was love at first sight."

"For me too. From that point on I was Ginny."

"It does beat Gwen--what a name that is. I can just see the go-go boots and white mini skirt. And wasn't Gwen the name of Spiderman's girlfriend?"

"That's right," Ginny laughed. "The stupid blonde one who got pushed off a building. Did you read superhero comics growing up?"

"I loved them. Not Spiderman so much--he was always a little too angst-ridden for me, and all the women were bimbos in his stories. I liked The Avengers better. Remember Black Widow, the Wasp and Scarlet Witch--"

"Marvel definitely had the best women," Ginny agreed, delighted. She hadn't talked about this sort of stuff in years. "But I liked Black Canary in The Justice League too."

"She was good, but what's-her-name, Hawkgirl, was the pits. Always playing second fiddle to that stupid husband of hers." Ginny laughed. "You think I would have been a little more cautious about getting married myself, after growing up reading comics. The married superheroes were always so boring. Who cared about Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Girl unless they were fighting about something?"

"Life lessons from the pages of The Fantastic Four," Kate agreed seriously. "I suppose you drop the persona of mild-mannered Ginny Malone as soon as you leave the office. Those circles under your eyes weren't from street repair--they're from staying up all night fighting crime."

"Curses. My secret identity discovered."

"Don't worry," Kate said. "Your secrets are safe with me."

***

Ginny thought later that it must have been the lingering good mood from the drive with Kate that morning still influencing her when she rashly accepted Celia's invitation. It was three in the afternoon, and Reed had been in court most of the day. Ginny was catching up on the bookkeeping and enjoying the peace and quiet when Celia came around the corridor and pounced.

"Hey Ginny! Guess what!" She leaned forward over Ginny's desk, blonde ringlets bouncing.

"I give up. What?"

"Have I got a surprise for you."

Ginny felt a twinge of foreboding. "And what's that?"

"I've found a really great guy for you."

Ginny cringed. "Oh, Celia, that's sweet, but I don't think--"

"Now wait a minute, don't say no yet. You were just telling me the other day how hard it is for you to meet guys where you live, and I've come up with this perfect plan. You know my fiancé Steve works for Intertech out in the Valley--"

"Celia, I promise, I'm really not interested--"

"Hush, I'm not finished yet. Anyway, this Saturday night his company's sponsoring a progressive dinner for management. A chance to eat at a bunch of fancy restaurants in one night, you know, drinks at one place, appetizers at another--"

"I know what a progressive dinner is," Ginny said, a little more sharply than she'd intended. Celia didn't seem to take offense.

"Well, Steve and I are going, and so is Steve's best friend at work, but--" Celia paused dramatically, "--he doesn't have a date yet."

"It's really nice of you to think of me, but I just hate blind dates, I promise."

"No, but see, that's the beauty of it. It won't be like a blind date at all. It'll be twelve or fifteen of us in a van, all going from place to place, and if you two don't hit it off, it's no problem, you can still have a great time."

It sounded like Ginny's personal idea of hell, trapped in a van with half a dozen engineers and their dates. "Thanks a lot, really, but I don't think it's for me."

"Oh come on, Ginny. Kevin's a great guy--a great sense of humor, a little bit shy, and he's really cute. He's not an engineering nerd at all. Besides, I already told him that you would go with him, and he went ahead and bought the tickets."

"Oh God, Celia, you shouldn't have done that."

"I know, but I knew you wouldn't say yes otherwise." She beamed at Ginny, enormously pleased with herself.

"Oh, all right," Ginny agreed, defeated. "I'll come."

Celia actually clapped her hands in glee. "Oh, great! We're going to have a wonderful time, Ginny, I just know it."

Chapter 5

At three a.m. Ginny opened her eyes to the darkness of her bedroom. She had been sleeping soundly, but as suddenly as switching on a light, she found herself wide awake. She lay tense and unmoving for a few moments, listening. A car drove by on the street outside. She could hear the faint roar of the night buses downshifting for the light on Santa Monica Boulevard several blocks away. All else was silence.

She sat up in bed. So it was all over. After three terrible nights, they were finally gone. She was so relieved she could have wept. After the discovery this afternoon at Mr. Tabibzadeh's Auto Body, she had begun to believe that there really was something sinister about the night workmen, a malevolence that was somehow, unfathomably, directed at her. But it was all over now.

***

Kate had let her off at Mr. Tabibzadeh's after work. Rather to Ginny's surprise, her car was ready and the bill was a bit lower than she had expected. Mr. Tabibzadeh walked her out to her car, asking her with intrusive pleasantness how her work was and what she did for a living. When she told him she was a legal secretary, he snickered bewilderingly and asked, "So that's a dangerous job, is it? Have to watch out for falling law books?"

Ginny wondered if he were a little crazy. "Pardon me?"

Mr. Tabibzadeh laughed again. "I just hope you were all right today without your hard hat."

"I'm sorry. What?"

They had reached her car by then. Mr. Tabibzadeh opened the door for her, but before she could get in, he leaned in, pushed the seat forward and retrieved something from the back.

He turned around, grinning, and held up a white hard hat.

Ginny stepped back. "That's not mine. Where did you get that? It's not mine."

The grin faded a little from Mr. Tabibzadeh's face. "It was in the back seat of your car, miss. The men were laughing about it, wondering what a little girl like you needed with a hard hat."

"It's not mine. I don't want it." Ginny insisted, backing up further when Mr. Tabibzadeh tried to hand the hat to her. It took a tremendous effort for her not to scream at him when he shrugged and tossed it back into the car anyway. He was looking at Ginny with an expression that was half-concerned, half-pitying. "Well, why don't you keep it anyway. You never know when it might come in handy."

She got in the car and slammed the door shut with unnecessary violence. The hat was resting upside down on the passenger seat, rocking a little when she shifted into reverse and pulled out of the lot. She meant to throw the thing out the window at the first opportunity, but the streets were busy with rush hour traffic, and she had an absurd horror of being caught littering.

The hat was still on the seat beside her when she parked in front of her building. She didn't even want to touch it, so she leaned over awkwardly and knocked it down onto the floorboards with her elbow. She saw sweat stains on the canvas webbing inside the hat, and a shudder ran up her spine.

Then it occurred to her that perhaps it wasn't a good idea to leave her car in its usual place. She started the engine again and drove a long block north, to park in front of a white stucco house with a luxurious cactus garden in the front yard. It was a five minute walk back to her apartment. When she got upstairs she felt exhausted and frightened for reasons that she didn't think she could explain to another living soul. She dug her red flannel nightgown out of the back of her closet and went straight to bed, puzzling Caesar by the change in routine. She fell asleep listening to his soft little noises of complaint as he stalked lonely and annoyed through the apartment.

But after that final scare, it really was all over. The mysterious work in the sewers was done, and she could dismiss all her paranoid delusions. The hard hat tossed into her back seat now seemed nothing more than a serendipitous moment of contact in an overcrowded, anonymous city.

She settled back down into bed, and as she drifted off to sleep, she thought about the dinner date with Celia and the herd of engineers from Intertech, and began constructing pleasant little fantasies about the man Celia had set her up with. What was his name? Craig? Kevin. That was it. And who knew? There was no reason to suppose he wouldn't turn out to be a wonderful guy.

***

Ginny got up Saturday morning in the mood to get things accomplished. While Warner Brothers cartoons played on TV she picked up around the living room and vacuumed, and then swept and mopped the kitchen floor too. She made an ambitious shopping list--no Lean Cuisines for her this week --and drove up to Pavilions Market on Santa Monica Boulevard.

The store was crowded with Saturday morning shoppers, but Ginny was feeling too good to mind. She found herself standing in the checkout line behind a tremendously muscular man in a baggy, low cut tank top and tight black leather pants. When he turned around, she saw why he wore his tank top loose. The arm holes flopped open wide, revealing the little gold ring hanging from each erect nipple.

Ginny took a step back, blushing. The man didn't seem to notice. Smiling at her he asked, "Would you be a luv and hold my place for a minute? I forgot to get avocadoes."

Ginny smiled back. "Of course. It's no problem." She hesitated. Guacamole sounded awfully good. "If they're ripe, would you pick up one for me too?"

***

She was making her second trip up the staircase lugging bags of groceries--it turned out that real fruits and vegetables were much bulkier than frozen dinners--when someone called up the stairwell to her. "Hey, Ginny!"

She looked over the bannister. Standing at the foot of the stairs was Carol, one of the two women from the downstairs apartment across the way.

"Hi Carol. What's up?"

"Can you come over for a minute when you finish putting your groceries away? There's someone here Mary and I would like you to meet."

"Oh sure," Ginny said, pleased by the invitation. "I'll be right down."

She found Carol and Mary on the small porch in front of their place. Carol was standing talking to a pleasant-looking man of about Ginny's age. Mary sat on the steps, wearing leggings and a tent-like unbleached cotton shirt, resting one hand on top of her swollen belly. She didn't seem to have gained weight anywhere but in her stomach as the pregnancy progressed, and Ginny couldn't help thinking that the effect was a little grotesque. With her spindly arms and legs, her long, delicate neck and hollow-cheeked face, she looked as though all the life in her was slowly being drained to feed the thing growing inexorably in her belly.

God, you're sick, Ginny thought, censoring herself. No wonder William dumped you.

"Hi Ginny. Thanks for coming down," Mary smiled. "Carol and I wanted you to meet Zachary."

"Just Zack, please." He shook Ginny's hand.

"Nice to meet you." Ginny was struck most by his eyes. They were dark brown, almost black, and his lashes were long and beautiful, sweeping an olive-colored cheek when he blinked.

Mary patted her belly. "Zack is little Jesús's daddy."

Ginny didn't know what to say. Growing up in Boston hadn't prepared her for the social etiquette of occasions like this. "Oh, well," she stuttered a little. "Congratulations."

"Thanks," Zack laughed. He flexed his biceps, still smiling. "I feel like a real man."

"No macho posturing around here." Mary said. "I'm an expectant mother. You're poisoning the atmosphere."

"See?" Carol said. "I told you we should have gone with an anonymous donor."

Ginny seized upon the blandest topic the conversation offered. "So you've already decided on a name?"

"What?" Mary looked puzzled.

"Um, Heysoos?"

Carol laughed. "Oh no. That's just a dumb joke."

"I thought it was pretty funny," Mary protested.

"Oh sure, eight and a half months ago it was funny."

Ginny's face must have reflected her bewilderment, and Zack took pity on her. "Didn't you go to church when you were a kid?"

