by Martha Taylor, firstname.lastname@example.org
At seven o'clock on Thursday morning the sky was so unseasonably clear that Arthur could see snow on the peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains twenty miles to the east. The wind was cold in spite of the early warmth of the sun, and the clean morning light shone down through the trees and made shifting, dappled patterns on the broad path. The flower beds along Santa Monica Boulevard were crowded with pansies.
This was the first morning Arthur had gone running since his return from Georgia, and it felt good to be out so early in the day. He had parked the car and done his warmups in the shade of the magnolia tree that spread its branches over more than an acre of parkland at the corner of Beverly Drive. Arthur set himself an easy, loping pace, running as far as the fountain at Doheny before turning back. He was enjoying the illusion of strength in legs that would be stiff and sore tomorrow, so even though he seldom ran more than two or three miles in the morning, when he reached the magnolia tree again he decided to take one more lap back through the park.
He paused to retie a shoelace that had come undone, and when he straightened up he happened to notice an older man in a t-shirt and running shorts stepping back into the shade of the magnolia tree. The sunlight dazzled Arthur's eyes, and the man seemed to disappear in the shadows under the massive branches. Smiling at the illusion, Arthur turned and ran back down the path.
It was still a beautiful morning. The tallest bushes in the long stretch of rosebeds were covered with yellow blossoms. The rest of the roses were still several weeks away from full bloom, pink and red buds scattered through a thicket that made Arthur think of the wall of brambles around Sleeping Beauty's castle.
The park was just beginning to fill with people. In addition to the runners like Arthur were domestics in their black aerobics shoes and faded denim skirts, walking from the bus stop to the big houses north of Santa Monica Boulevard. The beautiful young salespeople on their way to jobs at Neiman Marcus and Saks limped past in high heels and platform clogs. They all seemed to have been out too late the night before.
And there was someone running perhaps half a block behind Arthur. He could hear footfalls and the scuffle of gravel, and he ran a little faster, feeling a childishly competitive desire not to let the other runner catch up to him. By the time he reached the green brass and tile fountain at the eastern end of the park, though, he was tired of allowing another runner to set the pace for him, and so instead of going back, he crossed at the light and went down Doheny. It was an easy downhill slope, and the sidewalk was smoother than the gravel and dirt path through the park.
He stretched out his legs and ran hard for perhaps another mile. Finally beginning to feel the strain in his calves and a tightness in his chest, he cut back through the neighborhood, and ran past blocks of old four and six-unit apartment buildings, randomly interrupted by gleaming new condominium complexes. Regardless of the style assumed by their architects, mission or provencal, deco, modern and post-modern, they all looked merely incongruous and new, and much too huge for the surrounding neighborhood.
And as the noise of traffic from the main streets faded, Arthur realized that there was still another runner behind him. There was nothing unusual about that, of course. Beverly Hills was thick with joggers every morning of the week. Nevertheless, when Arthur came to an alley, he turned up it, leaving the sidewalk to the other runner.
The alley backed two rows of very large houses on very small lots, and was nearly as broad across as two lanes of traffic, divided by a shallow cement drainage ditch in the center. The gigantic green plastic trash cans supplied by the city were spaced at regular intervals down one side. Every back yard was protected by an eight foot cinderblock wall, making Arthur feel as though he were running past rows of little fiefdoms. The walls stretched on either side of him for the entire length of the alley, a quarter of a mile or more, all quite blank save for the notices of private security systems.
Then Arthur heard footsteps behind him again, and feeling an irrational tinge of discomfort, he glanced back over his shoulder. A man was behind him. He was too far back for Arthur to be certain, but he thought it was the man from the park, the gray-haired runner he had seen under the magnolia tree. All at once the tightness in Arthur's chest became painful. It did no good to argue that it might simply be a coincidence, or that even if a man were following him, he ought to be flattered instead of frightened. There was something disturbingly familiar about the other runner, and Arthur didn't want to linger to find out what it was.
The walls on either side of the alley seemed ominous now instead of faintly ridiculous. There was nowhere for him to go except to the main street the alley would eventually intersect. It looked very far away, and all the assurances of private security agencies plastered on both sides were no comfort. Arthur thought morbidly that the green trash cans were more than large enough to stuff a body into. He began running harder, even though he knew that the sensible thing to do was surely just to stop and find out what was going on. Probably nothing at all. And anyway, what could possibly happen to him here, right in the middle of one of the most carefully policed sections of real estate in the country? But Arthur thought of Marc's chalk outline in the library parking lot and didn't stop running.
When he reached the street he turned west, thinking he would try to reach the busier streets of downtown Beverly Hills. The initial burst of adrenaline had not lasted long, and his legs were starting to feel rubbery. He was having trouble breathing now, and it was becoming harder to ignore the deep ache in his lungs. He fled down beautiful streets lined with blooming jacarandas, palms, and maples, all coaxed into exquisite symmetry by generations of underpaid immigrant gardeners. Knowing how absurd it was to be running from a surely imaginary danger through residential Beverly Hills did nothing to lessen his fear. Had the circumstances been less ridiculous or the danger clearer, he might have reacted more reasonably. But since a part of him still insisted that there was not, could not really be any threat, he simply kept going.
Occasionally he glanced over his shoulder. The other runner never got any closer, but he was still dogging Arthur's steps, there could be no question of it now. Arthur was exhausted and running sloppily. He carried his arms too high and his pace had become an irregular gallop.
And then at last he reached Santa Monica Boulevard again, and with a surge of belated courage, he finally turned to confront his pursuer. It was no more reasonable than his earlier panic, he knew; nevertheless, he suddenly felt able to face the unknown with four lanes of commuters on hand to witness the confrontation.
