by Martha Taylor
Feedback gratefully accepted at email@example.com
The last card Arthur Drake turned up and laid on his coffee table was the Seven of Cups. Long-stemmed chalices floated in midair, and a white figure with outspread arms rose from the central cup. Its face was covered with crumpled linen. As he studied the card, something cold and unpleasant tugged at the corner of Arthur's mind, and he was about to put the deck away when the intercom whistled shrilly at him.
He left the cards. The intercom was supposed to pick up his voice from anywhere in the room, but in Arthur's experience no one downstairs in the lobby could hear anything he said unless he shouted into it from a distance of six inches. "Is that you Lil?"
Her voice filtered back thickly. "Yes, it's me."
"Do you want to come up? I can be right down."
"Can-you-come-up?" Arthur bellowed into the intercom.
"Why don't you buzz me on up. I found street parking, and I'd rather take your car anyway."
While he waited for her to catch the elevator, Arthur collected his car keys from the bedroom dresser and double-checked the instruments in his leather case. When Lil came stalking into his living room, the cards were still spread out on the coffee table. Greeting him with a dry kiss on the cheek, Lil knelt beside the low table and looked at the cards. "I didn't know you still read the tarot."
Arthur shrugged. "I have a romantic notion that if I keep it up, sooner or later it will help me learn some kind of control."
She laughed sympathetically and pointed to the last card, the Seven of Cups. "You seem to have accurately predicted tonight's probable outcome. Disappointing as usual."
Arthur heard the defensive tone creeping into his voice. "Actually, I took it as a good sign."
"The card doesn't only signify visions. It also suggests illusions, even self-deception."
Arthur picked up the leather case of recording instruments and opened the front door for Lil. "Thanks for the vote of confidence."
Lil held up her hands in mock surrender. "You laid out the cards, not me."
Arthur didn't say anything more as they rode the elevator down to the parking garage and loaded their equipment into the back of his sober gray Audi. Finally, as he pulled up the steep garage driveway and onto Wilshire Boulevard he said penitently, "I shouldn't have snapped at you. That's what comes of trying to do your own readings."
Lil accepted the apology in silence, and after a moment he ventured, "Do you have any feelings about tonight?"
Lil stretched her hands out in front of herself and looked at her spread fingers. She didn't say anything. The silence continued as the car headed west, and the last vestiges of the sunset faded from the sky. The rush hour traffic was thinning, but it was still a slow drive to Santa Monica. Red brake lights wound down in front of them all the way to the Pacific Ocean. By the time Lil spoke, he had almost forgotten the question.
"I don't know what I feel about tonight. Just a little sad, maybe."
Arthur turned the car into the public garage on Fourth Street. "We'll have to park here and walk the rest of the way. The building's garage is locked after hours."
"Wonderful. I'm glad we took your car."
Arthur felt his spirits lifting as they walked the last block to their destination. The wind was cold and smelled faintly of salt. The case with his recording equipment felt light in his hands.
"All right," he said at length. "This is where we're going."
The building was a monument to pebbly cement and tinted glass. Above the main entrance a tile mosaic depicted improbable scenes from California history in fiestaware colors. There was absolutely no logical reason, Arthur knew, to suppose this was a less promising site than some Victorian gingerbread house with gables and verandas. Still, every once in a while, Arthur found himself wishing that his investigations would take him someplace more interesting than strip malls and medical plazas.
Usually Lil had little sympathy with his romanticism, but if she knew what he was thinking now she didn't comment on it.
Arthur said, "The night watchman is expecting us."
"Does he know what we're here for?"
Arthur peered into the lobby through the row of glass doors. He tried one door and then rapped sharply when it didn't budge. "Yes. As I understand it, he experienced some of the first disturbances."
The man who shuffled over in response to Arthur's knock was wearing a gray suit with a security patch on his left shoulder. He peered at them through the glass panel, and then eased the door open a crack. "Are you the investigators?"
Arthur gave him his hand through the partially open door. "Yes. My name's Arthur Drake. Are you Mr. Brownley? We spoke on the phone."
"Sure." The man pushed the door the rest of the way open and ushered them in.
"This is my associate, Lillian Arsenault."
Brownley nodded. "Mr. Teague is waiting for you in his office. You can take the front elevators up."
The lobby was vast and shadowy. The only light came from a little lamp shining on the front desk, and the linoleum floor gleamed in the half-light. Arthur's leather soles slipped on the freshly waxed surface, and Lil had to steady him with her free hand. The security officer said, "Watch your step there."
Arthur put his case down on the desk and pulled out his tape recorder. "Actually, if you don't mind, Mr. Brownley, we'd like to ask you a couple of questions before we go up."
Brownley looked at the machine suspiciously. "Oh, no sir. I don't mind helping Mr. Teague out if I can. I've been here a good long time, and I know this is a bad building for some people. But nobody said anything about tape recorders."
Arthur didn't allow his disappointment to show on his face. "That's fine, then. Forget the tape recorder. What do you mean about its being a bad building?"
Brownley walked back to his desk and sat down behind it before answering. The wood veneer barrier seemed to comfort him and he said, more deliberately, "People get lost here. I've seen it happen more than once. That's why I like the night watch. It's quiet so you can be sure you're alone."
Arthur glanced aside at Lil. He could hear that her breathing had quickened, and in the dim lighting her eyes were very large. He didn't let himself smile, but his heart felt light. So perhaps there was something here--waxed linoleum, pebbled concrete and all.
Brownley was dialing a number on his desk phone. "You really need to talk to Mr. Teague about all this." Then he said into the phone, "Mr. Teague, the investigators you hired are here. I'll send them on up."
Brownley put the phone down and looked at Lil and Arthur expressionlessly. "Mr. Teague is waiting for you. Suite 501. Take the elevator to the fifth floor and it's the first set of doors to your left."
"Thank you for all your help," Arthur said.
Brownley looked away and muttered something Arthur could not quite hear under his breath.
The elevator let them out on a corridor lit only by the murky yellow glow of the emergency lighting. The only real, white light spilled from an open doorway to their left. "That must be the office," Arthur said.
A silhouetted figure appeared in the door and called to them. "Mr. Drake?"
"Yes, Mr. Teague." Lillian and Arthur stepped forward into the light of the open door. "Allow me to introduce my colleague, Lillian Arsenault."
"Pleased to meet you. Call me Morgan, please." The man took Lil's hand. "Are you the psychic?"
Lil smiled the tight, dry smile that she reserved for such occasions. "You can call me Lil."
"Please, come in."
Morgan Teague was younger than Arthur had supposed from their telephone conversations. In spite of the streaks of gray in his hair, Arthur didn't believe he was over fifty. His shoulders were broad, and under the lizard skin belt holding up his tailored slacks, he had the flat stomach of a loyal health club member. His reception room was notable only for its utter anonymity, and a lingering smell of stale tobacco.
Morgan led the way into a larger room lined with file cabinets in a shade of pink that had been fashionable ten years ago. "This is where my secretary Marty works." He indicated the large desk whose wood veneer was beginning to peel up at the corner. Much of the surface was taken up with a keyboard and computer screen and a gray laser printer the size of a small footstool. An african violet in a two-inch green plastic pot sat on the very edge of the desk, dwarfed by the computer equipment. Though the edges of its leaves were turning brown, it still boasted a scattering of brave pink blossoms.
"Please, come in and have a seat."
Morgan' own office had been decorated in antique reproductions. Arthur and Lil sat down on armchairs upholstered with a curious, slick synthetic that probably repelled stains marvelously. The wood of the armrests showed perpendicular seams against the grain.
Morgan took his seat across from them behind an empty desk. A silk ficus tree in a bronze planter stood in the corner. "Well, I've never hired an exorcist before. What's the first step?"
Lil leaned back and crossed her arms. Arthur summoned up his best client smile. "We're not exorcists," he said. "There have been a few occasions when the church has chosen to take action based on our findings, but we only investigate the phenomenon."
"I understand that. I told you it was Father Benjamin who referred me to you in the first place. He explained that the archdiocese wouldn't authorize an exorcism without documentation."
"In my experience, it's quite rare to encounter phenomena violent enough to call for such extreme measures," Arthur said carefully.
"You probably see a lot of fakes."
"Deliberate fraud is also fairly unusual. What Lil and I do most often is simply find an explanation for what seemed inexplicable and for that reason frightening. I trust in your case we'll be able to do the same."
Morgan grunted. "I already know what the problem is. But the church won't help me unless you people give the OK. I can tell you now, this office is haunted and I know who the ghost is. I just want you and Ms. Arsenault here to prove it for me so I can get something done about it."
"If you don't mind starting at the beginning," Arthur broke in. "I've only told Lil the barest outlines of the story. And I'd like to tape record your statement."
Morgan laughed, a short, humorless bark. "You're going to depose me, huh? Sure, all right. But I don't want any of this getting out. I'd be laughed right out of the tennis club."
Arthur pulled the tape recorder out of his case while Lil said coldly, "We're glad to protect the anonymity of our clients."
"No," Morgan said, " I can't see you spilling any secrets."
Arthur asked quickly, "When did you first begin noticing anything unusual happening around the office?"
"It really wasn't me, you know. It was my secretary, Marty. And as nearly as I can tell now, things had been going on for a month or more before she finally broke down and told me about it. This must have been around late September, early October of last year."
"And what happened, exactly?"