"Kind of. My folks were Unitarians. On Sundays we sang hymns to the progress of science and listened to lectures on social conditions in South Africa."

"Well, you know, Jesus Christ," Zack explained. "Born of the virgin Mary?"

"Oh."

"I told you it wasn't very funny." Carol said triumphantly, but she sat down next to Mary and kissed her anyway.

"I was a seminary student for a couple of years before I came out," Zack said, "And one of the big sticking points was the Virgin Birth--you know, could you still be a minister if you didn't believe Jesus was born of a virgin? Typical of a bunch of men that it didn't occur to any of us that all you needed for a virgin birth was a dixie cup and a turkey baster."

"Oh. So you didn't--like--go to a clinic or anything?"

"Nope," Carol said, smiling a little. "We just sent Zack to the bathroom with some back issues of Torso and Mandate."

Mary said, "Did I tell you I saved the magazines, Zack? I thought Jesús might like to see what inspired him some day."

"Now I'm getting embarrassed," Zack complained. "I'm just lucky it doesn't show on me like it does on you, Ginny."

Ginny covered her cheeks with her hands. They were hot to the touch. "Oh no. It's that obvious?"

"I'm afraid so," Carol told her. "Don't worry about it. What's the fun of doing something like this if we can't shock the bourgeoisie?"

Ginny felt a little hurt. "So that's the way you think of me?"

"Don't pout, Ginny," Mary said. "But haven't you noticed that you're practically the only one in the entire building who gets up and goes to work five days a week?"

Carol said, "And watching you trudge off to work every morning lets Mary and I feel like radical dykes striking a blow at the heart of the patriarchy, and not just breeder-wannabes."

Ginny considered this and finally told Zack, "I'm almost certain that's the strangest compliment I've ever been paid."

***

That night Sean and Patrick went out to their favorite Italian restaurant. It had taken a lot of pleading on Patrick's part.

"You know you shouldn't be eating that kind of food. It'll upset your stomach--" Seeing the look on Patrick's face Sean abruptly changed tack, "--and then you'll keep me up all night with the racket you'll make running back and forth to the bathroom. Weren't you saying something just the other day about how I needed my beauty sleep?"

"It's Saturday night," Patrick countered. "You can sleep in tomorrow. Besides, I'll be good. Just spaghetti and plain tomato sauce. No sausage or meatballs."

"I hate to sound like your mother here, but tomato sauce is acidic, and you know you'll insist on having a glass of wine too, and that'll play hell with your medication schedule."

"Fuck the medication schedule," Patrick snapped.

Sean looked stricken, and Patrick went on more gently, "Besides, red wine is good for the digestion. If you really want to act like my mother you should know things like that."

Sean still hesitated.

Patrick finally said, "Look, I'd just like to go out with you, have a good time and eat some good food. That's all. Please don't bury me yet."

"I'm sorry." Sean kissed him softly. "Italian it is."

***

"I don't believe it."

"What?"

"Look over there. No, don't look now, they'll see you."

"Patrick, how am I supposed to know what you're talking about if you won't let me turn around?"

"I'll tell you when you can look." Patrick hunched forward over the table and said in a conspiratorial whisper, "When I give you the word, take a peek at the two guys at the corner table right by the sidewalk. OK--now."

Sean glanced over his shoulder. "You mean the hunky little blonde? Sitting at the table with the worried-looking Jeremy Irons type?"

"Arthur always looks worried. Man, he hasn't changed a bit. I bet it's been five, six years since I saw him last."

"Arthur, is it? I take it there's a story here?"

"You could say that."

"From the air of mystery, I'm guessing you two used to be an item."

"For a while," Patrick admitted. "I think it was closer to ten years ago. We even lived together for a few months. It was a complete disaster." He smiled a little, remembering. "Well, maybe not a complete disaster."

Sean glanced over his shoulder again, then looked back at Patrick. "And who's that child your old buddy's got with him?"

"I have no idea. He's way after my time. "

"So are you going to hide behind the Chianti bottle the rest of the night, or are you going to introduce me?"

"I don't know. It seems a little mean to walk up in the middle of their dinner and introduce myself as an old boyfriend."

"Ten years later?" Sean grinned. "I hate to break this to you, sweetheart, but as far as that kid's concerned, you're nothing but ancient history."

Patrick didn't smile back. "What I meant is that the lesions are showing." He reflexively covered one of the smooth blue blemishes on his throat. "Ten years isn't such a long time when you think about it that way."

"What's the matter with you?" Sean asked softly. "If you don't want to say hello, that's your own business. But I never thought I'd see the day when you started going around bleating 'unclean, unclean.'"

"Sorry." Patrick held up his hands in mock surrender. "You're right, of course. It must be the wine talking."

Sean smiled and moved Patrick's glass out of his reach. "I just can't take you anywhere, can I?"

"C'mon." Patrick stood up. "I wanna introduce you to someone."

Arthur didn't seem to recognize him at first. He looked up and smiled uncertainly as Sean and Patrick made their way between the other tables. Patrick said, "Hey buddy. It's been a while, hasn't it?"

The sound of his voice did it. Arthur's eyes widened with sudden recognition. The inevitable wince of pity came next, before he could quite suppress it. Patrick had gotten used to that look recently. He didn't hold it against Arthur now.

"My god." Arthur got to his feet. "Patrick. I don't believe it." He put his hands on his shoulders, then hugged him tight. "I had no idea you were still in L.A."

Patrick grinned over his shoulder at Sean. "What he means is, he had no idea I was still alive."

The corner of Arthur's mouth twitched, but then he managed to smile too. "You always did act like you were too damn good for this world."

Sean laughed. "I've never heard it put so well."

The blonde kid at Arthur's table watched it all with a tolerant air, obviously used to the bittersweet ritual of meeting Arthur's old friends.

"This is Sean," Patrick said. "Sean, I'd like you to meet Arthur Drake, one of the few good influences from my younger days."

"Nice to meet you, Arthur. Patrick hasn't actually told me anything about you yet, but I'll be sure and pry all the juicy details out of him when we get home."

Arthur shook his head apologetically and said, "Forgive my bad manners. I guess I'm feeling a little overwhelmed. This is Marc."

Marc smiled musingly. "Patrick . . . Patrick. You know, I'm sure I know that name. Wait a minute." The smile broadened into a grin. "You're not the same Patrick who left the box of toys with Arthur, are you?"

"Depends. What kind of toys are we talking about?"

"Marc--" Arthur protested, warningly.

"I found it hidden in the back of Arthur's closet. A little leather, some one-handed reading--"

"And Arthur said it was all mine, did he?"

"He definitely laid the blame at your, uh, feet. You guys want to pull up a couple of chairs? I'm sure we have a lot to talk about."

***

"So, Arthur, are you still chasing ghosts?" Patrick had managed to put away most of the plate of spaghetti. Sean was right, he would probably suffer for it later. But right now, the warm feeling of being filled with pasta and surrounded by friends was more than worth it.

"I'm afraid so," Arthur said. "I seem to be constitutionally incapable of holding down a real job."

"Arthur's a parapsychologist," Patrick explained to Sean. "I didn't even know what that meant when I met him. Of course, this was the early eighties, and I suppose the New Age was just getting off the ground back then. These days you find them under every rock."

"Parapsychologist?" Marc snorted. "That makes him sound like one of those lab rats who spend years looking for statistical anomalies in a zillion rolls of the dice." Marc had finished most of their second bottle of Chianti by himself, and he had become increasingly voluble, pleased to have an audience. Arthur watched him indulgently, fond as a doting parent. The poor guy, Patrick thought. He was obviously head over heels, and a beautiful kid like that couldn't help but break your heart sooner or later. Patrick should know. He'd been a beautiful boy himself once upon a time.

"So what do you actually do?" Sean asked.

"The truth?" Arthur said. "I spend a lot of time sitting up nights in places like warehouses and convenience stores, shooting a lot of videotape of empty rooms."

"Well, that certainly sounds exciting. Do you ever really see a ghost?"

"Actual materializations are very rare. You're right. It's mostly pretty dull."

Marc rolled his eyes at Arthur and seemed on the verge of saying something, but just then the waiter came by, and Marc stopped him to order an espresso instead.

"So how about your phantom street workers, Patrick?" Sean asked, grinning. "Maybe Arthur could investigate that for us."

"Phantom workers?" For just an instant, Patrick didn't know what he meant. "Oh, the guys in the sewers at night."

Marc hit Arthur's shoulder playfully with his fist. "Ghosts in the sewers of West Hollywood? Sounds right up your alley."

"Sorry to disappoint you," Patrick said. "But they seemed pretty corporeal to me. At least, I never heard of ghosts setting up traffic cones to divert traffic."

Arthur smiled. "It would be a first in my experience."

"Three nights in a row last week Patrick tells me he's been woken up by the noise of these guys doing street repair, going down in the sewers or something. I'm a pretty light sleeper, but I never heard anything. The whole thing seemed pretty mysterious to me."

"They must be otherworldly, then." Arthur said seriously. "I don't know of any other explanation."

"Hey, I'm not the only one. That girl upstairs heard them too," Patrick defended himself. "But I tell you what, Arthur, after I'm gone, I'll try to arrange a really spectacular haunting for you. Clanking chains, moans and groans--" Patrick broke off. The smiles on the other men's faces were looking a little strained.

Sean reached over and ran his hand through the last wisps of Patrick's red hair. "Knock it off, buddy. Any moaning and groaning better be strictly for my benefit."

Patrick smiled ruefully in Arthur's direction. "Damn, Arthur, do you believe this? Ten years down the road, and I still can't get away from you jealous types."

Chapter 6

Kevin was a surprise.

When Ginny came down to the car, he jumped out and opened the door for her. More astonishing yet, he performed the little courtesy without a trace of self-conscious gallantry, making the gesture seem the most natural thing in the world. No one had opened a car door for Ginny in fifteen years, and she hoped her amazement didn't show on her face.

Celia was sitting in the front seat, next to a square-jawed, steely-eyed creature who could only be her fiancé. "Hi Ginny. This is Stevie, my honey love." Celia giggled, blowing a puff of bourbon into Ginny's face.

Ginny considered getting right back out of the car, but Steve had already pulled away from the curb, tossing a "Glad you could make it," over his shoulder to her.

"And of course, this is Kevin." Celia fluttered her long fingers in his direction. "Didn't I tell you he was cute?"