The stranger who had followed him from the magnolia tree was gone. The only person behind him was a very old woman out walking a pair of badly leash-trained pomeranians. All the strength went out of Arthur's legs. His sides heaving, he walked the rest of the way back to the car on wobbly legs. The fear had vanished as quickly as it had come, and the entire ordeal had been so senseless that Arthur was already having difficulty believing that any part of it had been real, save for his own baseless panic.
The morning was no longer beautiful. A smoggy haze blotted out the eastern mountains. Arthur had to make his way through a crowd of people at the Beverly bus stop waiting for the westbound Number 10. They all seemed tired and out of sorts. One woman sat on the curb, wrapped in an oversized leather coat that was much too hot for the weather. Her long dark hair was matted at the back of her head. She was adjusting her coat as Arthur walked by, and he saw that she was naked underneath. Her breasts hung down nearly to her waist, long and shapeless as the teats of a pregnant dog.
There was a stalled car at the light, and the blasting of car horns jarred Arthur's already-tried nerves. The breeze had stopped, and the hot, still air had a singed taint. Arthur got to his car as quickly as he could and drove home, even though he knew he should have walked for another mile to let his body cool down after the unaccustomed exertion. He was too exhausted and put out to care.
On top of everything else, he was dreading his lunch date at one.
Even from across the restaurant, Arthur recognized Linda Young as Marty's sister. She had Marty's round face and broad hips, but she bore herself with a calm assurance that Arthur could not have imagined from Marty. Her suit was conservatively cut and expensive, and her blonde hair was short and very smooth, pulled back from her face with a black velvet barrette. She wore plain pearl earrings.
The maitre d' directed her to Arthur's table. She came over and shook Arthur's proffered hand firmly. "Arthur Drake? I'm Linda."
"I'm so very sorry for your loss."
"Thank you. It's kind of you to meet me like this. I know this must be uncomfortable for you." Even her voice sounded like Marty's. Only the inflection was different. Arthur remembered Marty's statements always rising into questions. Linda spoke with a flat, comfortable certainty.
"I apologize for taking so long to return your call," Arthur said. "I've been out of town."
"Frankly, I didn't expect you to call me at all."
The waiter stopped at their table and Linda continued, in much the same tone of voice, "I'll have a green salad with house dressing on the side. Ice water to drink."
Arthur ordered grilled salmon and a glass of chardonnay, and when the waiter left them he asked, "Did Morgan Teague tell you about me?"
"Eventually. I'd already come across your card with Marty's things, but I didn't make anything of it, then. I thought you might have been someone Marty picked up at the clubs."
"She hadn't been to the clubs in a long time. That's what she told me, anyway."
"I knew it had been a while. She could have started going again, I thought. Or she might have met you at work or at the grocery store or the laundromat. From what I could tell, she spent time with a lot of men during those last months."
After a moment Linda continued, "You're probably wondering why in the world you agreed to put yourself through this."
The waiter returned with a basket of soft bread. Linda unfolded the cloth napkin and spread it on her lap, then took a piece of the bread. "Well, it is very good of you. So I'll try not to make this too excruciating."
"I'm glad to do anything I can."
"You're not at all the way Morgan described you."
"We didn't part on very good terms."
"He told me you filled Marty's head with stories about some secretary of his who killed herself a few years back."
" Morgan did believe that the changes he saw in Marty were caused by the influence of Blanche Renwick."
"What did you think about it?"
"My associate and I hadn't been involved with the case long enough to make any determination. Marty knew about Blanche, but she attributed the alterations in her personality to some overall influence of the building."
"How much time did you spend with my sister?"
"Not long. Perhaps twenty minutes."
"What did you think?"
"I was disturbed when she told me she had stopped painting. What I could see of her pictures seemed very promising."
A splotchy red flush spread across Linda's face and down her neck. The corners of her mouth turned down. She reached for her glass of water and gulped at it before she said, "Yes, they were promising. Marty wasn't usually the type to stick up for herself, you know. I used to give her hell for the way she let people walk all over her--especially men. But her painting was different. She stood up to our folks when they wanted her to get a more practical degree, a better job. 'Look at you' they would say to her. 'Do you want to be a legal secretary all your life?' So I'll always be proud of her for that. She did just what she wanted to for as long as she could." Linda's face cleared. "You talked about the office, her painting. Was there anything else?"
"Not really. She seemed unhappy about her job and about not painting. She mentioned that she'd broken up with her boyfriend."
"I knew about that. That asshole Dave. Did she tell you that son of a bitch gave her two black eyes?"
"No, she didn't."
"Actually, she didn't tell me either. She was probably ashamed to. I just happened to stop by one afternoon while I was in the neighborhood, otherwise I never would have known about it either. I guess it was Dave, anyway. She wouldn't tell me." Linda shook her head. "The poor kid. As if she didn't have enough going on. That was right about the time I first began noticing the way she'd changed. You didn't know her, of course, but couldn't you tell that there was something wrong when you talked to her?"
Arthur nodded. "She had trouble focusing on our conversation. There were moments when she seemed to forget I was there. And some of her behavior was--inappropriate for the situation."
"That's very diplomatic of you. I can guess what you mean."
The waiter set a tremendous wooden bowl of mixed greens down in front of Linda and a white ceramic plate with salmon and an artful cluster of vegetables before Arthur. Linda waited until the waiter had gone again before saying, "So what did you make of it all? Did you think she was possessed or haunted or whatever someone in your line of work would call it?"
"No," Arthur said carefully. "But I was disturbed by the way she acted and the things she said, and I thought she needed help. I doubted that my kind of help would do any good. I asked her if she would consider seeing a doctor."
"Yes. She said that Morgan had already sent to her see a psychiatrist who hadn't found anything wrong with her."