"She refused to go down to the storage room. There's a row of rooms down below the parking garage that people in the building rent for extra storage space--old files and so on. I asked her to go pick up a file for me, and she just refused. She finally told me that there was some kind of bad spirit in the building, and she didn't want to be alone with it down in the storage room."
"What did you think?"
"Marty's not a bad secretary, but she's one of those New Age types--crystals and herb tea, you know what I mean. What could I do? It was inconvenient, but I wasn't ready to fire her over it. And it wasn't long after that that I began noticing things myself. At first it was nothing I could really put my finger on. I'd be working late here, and suddenly get the feeling that there was someone in the outer office, things like that.
"Finally one evening I was so sure that there was someone in the outer office that I called security from my desk phone before I went out to investigate. Of course, no one was there. Brownley came up and helped me look around, but we didn't find anything. I walked him out to the elevator, and when I came back, the top drawer of Marty's desk had been pulled out and dumped upside down. There were staples and paper clips all over the floor. A box of tampons Marty kept in her desk had been ripped open, and they were thrown all around the office."
"How long had you been out of the office?" Arthur asked.
"Oh a minute, two minutes, tops. I knew the intruder had to still be here -- no one could have gotten in or out so fast. I called the security desk from the outer office phone, and I let the phone ring until Brownley got down to it. He told me to get out of the office while he called the police, but I waited right here. I was so mad it didn't really occur to me to be scared until later."
"And when the police came?"
"They looked around and wrote a report, but there was nothing they could actually do, of course. They couldn't explain how someone could have been hiding in this office and gotten out again without me seeing him. I wouldn't be surprised if they suspected Brownley of being up to something--they kept asking him if he'd gone straight back down to the security desk."
"It would be helpful if we could see the police report."
"I've already gotten a copy. I requested it when I started keeping a file on the things that were happening around the office."
Morgan pulled out a thin file folder from a drawer beneath his desk and slid it across to Arthur and Lil. Lil picked it up and glanced through it, then handed the folder to Arthur. Inside was a stack of dated pages, acco-fastened in the folder in ascending chronological order. The police report was near the back.
"This is an extraordinarily valuable record," Arthur said, "May we keep it for now?"
"Sure. I thought you could use it."
"So according to this," Arthur went on, "You've continued to experience phenomena right through the present--items knocked off the desk, pictures falling off the wall, overturned furniture--"
"It would be enough to drive anyone batty."
"Have you ever actually seen anything happen?"
"What do you mean? Of course I've seen it." Morgan gestured to the folder in Arthur's hands. "It's gotten so bad that once or twice a week I'm finding something broken or thrown across the room."
"I mean, for instance, have you actually seen an object levitating?"
"I've seen things flying across the room more times than I can count. Once it was a ream of copy paper. Usually it's pens, notebooks, legal pads, you name it. It's all in there."
Arthur closed the folder and looked up at Teague. "You told me over the phone and again just now that you're certain that a specific, recognizable personality is causing these disturbances. Why do you think that?"
"I've been waiting for you to get to the important part."
"Better late than never," Lil said dryly.
Morgan shot her a cold look. "Once I explain, you'll understand why it's so important that I get a priest in here before something terrible happens. Now, it's been about seven years since I had this one secretary working for me. Her name was Blanche Renwick, and she was a sweet old girl, knew shorthand, typed ninety words a minute, the kind of office skills you can't find for love or money anymore.
"But then things started going wrong. At first it was just little things--things you could put off as just absent-mindedness. She'd forget to write down appointments, get telephone numbers wrong, that sort of thing. But it kept getting worse. I'd come in and find her talking to herself. Or she wouldn't pick up the phone when it rang. She typed envelopes upside down, was rude to the clients, one afternoon she urinated on her chair. Of course I had to let her go.
"Tragic thing was, she killed herself a few weeks later. I met her family at the funeral. It turns out she was a manic-depressive, been in and out of institutions her whole life. It was just my bad luck to hire her while she was on her final downswing."
Arthur said, "Are you suggesting that this woman is responsible for the disturbances you're experiencing now?"
Morgan looked back and forth at the two of them. "Surely it's obvious."
Lil said, "I'm afraid it's not obvious to me."
"It's not just the broken office equipment. Marty's starting to act crazy too. She's starting to act like Blanche."
"In what way?" Lil leaned forward in her chair.
"Just like Blanche, it started out with little things. What I noticed first was she stopped proofreading her letters. When I first hired Marty everything that girl typed was perfect. And then just about the same time she first refused to go down to the storage room, I noticed that her work was starting to get sloppy. She'd misspell clients' names, transpose letters--little things that never used to happen. And she started to forget things--she'd let the supplies run out completely before she ordered new ones, or she wouldn't turn off her computer when she left in the evening.
"It's all pretty minor, I know, and I didn't really connect it with Blanche until I came in one morning and found her trying to replace the copy cartridge in the Xerox machine. It's not hard. There's a little picture diagram on the inside of the panel, and besides, she'd done it dozens of times before. But I found that poor girl sitting there with dry ink smeared all over her face and hands, weeping like she'd just lost her best friend.
"I tell you, I was terrified. It was like Blanche all over again. I managed to get her to go see Jennifer Bowen, a psychiatrist in one of the upstairs offices, but she couldn't find anything wrong with her. And meanwhile the nonsense around the office was getting worse--things were even happening with clients present. I'd been in the office for a couple of hours one afternoon getting a client ready for a deposition, and when we came out, all the waiting room furniture had been turned upside down and stacked in the middle of the floor. You should have heard me trying to explain that.
"So anyway, that's when I went to talk to Father Benjamin. I think Blanche is still here in this office, and I think she's affecting Marty. It has to be stopped before something terrible happens."
"So what's the worst that could happen?" Lil asked ruthlessly.
"Surely it's obvious. If something isn't done now, I'm afraid Marty will end up just like Blanche. In an institution or dead."
Arthur waited until Morgan had left them before unpacking the rest of his equipment. The first video camera he set on top of the desert rose file cabinets, and he placed the thermograph a short distance away. The second video camera he positioned on the credenza behind Morgan Teague's desk in the inner office. When he came back out he asked Lil, "Lights?"
"Dark would be better, but most of these places have emergency lighting. Let's see." She hit the switch by the secretary's desk, and the overhead florescents buzzed and flickered out, save for one long white band over the xerox machine in the alcove. "Looks like there's no way to turn that one off. We'll just have to put up with gloom."
The half-light was drearier than complete darkness would have been. The dim glow of the emergency lighting leeched the color from everything and left no shadows.
"I'm already in the mood for something ghastly," Lil said, sitting down at the secretary's desk chair and crossing her arms over the blotter pad. Arthur pulled one of the antique reproduction chairs out from Morgan's office and sat down beside her.
As the night stretched on, the first thing Arthur became aware of was the inadequate padding on Morgan Teague's expensive chair. No wonder Lil had taken the secretary's chair.
Lil either divined his thoughts--or just saw him squirming in a futile effort to relieve the ache at his tailbone and in the small of his back--and said, "The waiting room chairs are probably more comfortable." Her voice activated all the recording equipment, and tapes began to spin in both rooms.
"Good idea." He stood up and stretched.
Lil unhooked the top button on her linen trousers and slouched back in her chair. Smoke from her cigarette curled slowly towards the ceiling. Arthur settled down on the sofa in the waiting room, and the recorders shut off one after another. He looked around at the dull gray office and let the minutes and then the hours tick away. Facets of Morgan Teague's story kept returning to him, but he didn't allow himself to think too much about them now. He depended on Lil for her insights at this stage of the investigation, having learned long ago that it usually wasn't safe to trust his own first impressions.
He was not aware of any sense of foreboding, but the dim light depressed his spirits, and he began to feel dreary and lonely sitting out in the waiting room, despite the comfortable sofa. He got up and wandered back into the office, resisting the urge to look at his watch. Lil smiled at him as he sat down again in Morgan's straight-backed, armless office chair. From where he now sat he could see into the inner office. The windows there were blank, dusty surfaces.
Some time before dawn his mind began to wander. He was not exactly dreaming, but he was aware that his surroundings had changed. The walls had become sea green, and there were people around him--brisk, impersonal and professional and--oh god, his parents were here too. What would they think, finding him here like this? He tried to explain, but his old shame made him tongue-tied. While he struggled to speak, something twitched in his mind.
The twitch became a slap of pain, and it jerked him upright, shredding the seagreen walls. He saw Lil's face swim up before him, strained and white. He shook himself drunkenly and tried to stand, but the pain coiled behind his eyes like a worm and he staggered, falling to his hands and knees.
Lil was beside him. "What is it? Are you hurt?"
"Oh, Jesus." Arthur tucked his head down and simply tried to keep breathing. He couldn't believe that anything so overwhelmingly awful could last much longer. The dim office lights hurt his eyes, but when he screwed them shut, he found the more painful light was behind his closed lids. The worm in his head twisted again, and he thrashed in agony, wailing. Lil grabbed his shoulders. Her voice reached him through a vast distance of pain and he could not imagine what she might be trying to say.
Then he felt his face suffused with the hot flush of nausea. His diaphragm contracted sharply and he was humiliatingly and violently ill. When it finally ended his arms were shaking, but the terrible pain in his head was gone. An ugly, uncomfortable thought lingered for an instant at the edge of his mind, but he didn't have the strength or inclination to examine it, and it flitted away.
