Breeders

continued

Part 3

Christmas Day

Chapter 39

"I'm going to go out and start my Christmas shopping today," Ginny announced over her cup of coffee the next morning. "Want to come with me?"

"You've got to be kidding," Dan said. "It's the Friday after Thanksgiving. The entire city of Los Angeles will be shopping today."

"Oh, I don't know." Ginny walked to the kitchen window and looked out. Rain washed down from a heavy gray sky, and the streets were deserted and gleaming black. "The way the rain's coming down, I bet most people will just stay home."

"Right," Dan said skeptically. "Besides, aren't you supposed to talk to Arthur today?"

"We didn't set a firm time," Ginny hedged.

"Only because you said you'd be home all day," Dan reminded her.

"Well if I don't catch him today I'll see him this weekend," she replied irritably.

"I'm sorry, Ginny. I don't mean to pester you."

"You're not." She relaxed a little. "I'm just being a bitch."

He smiled. "Maybe a little."

"Are you sure you don't want to go shopping with me?"

"Quite certain."

"It's your big chance to get all your friends in Boston cool L.A. presents."

"I'd rather not face the crowds."

"OK, fine." Ginny pretended to sulk. "I'll go have a great time by myself, and you'll be sorry you missed out."


Ginny took her time getting ready, waiting to see if the rain would stop, but by eleven o'clock it was still coming down. She asked Dan one last time if he was sure he didn't want to go shopping with her, to which he only rolled his eyes, and Ginny bundled up in the ancient gray London Fog coat that she'd brought with her from Boston five years before and set out.

She drove to Century City first, since the mall there was open-air, and she couldn't believe many people would choose to go in a pouring rainstorm. But traffic on little Santa Monica Boulevard was backed up for blocks, and by the time she finally inched her way to front of the mall, it was only to find the parking garage underneath blockaded with a sign that read "GARAGE FULL. WAITING PROHIBITED BY LAW." The applicable vehicle code was printed in illegibly tiny letters underneath.

"Goddamn it," Ginny said out loud, wondering what kind of idiots would go to an open air market in the pouring rain. It was particularly galling to find that Dan was right about the crowds after all. If Century City was full, the other shopping centers would be even worse. Maybe she should just go home.

But there was nothing to do back at the apartment. Dan would be writing, and she'd probably end up just moping around. That was no good. Staying busy was the only way to keep the night terrors at bay.

So after an endless wait at the light, she headed for the next mall on her mental list. The defrost was going full blast to keep the windshield from fogging over, and it was getting uncomfortably warm inside the little Honda. She rolled down her window an inch and let the rain blow in her face. The cold spray felt clean and good, and Ginny wished she had a radio in the car. A day like this deserved a little music.

The parking garage behind Westside Pavilion was letting cars in, but that was no guarantee that there would be any place to park. Ginny wound up and down the aisles of the parking structure as part of a snake-like train of cars for what seemed like hours. She had almost begun to think that she would prefer to be back at the apartment discussing ghosts with Arthur, when, miraculously, a little white Mustang pulled out of a parking place right in front of her. Ginny darted into the open space, and the driver of the car behind her honked twice in impotent rage at Ginny's good fortune.

Humming a tuneless little victory song Ginny got out and slammed the door with a flourish. It was cold and windy in the parking garage, stinking of exhaust fumes and loud with the noise of engines idling. She felt great. It was going to be a good day after all, she could just tell. Not even the interior of the Westside Pavilion could depress her this morning. The mall was a postmodern cathedral whose architects had tried to compensate for the claustrophobic narrowness of the aisles with a clerestory wall five stories overhead and domed glass roof. On a day like today, when the gray of the sky tinted everything with a sickly dimness, and the central aisle was shoulder to shoulder with frenzied shoppers, it wouldn't have surprised Ginny in the least to look up and see the eye of God peering down at them all, like a little boy watching the inhabitants of an ant farm scurry around between two panes of glass.

Plastic evergreen garlands were wound along the railing of the catwalks high overhead. A fifteen-foot Christmas tree at one end of the mall was lit with twinkling white lights and decorated, Ginny saw when she got close enough, with Zui fetishes and dream-catcher nets made of twine, birch bark and feathers. A lugubrious selection of Christmas carols wafted through the air above the babble of conversation. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" gave way to "We Three Kings." Verse after verse of the old hymn pealed out, even the last one about the third king's gift.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume

Breathes an air of gathering gloom

Sobbing, sighing, bleeding, dying

Sealed in a cold, stone tomb . . .

She wondered who had been responsible for picking out the music. It was presumably intended to sound Dickensian, but it hardly inspired mass consumption.

She ducked into a music store where an album of Christmas rap was blasting. That was more like it. Ginny browsed through the racks for a while, elbow-to-elbow with junior high school kids wearing Megadeth t-shirts and businessmen picking up outrageously expensive boxed sets of the Rolling Stones and Muddy Waters. She came across the most recent B52's album, which she'd somehow never gotten around to buying, and then when she already had one CD in hand and was resigned to waiting out the huge lines at the front register anyway, it was easy to decide that now was the time to go ahead and buy Abbey Road too. She'd owned the record since the age of twelve, but hadn't had a turntable in years. William had always been infuriated by the music industry's smug assumption that consumers would cheerfully duplicate their entire LP collection on compact disc, and Ginny wouldn't have dared come home with a purchase like this while they were still living together.

She reminded herself that William wasn't a part of her life anymore, and picked up the White Album too. By the time she got out of the store she'd spent more than a hundred bucks, all of it on herself. Oh well. It was a rainy day, and she felt entitled.

"Ginny?"

She turned and looked back into a sea of faces. A tall, slightly stoop-shouldered man with thinning ginger hair was pushing his way through the crowd. "What a mob," he said when he made it to Ginny's side. "I guess I'm not the only one who thought this would be a good day to start Christmas shopping."

"I know. I didn't think anyone else would be out in the rain," Ginny agreed, trying to figure out who he was. His face was vaguely familiar, but for the life of her she couldn't place him. One of William's friends from school maybe?

"It's good to see you," the stranger said, with an earnest smile. His cheeks were covered with freckles, and there were deep laugh lines around the corners of his eyes. "I haven't seen you at work for a while. I thought maybe you'd found someplace better and quit."

Well, that was a start. He was someone at the office. One of the new law clerks, maybe? Ginny said, "No, I'm afraid not. I took some sick leave, but I was back the Monday before Thanksgiving."

"Were you? I guess I just didn't see you." He indicated the orange bag she was carrying from Sam Goody's. "Got some of the names on your Christmas list knocked off?"

"No, actually," she confessed. "It's all for me."

He grinned again, and held up his own packages. "Stereo wire from Radio Shack, shaving cream from the Body Shop, and three science fiction novels. All for me. I haven't bought a thing for anyone else yet, and I'm already sick of shopping." He looked closely at her. "I'm sorry. You don't have a clue who I am, do you?"

"I'm terrible with faces," Ginny apologized. "I thought I would figure it out in a minute or two."

He laughed. "Well, I was trying to decipher the expression on your face."

"I guess I need to work on my poker face."

"No, it's actually very good. It had me baffled. I couldn't figure out if you just wanted me to go away, or what."

"No, honestly, I was only trying to think of your name."

He shifted all his bags to one arm and stuck out his hand. "It's too crazy in here for thinking. I'm Clayton. I work in the pharmacy in the lobby of the building."

Ginny shook his hand. "Oh, of course. I can't believe I didn't recognize you. I'm Ginny."

"I know. When you didn't come down to buy your 3:30 Diet Coke for a few days in a row I started to worry."

"I'm that predictable?"

"Predictable in a good way."

"How come you know my name, and I don't know yours?"

"Beats me. I even wear a name pin on the lapel of my little white lab coat."

"I'm starting to feel really embarrassed."

"Don't be. I'm just good with names, I don't know why. It's not like it's something I work on. Besides, the truth is I know your name from the time you didn't have any money on you and had to charge a seventy-five cent soda."

Ginny rolled her eyes, embarrassed. "Right. I remember that."

"Well," Clayton said, suddenly looking a little shy.

While Ginny had been in the CD store a handbell choir been set up in front of the Christmas tree, and they were ringing out a dreary, rather off-tempo version of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." The crowds were worse than ever. People surged all around Ginny and Clayton, who were causing a traffic jam by simply standing still and talking. "It's nice running into you," Clayton went on. "I guess you probably need to get back to your shopping."

Ginny thought furiously, but in the end she simply blurted out, "I was just about to go upstairs to get something to eat. I don't suppose you'd want to--you're not hungry, are you?" She hoped she wasn't blushing, but she probably was. Maybe with the dim gray lighting in the mall he wouldn't be able to tell.

The laugh lines crinkled around his eyes. "Lunch sounds great. I was just getting hungry."

There were no free tables at the food court, so the two of them bought hot dogs and ate standing up, looking over the balcony at the people scurrying to and fro four floors below. Ginny kept expecting them to run out of things to say, but they never did. She told him about trying to make chestnut dressing. He laughed, and she confessed, "And the truth is, after all that, it really wasn't that good. The chestnuts were mushy, and the whole thing tasted a little like something you might have dug up in the backyard."