Kevin winced at Celia's introduction. Catching Ginny's eye, he gave her a barely perceptible shrug of apology, then grinned. His glasses gave him a faintly serious air, an sweet contrast to his curly blonde surfer-boy hair. Ginny liked him instantly, and thought that maybe the evening wouldn't be as bad as she had feared.

They caught the van at the Pacific Design Center parking lot, only a few blocks from Ginny's apartment, and Ginny became painfully aware of her first mistake of the evening. When she dressed, she had decided to wear a batiked cotton skirt and poet's blouse, thinking defiantly that the last thing she wanted to look like tonight was a legal secretary or an engineer's date.

And she had certainly succeeded. All the other women were wearing gold lamé dresses with hemlines well above the knee, or form-fitting velour, or crocheted white tops over black lace bras. Ginny felt about as defiant as a woman in full purdah.

Kevin was pleasant, but his conversational skills couldn't mask the painful truth that he and Ginny really had absolutely nothing at all in common. By the time the aperitifs arrived at Cafe Morpheus they had already exhausted all possible conversational avenues. Kevin was buying drinks with cheerful abandon, and the more Ginny drank, the more she found the whole evening depressingly reminiscent of college. The biggest difference was she didn't remember ever feeling this self-conscious in college. By the time the party had reached Ma Maison for the main course, Ginny was clutching at Kevin's elbow to keep from staggering outright, and it was still a mortifying experience to enter the restaurant as part of such an uncouth, noisy mob. The engineers were all male, and aggressively boisterous in the way that men are when intimidated by their surroundings. They bullied the waiters and complained about the food while their wives and dates giggled in embarrassment. Ginny ordered another screwdriver as soon as they were seated, and she didn't protest Kevin's suggestion that they get a bottle of wine.

The rest of the evening passed in a merciful blur. When she next became aware of her surroundings, Kevin was helping her out of Steve's car, and she felt a tremendous rush of relief. The evening was finally coming to an end.

But then she realized that they weren't in front of her apartment. With a sinking feeling, she plucked fretfully at Celia's sleeve and asked, "Celia? Where are we?"

"Silly--we told you where we were going. This is Steve's place."

Ginny began to feel panicked. "But how am I going to get home?"

Celia staggered on her high heels and whispered noisily in her ear. "It's all part of the plan. You know! So Kevin can drive you home."

Ginny suddenly regretted all she'd had to drink. She couldn't focus enough to concentrate, and right now, she desperately needed to pay attention. "Kevin," she said, enunciating with elaborate care, "would you please take me home now?"

He was instantly at her side, solicitous and kind. "Are you sure? We were going to go up to Steve's for drinks."

Great. Just what she needed. Ginny shook her head carefully. "No. I'm sorry. I just want to go home. Please."

"Of course, of course. Steve, Celia, it's been fun."

When they reached her place at last, she didn't have the will power to refuse when Kevin insisted on seeing her safely up to her apartment. She found herself sitting next to him on the couch in her living room, talking about comic books, of all things. Kevin seemed quite prepared to sit right there beside her and chat all night long. At long last Ginny gathered up her courage and told him outright, "Thank you for the lovely evening, but I want to go to sleep now."

Drunk as she was, Ginny knew there was something wrong about the expression on Kevin's face. She began to scoot away from him, but he caught her head in his hands and pulled her over to kiss her lips, numb and tingling as they were from all she'd had to drink tonight.

She was startled, but also rather pleased. No one had kissed her since William, and a part of her had not really believed that anyone else ever would. In surprise and gratitude, she kissed Kevin back. Then she pulled away. The truth was that she and Kevin had nothing in common, and all she really wanted to do now was to go to bed by herself and sleep off all the screwdrivers.

She got up and stepped out of his range. Kevin stood up too, and while she was still trying to explain that she'd had a good time, but just wanted to be alone tonight, he tore her blouse open to the waist. Ginny heard buttons hitting the wall.

It was so ridiculous that it didn't occur to her to be frightened. If he wanted to act like they were in a made-for-tv movie, then she could oblige him. She slapped him across the face and was surprised by how the blow made her own palm sting.

Kevin slapped her back. Once, twice. And then over and over again.

Ginny pulled away from him, staggering, ran into the wall and tore down the cheap paper blinds hanging over her window. Kevin hauled her away from the window and hit her in the face with his closed fist. The blow made her ears ring, and all the fight drained out of her. She didn't care what happened anymore. She just didn't want Kevin to hit her again.

A terrible racket started outside. Feet came pounding heavily up the wooden stairs, and someone rapped violently on her door. A voice Ginny didn't recognize called out, "Are you all right in there?"

Kevin froze. The banging on the door continued, and he and Ginny eyed each other like comrades in arms confronting a common foe.

"Ginny! Open the door!" A different voice, one she recognized. Patrick. Oh, thank god. She turned to let him in, and Kevin grabbed her arms.

"Are you crazy? Tell them to go away. Do you want anyone to see you like this?"

In her befuddled state, it almost seemed like a valid consideration. She hesitated. "Ginny," Patrick pleaded on the other side of the door, "Open up or we'll have to call the police."

Kevin shook her. "Tell them to go away," he whispered furiously, but his eyes were scared. "Tell them you're fine."

Being asked to tell such a ridiculous lie finally sobered Ginny a little bit. She certainly wasn't fine. She yanked herself free of Kevin's grip and unlocked the door.

All at once her living room seemed to be full of men. They spilled in off the landing, surprising Kevin as much as her. He tried to push his way out the door, but a young man Ginny did not know grabbed his arm and held him fast. Kevin tried to pull free, and when he couldn't he insisted with unconvincing bravado, "You people have no business in here. Get the hell out of Jennifer's apartment."

Ginny sat down heavily on the sofa, trying without much success to hold back the tears. Patrick took her arm and patted her hand reassuringly. "Calm down, it's all right. We'll stay till the cops get here."

"Oh no," Ginny said frantically. "Oh please don't call the police."

"Ginny, no offense, but I don't think you're thinking too straight right now. C'mere." He got her to her feet and tried to guide her down the hall to the bedroom, but she staggered beside him, and he wasn't strong enough to hold her. "Sean? A little help here?"

Sean was at her side in a moment, and supported between the two of them Ginny managed to walk down the hall. This was, without question, the most embarrassing experience of her entire life, and her feeble attempt to salvage the situation didn't seem to help things appreciatively. "Hi Sean," she mumbled thickly, "My names's Ginny."

"The pleasure's all mine," he told her gravely.

They stopped in front of the full length mirror on her bedroom door. The first thing she saw was that her blouse was hanging open. She tried to hold it closed, but Patrick assured her, "Hon, your virtue's safe with us. This is what I want you to look at." And he lifted her chin.

When she saw what Kevin had done to her face, her legs folded beneath her. Sean and Patrick let her simply sit on the floor. Patrick knelt beside her. "Now will you let us call the cops and haul that bastard off to jail?"

"It's just a bloody nose," she wept. "I'm all right. It was my fault."

Patrick said, "I don't care if you unzipped his pants yourself and then called him needle dick when you got a load of his equipment, he still doesn't get to hit you. It doesn't work that way."

"No, please, we were both drunk. I slapped him first. I just want this to be over." Ginny looked down at herself. There were bloodstains spreading across her blouse, even a trail of droplets across the batiked skirt. "Oh no, look at this."

"What?" Patrick was sympathetic, but uncomprehending.

"I'll never get these out. The dye isn't colorfast. It's ruined." She began to sob out loud. After an evening of humiliations, this seemed like the very last straw.

"Hey, hey, calm down." Sean came back from the bathroom with a damp washcloth and handed it to her. "I'm a whiz at getting stains out. By the time I'm through they'll be good as new."

"And he pulled off all the buttons," Ginny knew she was sounding like an idiot, but she didn't seem to be able to help it. She dabbed ineffectually at her face, smearing tears and blood.

"You poor girl," Sean took the washcloth away from her and wiped her face clean with gentle, efficient strokes. "Buttons can be sewn back on. Didn't your mother teach you how to do anything?"

Ginny laughed through her tears and Patrick said, "OK, smacking you around is one thing, but ruining your clothes is another. Now will you let me call the cops?"

Ginny made a tremendous effort to concentrate. "Please don't. He's the friend of a coworker. It would cause all sorts of problems. I shouldn't have invited him up in the first place."

"All right, all right, stop apologizing. I'll tell Marc to just kick his ass out of here. But if you change your mind and want someone to go with you to the police station later and file a report, you can give us a call. We'll be glad to help."

"Thank you." Ginny started sobbing again.

"Oh for heaven's sake," Sean complained gently. "Let's get you off to bed."

***

Marc didn't know if it was the bottle of wine or just the leftover adrenaline rush from the excitement at Patrick's apartment, but by the time Arthur pulled into the garage, he had a raging hard on. He grabbed Arthur's hand as soon as he set the parking brake and guided it down to his lap.

Arthur raised an eyebrow at him. "Feeling pretty butch tonight, are we? You did look like you enjoyed playing Galahad."

"Galahad? No, Lancelot, I think," Marc said with a grin. "My theory is Lancelot wasn't porking the queen at all. He was really having a torrid affair with King Arthur."

He released Arthur's hand and grabbed the collar of his shirt, trying to pull his head down. With his other hand he began unbuttoning his jeans.

Arthur shook himself free. "Here? Have you lost your mind? Get a grip."

"That's what I want you to do for me."

"Forget it."

"What are you afraid of?"

Arthur opened the car door. "Easy for you to talk. Do you have any idea what the homeowners' association would fine me for giving you head in the parking garage?"

Marc felt a twinge of real alarm as Arthur got out of the car. "Hey, c'mon. I can't walk through the lobby like this."

Arthur smiled down at him unsympathetically. "You'll give the doorman weeks of pleasant dreams."

"This isn't funny."

"So sit there and think sad thoughts until you calm down."

"I'll get you for this."

Arthur didn't look particularly worried by his threat. Marc followed him up to the lobby, keeping his hands crossed awkwardly over his groin while they waited for the elevator. Rather than subsiding, his erection felt as though it were growing more swollen and tender by the minute, until his entire consciousness seemed to be concentrated in the head of his dick, jammed painfully against the denim of his jeans. There were other people in the lobby, and Marc kept his eyes down so he wouldn't see their faces. This was as bad as being fourteen years old again, throwing a boner in class just as the bell rang.