He pushed himself back from the mess on the carpet, and Lil helped him sit up, asking, "Do you need a doctor?" Her voice was as flat and practical as ever.
Arthur shook his head cautiously. "All right then," Lil continued, "Hang on just a second."
She went to the alcove where the Xerox, coffee machine and water cooler stood, and brought back a handful of dampened cocktail napkins and a cup of water. Crouching down beside Arthur, she handed him the napkins first. He wiped his mouth, grimacing.
"Helluva way to catch the flu," Lil said pitilessly.
"I haven't got the flu," Arthur protested weakly. He sipped at the water, swished it around in his mouth, then reached across and spat it out in the lined wastepaper basket under the desk.
"Why couldn't you have reached the trash can the first time?"
Arthur took a careful swallow of water and finally managed a wan smile. "Sorry."
"Will you be OK for a minute by yourself? I'm going to see if I can find a utility closet."
Arthur didn't want to be left alone. The memory of the worm behind his eyes was still very fresh.
Lil's voice softened. "I'll just be a minute. And I'm almost certain it's gone now."
"So you did feel something?"
"Not like you, thank heavens. But I do think we have a live one here."
Arthur was trembling with shock, but he felt the miasma of fear beginning to lift. "I think so too."
"However, Morgan Teague isn't likely to let us come back if he walks in first thing tomorrow morning and steps in a puddle of vomit in the middle of his floor."
"All right. I'm okay. Go ahead."
"Good man. I'll be right back."
Arthur's rooms were gray with the first vestiges of dawn. He had said goodbye to Lil in the lobby. She had taken his arm, and asked with a concern that surprised and touched him, "You are all right now, aren't you? I can come up with you if you like."
"No, I'm fine," he had assured her, and she had reverted to her usual cool manner, patting his cheek with her dry palm and saying, "Then go get some sleep and thank the Goddess that you don't have to get up in a few hours to go to a real job."
Arthur walked across his living room to the coffee table, where he could see the white edges of his tarot cards. After the events of the night, he felt a morbid interest in re-reading the cards he had lain out ten hours before.
But the pattern had been blown apart, and the cards were scattered randomly all over the table, some face down, a few even on the floor, and something had been dropped in the center of the table. It lay there like a bloated, grotesque parody of the elegant tarot cards it had displaced. A distorted human face stared upwards at him, one eyelid drawn so far back that the eye had become a tremendous white orb. A woman's clenched fist held a shiny steel nail file only inches from the vulnerable eyeball.
The apartment was much too quiet. Arthur strained to hear the normal hum of the refrigerator and the central air, but even the steady, distant roar of traffic on Wilshire Boulevard had faded away, until there was nothing left but the throbbing of his own pulse. And in the preternatural stillness, he remembered what he had been thinking before the sudden nausea had emptied his stomach and his mind. He had known what he had to do to stop the awful, unendurable thing coiling behind his eyes. Lil's fingers had been digging into his shoulders, and he remembered now that he had thought, with ridiculous incongruity, that it was a shame that she kept her nails manicured so short.
The thought was no longer so incongruous, and a fierce, involuntary shudder coursed down his spine. He closed his eyes, covering them gently with both hands. His eyelashes brushed against the skin on his palms, and there was a delicate tension in the muscles above his cheeks.
"Arthur? Is that you?"
Arthur uncovered his face. "Yes," he said quietly. "It's me."
The living room was no longer quite as gray, and Marc's voice banished much of the gloom. Arthur reached down and picked up the comic book. It was light enough now for him to read the title Shock SuspenStories blazoned in red above the menaced eyeball. The comic was encased in a stiff, clear mylar sleeve, and knowing Marc's tastes, Arthur supposed it was very old and expensive.
He turned and looked at the boy standing in the bedroom door. "You know, it's bad enough that you leave your school books and homework lying around the place, but comic books?" He was glad to hear that his voice didn't sound as shaky as he still felt. "Couldn't you at least pretend to have some grownup hobbies? You make me feel like Zeus raping Ganymede."
"That sounds promising. Who's Ganymede?" Marc lounged against the door frame and smiled. He had been sleeping in plaid cotton boxers, and a shock of blonde hair hung down over his brow.
Arthur dropped the comic face down on the coffee table. "I didn't know you were planning on coming over tonight. I'm sorry I wasn't here. I was--"
"I know. You and Lil were sitting up in a haunted house somewhere. See any ghosts?"
"No more than usual."
"Uh-huh. At this rate, nobody's ever going to make a movie about you." Marc turned back into the bedroom. "Are you coming to bed? There's still a good half hour or so before the sun comes up."
Arthur was suddenly aware of the bitter taste still in his mouth. His dried sweat had left a sour reek. "You go ahead. I need a shower."
Marc shrugged. "Suit yourself." He padded back into the darkness of the bedroom.
Arthur went to the kitchen, got out a juice glass, and poured himself a drink from the bottle of vodka he kept in the freezer. He drank it quickly, the liquid feeling thick and cold on his raw throat. He left his glass in the top rack of the dishwasher, and then went to the guest bath and took his shower there so that the noise of the taps wouldn't bother Marc.
His sleep was dreamless, and when he awoke, the horror in Morgan Teague's office had retreated to a manageable distance. He rolled over and stretched luxuriously. There was no doubt in his mind now that there was something real and quite terrible in that law office. After months of dutifully investigating phenomena that usually turned out to be the result of shoddy building practices, overactive imaginations and outright fakery, he had finally found what seemed like a bonafide rip through the fabric of the ordinary. His aching stomach muscles were confirmation enough that something astonishing and, for the moment, deliciously inexplicable had indeed reached out and taken a swipe at him.
He rolled over, hoping to find Marc beside him, but of course, it was broad daylight and Marc's side of the bed was empty and cold. Arthur sat up. He wanted to talk to Lil now that he was in his right mind again, but she would be at work until five.
He dressed and wandered out into the living room where he found Marc sitting sideways on the sofa, his feet on the cushions and a textbook open on his knees. He had irreverently swept the tarot cards into a heap at one corner of the coffee table and spread his notebooks out across the rest of the table. His comic books were stacked more neatly to the side.
Arthur regarded the mess and tried to look severe.
Marc said, "Well, well. The zombie walks."
"I've told you you can use the dining room table."
"I hate that table. I always think my elbows are going to go right through the glass. If it's your precious cards you're worried about, I know better than to touch them with my bare hands. I pushed them off with a notebook. But I really don't know why you leave them just laying around if they're so holy."
"Sorry. I'll try to be more careful in my own living room from now on."
"All right then," Marc said. "Apology accepted."
Arthur leaned over from behind the sofa and kissed the top of his head. Marc's hair was stiff with gel and smelled very faintly of Grey Flannel cologne. He brushed Arthur away. "Go away, boy, you bother me."
Arthur came around and began to gather up the tarot cards.
"You're blocking the television," Marc complained.
Arthur hadn't realized the set was on, but he moved aside obediently. "How can you study and watch television at the same time?"
Arthur turned and saw that Marc had dug out one of the video cassettes from last night. On the television screen was the flattened, murky image of Lil sitting at the secretary's desk. She yawned, laced her fingers together and stretched her arms above her head. Then she settled down again, arranging her limbs neatly as a cat, and the picture jumped a little as the recording stopped, only to begin again the next time she stretched and cracked her neck.
"Why on earth are you watching this?"
"I just wanted to know what was more exciting than me last night. I think I'm beginning to understand. It was thrilling a few minutes ago when you actually got up off the chair and walked into the next room."
"I prefer not to watch the tapes too soon after they're taken. It can prejudice the investigation."
Marc shrugged. "So don't watch."
Arthur had never minded before when Marc helped himself to the investigation tapes. Rather than tell him to turn off the tape now, he retreated to the kitchen.
The cold grounds from Marc's breakfast five hours before were still in the coffee filter. Arthur dumped the grounds and the sodden paper filter into the can under the sink, filled a kettle with water and set it on the stove, and then measured enough beans into the electric grinder for three cups. Over the roar of the grinder Marc yelled, "Hey, cut it out. You know that screws up the picture."
Arthur found a loaf of dense black bread on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator and put two slices in the toaster. When the water boiled he poured it over the freshly ground beans, and when the toast popped up he spread both slices with marmalade. He had given up butter two years before, but he still missed it every morning. He found that he was listening for the progress of the video even as he sat down at the breakfast bar, pulling together the crumpled pages of the morning newspaper that Marc had already read and left in a heap.
"All right!" Marc yelled good naturedly. "Our hero makes his reappearance. Looks to me like he's just been sleeping off camera."
Arthur munched toast and washed it down with coffee, and he didn't go into the living room.
"I knew it," Marc said a few minutes later. "You don't really sit up all night. I can definitely see you beginning to nod off here."
Arthur sat with his hands folded on the table in front of the coffee cup and half-eaten toast. He was beginning to feel a wholly unreasonable anger with Marc for insisting on watching the tape.
"Oh my god," said Marc.
Arthur stared down at his hands.
"Oh gross. Jeez."
Marc stalked into the kitchen. "You didn't tell me you were sick."
Arthur picked up his coffee cup again. "I'm not sick."
Marc laid his hand on Arthur's forehead. "Hmm. No fever." He slipped onto the stool beside him. "Don't get all moody on me. I want to know if you're all right."