"I tried to get her to go see a doctor too," Linda scowled. "But she wouldn't go to anyone after Teague's shrink got through with her. Dr. Bowen, her name was. She's one of the quacks that Teague uses in his workers' compensation cases. That woman could diagnose stress-related disability in a seeing-eye dog, but she thought my sister was fine."
Linda turned her attention to her salad, eating with angry concentration. Arthur let the silence continue until she finally put her fork aside and looked at him. "The last few months before Marty died, I was researching mental illness on my own. I thought if I could understand what was happening to her, I might be able to help, even if she wouldn't go to a doctor.
"From what I read, I thought Marty might be showing early symptoms of schizophrenia. Apparently it comes on without warning like that in early adulthood. If that's really what it was, the prognosis was very bleak. The rest of her life on medication, in institutions, halfway houses. When Mom and Dad called me and told me she had killed herself, a part of me wasn't sorry."
The expression on Linda's face didn't change, but the tears pooled in her eyes, and she sat across the table from Arthur and wept silently for what seemed like a very long time. Arthur offered her his handkerchief because there was nothing else he could do. She waved it aside and used the cloth napkin to blot the tears from her eyes and face. The material came away stained with her mascara and the pale pink powder of her blush.
She smiled watery-eyed at Arthur. "Never offer a woman your handkerchief. Nothing takes makeup out, believe me."
"You must miss her very much."
"I do." Linda crumpled the stained napkin and dropped it beside her salad bowl. "I even miss her the way she was those last few months, spaced-out and crazy. Some part of her was still Marty."
She motioned for the waiter to bring the check. "I am curious about one thing. Morgan Teague told me a ridiculous story after the funeral about pens flying around and office furniture being turned over. What was that all about? Was his office really haunted?"
"Probably not," Arthur hesitated, then said, "I think it was all Marty's doing."
Linda laughed out loud. "I knew it. I just knew it. Good for her." She pushed her hand across the table at him. It took Arthur a moment to realize that she was waiting to shake his hand again.
"Thank you for meeting with me. It helps me, knowing what she was doing on that last day. I'm sure you were kind to her."
Arthur could not find any words, and after she had gone, he had another glass of wine before venturing out into the early afternoon sunshine. The median on Rodeo Drive was planted with pink geraniums, and the ribbons around the trunks of the manicured ficus trees were green and white. The interview had left Arthur feeling cold and unhappy. Even though it was barely two o'clock, the day already seemed to have lasted forever. And reasoning that nothing could spoil a day that had already been so dreadful, when he got home, he made the phone call that he had been putting off since his return to Los Angeles.
His mother answered the phone.
"Oh, honey. I'm so glad you called. I was afraid you might still be angry with us."
"Mother. Why would I be angry?"
"I'm afraid we weren't very nice about your having to leave so suddenly. How is your friend doing? Mike, is it?"
"Marc. He's going to be fine."
"Well, I'm glad. Los Angeles seems to be such a dangerous place these days. I worry about you."
"That's what Marc's parents told him."
"Did they? Well, you can hardly blame them, can you?" April hesitated for a moment, then went on in the tone of a woman who expects bad news, but who has steeled herself to ask the question anyway, "Do you think you'll be able to come back out, now that your friend is better?"
Arthur had been sitting at his office desk. He got up and walked across the room, carrying the phone with him so that he could see out the window. The skies were clear out towards the ocean, but there was a dark haze at the base of the mountains. "Actually, Mom, Marc isn't well enough to drive yet. I'm helping him get around."
"Oh. Well, after he's all better, then? Everyone's so disappointed they didn't get to see you while you were home. The Petersons and Meg and Roger Hillerman and Peggy and Ruth were all so looking forward to seeing you, and I can't even begin to think of all the people who asked about you at church."
"I'm sorry. I really won't be able to get back any time soon. Lil and I are starting a new investigation. I don't know how long it's likely to take."
"I see. Oh well. Your father's standing right here. Would you like to speak to him?"
"Of course, Mom."
"Take care, dear. I love you."
Several moments passed. Arthur imagined April holding her palm over the receiver of the phone while she filled Frank in on their conversation. Then his father was on the line, saying with too much heartiness, "And what's this I hear about you not coming home again until hell freezes over?"
"I just won't be able to make it very soon. Maybe at Christmas--"
"Arthur, your mother and I aren't planning on being in this place come Christmas."
"All right, then, I'll come visit you in South Carolina."
Frank's joviality had vanished. "So this house really means nothing at all to you."
Arthur sighed. "That's not true. The house means a great deal to me. I realized that all over again when I was home. But I can't drop everything out here. I have a lot of responsibilities."
Frank snorted. "Responsibilities? A family and a job. Those are responsibilities. And both of those things are right back here for you."
"Dad, if you want to sell the house, just sell it. Sell everything. But I can't help you right now."
"So that's your final answer, is it? You'd let Mother's house go just like that."
" I'm not sure what I would do about the house if there were more time. Maybe I would want to come back some day. But I can't make a decision right now, and of course I don't expect you and Mom to wait around for me to make up my mind. That's why I called. To let you know that I want you to go ahead and--"
"You're really taking a hell of a position on this, Arthur. You must realize that."
Arthur heard his mother protesting, "Oh, Frank," in the background.
"I'm simply trying to be as honest as I can," Arthur said, but he felt a twinge, thinking of Marc.
"All right, then." His father sighed heavily. "There's nothing you want? Nothing from the library, even?"
"No." Arthur could see the haze at the base of the mountains rising as the day wore on. "Just let it all go."
That night Arthur dreamed of Marc under the magnolia tree, standing in the shadow of its branches and smiling at Arthur. Arthur felt a warm rush of gratitude and love, but when he tried to reach out for him, the exposed roots around the great tree grew into a thicket that barred his path.