Mercifully, no one got on the elevator with them. As soon as the doors closed Marc grabbed Arthur from behind and yanked his head back to give him a sloppy, open-mouthed kiss. Arthur wrenched himself free, but Marc pushed him around and backed him into the corner of the elevator, up against the brass rail. Arthur was laughing too hard to put up much of a fight. Marc forced his knee up between Arthur's legs. Out of the corner of his eye, he could admire their reflection in the mirror, Arthur's face flushed with exasperation and laughter as he struggled in Marc's embrace. He was trying to say something, so Marc stopped his mouth with another kiss.

He let him go abruptly when the doors opened on Arthur's floor. "What the hell's the matter with you?" Arthur gasped, straightening his shirt and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

"Just in a good mood tonight." Marc said, and goosed him as he got off the elevator. "Glad I'm not fourteen anymore."

***

The moon was almost full, and it shone in through the partially opened blinds and faintly illuminated the interior of Arthur's bedroom. Marc rolled over and looked at him. Arthur was already sound asleep. He didn't seem to have moved since falling out of Marc's arms. He lay on his stomach, one leg drawn up, one arm underneath himself. His mouth was open, and Marc could hear the faint sound of his breathing. He shifted closer. A part of him wanted to draw the sheet protectively up over Arthur's naked flank. But he was equally tempted to avail himself of Arthur's vulnerability. Arthur's bare hip was gleaming white in the moonlight, and Marc thought wolfishly that if all Arthur was looking for was a good night's sleep, then he should have hooked up with someone his own age.

He put his hand on the small of Arthur's back and bent forward to kiss him. Arthur moaned in his sleep and shifted a little, his head turning on the pillow. Marc was unprepared for the sudden wave of tenderness that swept over him. A lump rose in his throat, and he found himself on the verge of tears. He held very still until the moment passed, he pulled the sheet disgustedly up over Arthur and got out of bed. At this rate it wouldn't be long before they'd be talking about wedding invitations and joint bank accounts. He found a robe lying at the foot of the bed and wrapped it around himself, then went out to the living room to see if there were any good movies on cable at this hour of the night.

He awoke hours later and sat up with a jolt. The television cast an eerie blue light through the room, and just for an instant, wakefulness seemed less real than his dream. He shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs. In his dream he had been sitting here watching a movie when a woman began to scream. At first he thought it was just the television set, but as the shrieks became increasingly despairing and hoarse, he realized they were coming from Arthur's bedroom.

In his dream, Marc got up and walked calmly to the bedroom door, where he discovered that he had been mistaken. There was no woman. It was Arthur, stretched naked on the bed, gasping and shouting aloud in agony. As Marc watched him, Arthur's belly heaved under his rib cage, and then, appallingly, began to swell. His head thrashed from side to side. His stomach continued to bloat and finally, with a soft, wet sound, tore open from sternum to groin.

Then Arthur stopped screaming and lay still, watching with dull, unsurprised eyes while something small and pale with an oversized head and crooked legs crawled up out of his ripped belly and scrambled across his chest. It bent its shapeless, fuzz-covered head over Arthur's left nipple and began to nurse. Arthur's wide-flung arms twitched a little, and Marc finally tried to go to him. But he couldn't move a muscle, and when the small, pale creature suddenly reared up and turned its head towards Marc, he saw its face. Though it was covered with ordure from its climb out of Arthur's body, and its chin and mouth were smeared with blood, Marc recognized the features all too easily, and he couldn't stop screaming.

"Arthur! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"

Even though Marc was awake now, and knew that he had been dreaming, he looked back towards the black rectangle of Arthur's open bedroom door with some trepidation. "Oh man, get over it," he told himself, irritated by his attack of nerves. "This is what hanging around with a ghosthunter gets you." Nevertheless, he hesitated for a moment at the bedroom door. Arthur was twitching and mumbling softly in his sleep, as if he too were having bad dreams. Marc finally crawled into bed beside him, and then, just to be sure, slid his hand around under Arthur's stomach. His belly felt concave and quite smooth save for the thin line of hair trailing down from his navel.

Arthur awoke at his touch and groaned Marc's name.

"Go back to sleep," Marc said. "I was just seeing if you were all right."

"Mmm," Arthur mumbled in agreement. Then he asked, sounding a little more awake, "Why wouldn't I be all right?"

"I heard something. I thought maybe you were having a bad dream."

"No--I'm fine--" Arthur's voice trailed off.

"Good. Go back to sleep." Marc lay down close behind him and draped one arm over Arthur's shoulder. He said something else, but Marc couldn't understand him, and Arthur was soon asleep again.

Marc lay awake for a while longer, still thinking about the dream. It was easy enough to figure out where it came from after an evening like this. Running into Arthur's old boyfriend looking like a walking skeleton, rescuing Patrick's neighbor from her own date. How did that famous line go, the one about monsters and the sleep of reason? Arthur would know. He'd have to remember to ask him in the morning.

Chapter 7

"Mary? What is it?"

"Nothing. I don't know. Nothing."

Carol reached over and switched on the bedside light. Mary lay on her side, her blue eyes wide open and scared. She was trying to suppress the quick, nervous panting, but her forehead was slick with sweat.

"Oh my god. Is this it? Should I call the midwife?"

"No," Mary whispered, sounding as though she were on the verge of tears. "It's not time."

"Please tell me what's the matter." All sorts of horrific possibilities were occurring to Carol. "Is something wrong? Do we need to go to the hospital?"

"No. I'm all right. It's nothing like that. It's just that I've been lying here for so long trying to figure out if it's real or not."

"If what's real, hon? You're scaring me."

"Can't you hear it?"

All Carol could hear was the steady stream of Saturday night traffic on San Ysidro, and the soft, quick sound of Mary breathing hard beside her. "No, I don't hear anything."

"Then I must be going crazy."

Carol felt like shaking her. "Would you please tell me what's going on?"

"I've been lying here for ages and ages listening to them," Mary whispered. "There are people walking around under the floor."

"Under the floor? Honey, there's nothing under us. Just a crawlspace for the pipes. No one could be walking around down there."

"Don't you think I know that, you stupid bitch?" Mary suddenly shrieked.

Carol stared back at her, shocked. Mary covered her face with her hands and sobbed. Finally Carol gathered her gently into her arms, the press of Mary's great belly and the weight of her milk-swollen breasts seemingly like a barrier between them. Bewildered and frightened, Carol was having trouble now remembering why they had ever wanted a baby. Mary had always been so strong and beautiful, and now she was bloated and hysterical, weeping at imaginary sounds in the night. Carol could hardly bear it. As she stroked Mary's back and whispered meaningless comforts to her, she knew without question that little Jesús would be a boy. It would take a boy to wreak such havoc.

And then at last Mary drew a deep, shuddering sigh and wiped her eyes with the corner of the sheet. "Oh man. Whoa." She was still weeping a little, but the hysterical edge was gone. "I'm so sorry, love. That wasn't me, a minute ago. You know I didn't mean it."

"I know."

Mary managed a faint smile, looking more like her old self. "It must be the hormones. Makes PMS feel like a day in the park."

"Are you sure you're all right?" Carol gazed anxiously into Mary's tear-streaked face. "You don't hear those noises anymore?"

"Maybe I wasn't really hearing anything. It could have been my own pulse. I can hear it sometimes roaring in my ears."

"Do you need anything?"

"Well yeah, now that you mention it. Help me sit up. I gotta go pee."

Carol slipped her arm around Mary's shoulders. "The miracle of pregnancy," she said, hoping to make Mary laugh. "Lemme get the videocamera."

"I'm too frail and helpless to deal with sarcasm," Mary complained pitifully.

Carol grunted as she got Mary to her feet. "I don't know how to tell you this, sweetie, but these days you're about as frail as a water buffalo."

"So remind me again. Whose idea was it to have a baby?"

Carol laughed. "You know, I was trying to remember that myself just now."

"We've been brainwashed." Mary staggered to the bathroom. "Next thing you know we'll be subscribing to Reader's Digest and registering as Republicans."

"Stop it, baby," Carol put her hands over her ears. "Now you're really scaring me."

***

Sunday morning it was the uncomfortable pressure on her rib cage, just under her breasts, that eventually pulled Ginny back to consciousness. She squirmed on the bed, trying to relieve the dull ache, and finally opened her eyes when she realized that the problem wasn't going to go away.

She was wearing her favorite red flannel nightgown, even though it was a little too warm for the weather. She pulled open her neckline and looked down at herself. Well, no wonder she was uncomfortable. She was wearing a bra, and it was one of her dressy underwire ones at that. She reached up under her gown and undid the front hook, and the sudden release was so pleasant that she was almost asleep again before she realized why she'd gone to bed that way.

Last night she'd been too drunk and shell-shocked to protest while Sean bustled around like an efficient, if rather arch nursemaid, cleaning her up, whisking the blouse off her shoulders, unzipping her skirt and then dropping the nightgown over her head before she even had time to feel embarrassed.

Well, she was embarrassed now. What a sordid, miserable night. What had she been thinking of, getting so drunk that she had to depend on a complete stranger to get her home? If Kevin had been just a little less inept, he could have raped and murdered her a dozen times over, cut out her liver and fed it to the coyotes in the Hollywood Hills and not a soul would have been the wiser--until, perhaps, it finally dawned on Reed that no one was typing his legal documents.

She thought of William, and suddenly missed him so terribly that it was like an aching, empty space where her heart should have been. She didn't want to be alone anymore. She wasn't any good at it. She let everything spin out of control and then had to depend on strangers to rescue her from her own carelessness. Goddamnit. Goddamnit. If there was anything she hated it was women who fluttered around playing Blanche Dubois.

She sat up slowly, careful of her aching head. Maybe she would give William a call, just to see if he had any plans this afternoon. Maybe they could drive up to the mountains or out to the beach and spend some time talking. She wondered what her face looked like. If Kevin had really left her black and blue, it might be good for a little guilt--see what happened because you left me?

Caesar came creeping out from under the bed then, his body low to the ground. His tail twitched, and he darted nervous glances around the bedroom and then up at her, as if fearing a repeat of last night's pandemonium.

"Oh, poor baby." Ginny climbed out of bed and crouched down beside him, her own woes momentarily forgotten. "Have you been hiding under there all night? I'm so sorry." She stroked his back a couple of times before he slunk out of reach to continue exploring the apartment, assuring himself that all the noisy strangers were well and truly gone. Ginny hated to think of him cowering under the bed all night. She got up and went to the kitchen to see if she could find him any tuna in the cabinet to make amends.