Clayton had spent his Thanksgiving with his brother and in-laws. "My sister-in-law is a sweet woman, and I love her a lot," he insisted, wiping a little blot of mustard from the corner of his mouth. "But she spent the entire dinner complaining about the way the radical right sabotaged the Republican convention last year."

"Oh no."

"And nobody but me wanted to watch Twilight Zone."

"I'm sorry," Ginny laughed. "Next year you can come spend Thanksgiving with us. I think we watched about ten hours of it yesterday."

When they finished eating, Ginny had a sudden attack of nervousness, and, terrified that she would say something stupid, abruptly excused herself. "I really need to get back to my shopping. It was nice running into you like this."

"You too. I guess I'll see you at work Monday?"

Ginny couldn't tell if he sounded hopeful, or was just being polite. "Three-thirty on the dot," she said.

"And if you forget my name, remember, you can always check out the lapel pin." Clayton pointed towards his rather narrow chest, grinning.

Ginny smiled back. "I won't forget."

She felt too giddy afterwards for serious Christmas shopping. She went to clothing stores instead and tried on dresses, looking, though she couldn't quite admit it to herself, for something really stunning to wear to work Monday. The crinkled rayon affair that she finally decided on was much too expensive, but she bought it anyway, and then defiantly got shoes to match.

By then it was nearing five o'clock, and the mall was gloomier and more crowded than ever. Besides, Ginny had already spent twice her Christmas shopping allowance, and hadn't bought so much as a trinket for anyone besides herself. It was probably time to head home.

It took her a little while to remember where she had parked her car, but she found it at last. She threw her packages into the trunk, then climbed into the driver's seat and turned the key in the ignition. Her aging Honda was temperamental in cold, wet weather, and it took a few tries before the engine coughed to life. Ginny released the emergency brake and shifted into reverse. She checked the rear-view mirror to see that the way was clear, then glanced over her shoulder as well.

That was when she saw the spiderweb of cracks spreading across the passenger side window. It was happening slowly enough for her to actually trace the progress of the thousands of jagged, shiny little lines that zig-zagged through the glass. Ginny could hear a snapping, popping sound, like ice on the surface of a lake breaking up in a spring thaw, and the temperature in the car seemed to have dropped thirty degrees. Ginny was shivering violently, but she couldn't look away. The glass was so covered with cracks now that it was almost opaque, but there seemed to be someone standing on the other side. Ginny thought that it might be Patrick. "I want my life back," she whispered to him. "I just want everything back to normal."

A face was thrust suddenly and violently up against the broken glass. Not Patrick at all, but Kevin, grinning from ear to ear like a Cheshire cat.

Ginny dropped her foot on the accelerator, and the car seemed to leap backwards. Then there was an ear-splitting crunch of metal against metal. The car came to a violent stop. Ginny's head snapped forward. The engine died. She sat still for a moment or two, too shocked to do anything else, and when she finally looked back towards the passenger side window, she saw the glass was whole and unbroken. There was no one on the other side of it.

She turned off the ignition with violently shaking hands and got out. Her legs felt trembly and almost too weak to hold herself up.

The other car was a late model gray Mercedes. The driver was slowly getting out as well, looking just as shaken as Ginny felt. She walked around the front of her car to see the damage, and then looked up at Ginny with beautifully made-up, baby blue eyes. "You stupid bitch. Look what you've done to my car."

The passenger side door was crumpled inward. The window had shattered, and there was broken glass all over the leather seat, and scattered on the concrete pavement of the parking garage. Ginny closed her eyes.

"Oh god," the other driver groaned. Ginny looked up to see the other woman clutching at the back of her neck. "Oh god, it hurts."

Chapter 40

Ginny drove home in the pouring rain. Christmas lights blinked red and green in darkened store windows. Sodden gold tinsel, wrapped around with tiny white lights, twinkled gaily above the deserted streets. She kept her eyes fixed on the rain-slick road before her and tried not to think about how much her car insurance was likely to go up. If this sort of thing happened again, she'd probably have to give up driving altogether. As it was, she was lucky only to have smashed in a car door. If she'd been careening down the freeway when Kevin suddenly thrust his smiling, dead features up against the window--

Ginny pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. She couldn't think about that, especially not while driving, or she'd never make it home in one piece. The rain pattered down on the roof of the car, a soothing but rather lonely sound. A traffic light changed up ahead, and long, red streaks shone in the standing water on the street. She rested her head on the steering wheel and thought about her dream of last night. Everything had been so safe back in those days, when she and William had been together. She was sick to death of having to cope with a world where she couldn't take anything for granted anymore. She couldn't even count on the dead to stay in their graves.

She looked out at the rain. Dan meant well, but he was wrong about one thing. Moving wouldn't help. She could move down to Newport Beach or up to Simi Valley or all the way back to Boston, but it wouldn't stop this steady, terrifying erosion of boundaries. Maybe those hysterical TV preachers that she flipped past on channel 40 were right, and the Second Coming really was at hand. After all, if the dead were walking in West Hollywood now, then maybe Christendom's greatest revenant was on His way back as well.

Ginny drove the rest of the way home without incident, cheered by a mental picture of Jesus Christ cruising the bars on Santa Monica Boulevard. She parked in front of her building, then groped under the front seat for her umbrella. The rain was coming down harder than ever, spattering the windshield with big, noisy droplets. She didn't find the umbrella under the seat, nor was it in back, as she saw when she flipped on the overhead light and crawled partway between the seatbacks to look. She must have put it in the trunk. Brilliant. Just brilliant.

She reached down and pulled the lever which unlatched the trunk, but missed the characteristic thunk of the lock releasing. Then she remembered that the back of her car was smashed in. She'd be lucky if she could get the trunk open at all.

Sighing, Ginny stepped out into the rain. The raindrops were so large they felt like insects falling into her hair, and she had to resist the impulse to brush them away. A heavy mist had rolled down from the Hollywood Hills. The nearest streetlight was half a block away, a dim yellow halo in the fog. Ginny could scarcely see the damage to the back of her car, and she allowed herself to pretend that maybe it really wasn't so bad. The trunk was already open a couple of inches. She worked her fingers under the edge and tried to raise it the rest of the way. It didn't budge. She cursed and wiped the rain out of her face and tried again. There was an unhealthy rattling sound of metal against metal, but she couldn't lift it any further. Goddamn it to hell. Her CD's and her new dress and shoes were in there. She felt like sitting down on the side of the road and crying. She kicked the bumper instead. A car pulled up to the curb behind Ginny's just then, and she turned her face away from the headlights, a little embarrassed that someone else had witnessed her flash of temper.

The headlights went out, and Ginny looked back. The driver's door swung open, and there was the rustle of an umbrella unfolding. A spare, rather angular figure stepped out and slammed the door shut. A woman's voice, husky from decades of smoking, called to Ginny, "Do you need any help?"

Ginny wiped the rain out of her eyes. "I can't get my trunk open. I think it's going to take a mechanic, though."

The other woman held up her umbrella to shield Ginny as well as herself. "It's hard to tell without more light," she said. "Do you have a flashlight in your car?"

"No."

"I do," the helpful stranger announced. "Here." She thrust the umbrella handle into Ginny's hand and went back to her car, forcing Ginny to scurry a little to keep the umbrella over both their heads. The other woman produced an electric lantern that lit up half the block when she turned it on.

"Oh dear," she remarked calmly to Ginny when she saw the ragged folds of metal gleaming in the lamplight. "Looks like you're right. Is your umbrella back there?"

Ginny nodded. "Along with all my Christmas shopping," she confessed in a burst, and her voice suddenly wavered on the verge of tears.

"Bad luck, that," the other woman said in brisk sympathy. "You probably won't be able to get a mechanic till Monday."

Ginny took a deep breath. "It's not the end of the world. Thanks for your help." She stepped out from under the umbrella. "I live right here, so--"

"Maybe you can help me." The woman extended the umbrella again over Ginny. "I'm looking for 2A." She pointed to the bougainvillea arch in front of the apartment building. "Do you know if it's through there?"

"That's Sean's apartment," Ginny realized. "Are you looking for Sean?"

"Sean Dickinson. Yes."

"He's my neighbor." Ginny led the way into the courtyard. "His apartment is the one in back there."

Lights gleamed out through the rain and fog from Sean's windows. The porch light was on too. Evidently the woman was expected.

She looked back. "Are you Ginny?"

"Yes, I am," Ginny admitted a little nervously.

"Lillian Arsenault," the other woman introduced herself. "I'm a colleague of Arthur's. He's told me all about you."

"Oh." Ginny wondered what Arthur might have said. Then she remembered what Marc had told her once, and had to repress a grin. Of course, this was Lil, the psychic C.P.A. "It's nice to meet you."

Sean's front door swung open, and he appeared, silhouetted by the living room light behind him. "Ginny, is that you?"

"Hi Sean." She and Lil crossed the courtyard together under the umbrella. The drainage was bad, and they had to splash through puddles of standing water.

"I thought I heard voices. You should know better than to stand around chatting in the courtyard after dark. Especially in the pouring rain," Sean chided them as Lil shook the rain off her umbrella and left it sitting by the open door. "Everyone's jumpy as cats around here as it is."