"I'm all right."
Marc looked at him sharply. "Are you mad at me? I'm sorry about the tarot cards. I know they're important to you. I guess I just wasn't thinking."
"It's not the tarot cards. I'm not angry."
"You're sure acting like it."
Arthur put down his coffee. He reached out and brushed Marc's cheek with the back of his hand. "I'm sorry."
Marc caught his hand. "Don't apologize. I just want to know when something's bothering you."
Marc pulled Arthur's hand to his chest, wrapping his hands more tightly around Arthur's long fingers. "So what happened to you last night?"
"I'm really not sure."
"It wasn't something you ate?"
Arthur finally smiled. "No, I don't think so."
"So what was it? You and Lil meet The Exorcist?"
"Something like that, maybe."
"Jesus. You really think some ghost made you sick?"
"I don't know yet."
"You know that's completely crazy, don't you?" Marc was smiling. "How I got involved with such a crazy old man I have no idea." He bent forward and kissed Arthur's mouth, quick and hard. "I'd like to sweep you off your feet now but I've got class at four and I still have two more problems to solve."
"I knew you couldn't watch television and do homework at the same time."
"Yeah, well, screw you." Marc said happily and went back to the living room. Arthur finished his first cup of coffee and poured himself a second. When he got up and walked through the living room on the way to his office, he and Lil were still frozen on the television screen.
Marc had stopped the tape just a few moments after Arthur had been sick. Lil was crouched beside him with her arm braced across his chest, her mouth a blur of unheard words. Arthur's own head was down and turned partially away from the video camera, so that only one eye was visible. The angle of his head foreshortened his face and made his eye look huge. The iris was entirely black.
Arthur didn't speak until he was sure he could keep his voice level. "Do you mind?"
Marc was already ensconced in a scrawling row of figures. He looked up at Arthur. "What?"
Arthur nodded towards the television.
"Oh. Right. Sorry." He scrambled through the cushions of the sofa for the remote control, and when he found it he shut the television off altogether. "You do look lovely though."
"Thank you." Arthur said dryly, and retreated at last to his office.
The woman who answered the phone when Arthur dialed Morgan Teague's office said, "Law office," without a hint of inflection.
"Is this Marty?" Arthur asked.
"Yes. Who's calling please?"
"Arthur Drake. Is Morgan available?" He wanted to talk to Marty now, but it would be safer not to until he had cleared the interview with Morgan. Having encountered such promising phenomena, it would be intolerable if their client suddenly called off the investigation.
"One moment please."
And then the receiver was transmitting nothing but silence. Arthur was grateful for the lack of music or recorded messages. He gazed out the window and held the phone loosely against his ear. The second bedroom which he used as an office had a view of Signal Hill, and on rare clear days, of the ocean. It was not a clear day. He could scarcely see Signal Hill.
"Just relax now. It'll all be over soon."
Arthur thought he must have misunderstood. "What?"
But the line was silent again. Perhaps half a minute more passed before Marty said, "Mr. Teague's still on the other line. Can you continue to hold?"
"Yes. Of course." Arthur had the strange notion that someone besides Marty had been on the phone with him a moment before.
Then Teague's voice boomed over the wires. "Art! How are you? Did you find out anything last night?"
"It was certainly a suggestive watch. I'm grateful to you for having brought the situation to our attention."
"So what happened?"
"I really can't discuss that until our investigation is complete."
"Uh huh. Are you going to be able to do anything about it?"
"We don't know yet."
"I don't suppose you can tell me how long this is likely to take."
"We're dealing with a very unpredictable, poorly documented and little-understood class of phenomena. I'm afraid it would be irresponsible for me to attempt an estimate right now."
"Art, you sound like a lawyer yourself."
"I've left the recording equipment set up on timers so it will come on between seven at night and six the next morning, in order to keep track of anything that may happen in the office during the night for the next week. I'll need to come over once or twice just to change the tapes and make sure the timers are working properly, but otherwise I won't have to bother you with it."
"Sure, I don't have a problem with that. But I want to tell you something. You and I may have all the time in the world, but Marty seems to be getting worse every day. This morning I caught her trying to throw out an entire box of ballpoint pens because she said they wouldn't write. You know why they wouldn't write? Because she wasn't taking the caps off. I sat there this morning and watched this sweet, bright girl pick up one pen after another and demonstrate to me that they didn't work, and the cap was still on every one of them--I'm telling you, it gave me chills."
It gave Arthur chills as well. "Actually, it was Marty I wanted to discuss with you. I'd like to talk to her about her perceptions of these recent events."
There was a long silence. Arthur was the one who broke it. "From everything you've told me, it's clear that these phenomena are centered around her at this point. You'll hamstring the entire investigation if you don't allow me to talk to the principal."
"I don't want you frightening her," Morgan said. "She's in a very fragile state right now."
"Of course not," Arthur said, holding his irritation in check.
"Well, all right then," Morgan agreed reluctantly. "I'll get Marty back on the line and you can talk to her about arranging a time."
Lil stopped by on her way home from the office. Her face seemed gray and drawn from putting in a full day at work after sitting up with Arthur all night. Nevertheless, she was the one who asked him, "How are you feeling?"
"You look better than you did last night. You know, I always thought I was a pretty tough old bird, but when you flipped out last night, I had some second thoughts about this whole line of work."
"I didn't flip out."
"Sweetheart, you were yelling and flopping around like something was trying to suck out your brains. I haven't seen anything like that since I was a kid doing touch readings in Houston and someone brought me a paving stone from Dachau. I practically swallowed my own tongue."
"You don't think--"
"No, I don't think twenty thousand people were gassed in Morgan Teague's waiting room. But I do think we should look into the history of that building. I don't know yet if something bad happened there some time in the past, or whether something nasty has just recently taken up residence. Either way, I don't believe another night watch is safe until we have a better idea of what we're dealing with."
"Marc's always complaining about our notable lack of heroics."
"Well he's right. We're so stodgy and sensible that sometimes even I despair of us. Have you had a chance to read Teague's journal yet?"
"Yes. Just a minute, I'll get it."
Arthur retrieved the file folder from his office, then rejoined Lil at the dining room table. "In most ways it seems to be a classic poltergeist manifestation. Pens and pencils flying across the room, overturned furniture. And it's costing Morgan something."
Arthur flipped through the folder and showed Lil a typewritten page and photocopied receipt. "On January 15, at about two in the afternoon, the computer monitor on Marty's desk was pushed off onto the floor. Almost five hundred dollars for a new one. And look at this. Just a month later, February 12th, Marty said she saw a fountain pen levitate up off Morgan's desk and go spinning across the room. The rug in his office had to be replaced."
"Mmm. It does look like typical poltergeist phenomena, with Marty as the focal point."
"Morgan seems to think so as well. I'm surprised that it hasn't occurred to him that simply firing her might be the easiest solution."
Lil was quiet for a few minutes as she browsed through the folder. At length she looked up. "Well, it's all garden-variety and inconclusive. Marty could be focusing and projecting some type of residual energy in that building. Or she might be telekinetic. But the most likely explanation is that she's simply pitching things around herself. The way that office is set up, it would be easy for her to sit at her desk and lob things into Morgan's office."
"But she wasn't present the first time--when Morgan was working late and the desk drawer was overturned."
Lil cocked her head to one side. "Maybe she was there after all."
"The police report doesn't mention her."
"Morgan had a wedding ring on. If he was there with his secretary that night, I presume he wouldn't want it getting out. I'm sure she would have had plenty of time to go hide in the ladies room or whatever before the police came."
"It is possible," Arthur agreed, unhappily. "That would explain why Morgan hasn't simply fired her."
"And if Morgan is trying to disentangle himself, it might give her a motive for destroying office equipment. It would also explain why Morgan wants to write her off as hopelessly irrational."
"All right. Even granting all that, something did happen to me last night in that office."
"I know it did." Lil's voice changed. "I told you, I haven't felt anything that powerful in years."
Arthur couldn't stop himself from beginning to grin, even as Lil continued, "That's why I don't think it's safe to spend another night there until we have a better idea what's going on. Have you talked to Morgan yet?"
"Yes. He grudgingly gave me permission to talk to Marty. I'm going to go interview her on Sunday afternoon. Would you like to come along?"
"I'm sorry, I can't. It's tax time, you know. I'll be at the office all weekend with crazed clients."
"You know how much I appreciate your sitting up with me last night. I hope you're not too exhausted."
"Nonsense. Morgan Teague's office is as promising a site as we've come across in two or three years, you know that. Just keep me informed until I can get some time away from work. Has Teague said it's all right to leave the recording equipment set up?"
"Good. I'm trying to be open-minded, but I don't trust that man. I can't help but think that as soon as we start collecting real evidence he'll change his mind and shut the whole thing down."
"I know. The same thing's occurred to me."
"Hopefully it won't happen too soon."
As Lil gathered up her purse Arthur asked, "Would you like to stay for dinner? I've got a couple of game hens in the freezer that I could mike and have in the oven in half an hour."
"Thanks for the invitation, but I'm off to meet my young man. Where's your young man this evening?"
"A likely story. Just let me know how the interview goes."