Arthur began to work his way patiently through the brambles. He knew that he was dreaming, and he moved very carefully so that he would not wake up too soon. Thorns caught in his hair and tore at his clothing, but he was undeterred, and eventually the briars began to flower around him. A path opened up at his feet, and then finally Marc was right before him again.
He was so beautiful that Arthur had to stop for a moment just to look at him. The skin on Marc's face was unbroken, unbruised, and he leaned back against the broad trunk of the magnolia tree with his arms crossed over his chest. Arthur couldn't help himself. He dropped to his knees in front of him, and Marc smiled to let him know that it was all right.
Arthur laughed with pleasure as he reached for him. He wrapped his arms around Marc's thighs and kissed his flat belly through the ribbed tank over and over again. Under his thin cotton workout shorts Marc was already hard, and Arthur could feel the tip of his erection pushing against his throat. Marc finally hooked his thumbs under the band of his shorts and peeled them down over his narrow hips.
Then Arthur couldn't wait any longer. He yanked Marc's jock strap aside and took him hungrily into his mouth. He was startled and delighted by the forbidden taste of his flesh instead of the usual dull tang of latex. With the logic of a dreamer he knew that it was all right, and he pulled Marc in frantically, eager to have all of him. Marc drove his hips forward obligingly until Arthur choked and tried to pull away for a moment to catch his breath.
Marc wouldn't let him go. He only held his head and thrust harder, and Arthur gagged, bile coming up his throat and burning the back of his mouth. He pushed back against Marc's thighs, but Marc knotted his fingers in Arthur's hair and drove forward to the back of his throat.
Arthur began to struggle in earnest. He couldn't breathe, and the lack of air was making him feel lightheaded and sick. His jaws ached and his lips were raw. Even his scalp hurt from Marc's clutching fistfuls of his hair. Hot, scared tears spilled down his cheeks. He had long since forgotten that he was dreaming.
But then he finally raised his eyes and saw that the man using him so carelessly was not Marc at all. At that instant, the stranger pulled himself out of Arthur's mouth and yanked his head around and back, so that Arthur was staring up into the branches of the magnolia tree. Sunlight glittered between the shining dark leaves, and blossoms were scattered among the branches like pale yellow moons.
Something bright and painful flashed down into his eyes, and Arthur awoke with a violent jolt.
Marc stirred sleepily beside him. "What is it?"
Arthur was breathing hard, his heart pounding in his chest, and it took him a moment more to realize that he had only been dreaming. He touched Marc's shoulder. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you up. It was just a bad dream."
Marc rolled over and adjusted his pillow. "A fine pair we make. It's a wonder we ever get any sleep--hey, Arthur. What is it?"
"Oh god." A cramp had seized Arthur's calf when he tried to move, and now the muscles were clenching and tightening until it felt as though they would rip away from the bone. He thought frantically that if he lay absolutely still the pain might simply go away.
"Arthur, what's the matter with you?"
He groaned. "I've got a charley horse in my leg. Oh god. Don't touch me."
"Don't be such a baby." Marc sat up. "Which leg is it?"
"My right leg. Please don't touch me."
"C'mon, I promise I can make you feel better. Is it your calf or thigh?"
In spite of Arthur's efforts to lie absolutely still, his leg twitched involuntarily, and the sudden flash of heat in the muscle made him yelp. Marc gently pushed him over and put his hands on the back of his leg. "Calf or thigh?"
"It's my calf. It's my calf."
"Okay. Just hang on now." Marc began to knead and work the knotted muscles. Arthur cursed and buried his head in the pillows, but after a few unendurable moments the tension finally began to lessen.
Marc continued to work on his calf. "You overdid it this morning, didn't you? You old men have to learn to take it easy. What were you dreaming about?"
Arthur told him what he could remember while Marc massaged the knot out of his leg, and Marc laughed at him. "Poor, frustrated baby. You have been very patient with me. Are you okay now?"
"It's a lot better now. Thanks."
"Well, then." Marc stretched himself out over Arthur's back, worked his arms around under his chest and kissed the back of his neck. "You feel like acting out your dreams? I can't absolutely promise not to turn into a mad rapist, but if you wanna take your chances, I'll try to play nice."
Marc had to be at school early the following morning to make up an exam, and after Arthur returned home from dropping him off, he retrieved the tarot cards from their sandalwood box on the mantle and laid a reading out on the dining room table. It was the first time he had read the cards in weeks, and he found himself fumbling a little, the cards feeling oddly stiff and oversized. The reading itself was unremarkable and bland. No trump cards came up, and the last card he put down was the Page of Cups, a pretty youth with a smile like Marc's, who contemplated a fish rising out of a golden chalice. Smiling to himself, Arthur put the cards away.
But several hours later while he was searching for his lost car keys behind the sofa cushions, his fingers closed upon a rectangle of slick cardboard, and he pulled out a slightly crumpled tarot card. It must have been lost since the night Marc had scattered the deck. No wonder the reading he had done earlier hadn't felt quite right.
The lost card was the Tower trumps, and it depicted two hapless figures tumbling from a stone tower, under a sky crossed by lightning. Arthur tried to smooth out the card with his fingers, but the crease line was permanent, the entire deck ruined. He felt a little sad as he pulled the rest of the deck out of its box and threw all the cards away together.
Arthur drove at a snail's pace down the steep, narrow street just north of Sunset Boulevard. Cars were parked bumper to bumper on both sides, leaving hardly enough room for a single clear lane of traffic, much less two. He was straining to read the numbers on the apartment buildings, and he was wondering where on earth he would park once he did find the place he was looking for.