"Sean, this is Lillian Arsenault."

"Just Lil, please."

"Thanks for coming out in such rotten weather, Lil." Sean said. "Come in, both of you. Don't just stand there in the rain."

"I think I'll be going upstairs--" Ginny began.

"It's about time you got here, Gin." Dan's voice. "I was starting to worry." Sean stepped back out of the doorway, and Ginny saw Dan sitting on the couch in Sean's living room. Arthur was standing by one of the bookshelves.

"Hello Ginny," Arthur said. "Lil, I take it you found the place without any trouble?"

"With Ginny's help."

"Let me take your coats." Sean said, playing the good host. "I'll go hang them over the bathtub to drip dry. And shut the door, would you? It's cold out there."

"Have you been shopping all this time, Gin?" Dan asked her. "I'm impressed by your stamina."

"No, not the whole time."

"I'm Dan," he introduced himself to Lil as she took a chair. "Arthur was just telling us that you might be able to help figure out what's going on around here."

Lil shrugged a little. "I don't know. I hope so."

Ginny, sitting down on the sofa beside her brother, thought that Lil looked a lot like a C.P.A., and nothing at all like a psychic. She wore a turtleneck of soft gray wool and tailored wool trousers. Her brown hair was short and immaculately coifed in spite of the rain, and Ginny wouldn't have ventured to guess her age within twenty years.

Sean came back down the hall. "Ginny, Lil, I've got milk warming up on the stove for hot cocoa. Would you like some?"

"That sounds wonderful, Sean," Ginny said.

"Thank you, please," Lil agreed.

Dan elbowed Ginny in the ribs. "So where were you all this time, Gin? Sean and I were just accusing you of deliberately avoiding us."

Ginny felt a little hurt, even though she supposed that was the main reason she'd gone shopping today.

Lil asked, "Did the accident happen on your way home?"

"What accident?" Dan said.

Ginny looked at the floor. "I backed into a Mercedes in the parking garage at the mall."

Dan put his arm around her shoulders. "Oh no, sis, are you all right?"

"I'm fine."

"Was there a lot of damage?"

"It looked pretty bad. The Mercedes, I mean. I can't get my trunk open."

"What rotten luck, Ginny." Sean came out of the kitchen, carrying brimming mugs of cocoa on a black lacquered tray. "You definitely need hot chocolate."

She took a cup. "Thank you. I feel better already."

"Have you got insurance?"

She nodded. "And I guess it'll be going up now."

"They don't raise your rates after just one accident, do they?"

"Sure they do." Ginny said glumly.

"How did it happen?" Dan asked.

"I was an idiot. I just backed up without looking where I was going." Ginny was so used to lying about inexplicable events that she did it now without thinking. But this time she caught herself, and after a moment, still staring at the floor, she admitted, "I thought I saw something out the window. I was trying to get away."

It was Arthur who asked quietly, "What did you see?"

Ginny looked across the room at him. He was still standing beside the bookshelves, cradling a mug of hot chocolate in both hands. Yesterday at Thanksgiving dinner Ginny had been too preoccupied to notice how thin and pale he was looking. The shadows under his eyes reminded her of Patrick, and suddenly she realized, with a stab of sadness, that he must be sick too. For some reason she thought back to her undergraduate days, when she and her friends had assumed with the cheerful nihilism of youth that the world would end in a nuclear fireball before the millennium was up. The holocaust had turned out to be so very much quieter.

"I saw Kevin," Ginny said, looking away from Arthur. "He put his face right up against the glass and smiled at me."

"Jesus Christ," Dan swore, and it was so unlike him that Ginny patted his leg reassuringly.

"I'm all right, Percy. The lady in the Mercedes was pretty pissed, but she wasn't really hurt, I don't think. She'll rack up a lot of medical bills for physical therapy, get even richer from the settlement with my insurance company, and everyone will go home happy in the end. Maybe I'll do my part to save the environment and start riding the bus."

Lil said in her deep voice, "Arthur told me that he suspected the observed phenomena wouldn't remain limited to these environs."

"Does that mean things are going to keep happening?" Dan asked. "No matter where Ginny goes?"

"The incidents seem to be increasing in frequency and intensity," Arthur said carefully. "You were just telling me that everyone heard the sounds last night."

"All except for Mr. Cheerful across the way," Dan said.

"His name's Richard," Sean said. "And we don't know he didn't hear the footsteps out in the courtyard. He might have just thought it was us, though. When I see him I'll apologize for making so much noise, and find out if he heard anything before we started yelling back and forth."

Dan asked Arthur, "So like you were saying, it's just going to keep happening?"

Arthur gestured with his free hand, palm up. "Usually manifestations are cyclic, increasing in violence until a crisis comes, then tapering off again or ending altogether."

"Crisis?" Dan said. "I don't like the sound of that."

"No," Lil agreed frankly. "And from everything Arthur's told me, it's likely to be unpleasant."

Sean smiled a little. "Just what we need around here. More unpleasantness."

For the first time Ginny noticed all the unfamiliar equipment set up around Sean's living room. A video camera on top of a tripod was positioned before the window. A card table was set up to the right of the front door, stacked high with electronic equipment that looked like the product of an insane shopping spree at Radio Shack. "What is all this stuff?"

"Arthur's toys," Lil said wryly.

Ginny got up to look at the banks of equipment more carefully. "What does it all do?"

"The thermograph keeps a record of temperature changes. The magnetometer is for detecting unusual magnetic fields." Arthur sounded a little sheepish. "This a geiger counter, and the tape recorders and video cameras are self-evident, I suppose."

"Are you going to show Sean how to work all this stuff, or what?"

"Actually, I'll be here," Arthur said. "Sean's being good enough to put me up in the guest room."

"Patrick's room," Sean said briskly.

"Oh." Ginny didn't want to say anything more, but remembering what she thought she had seen in Patrick's bedroom the night of his death, she felt a little afraid for Arthur. "Are you sure it's safe?"

"Ginny." Sean sounded exasperated. "It's not like the room could infect anybody."

"That's not what I meant," Ginny protested. "I was thinking about the way it happened, you know, so unexpectedly."

Sean shook his head. "Patrick had a heart attack, Ginny. It's not uncommon. I realize now that it was a blessing that he was released so quickly and painlessly." He took a deep breath. "I'm sorry. Excuse me a minute." And he retreated to the kitchen, leaving a sad, uncomfortable silence in his wake.

Ginny felt miserable. She sipped at her hot chocolate, but suddenly the cocoa seemed intolerably bitter, and she set it aside.

"I don't mean to be blunt," Dan said to Arthur. "But if things are going to proceed to an inevitable crisis of some sort like you seem to think, then what good can you possibly do? Shouldn't everyone just get the heck out of this place until it all blows over?"

"Unfortunately, there are a number of fairly well-documented cases of individuals who continued to experience apparitions and other manifestations long after leaving the site of the original disturbance."

"So running's no good," Dan said. "I still don't understand what you can do to help Ginny and everyone else here."

"Dan--" Ginny protested.

"It's all right," Arthur said. "Lil and I hope that if we can document the nature of the disturbances taking place here, we may be able to mount an intervention of some sort, and possibly deflect the crisis."

"An exorcism?" Dan asked.

"Something like that," Arthur agreed.

"But things are getting dangerous. Look, Ginny wrecked her car this afternoon. Who knows what could happen next? Why don't you just get a priest in here now?"

"It's not that simple," Arthur said apologetically. "The temple at Eleusis was sacked in the fifth century. So there haven't been any priests around conversant in the rites of Persephone for nearly fifteen hundred years."

Chapter 41

"Marc's right, you know," Lil said quietly to Arthur. It was after midnight, and the rain was still pattering down outside. The only light in Sean's living room came from a streetlight and from the faint red and green glow of the instrument panels.

"He usually is," Arthur agreed. "That's what makes him so insufferable."

Lil laughed very softly, mindful of Sean sleeping down the hall.

"Are you referring to anything in particular?" Arthur asked.

"Actually, I was thinking about what he said about you."

"Oh no." Arthur said mildly.

"He's worried about you," Lil said, serious now. "I can see why."

"When did you talk to Marc?"

"He called me this morning. Well, yesterday morning it must be by now."

"What did he tell you?"

"What do you think he told me?"

Arthur sighed.

"Well, he's right," Lil said. "You're not well, Arthur. You're down to skin and bones. I don't even know if you should be going through with this investigation at all. You might be better off at home in bed."

"I wouldn't be."

"How can you be so sure?"

"Because whatever's wrong, it comes from this place."

"Then wouldn't it make sense to get as far away as you can?"

Arthur reached out in the darkness and took Lil's hand momentarily. "We already had this discussion with Dan, didn't we? There's nowhere to get away to."

"Dan's not sick. You are."

"Lil, it took me weeks to work up the nerve to come back here, and during that whole time, I just kept getting worse."

"You didn't tell Marc that," Lil said severely. "He thought you simply didn't want to bother Ginny."

"The point is I feel better, now that I'm not running away anymore. We're so close to the source here. You can feel it, can't you?"