Marty lived half a block south of Pico Boulevard, in an old neighborhood of small, four-unit apartments and bungalow-style houses. Her apartment building was a crumbling tile and stucco affair, badly in need of fresh paint and a roof job. Still, the bougainvillea twining over the front balustrade was lush and beautiful. Rose bushes bloomed in the grassy verge between the street and the sidewalk, bent double with the weight of blowzy, fat blossoms. Every gust of wind shook more white petals free.
There was no doorbell. Arthur knocked and then waited on the shaded veranda. Gardeners were mowing a lawn across the street. An old woman wrapped in a bathrobe stood on the front porch of the house next door and stared at Arthur. It was a hot spring day, and the air was heavy with the smell of sugar and yeast from the bakeries on Pico. A jay fussed somewhere nearby.
"Who is it?"
Arthur spoke to the blank door. "Arthur Drake. We talked on the phone Thursday."
Locks and chains rattled on the other side of the door, and then Marty smiled out at him. "Come on in."
Marty had a round, sweet face, and she wore her blonde hair pulled up into an untidy ponytail to show the row of unmatched silver earrings in both ears. Her breasts moved heavily under her cotton shirt.
"Thank you for seeing me," Arthur said.
"It's no trouble. Sundays are always dead anyway. Excuse the mess."
There was no mess. Her living room was clean and sparsely furnished. The sofa was obviously second-hand, but the television set and the stereo components seemed new. On the mantle above the bricked-up fireplace was a small bronze laughing Buddha and a wooden incense burner. The old fashioned picture window was bare and looked out onto the red bougainvillea blossoms. All of the available wall space was covered with large, unframed oil paintings.
"Are these yours?" Arthur asked
"The pictures you mean? Mmm-hmm, I was an art major at UC Irvine. I took the job with Morgan after I graduated so that I could get out of Orange County and keep on painting. Not very practical of me, I guess."
"It sounds practical to me."
"Yeah, well, maybe it made sense while I was still painting."
Arthur stopped waiting for an invitation, and simply took a seat on the sofa. He asked, "You're not painting anymore?"
Marty plopped down on the sofa beside him and drew her legs up. Under the black leggings, her thighs were sturdy and round. "Nope. I'm twenty-five years old and what do I have to show for it? A dead-end job, no savings, no health insurance, driving the same car I had in college. Oh god, I'm sorry. I really doubt that you came over here to listen to me whine about my life."
"Actually, I'm curious about your painting. When did you stop?"
Marty crossed her arms over her chest. "Oh, that. It's been six months since I picked up a paintbrush. I know because my sister gave me a gift certificate to an art supply shop for my birthday last October. I went and spent it all on paint, and I haven't cracked one of those tubes since I brought them home."
"Do you think it could have something to do with anything that's happened at work?"
"I've wondered about that. All day long I'm answering the phones and typing letters to insurance companies. I guess it would make sense if all the creativity was just sort of squelched out of me after three years of that."
"You think that's what happened?"
"I don't know. It seemed like a good job in the beginning--I was making enough to pay the bills, and I could totally leave it behind when I went home at night. I'm not so sure anymore."
She caught a lock of blond hair and twined it around and around her index finger.
"Dave--that's my ex-boyfriend--told me I was turning into a little office drone. I guess he's right, because I wasn't surprised when he dumped me. I wasn't really upset when it happened, either. You know, we used to go to the clubs, but I just wasn't into it anymore. For one thing, I stopped dancing."
A sleek, small-boned black cat came strolling into the living room, its thin tail crooked up over its back. The cat ambled over to Arthur with a deliberate show of nonchalance and wound itself about his feet.
"Why did you stop dancing?"
She laughed shortly. The cat made a small, complaining noise and abandoned Arthur to jump up onto Marty's lap. She scratched its head absently. "You know what it was like? It was like I had just forgotten how. Too long in that damn office, I guess. Oh god, listen to me babbling away. You came to talk about the office, not me, I know."
"Well, I was interested in your impressions of the office."
"I can see it now. Memoirs of an Office Drone. I'm not even a very good drone anymore. I guess Morgan told you about the box of ink pens."
"He mentioned it."
"Weirdest thing. I dunno what I was thinking of." The cat on her lap turned around twice and settled down, nestling its narrow, elegant head against Marty's round stomach. She began stroking the animal's back with both hands, and the cat purred.
"That's a beautiful cat."
"Thanks. I call him Little Brother. I kept meaning to think up a better name, but I just never did." Marty spaced her words with deliberation, and more and more of her attention seemed to be focused on stroking the black cat. "So was there something you wanted to ask me about? I'm sorry. I've forgotten your name."
"Arthur. Did you tell me that before?"
"I may have forgotten to."
"Mmmm." Marty continued petting the cat. She seemed to have lost interest in the interview. Arthur sat beside her on the couch without speaking, wondering how long she would let the silence continue. The cat blinked in luxurious drowsiness and its purring became fainter and fainter, finally ending altogether. Marty let her hand rest on the cat's glossy flank. Her head was slightly bowed and though her eyes were open, Arthur doubted whether she was seeing anything in the room. The jay began fussing outside again, and the noise of the lawnmower across the street stopped.
Then with the usual perversity of its species, the cat abruptly jerked itself into wakefulness and leaped down off Marty's lap. Marty sighed and looked at Arthur. "I used to love to dance. Every weekend me and Dave would go dancing. What did you say your name was?"
"It's Arthur," he said. "Do you remember anything unusual happening at the office recently?"
"Oh, that's right. You're the guy that Morgan hired. Do you really hunt ghosts? How can you make a living doing that?"
"I'm lucky. I don't actually have to make a living at it."
"Really? You have another job?"
"Not exactly. My grandmother was quite wealthy."
"No shit. That's like royalty. I never met anyone who didn't have to work for a living. How much money did she leave you?"
"Enough to live more comfortably than I probably deserve."
"Good for you. Man. Would you like a diet coke or something?"
"No, thank you."
"Yeah, okay. So you think Morgan's office is haunted?"
"It would be more helpful for me to know what you think."
Marty was quiet. Arthur thought she was going to lapse into her half-dreaming state again, but instead she surprised him by saying, "Morgan thinks the ghost of his old secretary Blanche is there, but I'm not so sure."
"Why is that?" Arthur asked, a little startled.
"I just think it's more--I don't know--more complicated than that. Like when Morgan's Mont Blanc fountain pen went flying across the room. Have you been to the office? Did you notice that the carpet in his office is new? That's because when the pen sailed across the room it spattered ink all over everything. They were able to scrub the walls and desk clean, but the carpet had to be replaced. Morgan was furious." Marty smiled slyly. "So that could have been Blanche. But everything all together--no. I mean, I don't believe a ghost can hurt you. And something's already gotten to me."
"What do you mean?"
"Can't you tell?" Marty suddenly clutched at her forehead with both hands. "Don't tell me you can't tell."
The black cat made an urgent sound and leaped up onto the sofa. It stalked across Arthur's legs to stand on Marty's lap, pressing its head against her upraised arms and demanding her attention with repeated, mewling cries.
As before, Marty began to stroke its head, and the repetitive motion seemed to calm her. She looked over at Arthur. "Would you like to stay?"
"With me. My god. Has it gotten that bad? I think Dave and Morgan are both scared of me. Are you scared of me too?" She stopped petting the cat, who again jumped down off her lap. Without waiting for Arthur to answer her, she pulled her shirt up over her head, oblivious to the unshaded window. She held her heavy breasts in her hands, pressing back against her rib cage until the soft white flesh spilled between her fingers.
"I'm not scared of you." Arthur retrieved the t-shirt and attempted to give it back to her. "But I am worried about you."
Marty snatched the shirt out of his hands and flung it across the room. "What's the matter? Are you some kind of faggot?"
"Some kind, yes."
"Oh shit." She crossed her arms over her chest. "Just my luck."
"I don't think that I'm what you need right now."
"That's for damn sure."
"I think you need help. I'd be glad to set up an appointment for you to see a doctor I know."
Getting up, Marty retrieved the t-shirt and clutched it against her front. "Morgan already sent me to a doctor."
"She said I was fine. Something in that goddamn building stole my mind, and the doctor said I was just fine. So forgive me if I don't want to see any more doctors."
"I want to help you if you'll let me."
"Look, this is getting ridiculous. I don't mean to be rude, but would you mind leaving now?"
Arthur stood. "Can we meet again later? I think there's more we need to discuss."
"No. I don't want to talk about it anymore."
Arthur took one of his cards from his wallet and laid it on top of the stereo console. "I'm leaving my phone number. If you ever need help, or if you just want to talk, please call me, anytime."
"Yeah, right." She turned away from him, and Arthur let himself out.
The message light was blinking on his answering machine when Arthur got home. He set down the brown paper bag of bagels that he had bought on Pico Boulevard and dialed Lil's number. Even though she had told him she would probably be at work today, he felt unreasonably put out when her own answering machine took the call.
"Hello Lil? This is Arthur. I just got back from talking to Marty." He paused, hoping that she would pick up the phone. When she didn't he went on, "So give me a call when you get in. It seems hard to believe that Morgan Teague's doctor didn't find anything wrong with her. I think we should try to get her to see another doctor. She seems all right at first, but when you talk to her for a few minutes you can tell that there's something wrong. She seems to be aware of it too, and she thinks it's because of the building. If she's right, then that place really may be dangerous. Give me a call when you can."
Arthur set the receiver down and played back the message waiting for him on his own answering machine, thinking belatedly that it might be from Lil.