Then he saw the three people standing together on the sidewalk, and recognized Lil and Peter. He stopped the car and lowered the window on the passenger side. "Sorry I'm late. Is there anywhere to park around here?"
The third member of the group walked out between the parked cars and leaned in through the open window. "Arthur? I'm Eddie Lugo. I'm glad you could make it."
"Nice to meet you."
"What you want to do is drive on down to Sunset and go half a block till you get to the little alley that runs in back of us here. There's a garage behind this building where you can park. Just pull in right behind my car. It's the red VW bug. You can't miss it."
Following his directions, Arthur was just able to squeeze his car in behind the Volkswagen, under an open-backed garage with crumbling concrete supports that looked certain to fall during the next earthquake. Then he walked back around to the front of the building by way of a narrow sidewalk, carrying his bag of equipment.
"Find it all right?" Eddie asked.
"How have you been?" Peter demanded with a geniality that surprised Arthur, who had always suspected that Peter disapproved of him.
"I've been fine."
"I'm glad to hear it."
Even though Peter had been out of the Navy for more than ten years, he always looked to Arthur as though he might have been discharged only the hour before. His gray burr haircut was never more than a quarter of an inch long, and his shoes were inevitably spit-shined. He told Arthur, "You're certainly looking better than you did the last time I saw you."
"When was that?" Then Arthur remembered. "Oh. You were there that night, weren't you?"
Peter smiled at the expression on Arthur's face. "Yessir. I came by about ten to see Lil, and there you were sitting on her living room floor, clutching a bottle of Absolut and sobbing about what a cold, cruel place Los Angeles was."
"Please, not in front of a client," Lil chided.
"Actually it's a good character reference." Eddie said. "I'm not sure I would trust a man who could drink vodka without getting maudlin."
"Thank you, I think."
"I meant it as a compliment."
Unlike Peter, Eddie had apparently gone to great lengths to suppress any evidence of his years in the Service. His thinning gray hair touched his shoulders, and his jean shorts exposed tan, knobby knees.
Lil gestured back at the apartment building. "Well, what do you think, Arthur? You're the one who's always complaining that we never get to investigate sites with any color. Is this colorful enough for you?"
Arthur stepped back so he could take it in. "If it doesn't actually have a ghost I can see why the tenants would need to invent one."
The apartment building was a relic of nineteen-thirties Hollywood, evidently designed by an architect who had sat through too many screenings of Errol Flynn's Robin Hood. Mullioned lancet windows looked out onto a once-landscaped courtyard that had grown into a jungle of jade, cactus, and banana trees, aralia and spiky orange bird-of-paradise. Crenelated turrets rounded every corner of the building, and the cream-colored stucco was set with glazed blue tile that was now cracked and discolored by sixty years of sunshine and smog.
"It is quite a place," Eddie admitted. "Slowly falling to pieces, of course, so it keeps me busy. Do you want to see the unit now?"
"Yes, if you're ready." Lil said.
Peter asked with a diffidence that sounded strange coming from him, "Do you mind if I come up? I was planning on waiting in Eddie's place, but I have always wanted to see you two at work."
"And thrilling it is," Lil said. "I don't mind if Arthur doesn't. Of course, you have to swear a blood oath to reveal nothing that you see here today. Those vultures over at Unsolved Mysteries would pay a fortune for our secrets."
"Of course I don't mind," Arthur assured him. "And you shouldn't believe a word Lil says. Both of us are pathetically eager for the spotlight. Nothing makes us happier than having an audience."
Eddie had watched the exchange with amusement. "In that case, let's get this show on the road. It's this way."
He led them up a broad tiled staircase and along the second story balcony to the apartment at the very back of the courtyard. They had to walk single-file in deference to the clutter along the outside rail. Three bicycles, an hibachi, a short-legged Weber grill and any number of plants in clay and plastic pots. The leaves on a tomato plant tied to the railing were brown and dying, but the vine was still covered with a dozen beautifully ripening cherry tomatoes.
Eddie produced a key from his bundle and opened the door to number 6171/4. "The tenant's a girl named Marcia Paretti. She's out of town now through the end of July," he explained. "Before she went I let her know that I was going to be consulting with you, and she said it was all right as long as you didn't actually exorcise the ghost. She says she likes living in a haunted apartment." Eddie shook his head. "That's not what she said when she woke up the whole complex two months ago screaming that there was a dead man in her living room."
"Just a moment," Arthur interrupted, struggling with his satchel of equipment. "Do you mind if I begin recording this?"
"No, go ahead. Here, you can set up in here."
The front room was dark in spite of the line of arched windows. Little sunlight could get in past the courtyard jungle. The apartment was carefully decorated in junkstore chic that Arthur assumed had been purchased on Melrose Avenue. When he looked more closely, though, he could see the love seat cushions were frayed, and that the formica was peeling up at the corner of the tubular steel coffee table, and he decided the absent Marcia had actually found her furniture in junk stores after all.
The walls were covered with framed lobby cards. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death. Michael Rennie in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Joan Bennet and Edward G. Robinson in Scarlet Street, and even Steve Reeves in Hercules Unchained. Marc would have approved.
"This is pretty much it," Eddie said. "The kitchen and breakfast room are back this way. The bedroom's through here." He swung open a pair of french doors covered with gauzy white curtains.
The room was dominated by an ominous old brass bed, a veritable cage of dented, unpolished metal. Great spiky posts rose at the four corners, and there were decorative knobs all along the head and baseboard that looked like rows of jagged teeth. A picture of Marilyn Monroe on the wall overhead did nothing to soften the effect. "Good lord," Lil said.
Eddie laughed. "I know. I don't even know how she got that bed up here. Anyway, that's the grand tour. What's next?"