***

She examined her face in the bathroom mirror before showering. To her great relief, there was hardly a trace of last night's adventure. Her eyes were bloodshot, but that was probably more from all the drinking than from Kevin's fists. The left side of her jaw was swollen and tender to the touch. Otherwise she seemed to have escaped relatively unscathed. In her gloomy frame of mind, it seemed more than she deserved.

She spent the rest of the morning lounging around the apartment in her dressing gown, watching The Brady Bunch and Gilligan's Island on channel 13 and sipping ginger ale. She did not call William. She thought she should probably go downstairs and thank Sean and Patrick for coming to her rescue last night, but the humiliation of it all was still too fresh.

Later that afternoon, though, while she was struggling to rehang the blinds that had been knocked down the night before, she looked out and saw Sean and Patrick sitting in lawn chairs set up in the courtyard, enjoying the warmth of the October sunshine. Patrick was lying back with his eyes closed, but Sean was sitting up, working on something.

After a moment, Ginny realized what it was. He was sewing the buttons back onto her blouse. She climbed down off the stepladder and ran downstairs to confront him.

"I don't believe you--"

Sean laid down the sewing needle and put one finger over his lips. He looked significantly over at Patrick. "Someone had a big night last night," he whispered.

"I'm not asleep," Patrick said, sounding drowsy and relaxed. "How are you feeling today, Ginny?"

"I'm fine. I'm really fine. A little mortified is all."

His eyes still closed, Patrick raised one hand like a priest bestowing a benediction. "Say no more. We've all had our inglorious moments."

"Sean," Ginny said, "I wish you'd stop. You've already done so much for me already. I'll finish it myself."

"Don't lie to me, child. I saw the expression on your face last night when I tried to tell you that buttons could be sewn back on. And look, the stain came out beautifully. I'm still soaking the skirt, but I think it's going to be fine too."

Ginny sighed. "I'm just imagining the scene last night. The four of you crawling around my living room floor looking for buttons while I was passed out on the bed."

"And we found them all," Sean said proudly.

"It seems so inadequate just to say thank you."

"It'll do," Patrick said.

"Please thank your friends for me. I don't even know their names."

"Marc and Arthur," Patrick supplied helpfully. "It was their pleasure."

"I hope I didn't ruin your evening."

"She must be a Southerner," Patrick told Sean. "The girl barely escapes with her honor intact, and all she can worry about is whether she interrupted our social plans."

"Boston, actually."

"Same difference. Even worse."

"So stop with the apologies already, Ginny." Sean knotted the thread behind the last button, then bit through the end of the thread with his teeth. "We enjoyed the chance to feel like big butch heroes."

Patrick finally opened his eyes and sat up, stretching languorously. "Have you changed your mind about going to the police? Sean and I would be happy to go up to the station with you."

Tears suddenly welled up in Ginny's eyes. "No. I don't want to do that."

"Here you go," Sean tossed the blouse in her direction. She caught it awkwardly. "Good as new."

***

Ginny went to bed early, in the hope of escaping the hangover headache that had lingered dully behind her temples all day. When she got up Monday morning she felt fine until she caught the first glimpse of herself in the mirror.

The tender place on the side of her jaw had blossomed into a spectacular purple bruise. Under her left eye was a little blue-black half-circle, as neatly defined as if she'd drawn it on with a makeup pencil. She stared aghast at her reflection. She couldn't possibly go to work like this.

At eight she called Reed at the office. He liked getting in before her. It gave him a chance to poke around in her work and be prepared with criticisms by the time she arrived at nine. "Ginny? This better not be what I think it is."

"I woke up sick this morning. I won't be able to come in."

There was dead silence on Reed's end of the line. Ginny went on determinedly, "If you want, I'll call for a temp myself. I'm sure the agency can have someone there by nine-thirty or ten at the very latest."

Reed exploded. "Damnit, Ginny, this morning of all mornings? You know I'm supposed to get the Jefferson 'rogs out today."

Ginny was not going to be bullied. "Any typist can do those for you, Reed."

"You can't possibly expect me to trust some bimbo from the temp agency, can you? I'd have to check every word, and I just don't have the time. I've got to get Linda Campbell ready for her depo tomorrow morning, and you know Mondays are the busiest day of the week."

"I'm sorry. I can't possibly come in."

Reed's voice changed. "Well, what's wrong with you? Is it just the flu? Maybe you could go see the doctor this morning, and then come in this afternoon for a few hours, just to get the interrogatories typed."

"I'm not feeling well enough for that," Ginny said levelly.

"You don't sound that sick," Reed wheedled. "I'm sure you could manage for just a few hours."

This was ridiculous. Ginny didn't say anything, and after a moment Reed told her shamelessly, "I need you, Gin. Please don't do this to me."

"Oh, all right," Ginny said softly, hating him, but hating herself more. "I'll be there in a little while."

She smeared cover-up from a stick under her eye and over the purple patch on her jaw, and then blotted the whole mess generously with powder. It didn't help. The receptionist at the front desk, a kid barely out of high school, took one look at Ginny as she came in and screeched, "Oh my gawd, what happened to you?"

"I walked into a door," Ginny said. It was the first thing that came to mind, and was such an obvious fabrication that no one asked her to elaborate. Betty Kane even squeezed her shoulder sympathetically and told her, sotto voce, "Be a little more careful who you bring home next weekend, sweetheart."

The only person who believed her was Celia. "Ah-ah-ah, you had a little too much Saturday night, didn't you? I thought Kevin was supposed to get you home safe and sound. I'll have to give him a piece of my mind for letting you hurt yourself like that."

Ginny smiled weakly. "Oh, please don't tell him. I didn't think it was going to bruise." Secretly, though, she felt relieved. She'd been worrying about what Kevin might have said to Celia and Steve afterwards. Apparently nothing at all.

Reed's only comment, as he handed her the dictation tape with the interrogatories on it, was that he really needed them done by eleven, so please get right on it.

She was surprised by how difficult it was to lie to Kate. She had come by late in the morning, when no one else was near, and simply perched on the edge of Ginny's desk, waiting.

"I walked into a door," Ginny said, laughing a little. "I'm such a clod."

Kate didn't say anything. Ginny looked down at her hands and wondered how long she could bear to let the awkward silence continue.

Kate finally took pity on her. "Well, I wanted to ask if you felt like going out to lunch today. I've got a two-for-one coupon for that salad place around the corner."

"That sounds great," Ginny said, relieved.

Kate smiled thinly. "I'll be sure to hold the door for you."

Chapter 8

"So, Ginny--" Kate said seriously, leaning over a plate heaping with raw spinach, sprouts and shredded carrots. Ginny tensed a little, expecting to be asked about her black eye. "How did you ever end up working for a toad like Reed Wallace anyway?"

"A short, sad story, really," Ginny said, relaxing. "Not even very interesting. I needed to find full-time work after my husband and I split up. Reed was the first person to offer me a job."

"What were you doing before that?"

"I had a part-time job at the County Museum."

"No kidding? Doing what?"

"A little bit of everything. Mostly grunt work, filing, answering phones. That part wasn't so different from what I'm doing for Reed, I guess. But they were starting to let me do some research for exhibition catalogs, and that was exciting. That's what I miss most.

"So you must have a background in art history?"

Ginny forked up a mouthful of her own, less spartan salad--heavy on the grated cheese and ranch dressing--and swallowed before answering. "Well, yeah, I do. I got my Ph"

"Well, good lord, Ginny, what on earth are you doing here?"

"Eating lunch."

"Don't play dumb. You're a little too convincing."

"There isn't a whole lot of demand for art history phids even in the best of times. I was lucky to get the job at County. I was hoping it would lead to full time work sooner or later, but with all the budget cutbacks, 'later' just kept getting further and further away, and then when my husband left I didn't really have time to wait around anymore."

"It must have been a shock, coming to work for Reed. Are you still looking for work in your field?"

"Not really. I was out of my mind the first few months after my husband left. It was all I could do to concentrate long enough to take a typing test."

"And what's your excuse now?"

Ginny shrugged. "Well, actually there's a lot less stress now. I like that. I don't have to worry about keeping up with the journals, always having to look over my shoulder at the hot young kids right out of graduate school--I just do the typing, answer the phones and go home at night."

"And what's your real reason?"

"Hey, leave me alone," Ginny laughed to hide her irritation. "If we're playing twenty questions, what's your excuse for working for Lloyd? You've been with him longer than I've been working for Reed."

Kate smiled sweetly. "Me? I simply love the law."

***

A gaudy bouquet of sunflowers was sitting on the receptionist's desk when Kate and Ginny got back. Terrie the receptionist waved them over cheerfully. "Look Ginny, they're for you."

"For me?" Ginny felt a momentary blush of pleasure. "Who would be sending me flowers?" She opened the card. The note was typed in green florist's ink.

Jenny,
Sorry we got our signals crossed. Still friends? Call me!
Kev

His phone number was underneath his typed name.

Ginny simply stared at it for a moment. Then she crammed the note into her suit pocket, turned and walked off as quickly as she could. Her cheeks were burning as though she had done something shameful in front of everyone. She was afraid that she would start to cry if she allowed herself to think about it, so she wiped her mind clear of everything. She would go back to her desk, she would work hard all afternoon, and she would not think about anything at all.

"Ginny. Ginny." Kate planted herself in front of her. "What's the matter with you?"

"Nothing. I'm fine."

"Uh-huh. Those flowers are from the door, aren't they?"

"What?"

"The one you walked into."

Ginny felt the corners of her mouth begin to tremble. Kate took her arm and steered her into the bathroom. Once Ginny was away from the curious eyes of the other employees, the urge to cry faded, but she felt light-headed and a little sick. She wanted to dash water on her face, but that would have ruined what was left of her makeup, so she leaned against the sink, taking deep breaths until her heart stopped thudding so painfully. "I feel like I'm losing my mind," she said at last. "He beat me up Saturday, and Monday he sends me flowers? That's crazy. Is the whole world crazy, or is it just me?" Her voice began to rise, and Kate put her arms around her and hugged her.

"Calm down, Gin. You're not crazy. You'd be crazy if you weren't upset."

Ginny stepped away. "Oh no, I'm sorry. I've gotten makeup on your shoulder."

Kate examined the pale stain on her blouse. "Don't worry about it. I'll give you the cleaners' bill. Would you like me to go pitch those ghastly sunflowers in the dumpster?"

"No. Thanks anyway. I'll give them to Terrie. Someone should get some pleasure out of them."

"Let me see the note."

Ginny's fingers closed around the crumpled bit of cardboard in her pocket. "It's embarrassing."