When Marc came in three hours later Arthur was sitting on the sofa watching CNN. He was just a little drunk. Marc threw down his backpack and pried the glass out of Arthur's hand.
"Ugh. This tastes like lighter fluid."
"I don't see anyone forcing you to drink it." Arthur reclaimed his drink.
Marc flopped down on the sofa beside him. "Isn't it a little early for you to be boozing?"
"I got a message."
"What, from the other world? You know, Arthur, sometimes you make me feel like I'm sleeping with Barnabas Collins."
"It's my parents."
Marc sat back. "Oh."
"They're thinking about buying a condominium and moving to South Carolina."
"Well, more power to them."
"But they don't want to sell the house. They want me to come back home and live there."
Marc snorted. "That's crazy. You've been in L.A. for fifteen years. Why on earth would you go back to Georgia now?"
"They'd like the house to stay in the family. I can understand their feelings. My grandmother built the place."
Marc cut him off. "Even putting aside for a moment the fact that your life is out here now, it's hard for me to believe that you could even think about living there again. I mean, it's one thing to investigate haunted houses. It's another thing to live in one."
"No," Arthur agreed, crossing his arms protectively over his chest. "I'm not really thinking about moving there again. But I did call them back and tell them I'd go home for a couple of weeks to help them decide what to do with furniture and books."
"Baby, when's the last time you went home?"
Arthur tried to smile. "I don't know." He looked away, feeling a humiliating twitch at the corner of his mouth. "Yes, I do. It was Christmas break, my senior year of college."
"Uh huh. Why don't you call them back and tell them you don't think you can make it after all?"
"No. I really can't. I owe them this much, at least."
"All right. When are you going?"
"Lil and I just started this new investigation, so I suppose it would be no earlier than next month."
"Put it off till after my exams and I can come with you. I'll keep the bogeymen away."
Arthur bent forward and took Marc's beautiful head in both hands, and did not know what to say.
Marc tolerated the awkward embrace good-naturedly for a few moments before pulling himself free. "It's not that big a deal. I'd love to see the ancestral manse with you. It'll be like that Poe story. You always did remind me of Roderick Usher."
Arthur took a deep breath. "I can't."
"I can't take you home with me."
For a moment Marc was silent. Then he laughed unconvincingly. "What, are you scared your folks will think I'm too young for you? For chrissake, Arthur, you're a grownup now. You can pick your own friends."
"It's not that."
Marc said slowly, "I don't think I want to hear this."
"Are you telling me they don't know--anything?"
Arthur let his empty hands lie open on his lap.
"Aw, Christ, man. I can't believe it. You're not out to your own parents?" Marc got up and stalked across the room and back. "My own lover hasn't told his parents that he's queer? Jesus, what's the point of it all? What's the point of anything?"
"This is a personal decision about my private life. It doesn't have anything to do with--"
"It's all about private life, you asshole. I was fifteen years old when I told my folks. My hip, liberal father nearly slapped my head off. I guess it's one thing to go to AIDS benefits, and something else to find out your own son's a faggot, right? And afterwards I'm sitting on the edge of the bathtub, and Mom's crying and putting Neosporin on my split lip and telling me I should probably find another place to stay till I come to my senses."
Arthur wanted to hold him. Instead he only said, "I don't think I have to justify this to you."
"Maybe not. But I wish you'd try because I sure can't understand it."
"It would only hurt them. They're sixty years old, Marc. They wouldn't understand it, and there's nothing I could tell them that would make them understand. I just can't do it, not even for you."
Some of the anger left Marc then. Arthur could almost see it slipping away as his shoulders slumped and his chin dropped. But he hadn't given up.
"Arthur, I don't think you're giving them credit. I mean, you haven't gone out with a woman in what, twenty-five years? You really think they don't suspect?"
Arthur managed a smile. "They just think I'm not very good with girls."
"They've got that right."
"Marc, I've told you what it was like growing up in that house."
"You've told me."
Arthur suddenly felt cold. "And you don't believe me."
"Of course I believe you. But just because your parents didn't see the monsters under the bed back then doesn't mean they couldn't accept the truth about you now."
Arthur looked wonderingly across at the stranger in his home. All this time, he had believed Marc understood.
He had first told Marc about his haunted childhood one overcast day last December. While the gray sea washed up against the empty beach, they had drunk pots of sweet black coffee at an outside cafe on the Venice boardwalk, and Arthur had tried to describe the darkness in his family house.
The shadows and voices had been everywhere. Something that whispered behind his wardrobe, a rustling shower curtain in the upstairs bath, footsteps in the attic. As a child, Arthur had coped as best he could, mostly with night lights and prayers to Jesus, but he never got used to the relentless beating of the irrational and inexplicable, and he had slept with the lights on until he went away to college. In ten years of investigating paranormal phenomena, he had yet to encounter another site with such dense and relentless hauntings.
His parents had been oblivious to it all. As a child, Arthur had supposed they were being cruel and perverse when they denied seeing the things that were so terrifyingly real to him. But over the years he had managed to forgive them. They didn't choose not to see. They were simply unable to. The world they lived in had no place for irrational fears, and they could no more have perceived the ghosts that tormented Arthur than they could have seen infrared light.
Arthur rubbed his eyes with one hand. The vodka had given him a headache. "I remember one Christmas morning in particular. I guess I was eight or nine, I couldn't have been much older than that. We were opening presents, and there was something in the room with us. It was like a little black dog, but the outlines weren't very clear. Just a small dark thing with blue eyes. It was pacing around the Christmas tree, whining and crying and finally I couldn't stand it anymore, and I told my father that I could see it. I didn't back down when he told me I was imagining things. I kept insisting it was there until Mom started crying and Dad sent me to my room."
Arthur paused, groping for the words that could make Marc understand. "Seeing my parents like that--so frightened and confused--it was worse than anything else I ever saw or heard in that house. And I can't face their being afraid now."
Marc just stared at him.
At length, Arthur shrugged and said, "You're right. I am a coward. I've been afraid of shadows my whole life. I thought you knew that by now."
Marc picked up his backpack and fished out the card key for the downstairs lobby. He dropped it on the coffee table in front of Arthur. Then he pried the front door key off his key ring and dropped it as well. "Okay. I'm out of here."
He took elaborate care not to slam the door on his way out.
Arthur watched another twenty minutes of news. Then he got up and went to the kitchen. He wrapped each of the bagels in a sheet of wax paper and stacked them in the freezer one by one. Without Marc here they would get hard and stale before anyone got around to eating them.
Arthur spent most of the next week researching the history of Morgan Teague's office. Shuttling between the downtown Hall of Records and the microfilm room in the Santa Monica public library, he learned that the building had been constructed in 1951 by a long-defunct corporation, and that it had changed hands more than a dozen times since then. Tracing the tenants who had occupied Morgan' suite of offices during the intervening forty years was the more daunting task. Arthur came home every night with his eyes raw and burning from hours in front of a microfilm reader, and his meticulously compiled list of tenants did nothing to explain the sudden outbreak of chaos in a hitherto unremarkable law office.
Up until the mid-sixties the office had been a medical suite, occupied by a series of general practitioners, dentists, two pediatricians and a psychiatrist. The rooms had been remodeled around l966, and since then the space had been leased primarily by businessmen. Morgan Teague had moved in in l984.
On Wednesday evening, Arthur sat in his office poring over the information he had managed to collect so far with a growing sense of pessimism. The list of lost and forgotten enterprises that had occupied that suite over the years was a rather melancholy one, but nothing in it explained why office equipment had begun levitating, or why Marty would have stopped painting and dancing. It suggested no reason at all for the sudden burst of pain behind Arthur's eyes while he sat in that quiet, lonely office at three a.m. last Wednesday night. He noticed only that the turnover rate of tenants was perhaps rather high--Morgan Teague's nine years in the office was a noticeable exception. But unless he could track down and speak to some of the old tenants, he hesitated to draw any conclusions even from that.
He was frustrated and tired when he went to bed, and he dreamed that night that he was a boy again in his parents' house. In his dream he lay awake on the dark four-poster bed in his old room, listening to the faint sounds drifting up from the basement. One of the monsters in the house was moving. It shuffled wetly, as though a very tired old man were splashing through water that might have flooded the stone cellars ten or twenty or fifty years before. Arthur lay rigid with eyes open to the pallid glow of nightlights in his bedroom. He was praying desperately that the dreadful sounds would simply go away.
But, then, as often happened in his dreams, the passivity and terror of his childhood slowly left him. At length Arthur was able to push the bedclothes aside and stand up, a grown man, armed now with half a lifetime's experience in confronting what had once terrified him. He made his way down the back staircase to the kitchen, where moonlight was shining though the lace eyelet on the windows. Something stood beside the refrigerator. Arthur stopped, his heart in his throat, but then the refrigerator door opened, and in the light his father stood revealed wearing pajamas and a house robe, pouring himself a glass of milk.
"What are you doing up at this hour, Arthur?"
"Nothing, Dad. I couldn't sleep. I thought I heard something."
"Have you been reading ghost stories again?"
"No, Dad. I promise."
As he talked to his father, Arthur began to dwindle again, and the hard-won accomplishments of adulthood slipped away from him. And as he fell back into childhood, the monster in the cellar began to ascend the basement stairs.
His father was saying, "I don't want to see you yawning in church tomorrow. We've talked about this before. This obsession of yours has gone much too far when it wakes you up in the middle of the night."