He looked back and forth between Arthur, who had set up the tape recorder on the coffee table, and Lil who was opening closets and browsing through shelves with a frank lack of regard for the absent tenant's privacy.
Arthur said, "Well, we need a history of the phenomena. The tape recorder's on. Whatever you can tell us will be helpful. When it started, what happened--"
Eddie looked a little disappointed. "I'm just supposed to tell you? I thought psychic investigators never wanted to know anything about a place before they started. You know, so the investigation can be unbiased."
"That's in the movies," Lil said. "And for psychics who are obsessed with proving their authenticity. In our experience, though, there's really no way to separate the phenomenon from the person who experiences it."
"Well, all right. You're the experts." He sat down on the love seat. Peter had already made himself at home in the red naugahyde recliner. Arthur perched on an overstuffed red ottoman that almost matched the recliner, and Lil continued roaming through the apartment.
"The beginning is easy," Eddie said. "This must be, what, ten years ago? I was just out of the service, and I'd been managing here for maybe two or three months, not much longer than that. The guy living in this apartment was a young kid named Jesse something. I can probably find his last name for you if it's important."
"It might be helpful," Arthur said. "When you get a chance."
"He was a handsome kid, struggling actor, working part time busing tables and delivering pizzas. Always a few days late on his rent. I didn't like him. I thought he was a cocky little pain in the butt.
"Well, finally one month, the first rolls around and no check from Jesse. A couple of days go by and I don't see him. These days of course I'd simply go knock on the door, but back then I was just getting my land legs again, and I had an exaggerated idea about the right to privacy in civilian life.
"Anyway, by the time I finally opened up the apartment he'd been dead nearly a week. What was left of him was lying on a couch right under those windows there. It was bad. We had to replace the rug and a section of the floor.
"I don't know why he did it. There was gossip around the complex, but you never know what you can believe. Someone told me he had AIDS, but maybe he simply didn't land a part that he'd been counting on, or his agent dumped him, or he lost everything at Santa Anita or just had a bad love affair. Who knows. That's what I love about living in Hollywood." Eddie smiled. "There are so many reasons to die."
Seeing the expression on Arthur's face, he apologized, "I know, I should lay off the Raymond Chandler routine." He gestured around himself. "But look at this place. Marcia and everybody else in this flea trap are going to be devastated if you find out that these rooms aren't really being haunted by the ghost of some poor failed actor."
"Don't worry," Lil said. "It's impossible to prove a negative. I'm sure Jesse will continue to walk no matter what Arthur and I can discover. Or fail to discover."
"When did stories about Jesse first begin to surface?" Arthur asked.
"With the very next tenant. Her name I don't remember at all. I'll dig out my records for you later. I didn't even realize we were talking about a ghost at first--I thought it was probably the plumbing."
A breeze rustled the banana tree leaves outside the window. Complicated shadows moved across the gray rug and shifted along the lobby cards.
"She complained of a bad smell, and for the life of me I couldn't figure out where it was coming from. I had the pipes Roto-rootered and then poured enough lye down the drains to kill half the fish in the bay, but she still claimed that she was waking up in the middle of the night and smelling a stink like rotten meat."
"Did you ever smell it?" Arthur asked.
"No I didn't, not back then. Apparently it was always after midnight, and she was considerate enough not to wake me up. But after six months or so she gave up and moved out.
"The next tenant I remember. Katie Dresden. She was here for three or four years. I'm sure she hadn't been here long before the other tenants told her all about Jesse's suicide and the bad smell that forced the first girl to move out. And pretty soon she was complaining about a stink too. "
"But she didn't move because of it," Lil said.
"No. But I went through the whole routine again, and this time I had the drains throughout the whole building checked. Maybe it helped a little, because Katie stopped complaining so much about bad smells. Instead she started telling the other tenants that there was a man hanging around the apartment complex, and around her unit in particular.
"I heard most of this secondhand, since Katie didn't talk much to me about it. I think she was afraid I would kick her out if I thought she was spreading ghost stories about the apartment. No doubt she was intimidated by my fierce military air." Eddie smiled, fingering the ragged hem of his Hawaiian shirt.
"But from what I heard from the other tenants, from time to time Katie would spot a handsome blonde kid, just standing in the courtyard--"
"What, in the middle of the cactus patch?" Lil turned to look out the window.
"Apparently. Or sitting on the stairs or waiting on the balcony. Once or twice she even saw him staring in the window at her."
Lil smiled skeptically. "And she never called the police? Or even you?"
"Evidently not. Still, by the time Katie moved out to go back East, I think every tenant in the building believed that poor Jesse's blonde ghost was moping around outside his old unit.
"The next guy who moved in already knew one of the downstairs tenants, so I'm sure he'd already heard all about the ghost. Jeremiah Tate his name was, if you can believe it. He told fortunes on Venice Beach during the summer, and while he was living here, Jesse apparently stopped just hanging around outside the apartment and started coming in. Tate told me he saw Jesse sitting right there under the windows sometimes at night. And a couple of the other tenants said they would see strange lights in the living room windows in the middle of the night.
"So by the time Marcia moved in last year, the whole story was down pat, and I don't think she had any objections to adding her own embellishments. She told me that sometimes she got the 'feeling' that there was someone in the apartment with her, and that she didn't like to be in the living room here after midnight.
"But then about two months ago it seemed to get out of hand. It was three a.m., and Marcia started screaming her head off, woke everybody up. I ran outside and found her standing on the balcony crying and yelling like a crazy woman, saying that there was a dead man in her living room. Me and Larry Greenwood--the guy who lives in that unit downstairs across the way there--went in to see. Of course, there wasn't any dead man."