"Oh come on, Ginny. Didn't all those years of education teach you anything useful? You're not the one who should be embarrassed."

"I know that in my head," she admitted miserably. "But I can't help what I feel."

"Give me the note."

Ginny handed it to her.

Kate glanced at it and said, "He isn't your ex, is he?"

"No. A blind date. Celia set me up with him."

"Oh, no."

"Please don't tell her about this."

Kate slipped the note into her own pocket.

Ginny felt a flutter of fear. "What are you going to do?"

Kate raised an eyebrow at her. "Tell Terrie that she can have the sunflowers."

"No, I meant with the note."

"Do you want it back?"

"No. Of course not."

"Then don't worry about it." Kate squeezed her arm reassuringly. "You ought to get back to your desk. I've seen the tantrums Reed throws if you're late back from lunch."

***

That evening Ginny sat on the living room floor, her back against the sofa, and watched Talk Soup while she ate dinner. She had ignored all the fresh fruits and vegetables brimming on the bottom racks of her refrigerator and instead microwaved the last frozen dinner, a low-calorie meatloaf and macaroni and cheese entree. She was just scooping up the remains of the ersatz cheese sauce with the final bite of meatloaf when someone knocked on her door. She jumped up, dropped the plastic plate on the sidetable and opened the door without even bothering to ask who was there. She simply assumed it was Sean. She'd been planning to go down after dinner and pick up her skirt from him.

But it was William who stood on her doorstep, apologizing even before Ginny had the door open all the way. "I know I should have called first, Gin. I was just wondering if I could borrow a couple of your books on the Fauves. I'm starting a class on early 20th Century lit this semester and I thought--"

He finally looked down and saw her face. "Oh, my god."

She didn't say anything.

"Ginny, what in the world happened?"

She looked at him a moment longer, and then, hoping to hurt him, she told him the truth. "A blind date."

It worked. His face crumpled in pain, and Ginny had to look away.

"Oh, sweetheart." He put his arms around her and pulled her unresisting into his embrace. She laid her head on his chest and didn't say anything as his arms tightened around her shoulders. At length, William guided her into the living room and sat down beside her on the couch. When he had his voice under control he asked simply, "Are you all right?"

"Yes." Ginny couldn't meet his eyes. "I had no idea it would bruise like this." She tried to laugh. "It was pretty embarrassing at work today."

"Have you seen a doctor?"

"No. It's not that bad."

"What happened?"

"What does it look like happened? We were both drunk and things got out of hand. I shouldn't have even told you about it."

"Ginny--" William took a deep breath. "I know this really isn't any of my business. But I wish you'd think seriously about moving to a bigger place and getting a roommate. It's just not safe to be alone these days."

"Having a roommate wouldn't have changed anything. It probably would have been worse. We would have gone to his place instead of mine, and god knows what would have happened. Anyway, some of my downstairs neighbors saw what was happening, and they came up and got rid of him."

"I like the way you put that," William said, trying to smile. "I hope they tied lead weights to his ankles and dropped him head first down a storm drain."

" The point is, I feel safe here. In a big, anonymous apartment complex I wouldn't know my neighbors and they wouldn't know me. Nobody would care if I was being chopped up into little pieces and flushed down the toilet one chunk at a time."

"Oh come on, Gin," William looked pained. "Knock it off."

"At least in an old place like this, it would probably stop up the drains and someone would come see what was going on."

Just then someone knocked again at Ginny's door. She smiled at William. "See? Someone's checking up on me already. They must have seen you coming up and thought you looked like a suspicious character." She got up and went to the door. "Who is it?"

"It's Sean, Ginny."

She opened the door. He stood there with her batiked skirt neatly pressed and suspended from a coat hanger by two clothes pins. "Ta-da. I told you I could get the stains out."

"Aw, it's beautiful. Thank you so much. I probably would have just thrown it out."

"That's what I thought."

"I really don't know how to thank you for all this."

"Don't worry about it. I promise to think up some really outrageous favor to ask you sooner or later."

Then he saw William sitting on the couch. "Oh, hello. Sorry, Gin. I didn't realize you had company."

"This is William. William, Sean."

William stood up and reached around Ginny to shake Sean's hand. "So Ginny's managed to con someone into doing her laundry for her? I'm impressed."

Sean grinned. "You've gotta watch out for those quiet ones. I'll be off now, Ginny. Take care." And giving a little wave, he disappeared back down the stairs.

***

Kevin Bender had to stay late at work again on Monday, and it was no wonder. All those affirmative action hirees working under him didn't do a goddamn thing all day but touch up their makeup and chat on the phone, knowing damn well that the company wasn't about to fire them. In spite of his ten years with Intertech, Kevin was the expendable one, not any of them. It seemed to him that white males were an endangered species these days.

He stopped off at the Red Room on his way home for the free appetizers and happy hour beer prices, and shared his opinion on the decline of the American work force with a sympathetic bartender. It was no fucking wonder all the work was going to Mexico and Korea. With that draft dodger in the White House, the defense industries were going right down the tubes as well, and Kevin would be lucky to still have a job by the end of the decade. "I'm saving every penny I make," he told Bob as he drained his second beer. "Time was when having an engineering degree meant you could always count on having a good job, but if you're a straight white man, it just doesn't work that way any more. I'm damn lucky to be working now at all. Damn lucky."

He was feeling better after the beer. It was another twenty-minute drive to his apartment complex--a roomy, modern place with red tile roofs and yellow stucco walls, a swimming pool and sauna, brick patios and a club house. He parked his car in the covered garage out back and walked around to his ground floor apartment. He was glad now that he hadn't bought a condo back in the late eighties like so many of his coworkers. The bottom had dropped right out of the market, and now most of his friends were stuck with white elephants that were worth less now than when they had bought them. The nineties were going to be a long, hard decade, no doubt about it.

He heard his phone ringing as he unlocked the front door. It was Ginny, had to be. The flowers always worked. In his experience, those plain, shy girls were inevitably susceptible to charm. Show them a little attention and they were so grateful they jumped into bed with you almost every time. And you just never knew what lurked under those placid exteriors. Ginny had even gone in for the rough stuff. Kevin felt his balls tingling at the memory. If the fucking neighborhood fag patrol hadn't burst in on them like that--

He picked up the phone. "Hello there."

Nothing but a dial tone. Kevin cursed. Why hadn't the answering machine picked up? Maybe he should call Celia and get Ginny's number himself.

And then he realized that he could still hear the ringing phone. He picked up the receiver again. The dial tone whined in his ear, and he figured out at last that it wasn't his phone at all. His phone had a soft, electronic beep, and this was a harsh, genuine ringing sound, like an old-fashioned rotary dial phone would make. Damn, it was loud. Trying to figure out where it was coming from, he walked from one end of the apartment to the other, but it didn't seem to be originating from either of his next-door neighbors' apartments. Upstairs, perhaps? He'd never been bothered by noise like that before. How long was the damn thing going to ring, anyway? It was surely on the twentieth ring by now, and it continued with maddening regularity, as loud and intrusive as if it were ringing inside his own head.

He finally stepped out the front door to see if he could hear the ringing from outside. It was still audible near the door. As he went further down the cement walkway the sound faded. He went so far as to put his ear against the door of his next-door neighbor's apartment. Nothing.

He walked slowly back to his apartment. The phone was still ringing. He flipped on ESPN, went to the kitchen and turned on the oven, then put in a Marie Callendar frozen beef pot pie without waiting for the oven to warm up first. That wasn't like him, he thought, when he realized what he'd done ten minutes later. He liked to follow directions to the letter, but that goddamn telephone was driving him up the fucking wall.

Fifteen minutes later he couldn't stand it any more and called the manager, who was as unhelpful as ever. He tried to wheedle his way out of coming to Kevin's apartment at all, and when Kevin insisted, nearly apoplectic with rage, that he get the hell up here, Mr. Lam grudgingly agreed to be there as soon as he could. Kevin went out and waited for him on the back balcony. He could still hear the ringing faintly out there, but it wasn't nearly so loud as it was in his apartment.

At long last he heard the manager knocking on his door. Gritting his teeth, Kevin walked back through his apartment to let him in. Every ring of the phone was like a blow. He yanked open the front door. "Do you hear that? Do you fucking hear that? You gotta do something about it."

Mr. Lam walked in slowly and turned around. "What?"

Kevin could have throttled him on the spot. "The telephone, of course, that goddamn telephone. What else would it be? It's been ringing for half an hour. It's about to drive me out of my mind."

Mr. Lam walked around the apartment, his head cocked to one side, his usual stupid expression on his slant-eyed face. Kevin could hardly stand to watch him, the urge to just haul off and hit the man was so strong. The phone kept ringing. The three-second pause between each ring was as excruciating as the noise of the phone itself.

Mr. Lam came back from the kitchen. "You might want to turn off the stove. It smells like you're about to burn your dinner in there."

"What about that fucking telephone?"

Mr. Lam shrugged. As the phone rang again, he looked Kevin straight in the face and said, "I'm sorry. I just don't hear it."

Kevin flattened him.

Chapter 9

Although the workers in the sewer were long gone, Ginny was still waking up at three every morning. By now she didn't really mind. In fact, there was something rather pleasant about being awake at that hour, like having a secret all to one's self. With her schedule, Ginny was usually the one asleep when her neighbors returned home late, and there had always been something so melancholy about lying in bed alone and listening to the sound of other people's revelry. Now it was her chance to be awake while so many others were lost in sleep. Sometimes she would turn on the beside lamp and read until she felt drowsy again, but most often she would simply lie in the darkness and let strange thoughts run through her head until she drifted back off to sleep. She was even starting to look forward to the unexpected ideas that came to her while she lay awake in the middle of the night. They were almost like dreams, so insubstantial they seemed in the light of the following morning. But in the darkness, her thoughts and fancies seemed to fulfill needs that had lain empty and aching in her ever since William had left.

***

"Are you free for lunch today?"

Kate looked up from her monitor. "Hi Ginny. Sure. Let me just finish printing up this complaint."

Ginny picked up the sheets of paper as they came sliding out of Kate's printer. "Do you ever read these things?"

"Not if I can help it."

"I do. There's something kind of wonderful about legal-ese, I think."

"You're very strange, Ginny."

"No, I mean it. I love the way every possible contingency is covered in every single sentence. Listen to this. 'Plaintiff is informed and believes, and therefore alleges, that at all times mentioned herein, Defendants Johnnie Rodriguez, DOE 1, DOE 2, DOE 3, DOE 4, and each of them, were operating the vehicle referred to in the preceding paragraph, and each Defendant did so with the knowledge or permission and consent of each of the remaining Defendants.'"