"Oh, I feel something all right," Lil grumbled. "And you know what it reminds me of? The shark habitat at Sea World. We're walking down a long, dark tunnel, and the only thing separating us from the monsters swimming on all sides is a few inches of plexiglass."

She stood up in the darkness of Sean's living room. "It sounds like the rain's finally stopped. I think I'll go have a cigarette on the front porch."


Sean's bedroom door opened several hours later. Lil and Arthur heard him pad to the bathroom and shut the door behind himself. The click of the latch sounded loud in the quiet apartment.

Lil whispered, "It's nice of Sean to put up with this invasion."

"It is," Arthur agreed.

"How long have you known him?"

"Not long at all, really. Patrick and I went back years, but we'd lost touch. I met Sean this past October."

The john flushed down the hall. The bathroom door opened and light spilled down the hallway.

"Oops." Sean quickly switched off the bathroom light. "I didn't mess anything up, did I?"

"No, don't worry about it," Arthur said.

"Besides, it'll show up as a dramatic flash on the videotape, which we can sell to Fate magazine as a bonafide picture of the ghost of San Ysidro," Lil said.

Sean came down the hall. "Hey, it's my apartment. I want my share of the take."

"See, Lil," Arthur pretended to complain. "That's what happens when you reveal professional secrets."

"So how are you doing?" Sean asked.

Arthur said, "It's been very quiet."

"Well, three a.m. seems to be the witching hour, so if anything's going to happen, it'll probably be soon." Sean hesitated. "You know, if you get hungry or anything, there's lots of Thanksgiving leftovers in the fridge."

Lil said, "I'm sure we're imposing on you enough without raiding your refrigerator too."

"No, really. Ginny gave me enough turkey to feed an army. I can't possibly eat all of it myself."

It was chilly in the apartment. Sean was just a dim figure in boxer shorts, but there was enough light to see that he was shivering. Lil told him briskly, "Get back to bed before you catch your death of cold."

But Arthur, pitying him, said, "Why don't you get a robe and sit up with us for a while, if you want. Lil and I ran out of things to say to each other hours ago."

"Are you sure it's all right? I wouldn't be distracting you?"

"No, of course not," Lil said. "You live here. You know better than either of us what to expect."

"Yeah, well, that's one of the things I wanted to ask you about, really." He hesitated. "You've got the tape recorder running now, don't you?"

"Yes, it's voice activated," Arthur said. "But we can turn it off if it makes you uncomfortable."

"No, that's all right. I don't want to interfere with anything." Sean went back down the hall, got a robe from the hook on the bathroom door and wrapped it around himself.

"Careful--" Lil started to caution as Sean made his way back through the dark living room. There was a dull smack when he barked his shin on the corner of the coffee table anyway.

"Ow. Goddamnit."

"I'm sorry," Arthur said, reaching out a hand to steady him. "I had to move it so the light from the magnetometer dials wouldn't show up on the videotape. Are you all right?"

"I'll live." Sean sat down heavily on the sofa, rubbing his afflicted limb. Then he laughed. "That'll be great on the tape, won't it? More like a Three Stooges routine than Poltergeist."

"About par for the course for our investigations," Lil said.

"And this is really what you two do professionally? Just sit around in dark rooms waiting for ghosts to show up?"

"Sometimes we trip over the furniture, too," Arthur said.

"I don't know," Sean said seriously. "It's hard for me to imagine why anyone would do this if they didn't have to. Do you ever get scared?"

"I don't think anything frightens Lil," Arthur said. Lil gave a little snort of derision, and Arthur went on, "But I've been scared. I've seen apparitions maybe half a dozen times in all the years I've been doing this professionally, and every time it scared the hell out of me."

"Then why do you keep looking for ghosts?"

"I suspect it has to do with my childhood. The family home was subject to unusual phenomena, but my parents never saw anything, and I grew up always half-doubting the evidence of my senses. Probably I'm still trying to decide if I can trust my eyes."

Sean laughed shortly and without humor. "You know what it felt like Thursday morning when I turned around and saw Patrick standing there? I thought my heart had stopped. Literally stopped. There was a cold, heavy weight was pressing down on my chest, and I thought it might kill me. Then Patrick was gone, and I didn't understand why I'd been so scared." He took a deep breath. "You know, I've heard stories--I'm sure you have too, Arthur--people who've seen their lovers after they died. And the way they always told it, it was a comforting experience, a reassurance that love survives death. But it wasn't like that at all when I saw Patrick. It was terrifying."

After a moment Arthur said, "I don't know what to tell you, Sean, except that it's not your fault. I'm sure that Patrick loved you."

Sean groaned in the darkness. "Then why am I so scared of him now?"

And at that moment, the three of them suddenly became aware of the quiet sounds out in the courtyard. At first Arthur thought that the rain had started again, but Sean stood up and said in a strangled voice, "There it goes. Just like last night. Oh my god. Arthur, can't you just make it stop?"

Lil put her hand on his shoulder and said, "It's all right. Hush a moment."

Arthur walked to the window and looked out. The concrete path still gleamed from the earlier rain, and the bougainvillea trellis was a great black arch leading to the street. There was a sound like the beating of wings, and from somewhere in the darkness came a muffled thump, and then a scream.

Arthur groped for the switch. A moment later lights blazed in Sean's living room. The porch light lit up the courtyard. Sean yanked open the front door and ran outside. Lights came on in Mary and Carol's apartment, and then in Ginny's. A single light was burning in the upstairs apartment across from Ginny's. The scream came again, then a voice, falsetto with anger and pain, shrieked, "Get out! Get out!

"Oh my god, I think that's Richard," Sean said, looking up at the single light in his apartment.

Mary opened her front door. "Something's going on upstairs. Carol and I thought they were about to come through the ceiling.

There was a crash in the stairwell, and a door slammed. The same voice shouted hysterically, "Just go away and leave me alone!"

Sean and Mary hesitated at the foot of the dark stairwell. Sean called up, "Are you all right up there?"

Footsteps came pounding down the stairs and husky blonde man, obviously drunk, pushed his way past Sean. "That motherfucker's crazy. Get the hell out of my way."

By now Ginny and Dan had come down too. "What's going on?" Dan demanded, preparing to take command of the situation.

No one answered him. Richard came down the stairs a moment later, barefoot, wearing only a houserobe that he hadn't bothered to tie over his solid white stomach. He was weeping noisily. "Get him out of here."

The blonde man turned back with truculent perversity and announced, staggering a little, "Nobody tells me what to do."

"Come on, knock it off," Sean said, sounding weary, but also relieved now that the disturbance had turned out to be so prosaic. He put his hand on Richard's shoulder and pulled him aside. "Stop yelling. He's going."

"Fuck that!" The other man shouted and began to lurch back towards Richard. Dan and Mary moved to intercept him.

"You don't want to do this," Mary said. "Why don't you just head home before someone calls the cops."

He reared back as though preparing to throw a punch. But the force of his momentum continued to carry him backwards until, with a thump, he sat down hard on the sidewalk.

"Oh no, Richard. What's this?" Sean turned Richard's head towards the porch light. The side of his face and neck was streaked with blood.

"He said I was making that noise, but I wasn't," Richard insisted weepily, blowing puffs of whiskey into Sean's face. "I told him it wasn't my fault."

"Oh god," Carol had come to the door, and stood there holding Sarah Ann in her arms. "He ripped an earring out."

Richard put his hand up to his ear and brought it down again, staring at the black blood on his palm with befuddlement.

"That'll have to be stitched," Carol said. "Richard, is there anyone you can call to drive you to the hospital?"

The blonde man announced from his seat on the walkway, "I'll drive him."

"Oh, sure you will," Mary said, exasperated.

"It's all right, I'll do it," Sean said. "Come on, Richard, let's go upstairs and get dressed."

Richard tried to wipe the tears from his eyes, and smeared blood all over his face. "I'll never forget this. Never."

"I'll hold you to that. Up we go now."

"Do you need some help there?" Dan asked. Richard was standing at the first step, staring at it as though it were a snake.

"Thank you, yes," Sean said. Dan took Richard's other hand, and the two of them maneuvered him up the stairwell together. In the meantime, the blonde man whose name no one knew had managed to pull himself to his feet and was lurching towards the sidewalk. Mary, who had told him to go, suddenly had a thought. "Hey you. Wait a minute."

He looked back with eyes like poached eggs. "Me?"

"Yes you. You're not driving, are you?"

"How else am I gonna get home?"

Mary rolled her eyes. "We'll call you a cab. You can't drive in your state."

"I'm fine," he insisted, then turned and walked into the trellis.

"And I'm the Prince of Wales," Mary said. "Carol, go ahead and call the cab, would you?"

"You got it."

Sarah Ann, who had been watching everything with avid curiosity, well pleased with the late night excitement, began to wail when Carol carried her back indoors.

Lil looked around. "Where'd Arthur go?"

"I don't know," Ginny said, "I haven't seen him. Is he in Sean's apartment?"

The lights in the surrounding apartments suddenly blazed up, intensely bright.

"What's happening?" Mary shouted.

"It must be a power surge--" Ginny started to say, reminded of the way light bulbs suddenly glowed brighter just before burning out.

And then, just as she had feared, all the lights went out.