Eddie paused. Lil had been wandering around the apartment while he talked, but now she came and sat down beside him. Arthur recognized the light in her eyes when she asked, "But there was something, wasn't there?"
Eddie sighed heavily. "Yes there was. This front room stank to high heaven. It smelled like it did when I opened that door ten years ago and found Jesse turning into a puddle of muck on his living room sofa."
Peter fell asleep on the recliner while Eddie was digging up names and forwarding addresses for the previous tenants of 6171/4. Arthur and Lil left him sleeping and went to talk to the other tenants in the building they found at home this late on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Everyone knew about Jesse's ghost; everyone had seen the blonde youth hanging around in the courtyard.
"It's usually right at twilight," the woman in the apartment right next door told them, obviously pleased to have the opportunity to relate a well-rehearsed story once again. "Just when it's starting to get dark, and you're never sure at first if you've really seen someone there or not. It's only when you look back and the courtyard's empty that you know you've seen Jesse again."
Everyone remembered Marcia waking them up with her screams two months ago. Larry Greenwood, a heavy-set man of about Arthur's age who wore red, yellow and black beads around his neck and who had managed to twist his long blonde hair into an approximation of dreadlocks confirmed Eddie's account of the stench in the living room.
"Shit, we walked in there and the whole place smelled like hamburger meat that's been in your refrigerator too long. You know what I mean? It's kind of a sweet smell at first, like cut roses just beginning to rot, but then it reaches down and makes your gut fold over."
Peter was still asleep when they came back up to the apartment, sprawled out with his legs apart and his head dropped back. He didn't wake up during the half hour it took for Lil and Arthur to set up the recording equipment, and finally Lil had to touch his shoulder when they were ready to go.
"Wake up, sweetheart. All the excitement is over."
Peter yawned and nodded, unabashed by his long nap.
"Arthur's invited us over to his place for dinner. You up for that?"
"Are you sure you can't come, Eddie?" Arthur asked.
"Thanks for the invite, but I really can't. I've got work to do around here. I'll be seeing you around soon."
Lil said, "Thank you for letting us monopolize your Saturday afternoon like this. I think it's going to be a fascinating case."
"Is there a phone I could use to call Marc?" Arthur said suddenly. The dinner invitations had been made on the spur of the moment, and it just occurred to him that he should let Marc know they were all coming over.
"Sure. Come on downstairs. You can use the phone in my place."
But Marc proved less than enthusiastic about Arthur's evening plans.
"Peter?" he said in disbelief. "You invited that fag-hating old sailor to dinner?"
"Last time we met he didn't say two words to me, and he kept watching me out of the corner of his eyes like he was thought I was going to try and jump his skinny ass the first chance I got."
Arthur glanced across the room to where Lil and Peter stood waiting for him, and he said carefully. "If it's inconvenient for you we can just eat out. I'll bring you a doggie bag."
"How appetizing. No, it's okay. Come on over. Just tell Peter that your skinny ass is the only one I'm interested in these days."
"I'll mention it."
"And pick up some beer on your way over. We're about out."
When Arthur got off the phone Lil asked tactfully, "Are you sure it's all right? Marc is well enough for company now, isn't he?"
"Of course," Arthur assured them. "And he's looking forward to seeing you both."
At the door, Marc met them with features that were carefully composed and quite expressionless. Arthur's heart sank. He smiled pleadingly, but Marc ignored him, only relieving him of the grocery bag in his arms and saying flatly, "Hi Peter, Lil."
But Peter proved unexpectedly equal to the challenge. "Good lord, kid." He shifted his own grocery bag to one arm, reached out and took Marc's chin so that he could turn his head to the side. "I heard that you'd been to war, but I didn't know how impressive your battle scars really were. What is that, seven, eight stitches? You must have been a sight when you first got home."
Marc looked pleased in spite of himself. "Yeah, well, I don't know about that, but Arthur just about lost his lunch the first time he saw me."
Lil gave Marc a quick hug. "How are you feeling? Is Arthur taking care of you?"
"Maybe you could talk to him about that. He hasn't been bringing me breakfast in bed."
"You said it." Marc led the way back towards the kitchen. "So how did it go this afternoon? Catch yourselves any ghosts?"
"Oh, it was very exciting," Peter said, carrying the other bag of groceries back and setting it down on the kitchen counter. He produced from it two six-packs of Mexican beer, brown bottles with bright yellow labels. "Have you ever gone out with them on a case?"
"No," Marc threw an accusing glance over his shoulder at Arthur. "I've never been invited."
"Well, it could be they're doing you a favor." Peter began stacking the beers in the refrigerator.
"That exciting, huh?"
"I'd better not say anything that will get me in trouble later." Peter handed Marc a beer and opened one himself.
"I think we're being insulted," Arthur told Lil gloomily. He emptied the other grocery bag, laying out ground turkey and hamburger buns, tomatoes, avocados and onions, tortilla chips and salsa.
"They're philistines. Pay them no mind."
"Seriously," Marc insisted, though he was still smiling, "Is this going to be the ghost that skyrockets Arceneaux and Drake Ltd. to their richly-deserved fame?"
Arthur shrugged. "It's hard to tell how serious it is right now."
Lil added, "We've got lots of witnesses, but sometimes having that many people involved works against you. They tell stories back and forth and things get embellished and improved upon."
"So how come you're all over here having dinner instead of spending the big night out in the haunted house?"
"Special circumstances," Lil said. "No one's in the apartment right now, so we'll be able to spend more time than we usually do on the site." She tore open the bag of tortilla chips. "Do you have a bowl to put these in?"
Marc pulled a large, plain glass one out from a stack of nesting bowls. "What does that mean? Are you going to move in or something?"
"Well, I'm not," Lil said, hesitating an instant.