"Why, you're right," Kate grinned. "That is beautiful prose."

"It sounds as though Rodriguez and all those ghost defendants were all trying to drive the car at the same time. Can't you just see them swarming around inside the car, grabbing at the steering wheel, hitting the accelerator--no wonder Rodriguez crashed into our client."

"Can I picture it? No, not really." But Kate was smiling.

"You mean you haven't always thought of 'DOES 1 through 50, Inclusive' as a swarm of hideous little pale monsters with long crooked arms and webbed fingers?"

"I'm afraid not."

"I think they probably become visible just for an instant before the crash. If you had video tape of one of these luckless defendants before they rear-ended Lloyd's client, I bet you could actually see them all crammed into the car together with their pasty-white faces pressed against the windows."

"I can honestly say I never saw the horror of legal documents in quite that way before." Kate took the complaint from Ginny and put the pages back in order. "You're certainly in a good mood today. It's nice to see you smiling for a change."

"Who, me?" Ginny considered. "I guess I have been feeling pretty good the last few days. Maybe it's just because fall is coming. It's my favorite time of year, I think. Even here, where you have to drive five miles out of your way if you want to see the only deciduous tree in Hollywood."

"Ginny! There you are!" Celia came hurrying up, her eyes wide with excitement. "Have you heard what happened? I'm so sorry."

"No, I don't think so. What are you talking about?"

Celia looked askance at Kate, and finally said softly, in a lumbering and belated attempt to be tactful, "Well, it's about Kevin. Are you sure you want to talk about it out here?"

"Tell me what happened." Ginny's good mood had vanished.

"It's incredible. I'm so sorry to be the one who has to tell you." Celia tried to sound regretful, but her eyes were shining too brightly for her to quite pull it off. "Have you tried to call Kevin since Monday?"

"No."

"Oh, thank goodness. I saw the flowers he sent you, and when I heard the news I was so afraid that you'd been trying to call, not knowing what had happened."

"Celia, quit scaring Ginny," Kate said. "Just tell us what you're talking about."

Celia ignored her. "You'd never guess, Ginny, not in a million years. Monday night, Steve had to go get Kevin out of jail."

"You're kidding," Ginny said, honestly shocked. "What happened?"

"It's incredible. He punched out the manager of his apartment building."

"Really?" Ginny sat down on the edge of Kate's desk, suddenly weak at the knees. So Saturday night hadn't been just an unlucky combination of alcohol and missed cues. Kevin really was a violent, frightening person. "Does anybody know why?"

"I don't know. Stevie said he wasn't even making sense. And you know what the worst part is? Kevin could lose his security clearance over something like this, and if that happens, Intertech would probably fire him, the poor guy."

Ginny didn't know what to say. Celia went on, "Anyway, he's staying with Stevie for right now, so if you want to call him, I'm sure he'd be glad to hear from you. Want me to give you Steve's number?"

"No, thanks anyway. We didn't really hit it off that great on Saturday. I think I'm probably the last person he'd want to hear from right now."

Celia was disappointed. "Are you sure? What if I give him your number--"

"No," Ginny said sharply. "The truth is, I don't want you to give my number to someone who's been arrested for assault."

Celia looked a little shocked. "Well, OK Ginny, if that's the way you feel. I just thought you'd want to know."

She turned and fled back down the hall.

Ginny buried her face in her hands. "Oh my god," she said quietly. "Celia set me up with a psychopath."

"Are you all right?" Kate asked.

Ginny looked up. "Yes, I'm fine. I'm sorry you keep getting dragged into my little melodramas." And then Ginny remembered. "Kate--you didn't, you know, do something, did you?"

Kate looked faintly amused. "What do you mean?"

Ginny hardly wanted to ask. Without meeting Kate's eyes, she finally said, "What did you do with that card? The one that Kevin sent with the sunflowers?"

Kate smiled gently. "He wanted you to call him. I rang him up instead."

Very softly Ginny asked, "Why does that scare the hell out of me?"

"I don't know. He didn't even answer the phone. Now are you still up for lunch, or does that expression on your face mean you've lost your appetite?"

***

That night Ginny was awake at three a.m. as usual, but her thoughts were troubled, thinking about Kevin and what Kate had done. She couldn't decide if she was more frightened by Kate herself or by what she seemed to represent. After all, Ginny had always been a pragmatist. She'd never had reason to believe in anything that she couldn't see with her own eyes, and preferably touch with her own hands as well. That was one of the qualities she thought would have made her a good art historian. She had always put more faith in x-rays and carbon dating than in the intangible qualities of spirit and style. Her field was littered with the remains of critics who had relied on the ineffable instead of the material.

That's what frightened her about Kate. Ginny had seen and even touched almost everything herself. The crumpled fax paper. Lloyd's broken cassette recorder. The florist's note. Was it really possible that the material world held such vast and unsuspected secrets?

And then the screams began.

She sat bolt upright in bed. The noise was muffled by the walls, so that at first she couldn't even tell where it was coming from. The sound was appalling, terrifying, and it went on and on with hardly a pause for breath, until Ginny began to wonder whether anything human could make a noise like that. She crawled across the bed to the window and peered through the blinds at the darkened courtyard. Should she call the police? Go out and try to see what was happening on her own?

A light went on downstairs in Carol and Mary's apartment, and then another. Ginny felt momentarily relieved. Oh, of course. It was Mary's time. They had told her they were going to have the baby at home. Ginny even felt a tremor of happy excitement. It was astonishing to think that so nearby a new life was fighting its way into the world.

But as the screams continued, Ginny began to worry. It was true that her experience with childbirth was strictly limited to television and the movies, where the woman playing the expectant mother bellowed and cursed as she went into labor, but certainly never made sounds anything like the desperate, keening wail she heard now. She tried to reassure herself by thinking that real life was seldom like TV, but Mary's screams were terrible. They were the cry of a lost soul wailing out of some unimaginatively cold and empty place. Ginny pulled the comforter tight around her shoulders.

Then the door of Carol and Mary's apartment was flung open wide. Light spilled out into the courtyard, and the screams became louder and sharper. Silhouettes appeared in the open door. Carol, trying to hold Mary up. Mary was fighting her, kicking and throwing her head back, wrenching her bloated, misshapen body from side to side with terrifying violence. Carol could hardly support her. Mary's dreadful screams went on and on.

The porch light had come on in front of Sean and Patrick's apartment. Sean rushed across to them, still knotting a houserobe around his waist. With a burst of strength, Mary pulled herself away and fell to her hands and knees. Her mindless wailing stopped, and the sudden silence was shocking. She curled up on the ground, her hands over her head. Sean and Carol each took one of her thin white arms and laid them over their own shoulders so they could heft her to her feet again. As they pulled her up, Mary raised her head and suddenly shrieked, "Don't let them in! Oh for god's sake Carol don't let them in--"

A light came on in the upstairs apartment across from Ginny. The tenant who lived there stood in the window, staring down at the struggling figures in the courtyard. He was a solid, heavy man in his late forties whose unrelenting sullenness Ginny had always found wholly intimidating. She didn't even know his name. When their paths crossed in the courtyard, he always regarded her with pursed lips and raised eyebrows, as though her very presence was a surprising and faintly alarming development in his daily life.

He watched Carol, Mary and Sean now with the same look on his face, and Ginny was ashamed to realize that she was also merely sitting in her window and watching. She should have gone down to see if she could help.

They were practically dragging Mary by the time they got out to the street. Ginny heard a car door slam, and then Sean came back across the courtyard alone. Patrick was waiting for him in the open doorway. Sean glanced up, briefly, at the man standing in the lit window across from Ginny. Then he and Patrick shut the door behind themselves. The man across the way simply turned off his light.

Chapter 10

"She's beautiful," Ginny said. "She's just beautiful. What's her name? I guess you won't be calling her Jesús anymore."

Mary smiled wanly. Her white blonde hair hung lank on her brow, and she was so pale that her skin had a faintly bluish cast, though perhaps that was only the dark blue sweats she was wearing. "Personally, I think it would give her some character, but Carol put her foot down."

"Very funny," Carol said. "We've named her Sarah Ann."

"Hello, there, Sarah Ann," Ginny said gravely. "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance."

Huddled in the curve of Carol's arm, Sarah Ann's eyes were squeezed shut, and her hands were clenched into fierce, tiny fists. The soles of her feet were pink and soft. Ginny couldn't resist reaching out to touch one of her perfect little toes. Her damp mouth opened softly and closed again, and a shiny trail of spit ran down her chin. "I think she likes you," Carol said.

Their entire apartment smelled like a new baby, a scent comprised principally of dirty diapers and sour milk, but somehow sweetened and bound together by the fresh new smell of the infant. First stepping into their living room, Ginny had been reminded of the day her baby brother came home from the hospital. She had been only three at the time, but that unmistakable smell had brought it all vividly back. She remembered how she had hung back behind her father's legs, staring with alarm and astonishment at the strange pale thing sleeping in her mother's arms.

"Hey, look who's home." Sean poked his head around the open front door.

"Hello Sean," Mary smiled at him.

"Why, it's the man of the hour," Carol said. "Come meet the newest tenant."

"Would you look at this," Sean cooed, kneeling beside Carol. He took one of the baby's tiny feet in his hand and shook it gently. "What an angel."

Carol laughed shortly. "I wouldn't go quite that far."

He got up and kissed Mary's forehead. "And how's Mother doing?"

"This mother is fine, thank you."

"I'm glad. You scared us pretty good, you know."

Mary looked pained. "Please don't remind me. Months of classes and relaxation exercises, and then when the time finally came, I just panicked. I don't even remember going to the hospital."

Carol reached out with her free hand and grasped Mary's tightly for a moment. Mary smiled at her, then at the baby. "Poor little Sarah Ann. We wanted her to be born in her own home. Not only was she born in the hospital, but I was so out of my mind they wouldn't even let Carol into the delivery room."

"Well, the important thing is she's home now." Sean said. He stroked one of Sarah Ann's clenched fists. Her fingers opened, then closed convulsively around Sean's finger.

"Quite a little grip she's got there," he said.

"She's very strong," Carol agreed. "You're quite a fighter, aren't you, sweetheart?"

Mary sighed and looked away.

Ginny and Sean both got to their feet. Ginny said, "Let me know if there's anything I can do to help out."