Arthur stared at the basement door. The knob was twisting back and forth, and the air was suddenly rank with mildew.
His father finished his glass of milk and set it down on the counter. "Maybe we should go see Pastor Humphrey tomorrow and talk about this as a family."
Arthur turned and fled up the stairs. His bedroom door was shut. He wrenched it open and stepped through into the back room of one of the West Village clubs he had visited years ago, back when he'd been a student in New York. It was good to be here again, even though most of the men who lined the walls had cold, hungry eyes. They wore Levi's or jock straps or nothing at all, and looking around at them Arthur was gripped by a fierce, wonderful longing.
He began to move through the crowd. He was looking for someone, but he knew that he had all the time in the world to find him. Faces came and went. A young man with a short blonde mustache, his arms so thickly muscled they hung crooked at his sides, stepped up to Arthur and looked at him full in the face until Arthur brushed him aside.
At length his attention was drawn to the center of the shadowy room, where a boy was stepping out of his jeans. Naked, he lay belly down over a small bar table and waited. He was slighter than many of the other men in the room, and in contrast to the articulated bodies around him, his slender form was long and smooth. For long moments no one approached him, and Arthur had a curious thought. He suspected that he was the one lying there in the midst of the crowd, that it was his own long fingers gripping the edge of the table in pained anticipation.
Arthur moved towards the boy. He had to get very close to see that the head hanging down at the edge of the table was blonde, not dark, and he gasped, ecstatic in his relief.
Two men came up behind the boy on the table, both holding doubled-up leather belts. While they beat him, Arthur stepped closer and fumbled one-handed at his own jeans. Passion made him clumsy. He twisted the fingers of his other hand in the boy's blonde hair and yanked his head up.
Marc looked up at him. He was whimpering from the blows falling on his thighs and buttocks, but the expression in his beautiful blue eyes didn't waver.
And then the slaps of leather on flesh changed to something else. Arthur looked up. He was back in his old room, standing beside the four-poster bed. Marc was sprawled across the counterpane, and Arthur was still holding his head. His father was just outside, pounding on the bedroom door so violently that it shivered in its frame.
"Don't you dare run away from me, Arthur. Do you hear me? Open up this minute."
Marc shuddered on the bed. Arthur flung himself down over him and caught Marc up his arms, then tenderly pressed his lips to the hot, soft flesh on his bruised and welted back.
Arthur woke up twisted in wet sheets, the guilty pleasure of the dream rapidly ebbing into melancholy. He was thinking, not for the first time, that Marc had never even known the beautiful young men Arthur had once loved, back in the days when he had been too thin and shy to be much more than a tourist in the West Village. Nevertheless, Marc was the angry one, the one who went to protest rallies at the Federal building and who had saved up for months to go to the March on Washington. How absurd to have hoped he would understand Arthur's awkward, old-fashioned shame. Arthur was only surprised that Marc had stuck around as long as he had.
He extricated himself from the sheets. All at once he had a pounding headache.
A young brunette woman whom Arthur had never seen before was sitting at Marty's desk when he came into Teague's office. She glanced up and smiled. "Can I help you?"
"Arthur Drake. I'm here to change the tapes and check the timers.
She blinked politely. "I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about. Is Mr. Teague expecting you?"
"We didn't have a firm appointment for this morning but, yes, he'll know what I'm here for."
She looked doubtful. "Well, it is awfully hectic today with the funeral this afternoon and all. If you don't have an appointment, maybe it would be better if you came back another time."
Arthur steadied himself with both hands on the edge of the desk. The headache that had been with him all morning had suddenly gotten much worse.
"Maybe you better go sit down. I'll let Mr. Teague know you're here."
"Please just answer my question." Arthur straightened up. "Has something happened to her?"
The woman retreated more firmly into icy depths of secretarial reserve. "If you'll just sit down, I'll let Mr. Teague know you're here."
Arthur turned away from her desk, and the woman finally picked up the phone to say quietly, "Mr. Teague? There's an Arthur Drake here. He says he's here to change the tapes, or something like that. He's asking about Marty."
There was a moment of silence. Then she said defensively, "I'm sorry. How was I supposed to know?"
Arthur turned back. She raised her eyes to meet his and said to him, "Mr. Teague can't see you today. You'll have to come back another time."
"Please tell Morgan that I want to see him right away."
Before the woman could protest, Arthur continued, "He's in possession of several thousand dollars worth of my recording equipment. If he's not prepared to be billed for its loss, then I really must speak to him."
She picked up the phone again and said simply, "Mr. Teague, he won't go away."
Arthur didn't wait any longer. He walked past Marty's desk and let himself into the inner office.
Morgan was sitting behind his desk. He looked up at Arthur with eyes that were swollen and bruised, as though from hours of crying, and said calmly, "It's all right, Amy. I'll handle it."
The intercom amplified her youth and uncertainty. "I'm really sorry, Mr. Teague. I just didn't--"
Morgan cut her off by punching a button on his phone. Then he said to Arthur, "You've got a hell of a nerve, Mr. Drake."
"She killed herself Monday night."
Arthur had been dreading the worst since the first sight of the brunette head bent over Marty's desk. Even so, grief closed his throat, and for a speechless few moments he couldn't stop thinking of the laughing Buddha on her mantle. The pain in his head throbbed with the beating of his pulse.
Morgan went on, "Her sister told me that she stirred Xanax into a bowl of banana pudding and washed it all down with tequila. Marty could be very efficient when she wanted to be."
Arthur finally managed to say only, "She seemed upset when I saw her on Sunday."
Morgan swallowed and drummed his fingers on the desk. Arthur waited miserably, remembering the way Marty had stood clutching her tee shirt against her chest while she asked him to go.
Finally Morgan said, "I blame myself, of course. Instead of getting Marty to a doctor, I allowed a New Age charlatan to go fill her head up with god knows what kind of horror stories."
Arthur didn't say anything.
"You just couldn't leave well enough alone, could you?" Morgan demanded with heat and little logic. "I hope you can live with yourself after this. I'm not sure how I will."
"I'll take my stuff and go." Arthur said quietly.
"I think that's a good idea." Morgan bent down over the open file on his desk and didn't say anything further to him.
In the outer office, Amy watched him with a slightly awed expression. Arthur said only, "Thank you" and then "goodbye" to her after he had packed his satchel.
He drove up to Westwood without allowing himself to think about where he was going. When he got there he circled the steep, narrow streets above campus for a quarter of an hour before he gave up and paid for parking in one of the lots in the Village. It was foolish to leave the car with all the recording equipment in the trunk, but he trudged up the hill to Marc's apartment without giving it a second thought.
A boy Arthur did not know answered the door and regarded him with a mixture of amusement and suspicion when he asked for Marc.
"He's not here."
"Do you know where he is?"
"Who's asking? Wait a minute--you must be Drake."
"Arthur Drake. It's nice to meet you." He extended his hand.
The boy grinned in disbelief, but he shook Arthur's hand anyway. "I'm Bill. I'm not sure where Marc is. I don't know if he had class this afternoon or if he's just at the library. Come on in if you like. Robert's here and he might know."
He led the way through a living room cluttered with books and at least a week's worth of newspapers. An empty pizza box was open on the coffee table. One bicycle was propped behind the sofa and a second stood in the narrow hallway.
The door of Marc's bedroom was partially open. Arthur caught a glimpse of the Krazy Kat poster hanging on the wall, an unmade bed, and rows of cardboard boxes stacked with comic books.
Bill knocked on the closed door at the other end of the hall. "Hey Rob. Open up."
"What is it?"
"Come on in."
Robert looked as though he had been sitting at his computer for several days. He was wearing gray sweatpants and his hair stood up in short brown spikes all over his head. "Hi Arthur. How you doing?"
"I'm fine. And you?"
Robert assumed the slightly pained expression of a young man struggling to be tactful. "I'm all right. But if you're, like, looking for Marc, I dunno if he really wants to see you right now."
"Oh." Arthur couldn't figure out what to do with his hands. He crossed his arms over his chest, then dropped them back to his sides again. "Well, if you'd tell him I stopped by."
"'Course. No problem."
"Thank you." Arthur turned away, and Bill saw him to the door.
"Sorry about that," Bill said. "I didn't know."
Feeling like a foolish old man, Arthur only nodded and escaped as quickly as he could.
On the street outside the apartment he stopped and finally thought about what he was doing. A woman who had been alive on Sunday was dead now. The research that he had hoped would help her was useless. And now he supposed he just wanted Marc to hold him and tell him that it wasn't his fault.
A group of students pushed by him on the sidewalk, the girls and boys all strong and straight in spite of the weight of their backpacks. They looked at Arthur with the fleeting curiosity of the very young, wondering, no doubt, what the middle-aged man in the suit was doing hanging around in the student ghetto. It occurred to Arthur that the probably scandalous motives they ascribed to his presence were not far wrong.
All at once, he was tired of feeling self-conscious. The dull headache pounded on behind his eyes as he walked back down the hill. He left his car parked where it was and walked two blocks further east, past all the t-shirt boutiques and compact disc stands of the Village. His destination was an overpriced lounge on the top floor of one of the hotels off Wilshire. Once there, he settled in at a corner table, and for the next few hours he looked just like the other businessmen enjoying the expensive luxury of wasting a Thursday afternoon drinking vodka martinis and watching the mist gather on the coast.