Chapter 42

The Monday morning after Thanksgiving was just as hectic as Ginny had expected it to be. Reed's clients were almost frantic after four days of having no one to pester but the answering service. Furthermore, as Ginny discovered the first time she tried to find a file that morning, Reed had evidently spent the entire holiday weekend at the office rearranging things. She had just put a particularly cranky insurance adjuster on hold and pulled open the file drawer that was labeled "NA-Q," only to discover a jumble of folders crammed together in no discernible order. Ginny read through the labels with growing bewilderment. Then she slammed the drawer shut and went to confront Reed in his lair.

He was just lighting up. Since he couldn't hide the cigarette, he tried to stare Ginny down over the flaming tip. "Yes?" he demanded explosively, blowing puffs of gray smoke from his nose and mouth.

"What happened to the files?"

"What do you mean, what happened to them? I rearranged them."

"I can see that," Ginny said soothingly. "But I'm having a little trouble finding the file I'm looking for."

"Oh, well, you just need to check under the accident date instead of the client's name. That's how I refiled everything. It took me most of the weekend, too."

Ginny stared at him. "What?"

Reed seemed a little crestfallen not to be immediately accorded the praise that was his due for such a useful office intervention. "That's right. It occurred to me that this was the perfect way to assure that you never missed a filing deadline."

"But that's why I keep a calendar," Ginny said, remaining calm with some effort.

"Well I know that," Reed said maddeningly. "This is just an added precaution. Now when you open the file drawer every morning, the very first thing you'll see is the upcoming deadlines."

It was a beautiful, clear day after all the rain of this weekend. Ginny looked over Reed's shoulder out the window to the Pacific Ocean ten miles away, and she imagined herself floating serenely away on one of the great white clouds that blew by so far overhead.

She told Reed very carefully, "Well, I'm afraid I may have come across a difficulty with the new system."

Reed puffed defiantly on his cigarette. Ginny continued gingerly, "You see, every time I need a file now, I'll have to look up the date of accident on the computer first. I'm not sure how efficient that will really turn out to be in the long run. I've got an adjuster on the Otterman case on hold right now, and I have no idea where the file is."

Reed leaned forward over his desk, suddenly the model of impatient over-efficiency. "Who's on hold? Who did you say was on hold?"

"Lee Belton. The adjuster from Allstate."

Reed snatched up the phone. "What line is she on?"

"Ninety-two," Ginny said, and let herself out of the office, closing the door behind her. Clearly the issue of the files would have to wait.

"Good morning, Gin," Kate said merrily. She was coming down the hall with a Federal Express mailer and an awkward bundle of files. "Recovered from Thanksgiving yet?"

"You'll never guess what Reed's done," Ginny said, avoiding the question. "Rearranged all the files according to accident date."

Kate laughed. "Oh, I hate these long weekends. They give the boss time to think up all sorts of godawful schemes to improve office efficiency." Her smile faded a little. "When I didn't see your car in the lot this morning I got a little worried."

"I had to drop it off at the shop before work."

"Everything all right?"

"I was in a fender bender at the mall Friday. Mr. Tabibzadeh's going to hammer out the back bumper and replace the tail lights for me."

"Oh no, Gin. You've had a hell of a weekend, haven't you?"

Ginny shrugged. "I'm just sorry Thanksgiving turned out to be so weird for everyone. I wanted a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, and instead--"

"Thanksgiving was wonderful, Ginny. Anyway, what do you expect when you have a dinner party at Collinswood?"

Ginny looked at her blankly. Kate explained, "You know, the mansion in Dark Shadows."

"Oh," said Ginny, hurt.

"I'm sorry. That was uncalled for."

"No, no, it was perfectly in order. When's the last time you went to a dinner party where the hostess told everyone about her visits to the underworld?"

"So how is the ghosthunting going?" Kate asked. "Did your friend Arthur move in with all his paraphernalia like he planned?"

"Well--yes," Ginny said faintly.

"Oh god," Kate groaned, reading the expression on Ginny's face. "What's happened now?"

At that moment the intercom buzzed on Ginny's phone. Since she was still standing by Reed's office door, she simply swung it open. "Yes?"

"I need that Otterman file," Reed demanded with perhaps justifiable irritation. "What in the world are you doing out there--just standing around gabbing?"

"I'll have it in just a sec."

Kate moved down the hall, out of the line of fire. "Can you have lunch today Gin? We could talk then."

Ginny was already scrolling through the client lists on her computer screen. "Sounds great."

Elsie Otterman. There she was. A Cadillac had cut her off on the freeway last year on Christmas day. The one-year filing deadline was coming up pretty soon, so if Reed's system worked the way he predicted, her file should be the first one in the cabinet.

And so it was. She carried it in to Reed, thinking that perhaps she had been too hasty in dismissing his new system as completely impractical.

Reed was saying to the adjuster on the phone, "Look, I got a news flash for you."

Ginny dropped the file in the middle of his desk and beat a hasty retreat, not waiting to hear what the flash might be. She went back to her own desk and tried to begin the dictation, but Terrie rang her from the front desk almost immediately.

"It's Margot Chutnik from State Farm for you, Gin."

"Thanks Terrie. I've got it." Ginny picked up the line. "Reed Wallace's office. May I help you?"

"Ginny Malone, please."

The use of her last name set off alarm bells. "What's this regarding?"

"It's a personal matter regarding her auto insurance," the woman on the other end of the line said briskly. "Is she available?"

Oh god, Ginny thought. That bitch in the Mercedes certainly hadn't wasted any time reporting the accident. "I'm sorry, she's not in right now," Ginny said. "I'll take a message and have her call you back."

"Please do. I need to set up a time to take her statement. Do you know when she'll be able to return my call?"

"Um, this afternoon, probably," Ginny said.

The woman from State Farm left her phone number and extension for Ginny, then laboriously spelled out her last name. "And who have I been speaking to?"

"Celia. I'm Celia. I'll have Ginny call you back as soon as she can." Ginny put the phone down and heaved a deep sigh, wondering why she hadn't taken care of it then and there. Now it was just something else for her to worry about. Although maybe having something as mundane as talking to her insurance company to fret over would take her mind off other things.

Ginny bent her head over her typing again, but it was too late. The veneer of control that had allowed her to get up and come to work this morning as though nothing were wrong had begun to slip while she talked to Kate. The conversation with the insurance adjuster had demolished the rest of it. Ginny stared at her computer screen--blue letters on a red background, an eye-straining combination that she'd picked out in the hopes it would cheer her up--and listened to the voices in her head.

She was a liar, and a coward, and worse, perhaps. Here she was sitting at her desk pretending like the most pressing matters in her life were an auto accident in a parking garage and the jumbled-up filing cabinets, and meanwhile--

She tried to shut out the memory of Marc on Sunday afternoon, after Lil had broken the news to him about Arthur. The worst had been out in the alley. Marc had rushed down that straight, narrow alleyway and then stood bewildered and angry at the center point and demanded angrily of Ginny, "What's wrong? This is the right place, isn't it? Why can't I get through?"

Lil had been there too. "Marc, this isn't helping anything. It certainly isn't helping Arthur."

Ginny was trying hard to be calm, but she could feel the tears swimming in her eyes. The sight of her emotion infuriated Marc.

"Goddamnit, Ginny, I know you can get to the other side. You told us so yourself."

She couldn't answer him.

"Oh for Chrissake, don't just stand there bawling. If you don't want to go, at least show me how to get there."

Ginny shook her head helplessly, and Lil said, "Stop it, Marc. You don't know what you're asking her to do."

"What's wrong with you people?" Marc shouted at them. "Arthur's gone. Don't you even care?" And then he began to weep in blustery, choking sobs.

Ginny had looked away from him. Ever since the lights went out on Friday night she'd known this moment was coming, but she still wasn't prepared for it. She had no idea what to say to Marc, much less what she ought to do.

But that wasn't entirely true, of course.

***

They had all stood in the darkened courtyard in stunned silence for a moment or two. Mary was the first to speak. She called out, her voice level and controlled, "Carol, do you have Sarah Ann?"

Carol didn't answer immediately, and Mary screamed in the darkness, "Damnit, Carol, do you have the baby?"

"It's OK, it's OK," Carol called back from the dark recess of their apartment. "I'm holding Sarah Ann. We're all right."

"Richard?" The blonde man's voice was small and scared. "Where are you? What's happening?"

"Joey?"

Ginny's eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness, and she could see Richard as he emerged from the blackness of the stairwell with Sean and Dan. Richard said, "I'm right here, baby."

"Is everyone all right?" Sean asked.

"I can't find Arthur," Lil said. "He must be back in the apartment."

"Where's the fusebox?" Dan asked, determined to be sensible about all this.

Sean said, "It's around back. I think I can find it."

"What in the world happened?" Carol asked.

"A power surge blew out all the fuses," Dan said. Ginny wondered when her brother had become such an electrician. "Once Sean flips the breakers everything should be all right."

"Arthur?" Lil had gone back to Sean's apartment. They could hear her voice as she moved through the dark rooms looking for him. "Where are you? Are you all right?"

Ginny stood silent in the darkness, shivering. It was very close now. She wondered if the others could feel it.