"Thanks Ginny," Carol said. "We appreciate it. Sean, bring Patrick over some time when he feels up to it. If he wants to come, I mean. Proud parents that we are, we just assume, of course, that everyone's dying to see our astonishing child."

"Well of course, they are," Sean smiled. "Take care now."

Mary didn't say anything as they left, and as soon as they were gone Carol told her gently, "You look bushed, hon. Why don't you go lie down and take a little nap while it's quiet?"

"I'm not sleepy."

"Tell you what, then. You hold Sarah Ann for a minute, and I'll go heat up some soup for us."

"Thanks, but--"

"I'll make cream of tomato just the way you like it, with oyster crackers and grated cheese on top. How can you refuse?" She smiled so pleadingly that Mary laughed at her.

"Poor Carol. Two babies to take care of."

"No, it's not that way at all. And even if it were, I'd feel pretty damn lucky to have two such beautiful babies all to myself."

Mary sighed and looked down at her hands, knotted together in her lap. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I didn't want it to be like this."

"Oh, love," Carol said. She laid Sarah Ann in the bassinet and hugged Mary tight. Mary remained sitting in the armchair and didn't hug her back. After a moment, Carol sat on the floor at Mary's feet, wrapping one arm around Mary's legs and resting her head against Mary's knees. "I know I can hardly imagine what you're going through right now. But if you can just remember the important things, maybe it'll help a little. You're fine, Sarah Ann's fine. I'm here with both of you, and I love you both so much."

Mary began absently stroking Carol's bowed head. "Please don't quote the baby books to me."

Carol looked up, stricken. "Sweetheart--"

"I'm not in the mood to be coddled by you or anyone else right now. I just wish I could be by myself for a while."

Carol sat back. "All right," she said, sounding a little too chipper, but she couldn't help it. She was afraid otherwise that she might start to cry. "You know, it's such a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, maybe this is the perfect day to drive Sarah Ann out to see Grace and Bob."

Mary shook her head. "You're not really going to drive out to Pacific Palisades to see your sister and that neanderthal she's married to, are you?"

"Why not?" Carol stood up. "With their three kids, it won't be easy for Grace to get away to see us anytime soon. And you're perfectly right. Of course you need some time to yourself. I'm just sorry I didn't think of it sooner."

"Carol, don't," Mary said, with a touch of her old spark. "Can you imagine it? What do you think they've told the kids about Auntie Carol's baby?"

Carol smiled. "Probably nothing. That's why I'd like to be there for the explanation."

"Well, all right, but not today. Didn't you say something about fixing me some tomato soup?"

"I'll get right on it," Carol told her, so relieved that she was afraid she might start to cry after all. But Sarah Ann beat her to it. Her thin wail rose, wavering and pathetic, from the bassinet.

The tiny lines of stress appeared again at the corners of Mary's mouth. "I'm not the only one ready for lunch."

"Just sit right there. You take care of her royal highness, and I'll go get your lunch."

Carol could see the effort it took Mary to smile, but she managed it, fleetingly. "OK, but I want extra oyster crackers. And don't put them on too soon. I hate it when they get soggy."

***

Ginny had four things to accomplish this weekend. Go see the new baby. Clean up the apartment. Do the grocery shopping, and finally, return the videos she'd rented on Friday night. But by four-thirty on Sunday afternoon, as the shadows began lengthening in the courtyard outside, she still felt very little inclination to accomplish any of the other three things on her list. The short visit with Carol and Mary had been exhausting enough. The baby was beautiful, she supposed, but nothing she could think up to say about her quite seemed adequate, and anyway, Mary looked so drained and tired that Ginny had felt from the first that she was intruding.

The remains of the Sunday paper were scattered across Ginny's coffee table. She had already read the articles that interested her, but she began flipping through it again to look for the grocery coupons. Maybe finding a really great coupon would inspire her to at least get up and go do the shopping.

Instead, she came across the Ann Landers column which she had somehow neglected to read the first time through the paper. Then she skimmed the calendar entitled "Southland Activities for Singles." Support groups, Sierra Club hikes, square dancing, bible study, yoga, self defense classes. William would probably have told her that it would do her good to get involved in something, but the whole list seemed unbearably dreary, even the self-defense classes, which could certainly have come in handy.

She turned the page quickly, and found herself looking at a photograph of a man stepping into a car. His head was turned back towards the photographer, a smile of resignation on his face. There was something familiar about him. The caption beneath the picture read:

Who you really gonna call? Although Arthur Drake consistently declines interviews, he has been described by clients and associates as one of the most respected ghosthunters working on the West Coast today.

Ginny looked more closely at the photograph. She was almost certain that the man in the picture was one of the two strangers who had come to her aid the night of her disastrous date with Kevin.

She read through the story even though it was exactly the sort of article she usually ignored in the paper--a full-page, seasonal fluff piece, filling space in the View section the week before Halloween. The bulk of the article was a rather confusing account of the recent investigation of a Santa Monica law office that had ended up with an attorney being institutionalized--Ginny smiled at that--and the night watchman jailed. She didn't read the article carefully enough to figure out what ghosts had to do with any of it.

There were other stories as well. He had investigated a furniture warehouse in the City of Industry where mattresses had been seen levitating and brass bedsteads inexplicably twisted and dented, "as though," the author of the article wrote luridly, "by demon hands."

There had been a bed-and-breakfast in Santa Barbara where a mysterious woman in white wandered up and down the stairs moaning and crying all night, scaring away the paying guests and driving the owners to the brink of bankruptcy. The most incongruous haunting was at a 24-hour minimarket in Pomona, where customers accused of shoplifting insisted that they had paid, and the security camera did indeed show them handing their money to a pale, pimply-faced boy behind the counter. A former coworker recognized the boy on the security tape as a clerk who had been shot in a robbery two years before.

Even the Rose Bowl Flea Market purportedly had its own ghost, a lovely, dark lady in a black velvet party dress who wandered from stall to stall asking for her missing nińos. According to the article, Arthur Drake had been forced to end that investigation early, since among the hucksters at the flea market, seeing the dark woman was considered lucky, an omen of good sales for the day.

It was difficult for Ginny to reconcile the serious, concerned-looking man she remembered from three weeks ago with these summercamp ghost stories. Maybe she was wrong, and he wasn't the same Arthur who had been dragged into her own, considerably more prosaic story. She looked back at his picture. She'd been drunk and hysterical, and had only seen him for a few moments, but she could almost swear it was the same man. Who would have thought? She'd been in Los Angeles for nearly five years now, but this place still surprised her.

Ginny threw aside the newspaper and stood up. If she didn't do anything else today, she had to return those videotapes. It would be absurd to have to shell out three more bucks just because she'd been too lazy to walk two blocks to the video store today. Besides, she certainly wouldn't feel like doing it after work tomorrow.

She retrieved a pair of running shoes from under the sofa, checked to see that the tapes were rewound and that she had put the right videos in the right boxes, and then went out.

The western sky was just beginning to turn red. A wind had blown up, hot and dry, even though the late afternoon air was cool. Palm fronds rustled heavily overhead. A dark green plastic bag blew across the street, flapping and twisting like an unquiet spirit.

The bars on Santa Monica Boulevard were full. Beautiful young men in jeans or workout shorts, leather jackets and white t-shirts lounged at sidewalk tables and smiled blankly at Ginny as she passed by, making her feel invisible as a ghost herself. The wind snatched up a few pages from a stack of community newspapers and scattered pictures of sculpted torsos and rock-hard buttocks all the way down the sidewalk.

She crossed to the video store. The clerk who checked in the tapes for her smiled and asked how she was. As usual, Ginny was the only woman in the store.

"Fine, thanks. This weather is something, isn't it?"

The clerk shuddered. "I hate it when the Santa Anas start blowing. Makes me think something awful's about to happen." He noticed the first of Ginny's videos. "Oh, Manhattan, great. That's one of my favorites. Have you seen Husbands and Wives yet?"

"No. My husband dumped me a few months ago." There was something oddly satisfying about making the confession to a total stranger. "I thought it might hit a little too close to home."

The clerk shook his head and clucked sympathetically. "They're all pigs, honey. Take it from me."

Ginny browsed for a few minutes in the science fiction and horror section of the store. After seeing the newspaper article about Arthur Drake, and the way the wind was blowing tonight, she thought maybe she was in the mood for a scary movie. But most of them looked too silly or gory, and in the end she left without getting anything. By now it was almost dusk. Street lights were coming on, and the homeless man standing on the street corner whom Ginny had hardly noticed on her way up now seemed vaguely threatening merely by virtue of the gathering shadows. The sky was cloudless, and, save for the red glow in the west, a dull, uniform pink. The wind blew her hair in her face, and she kept imagining that she heard footsteps behind her. It was all rather exhilarating, especially since, when she glanced over her shoulder, she saw that there was really no one there. It was the sort of evening when it might be exciting to believe in ghosts and an unseen world.

When she reached the courtyard of her building, she heard lusty, hungry screams coming from Mary and Carol's apartment. Ginny felt exuberantly single and free. Thank god she and William hadn't had a child. Thank god. She bounded up the stairs to her apartment and startled Caesar, who greeted her with his hair standing on end and his tail puffed up to three times its normal size.

The wind was still blowing when she woke up at three that morning. Tree branches whipped back and forth in front of the streetlight nearest the building, and the flickering light reminded Ginny briefly of the night workmen in the sewers last month. For some reason she was still thinking about that story in the paper. She ought to have cut it out and saved it. She began to fret a little, trying to remember whether she'd already carried the Sunday paper out to the recycling bins or not, and at length she got up to reassure herself that the paper was still stacked by the door. And then, because she was afraid she might forget about it in the morning and toss the paper out anyway, she turned on a light and found the story.

In the daylight she had liked the picture of Arthur. There had been something rather sweet about the way he turned to smile at the photographer, trying to be polite despite the invasion of his privacy. Seeing it now though, Ginny distrusted that courteous facade. Arthur looked to her like someone who would smile and apologize and proceed to worm his way into your every last secret.

The other pictures were even worse. The photograph of the haunted bed-and-breakfast had been taken from a steep upward angle, making the lovely gothic structure look like the Norman Bates house on the Universal Studios tour. The minimart had been photographed from the parking lot with what Ginny assumed was a special filter, so that the big plate glass windows seemed to glow . It was all ridiculous, of course, but Ginny began to wish she'd left it until morning. She crawled back into bed and listened to the wind howling around the tiled eaves until she fell asleep.

continued

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