He gave Lil until six o'clock to get home, and then he called her from one of the pay phones outside the oak-lined bathrooms.
"Arthur? What's wrong?"
"Marty killed herself."
"Oh my god. Where are you?"
"Brennans. In Westwood."
"Would you like me to come down?"
"No, this place is starting to scare me. I'll meet you somewhere. What about that bar around the corner from your place?"
"Sure. Are you certain you're all right to drive?"
"I'm fine. See you in half an hour."
Arthur retrieved his car, paying fifteen dollars for the privilege of having parked in Westwood all day, then drove straight out towards Lil's. He thought about stopping at his condominium and dropping off the recording equipment, but he didn't want to face the empty rooms.
The neighborhood bar was a welcome change after the bleak afternoon in Brennans. The air was thick with cigarette smoke and the warm reek of popcorn, sawdust and beer. Colored flyers advertising happy hour specials were tacked to the walls, between the street signs and license plates that served as decoration. There was a basketball game on the big screen television, but the sound was turned down so as not to interfere with the music playing on the ancient reel-to-reel tape machine behind the bar.
Lil spotted him as he climbed up to the balcony level and met him at the head of the stairs. Arthur wrapped his arms around her shoulders and pressed his cheek to her soft brown hair.
Lil pulled back and looked up at him. "How are you doing?"
"Better. Thanks for meeting me."
She led him back to a booth and they sat down across a pocked wooden table that was yellow with aging varnish. Lil had already ordered a vodka for Arthur. The ice cubes were mostly melted, and the paper napkin underneath was soaked with condensation from the glass.
Lil reached across the table and squeezed his hand. "You know that this isn't your fault."
"She was upset when I left Sunday."
"I know. You said that on the message you left on my machine. I'm sorry I didn't get back to you. It was busy at work, and I just didn't realize how badly off she really was."
"How could you know?" Arthur asked. "I was the one who saw her. I've been thinking I should have tried to get in touch with her family. She has a sister in town."
Lil cut him off. "Morgan said Marty had been a little crazy for months now. Her family must have known. And if they didn't, I don't think anything a complete stranger could have said to them would have made much of a difference."
"Maybe not. But I can't help thinking--"
"Don't." Lil's voice hardened. "I mean it, Arthur. You should know better."
"Did I tell you she was an artist? She used to paint. Her pictures were all over the apartment. She told me she stopped painting six months ago." Arthur gulped at his drink even though the vodka was watery and harsh. "You know, when I talked to her she could carry on a conversation for a little while, but then she would just drift away. She kept forgetting my name."
"When did she do it?"
"Sometime on Monday."
"You found out today?"
Arthur traced one of the long, deep scratches in the varnished table. "This morning. When I went down to Morgan's office to change the tapes in the video cameras."
"I'm sorry," Lil said.
Arthur looked up. "He blamed me."
"Morgan Teague is a cold-hearted son of a bitch. Now he's feeling guilty for having had an affair with Marty, and he wants someone else to blame. You showed up at the wrong time is all."
"Marty told me that there was something wrong in the office. She didn't think it was Blanche's doing, though." Arthur drained his glass. "It doesn't matter now. Morgan has called off the investigation, of course. Do you want another?"
"Why yes, thank you." Lil smiled thinly. "I'm drinking the house white."
When Arthur came back up the stairs a few minutes later, glasses in hand, Lil asked, "Did Marty tell you what she thought was causing the disturbances?"
"No. Not really. Remind me and I'll give you my notes from the interview." Arthur cradled his drink in both hands, enjoying the way the fresh ice cubes clinked against the glass.
"I don't suppose you've looked at the tapes from the office yet."
"No. They're still in the trunk of my car."
"Why don't I take them for now?" Lil asked.
"You can have them. I don't think there will be anything on them."
"Even after what's happened?"
"Especially after what's happened. I remember when you first read through Morgan's records you said that you thought Marty might have been the one breaking office equipment and tossing things around. I think you were probably right about that."
"And what happened to you--?"
"The headache? Getting sick? I've been thinking about that too. You know, we both wanted to believe that was evidence of some kind of psychic disturbance in that office."
Lil nodded cautiously.
"But you know how I am--sometimes I really do have premonitions. They just don't make any sense until afterwards."
"You think what you felt last Wednesday night was a premonition of Marty's suicide?"
"I certainly think it's possible."
"Well, you did get the brunt of it. I really thought I felt something from the room itself, but maybe you're right."
"And maybe it wasn't even just for Marty. A lot of other things happened over the weekend. Perhaps it was a warning of everything else as well."
"Do you want to tell me about it?"
Arthur sat back. "My parents called on Sunday. They want me to move back home and take care of the family house."
"What--move back to Georgia? That seems like a lot to ask. What did Marc have to say about that?"
"He doesn't have a say anymore. He walked out on Sunday."
Lil looked up sharply. "For good, you mean?"
Arthur nodded and swallowed the last of his drink. He had finished it so quickly that the ice cubes hadn't had time to melt, and they clinked on the bottom of the glass as he set it down.
"It seems inevitable now. He was too young, I was too old." He gestured expansively, narrowly avoiding knocking over Lil's half-empty wine glass, and barked with laughter. "I've been drinking all day. It's about time it started to work. Do you want another?"
"No. I'm fine."
"I'll be right back, then."
Lil kept him from getting up by reaching across the table and laying her hand on his forearm. "I had no idea you and Marc were having problems. Do you want to talk about it? Or would you rather I just minded my own business?"
"I refused to tell my folks about Marc. He--didn't understand."
"Your family thinks you just haven't met the right girl yet?"
"Something like that."
"I can see how Marc might find that a little difficult to accept."
"I know. I can't blame him for being mad at me. But I can't change for him either. Excuse me. I'll be right back."
The stairs were becoming progressively more difficult. By the time Arthur made it back up to the table a fair amount of his drink had splashed out over his hand. As he slid back into the booth across from Lil he announced, "I'll be going home for a couple of weeks to help my parents get ready to move. I'm even thinking about taking them up on it."
"Moving back to Georgia for good?"
"Sure. Why shouldn't I? I've been out here for fifteen years and you know what? My folks are right. I haven't even found a job yet."
The vodka seemed to be clearing away years of delusion. Arthur felt as though he had been the hoodwinked figure on the Seven of Cups, but that he had finally pulled off the sheet that had covered his face for so long. He leaned forward and said, "You know, I think I chose the most ridiculous vocation imaginable, just so being a complete failure wouldn't be quite so obvious."
Arthur wasn't too drunk to see the weary, annoyed expression that spread across Lil's face. He just wasn't sure he understood why she was looking at him that way. "It's late," he said. "You've got work tomorrow. Why don't you go ahead and take off. I'll be fine."
"I do think it's time to go." she said briskly. "Come on."
"I think I'll stay."
"No, I don't think so. I want you to come back to my place. You can keep drinking there if you want."
"I don't want to impose--"
"You're already imposing. Now come on." She took his arm and pulled him to his feet.
Arthur awoke hours later to a strange, uncomfortable darkness. When he tried to move, his knees and elbows brought up hard against fabric barriers, and the thin cotton covering slid off his shoulder. He groped for the lost sheet and narrowly avoided rolling off into space himself. That was when he finally remembered where he was, on the sofa in Lil's small living room.
He settled over on his back, drew his knees up and crossed his arms over his stomach. He was still a little drunk, but now it was overlaid with a fluttering, prickly nausea. Lil's room smelled of eucalyptus leaves, stale cigarette smoke, and old lathe-and-plaster construction. Arthur tried to clear his mind by counting his breaths, hoping he could fall asleep again, but too many thoughts crowded into his head.
He had a dim recollection of sitting cross-legged on Lil's living room floor with a vodka bottle within easy reach, declaiming angrily about the years he'd wasted in Los Angeles, and how little reason there was for him to remain out here without Marc.
Poor Lil. He couldn't remember if Peter had been there, but he rather suspected he had come by later in the evening. Arthur had always thought that Peter only tolerated him for Lil's sake, and he reflected gloomily that this evening was unlikely to improve Peter's impression of him.
He tried to ride out his growing nausea, but in the end he had to pull himself to his feet and go stumbling through Lil's bedroom to get to the only bathroom in the apartment.
He spent the rest of the night crouched on the bath mat next to the toilet, in a room so small there wasn't room for him to stretch his legs out straight. He had plenty of time to think while he waited for the sickness to wear off. Maybe it really was time for him to return to Georgia for good. He would miss his friends out here, but without Marc, Los Angeles seemed simply crowded, uncomfortable and lonely.
Besides, if he wanted to continue his research, then the Drake house was a richer site than he or Lil could ever hope to find out here. In the cold discomfort of the cramped little bathroom, it suddenly seemed to him that the only reason he had come out here was to run away from his parents. Well, they were the ones leaving now. He could finally live at home in peace.
He had no idea that dawn had come until Lil knocked at the bathroom door. "Arthur? I hate to bother you, dear, but I have to get ready for work."
He lifted his head. His butt was stiff from the long night of sitting on the floor.
"Sorry. I'll be right out."
He pulled himself to his feet and opened the bathroom door. Lil stood there in an embroidered purple kimono, her face pale and undefined without makeup.
"How are you feeling?"
"Like hell," Arthur said. "But I'm looking forward to going home."