Then lights came back on, blindingly bright. Spots appeared before Ginny's eyes, and when she blinked them away, the first thing she saw was Arthur. He walked right past her. She tried to speak to him, but her voice stuck in her throat. He looked back at her momentarily, and his eyes widened with surprise. There were things swarming all around him, their outlines becoming clearer the further he moved away.

Richard and Joey were sitting side by side on the stairs, their arms around each other like frightened little boys. Carol and Mary had found each other in the darkness too and stood together on their front porch. Carol clutched Sarah Ann close to her chest. The baby's chubby little arms were doing pinwheels in her excitement.

"See?" Dan said. "Everything's all right, Gin."

Lil came to the door of Sean's apartment. "I don't understand. Arthur's not in the apartment. Is there a back door?"

Ginny turned to look at Arthur, understanding for the first time that no one else could see him. The swarm of pale, grasping monsters pressed close around him as he walked out under the bougainvillea arch, and then he was gone.

***

Reed came thundering out of his office and dropped the Otterman file in the middle of Ginny's desk. "I think you're right, Ginny. If it's going to take this long to retrieve files, maybe you better just put them back in alphabetical order. You think you can get to it before lunch?"

Chapter 43

"Carol and Mary packed up Sarah Ann and left Saturday morning. They were going to go stay with relatives, I think, but Zack came around and offered to put them up at his place, so they went there instead."

Kate smiled. "Zack has roommates, doesn't he? What are they going to think about having a baby in the house?"

"I don't know. I didn't ask. Besides, Carol and Mary are just going to stay until things quiet down at the apartment building, and they can be sure it's safe for Sarah Ann."

"Uh-huh," Kate said. "And when's that likely to happen?"

Ginny pretended to be engrossed in her food, peeling long strips of flesh off the thigh bone of her order of tandoori chicken. She and Kate had gone back to the Indian restaurant after all, precisely because they were almost certain be the only customers in the place. Ginny didn't want to run into anyone from work while she was telling Kate about Arthur's disappearance and its aftermath.

"Ginny?" Kate prompted.

Ginny looked up. "Sorry. I thought the question was rhetorical."

"Well, maybe it was. What are you and Dan going to do?"

Ginny checked her watch. "Dan's plane took off from LAX about fifteen minutes ago. He's on his way back to Boston."

"What? Just like that?"

"His life is back there. He wasn't getting any writing done babysitting me."

"I'm a little surprised he would leave while everything's so up in the air."

"The truth is, we kind of had a fight. Well not a fight, exactly, but he gave me an ultimatum, and I ended up telling him to go. So he did."

"What kind of ultimatum?"

Ginny sighed. "He said that Mary and Carol had the right idea, and that I should move out too."

"Gin--maybe he's right."

"No. Not the way he meant it."

***

"Just listen to me a minute, Ginny."

The rain had begun again on Saturday morning. Ginny stood at her living room window watching Mary and Carol dash to their car with suitcases and baby supplies.

"Ginny?" Dan said again.

She turned and took the cup of coffee he was holding out to her.

"Why Percy, I had no idea you knew how to make coffee."

"I'm just full of surprises," he said glumly. "Now can you be serious for a minute? We have to talk."

"I'm serious, believe me, I'm serious. The real world's coming apart at the seams. My only choices are being dead serious or stark, raving mad, and so far serious is winning out."

"Are you sure of that?"

"What do you mean?" Ginny asked warily.

Dan sat down on the sofa and talked without quite meeting her eye. "I know I've told you more than once how it seems to me that all your neighbors love to act like they're in on an incredible secret. All the cryptic comments and sidelong glances--when I first got out here, I was sure there was something going on, and that when I figured out what it was, I'd find you."

Ginny started to say something, and Dan waved her silent with his hand. "Just hold on a minute. I want to say this all now. I think it's important.

"Anyway, then you showed up, but guess what, you're just as bad as everyone else, dropping mysterious hints, rolling your eyes, telling weird little ghost stories whenever I'm rude enough to ask where on earth you were for a week--"

"Percy--"

"You really had me going there. Especially after Thanksgiving, when everything suddenly seemed to fit together-- the rites at Eleusis, visions of the underworld, even those shellacked pomegranates on the herb wreath. I really thought everyone was right. That this apartment building was a nexus for incomprehensible forces, and something truly incredible was going on here.

"And of course Arthur was the real clincher. So calm and sensible, with all that impressive electronic equipment. I believed it all. Me, a dyed-in-the-wool materialist, and I'm listening to all of you talk about monsters from the underworld and the resurgence of mystery religions no one has practiced in hundreds of years, and I don't think it's crazy at all. It wasn't until Arthur wandered away last night that I finally came to my senses."

"What are you talking about?" Ginny asked uneasily. "You know Arthur didn't just wander away."

"You want to hear what the real, live terrifying truth about this apartment complex is? That there's not a darn thing wrong that couldn't be solved with a few months of psychotherapy."

Ginny stared at him. Then she made herself laugh. "You're proposing to put the building into therapy?"

Dan smiled wanly. "Just the people who live here."

"So that's what you think." Ginny turned back to the window. "After everything that's happened. After everything you've seen."

"Ginny, I haven't seen anything at all. Just a bunch of people scared of their own shadows."

"Arthur disappeared into thin air last night. You saw the videotape. How do you explain that?"

"The tape doesn't prove anything at all. Besides, this isn't the first time he's pulled a stunt like this, is it? You told me yourself that he got drunk the night of Patrick's wake and wandered away for a couple of hours."

"I was wrong," she insisted. "I didn't understand what was going on then."

"Are you sure about that?"

"Percy, I don't have to stand here and listen to you accuse my friends of being--I don't know--a bunch of delusional alcoholics or something."

"Well, I could hardly blame them if they were, considering what they've been living with for the past decade."

It took Ginny a moment to figure out what he meant. "I can't believe I'm hearing such homophobic nonsense from my own brother. You think Arthur and Sean and Marc are making up this entire thing because of AIDS? That's crazy."

Maddeningly, Dan refused to lose his temper. He didn't even raise his voice. "You're assuming that 'making things up' is the same as telling lies. It's not."

"Forgive me if I'm having a little trouble understanding your subtle distinctions."

"Listen, Gin, when I look at someone like Sean or Arthur, I can't even imagine what it must be like to have lost so many friends and lovers over the years. Reading the obit columns and recognizing all the names. Your entire generation gone. How can anyone make sense of so much pain? Nothing seems adequate, and most attempts just make it worse. Like the fairy tale the Religious Right tells, that assumes the Lord of all Creation is so concerned about where men put their dicks that he sent the most vicious disease this side of leprosy to punish guys who stick theirs in the wrong places. And if all the hemophiliacs and half the population of Africa gets carried off too, well, God works in mysterious ways.

Dan took a deep breath and plunged on. "Or there's the story that blames entrenched homophobia for the extent of the disease. Or the conspiracy buff's story that the Pentagon engineered HIV to rid America of all the fags and addicts. Me, I think the virus is just an inevitable product of the continuing Darwinian struggle, and once science finds a way to lick it, something even harder to stop is sure to come down the turnpike. But that's a pretty bleak story too. At least with the others, so much suffering is the result of something a little more purposeful than a complex protein winning the evolutionary lottery."

"That's quite a speech," Ginny said. "Whats your point exactly?"

"I'm sure you've already figured it out. Your friends here have written a better story. The death of Sean's lover isn't just another AIDS casualty. You've all turned it into an incredible mystery involving everything from ancient Greek cults to Alice in Wonderland. As a novelist, I have to say I'm impressed. I almost wish I could hang around to see how it turns out."

"I'll let you know," Ginny said flatly.

"You're not convinced."

"You're not very convincing. For one thing, it doesn't explain why Mary and Carol have gotten caught up in it too, not to mention me. Patrick's the first person I'd ever met with AIDS."

"Mary just had a baby, which must be pretty stressful under the best of circumstances, I would think. Being a lesbian mother in this society can't make it any easier, and she told me herself that she's had problems with postpartum depression. And as for you, Ginny, lately your life has turned into a complete soap opera."

"I think I object to that characterization."

"Object all you want, but in the past six months your husband's left you, you've moved, gotten a new job, and made a whole new circle of friends, half of whom seem to be dying of AIDS."

Ginny flinched.

"The first man you go out with after the separation turns out to be a stalker, and he pushes your head through a windowpane before running out and getting himself killed right in front of your apartment building. For heaven's sake, Ginny, anyone would look for a way to make sense of so much chaos. And then Arthur comes along, and not only does he have a wonderful story to explain all this, but he's certainly got the right name." Dan shook his head. "Although this is the weirdest take on Camelot that I've ever seen. Maybe the whole court has relocated to the home of the Lady of the Lake." He smiled. "You know how it is when you're under the surface of the water in a swimming pool, say, looking up into sky and everything is a wavy, rippling refection? That's how I always imagined the home of the Lady of the Lake was. And I have to say, this place seems to fit the bill more and more."

Tears were brimming in Ginny's eyes.

"Aw, Ginny, I'm not saying all this to upset you, but I think it's time for you to decide whether this particular story is doing more harm than good for you now. Maybe believing that you could go through the looking glass helped you cope with some of the trauma of William and then Kevin, but yesterday you wrecked your car, and you still haven't been to see a doctor about your blackouts. Has it occurred to you that it's probably not safe for you to drive until you figure out what's causing them? This story's gotten too dangerous, especially when it keeps you from getting the right medical attention. It's time for you to get away."

"Arthur said that there was no way to get away from it," Ginny said defiantly.

"Well of course he did." Dan sounded slightly exasperated. "What would happen to his job as a professional exorcist if people being haunted only have to move to get away from the ghosts? He'd have to settle down and come to terms with the fact that he's going to be a ghost himself before long."

"Goddamnit Percy--" Ginny hissed.

"I don't blame him for clinging to whatever it takes to stay sane. In his circumstances I'd probably be running around in circles baying at the moon. But Ginny, you can't be part of his story--or anyone else's around here--anymore. It's too dangerous. I can't watch you do this to yourself anymore."

The tears spilled down Ginny's cheeks. "No one's asking you to."

"Then I guess I'll be going back to Boston."

Ginny nodded. "I guess you will."

Dan looked a little shaken, but his voice remained calm. "Well, it may take a day or two to get a flight out, what with the holiday weekend. I'd be glad to stay in a hotel if you'd prefer."

"Don't be ridiculous." Ginny wiped her eyes. "You'll stay here. We just won't talk about it anymore."

Dan smiled slightly. "Mom always said you were the hard-headed one."

Ginny smiled too. "She just meant that I'm a little dense, I think."

"Whatever." Dan took a deep breath and turned away. After a long moment he looked back at her. "So you want to go out for breakfast somewhere?"

She shook her head. "I told Lil I'd be around the apartment all day, in case Arthur turns up."

Dan's lips tightened. Ginny said, "But you go ahead if you want. There's lots of places up on Santa Monica Boulevard." She smiled again. "Who knows? You might even get lucky and meet yourself a nice guy."

***

Ginny looked at her watch. "It's about time for me to get back to the office. Reed asked me if I would consider skipping lunch to rearrange the files for him. Can you imagine? I didn't do it, of course, but I guess the least I can do is be back on time."

"You're spoiling that man," Kate said with a smile.

Ginny shrugged. "Maybe. He was nice enough to take me back after I was gone for that week, though."

"Nice had nothing to do with it. He just realized that good help is hard to find."

"Right."

"Have you decided what you're going to do?"

Ginny's smile faded. "No. I have no idea. According to Percy, all I have to do is tell a better story. Well OK, here's the story I'd like to see. Arthur turns up safe and sound, my apartment building is quiet at night, my car isn't really wrecked, and no one sees or hears anything more of those beastly little John Does that come swarming up out of the sewers. And while I'm at it, I want Patrick back too. I miss him a lot. Nothing's seemed right since he died."

Kate exhaled slowly. "Guinevere Malone," she said at last. Her face had gone very pale.

"What is it?"

But for once Kate seemed to be at a loss for words.

"Cut it out," Ginny said nervously. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

Kate shook her head. "Your daddy got it wrong, you know. He should have named you Morgan le Fey."

Ginny felt as though a cold hand had suddenly closed around her heart. For a moment she sat in stunned silence. Then she spat back at Kate, "That's a hell of a crack coming from you. You're the refugee from Salem. My life was perfectly normal until I met you."

Kate smiled sadly. "No one else ever saw my magic tricks before. I thought it meant we were simpatico." She gave a short, dry chuckle. "And so we are. Just not the way I hoped."

"I have no idea what you're talking about. I need to get back to the office."

"I'm lucky you're a decent sort, Ginny, or I suppose I would have ended up with a lot worse than a few burned fingers."

Ginny felt her face flaming red. "Kate, I didn't do anything. You can't possibly think I had anything to do with that. Something under the car seat must have been overheating. I'll have to remember to have Mr. Tabibzadeh check it out before I pick up the car."

"Come on, Ginny, please." Kate reached across the table and took both of Ginny's hands in her own. "Try to stay calm."

"Calm?" Ginny heard herself giggling a little hysterically. "First I want to hear what you're accusing me of. Then I'll decide whether I want to be calm or not."

"You've suspected all along, haven't you?" Kate asked gently. "After Thanksgiving, when we were all talking about the things that had been happening, the first thing you said was that you were sorry."

"Puritan guilt. I was raised to think a preemptive apology was just good manners."

"Ginny."

"Besides, Mary and everyone else said that it wasn't my fault, that it had nothing to do with me." Ginny heard how angry and defensive she sounded, and forced herself to lower her voice. "Even you said it had nothing to do with me."

"As I recall, I asked you what you thought you had to apologize for."

"And now you've decided I do have something to apologize for. Well, go ahead, I want to hear you say it."

Kate thought for a moment. "Your brother had it almost right, I think--you come from a whole family of storytellers, don't you?--but I don't think he understood how powerful an individual storyteller can be. Me, I'm not particularly good at long, involved plots. The most I can manage is an occasional figure of speech--a simile or a riddle, like 'When is a carpet like a roll of fax paper?' or 'What kind of phone rings but can never be answered?'"

Ginny buried her face in her hands.

"But you, Ginny-- I remember when you first started working for Reed. I'd see you slinking around the office like a sad little ghost, forgive the expression. Your husband had left you; you'd quit a job you loved and taken a position with a toad like Reed Wallace. No wonder you never talked to any of us, and always had lunch alone at your desk. But all along--you were composing a goddamned epic.

"That night work in the sewers that no one else saw or heard but a man dying of AIDS--Ginny, that was you all along, wasn't it? You were intending to escape down the rabbit hole, but when you finally visited the other side of the looking glass, you discovered it was more like Hades than Wonderland."

Kate reached out and forced Ginny to raise her head and look at her. "And God forgive you, Ginny, once your purgatory was finished, it began to attract lost souls."

Ginny stood up so rapidly that her chair fell over backwards, causing a commotion in the quiet restaurant. Half a dozen underworked waiters rushed out to help. Ginny pushed her way through them towards the door. Kate raised her voice just enough to carry over the bustle and confusion. "I know you didn't mean to, Ginny. But you've got to end it somehow, or things will just keep getting worse."

Ginny had reached the door. She pushed it open, and then, for some reason, turned and looked back at Kate.

She called across the restaurant to Ginny, "Remember what happened to Kevin when I got carried away with a story. Ginny, these are your friends--"

Ginny let the door swing shut.

Chapter 44

Ginny stormed back to the office and began rearranging files with noisy inefficiency, heaving armloads out of the file drawers and stacking them inconveniently in the open corridor beside her desk. Betty Kane came by and told her, "You need to get this stuff out of the hall, Ginny. It's a fire hazard."

Ginny had the satisfaction of telling her, with a bland, apologetic smile, "You'll need to speak to Reed. He told me to rearrange the files, and I don't have anywhere else to put them."

Betty glanced at Reed's closed door, evidently weighing the usefulness of beginning an office feud over a stack of files, and then stalked off without saying anything more.

Ginny scooped out another bunch of files and dropped them on the floor. The topmost file split open when it hit, the weight of its pages tearing apart the flimsy cardboard of the folder. Loose pages fanned out across the floor.

Ginny regarded the mess and thought that this was proof positive, if such proof were needed, that Kate had it all wrong. If things were up to Ginny, there was no question she would be writing a happier story for herself.

Without picking up any of the scattered papers, she lifted another armload of files out of the drawer and let them drop. They hit the stacks of files already piled on the floor and tumbled off in every direction. A slickly-bound deposition transcript fell out of one of the folders and slipped under Ginny's desk. She fished it out with her foot, and giving it a little kick, sent it sliding across the carpet.

Kate came in from the reception area down the hall and headed for her own desk without looking in Ginny's direction. Feeling a qualm Ginny called out, "I didn't mean to stick you with the tab, Kate. Lunch'll be on me tomorrow."

"Ginny?" Kate turned. "What are you doing?"

"Rearranging the files the way Reed wants them." She gathered up the last half-dozen file folders into her arms, and hurled them to the floor with a theatrical flourish. The top files ripped open when they hit the carpet. Loose papers billowed up and then came floating slowly down again, blanketing the floor around Ginny's desk whitely with medical reports and court documents.

Kate came running. "For god's sake--" She grabbed Ginny's arm and pulled her into an empty conference room, slamming the door shut behind them.

Ginny regarded her calmly. "What's the matter, Kate?"

For a moment Kate could only shake her head, gasping as if she'd just run a race.

"Calm down, Katie-girl. It's going to be all right."

Something strange was happening. Kate's mouth twisted, and her face turned beet red. Her eyes filled with tears.

She was crying.

Ginny stepped back, absolutely astonished. "Stop it," she begged. "Don't do that. Please don't cry."

Kate made no move to brush away the tears streaming down her face. "I shouldn't have told you the way I did, Ginny. I'm sorry. When you said you wished that Patrick was still alive, suddenly I realized what had been right in front of me all along, and it scared me. Otherwise I never would have accused you like that. I should have found a better way."

"Don't. Stop it, please. This is all nonsense. You don't have anything to apologize for because nothing's happened."

Kate smiled through her tears. "If that's so, then why are you trashing Reed's files?"

Reality came crashing down. "Oh gosh. I've got to get them picked up before Reed sees them."

Ginny rushed out of the conference room and discovered she was too late. Reed had come out of his office and stood in the midst of the scattered files. She was a little surprised to see what a woebegone figure he made. Faced with the incomprehensible, he just stood there, his shoulders slumped and his hands balled into fists. His mouth opened and closed like a goldfish out of water.

Ginny said, "I can explain this."

"I'm listening." Reed didn't look at her.

"It's a magic trick. Sleight-of-hand, like bending spoons. Turn your back for half a minute, and they'll all be back in the drawers, just like nothing ever happened."

Reed got clumsily down to his knees and began to gather up loose papers. "Clean out your desk."

"What?"

"Clean out your desk and get out before I have security throw you out."

A crowd had begun to gather. Celia was peering around Lloyd Dado's shoulder as though she were afraid Ginny might suddenly lunge forward and take a bite out of her. Not a bad idea, actually, Ginny smiled to herself.

There was nothing in her desk that she wanted. She picked up her purse and made a wide circle around Reed and the files. The other secretaries and attorneys parted to let her through. Ginny was rather pleased to be the object of such hushed awe.

She wanted to apologize to Kate, but that would have spoiled her grand exit, so she walked into the waiting room without looking back.

Isolated at the receptionist's desk, Terrie had no idea that anything had happened, and she smiled happily at Ginny. "Going for your afternoon break already? Didn't you just get back from lunch?"

"I decided to make my lunch break permanent," Ginny said, and punched the elevator button. It would have been more impressive if an elevator had been immediately available, but she had to wait, and that gave Terrie time to figure out what Ginny had said.

"I don't believe it. Ginny, did you quit?"

"Fired, actually."

"Ohmigod! What happened?"

"I pulled all of Reed's files out of the cabinets and threw them on the floor."

Terrie's eyes were big as saucers. Ginny felt a little sorry for her. "It'll be all right, Terrie. I always hated this job anyway."

The elevator arrived. Ginny waved goodbye with her fingertips, and Terrie said "Well, take care," in a faint voice as the elevator doors shut between them.

But Terrie's asking about the afternoon break had reminded Ginny of Clayton. With everything that had happened since that Friday at the mall she'd hardly been able to spare a thought for him, but she remembered his thinning ginger-colored hair and the laugh lines around his eyes with affection now. Maybe she would stop by the pharmacy and give him her number. For that matter, perhaps she would just go ahead and ask him out.

The elevator deposited her in the lobby, and she turned back towards the pharmacy before she remembered what had happened after she'd run into Clayton at the mall. Such a little thing, really. Just a glimpse of Kevin's dead face grinning at her through a broken car window. How strange that with everything that had happened during the past two months, it was that glimpse which suddenly convinced her that Kate was right after all.

Ginny sat down hard on the ornamental bench between the elevator banks. The marble was ice cold, and the bench was so high that Ginny's feet dangled two inches above the floor. The security guard at the front desk looked back at her, evidently startled by the unfamiliar sight of someone actually sitting in such an inhospitable spot.

The mirror world wasn't a very pleasant place, but it was indisputably her own. Why else would it have pressed so close right then, when she was giddy with the unexpected prospect of falling in love again?

And the more Ginny thought about it, the clearer it became. She was surprised now it had taken her so long to understand. All this time her dream world had been growing more vital, fed on a rich diet of Ginny's own hopes and fears and sorrows. Even her whimsies. Her John Does had begun as a legal secretary's joke, but they had grown and flourished, the progeny of death agonies, psychopomps to guide souls into her own private underworld. They had taken Patrick and Kevin. Ginny thought with horror of the muck that had poured up through Sean's apartment. It must have been them, a sign that they were powerful enough to break into the world of the living. And because she hadn't figured it out in time, now Arthur was gone too.

Ginny stood up, feeling strangely resolute and calm, now that the truth was within her reach. It was past time for her to go home.

She took a cab, extravagantly, to Mr. Tabibzadeh's Auto Body. Her car wasn't ready yet, so she stood around the tiny waiting room for half an hour, trying to make friends with the wire-haired dachshund who still hogged the room's only chair. When Mike Tabibzadeh himself drove the car out for her inspection, Ginny pronounced herself satisfied with his work and paid the bill without demur. For a hundred bucks, she was content with a trunk that looked as though it had been hammered open with a crowbar. At least it opened now.

Rain had gotten in, and her shoes were ruined, the leather soles swollen beyond repair. The dress would probably be all right after a trip to the dry cleaners, and for the first time she was grateful for the hermetical seal of compact discs. She wasn't sure if it was a good sign or not that she was so concerned with the details of the mundane world. Persephone had wept over her dropped flowers, even as Hades carried her off to the underworld.

Ginny drove home very carefully, afraid of what would happen if she were killed in a car accident before she could get back to the apartment. Presumably she would be caught in the mirror world, and she was afraid she would be as powerless as the other shades there. Persephone's reign as the dread, pale queen of the underworld was terrifying precisely because the other six months of the year she was only a rose-lipt girl. The dead were mere shadows. Power rested in the hands of the ones who were able to bribe Charon for a return trip.

***

Ginny parked in front of her building, and then, just to test what difference her newfound self-awareness made, she glanced over to the passenger side window. Nothing. She squinted a little. Still nothing. Oh well.

She got out and half-ran across the courtyard to her stairwell. She supposed she was still in a state of shock, and that once a true appreciation of her situation sunk in, she would feel the appropriate emotions. But right now she felt like a schoolgirl playing hookey. She took the stairs two at a time, and when she rounded the first landing, she found Marc sitting at the head of the steps.

"Ginny. Hey. You're home."

"Marc." She looked at him with dismay. "What are you doing here?"

"What do you think? Looking for Arthur." He shrugged. "People who disappear around here always seem to turn up on your doorstep."

Ginny froze, but Marc wasn't accusing her of anything. He went on, "I tried to go to class this morning, and it was a total washout. I decided I might as well be here."

Ginny shook her head. "But I'm not usually home till six. You weren't going to just sit here on the steps until I got in, were you?"

"I walked around the neighborhood for a couple of hours first. I thought your brother would be here. When nobody came to the door I figured he'd gone shopping or something and I decided to wait."

"Percy's gone back home to Boston."

"Oh." Marc finally stood up. There were deep shadows under his eyes, and his hair was lank and unwashed.

"Go home," Ginny told him. "Get some rest. I'll call you the minute there's any news."

"I wanna apologize for losing my temper yesterday. I'm sorry I yelled at you."

"Forget it." Ginny fumbled through her purse for her keys.

"No, really Gin, listen to me. I was worried about Arthur, and I want you to know I didn't mean it. I know it's not your fault."

She found her keys at last. Stepping past Marc she got her front door open. "Please go home, Marc. You can't do Arthur or yourself any good hanging around here like this."

Marc followed her into the apartment and sat down heavily on the sofa. Caesar came up and sniffed his ankles. Puzzled and hurt when Marc ignored him, he gave a petulant little cry, and Marc leaned over and absently scratched him behind the ears. "What are you doing home so early anyway?" he asked. "Don't you have a real job?"

"I got fired this afternoon."

"Oh wow," Marc said politely, with the complete incomprehension of a young man who'd never been dependent on a paycheck. "Sorry about that."

"It wasn't much of a job. You want a glass of water or something?"

"Yeah, thanks."

Ginny dropped her purse on the coffee table and went to the kitchen, wondering how she was going to get rid of him. It wasn't safe for Marc here, and given the perversely literal relation between her most private thoughts and the encroachments from the underworld, she was afraid that her very concern him increased his danger.

She found that Percy had done all the dishes before leaving. Stacks of plates and glasses were heaped with architectural skill in the drying rack. Ginny pulled out two glasses from near the bottom of the stack, steadying the tower of plates, and then filled them from the pitcher of water she kept in the fridge.

When she went back to the living room she found Caesar curled up on Marc's lap, purring noisily and straining his head upwards so Marc could continue scratching the underside of his chin.

"You two seem to have finally made up," Ginny observed. When Marc stopped scratching Caesar's chin to take the glass of water, the cat scrambled to his feet, dug his claws into Marc's jeans for purchase, and launched himself to the floor. Marc examined the little white threads Caesar's claws had tugged free and said, "Don't be insulted, Ginny, but I still think I prefer dogs."

He drained the glass of water. "Thanks. You don't have any leftovers from Thanksgiving, do you?"

"There's a little stuff left." Ginny sighed. "When's the last time you had anything to eat anyway?"

"I don't know. Sunday morning, I think. Before Lil called."

"Marc--"

"I haven't been hungry till now," he said defensively.

"Oh all right, yes, there are still some leftovers. But after you eat you're going home, OK?"

"Thanks Ginny," He jumped up to accompany her back to the kitchen. "Is there any turkey left? A turkey sandwich would really hit the spot."

"I'm pretty sure we finished off the turkey yesterday. There's lots of taboule though, and eggplant casserole, and maybe some of the chestnut dressing."

Marc's face fell. "Oh well," he said at length, summoning up a martyr's brave little smile. "Whatever you have will be great."

continued

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