Marc turned to Arthur. "Well, well. Are we going to be moving?"
"Just me. And just for a week. It's too good a chance to pass up."
"I understand that," Marc said, frowning a little. "You don't have to sound like you're apologizing."
"I won't go till you're driving again."
"You mean the course of True Science is being held up because of me?"
"There's no rush, Marc. if there's really a ghost in that apartment it will still be there next week or next month."
From the expression on Marc's face, Arthur knew he would have said more if Lil and Peter hadn't been there. Since they were, Marc simply looked away, turning his attention to picking a bowl the right size for the salsa.
It was Peter who broke the brief, uncomfortable silence. With a sly glance at Arthur, he said, "Well, I must say that it's certainly nice to see you two back together again. Has anyone told you what a soggy wreck Arthur was without you?"
"Peter--" Lil said warningly.
Marc grinned. "No, as a matter of fact."
"You really don't want to hear this," Arthur protested. "Take my word for it. You don't."
"Are you kidding? Of course I want to know all the grisly details. You ready for another beer, Peter?"
"I don't have to stay here and listen to this, do I?" Arthur groaned.
"Don't act like that," Peter said, accepting a bottle from Marc. "I thought it was very touching. Here I am, a cynical old sailor, convinced that there's no room for romance in the world anymore--"
Lil crossed her arms and said in mock annoyance, "Meaning to imply what, exactly?"
"Except ourselves, of course."
"Well, I hope so." Lil kissed him coolly on the cheek.
"Anyway, I came over to Lil's one evening, and there's Arthur already drunk off his ass, still guzzling straight vodka--"
"This is the second time I've had to sit through this story today," Arthur's voice was muffled because he had buried his face in his hands.
"I only told Eddie the abbreviated version."
"Then I think I'll go start the coals. I'll be on the balcony if you need me." Arthur got up, but Marc snagged him as he walked by.
"Nothing doing. You don't get away that easily."
"So poor Arthur is crying in his vodka that he's let the love of his life slip away from him. There's nothing left in Los Angeles for him, and he's going to go live out the rest of his life in exile in Georgia, for God's sake--"
"Peter, I really think that's enough," Lil said firmly.
He bowed his head in deference to her. "If you insist, dearest."
Marc's eyes were shining with amusement. "I don't think anyone's ever gone on a drinking binge because of me before. How come you didn't tell me about this yourself, Arthur?"
Arthur crossed his arms over his chest, resting both hands on the opposite shoulders. "I can't imagine. Some irrational desire to hang on to a few last shreds of dignity?"
"All right, that's enough from all of you," Lil informed them.
"Thank you, Lil," Arthur said, and made his escape to light the coals in the hibachi.
It was after dinner when Marc discovered the bag of videotapes that Lil had brought and left sitting on the parson's table in the entrance hall. He carried them into the living room where Lil was browsing through Arthur's back issues of The Journal of Psychical Research and Review, while Peter and Arthur put the leftovers away and stacked dishes in the dishwasher.
"Are these investigation tapes?" he asked her.
"Yes, Arthur hasn't seen them yet. He wanted me to bring them over so he could finish his write-up of the case."
"Which case? Anything juicy on the tapes?"
"It's from a law office we were investigating last month. And no, there's nothing on them."
"That the place where Arthur got sick?"
"That's the place."
"No kidding." Marc picked up the first tape in the stack and pushed it into the VCR.
Arthur came in, drying his hands on a dish towel. "She's serious, Marc. We're not even on these tapes. The cameras were on a timer. Why would you want to sit and watch videotape of an empty room?"
Marc looked over his shoulder and smiled sweetly at Arthur. "If I wanted constant excitement in my life, then what am I doing here with you?"
Arthur shrugged. "Suit yourself. Shall we make an evening of it? How many hours of tape do we have there, Lil? Eighteen? Twenty-four?"
"Only eighteen, I'm afraid."
"You two aren't fooling me in the least. You just don't want me to see what's on these tapes, so you can hog all the glory for yourselves."
A dark, murky view of Morgan Teague's outer office was on the television screen. The camera picked out the computer and printer on Marty's desk, the door to the waiting room and the inner office. The rest was in shadow. On the bottom left hand side of the screen the time glowed in neat phosphorescent digits: 9:00 pm.
"I just can't understand it." Peter remarked quietly. He had come out of the kitchen behind Arthur. "There certainly seems to be enough glory to go around here."
Much later in the evening, as Arthur was beginning his second vodka martini and Peter was finishing the last of the beer, Marc called in from the living room where he was still doggedly watching the tapes, even though he had the notes from his English class spread out across the coffee table, "I don't understand why the picture's so bad. Lil, can't you get Arthur to spring for better equipment?"
Lil looked up from the dining room table, where for the past two hours she had been engrossed in Arthur's collection late Victorian research journals . "I know. An infrared camera would be nice, but to be honest, no one's ever recorded a visual on infrared that's any more impressive than what you can get on videotape."
"Uniformly bad, right?"
"So young and yet so cynical."
"Really, though," Marc hit the pause button on the remote. "Is there any reason the picture gets so fuzzy around the edges?"
Lil finally put down the journal and came around the sofa beside Marc. "That cloudiness, you mean? It's nothing to get excited about. Bad investigators might call it a sign of ectoplasmic disturbance, but it's probably just a flaw on the tape."
"Are you sure? Look, when you slow-motion forward, you can see it moving a little."
"Well, would you look at that," Lil said quietly. She reached up and turned off the lamp on the table, then sat down in front of the television. "Let me have the remote."
She ran the few seconds of tape back and forth. "Marc, would you mind turning off the overhead light?"
He jumped up eagerly. When the light went out Arthur asked, "What's up?" and came into the living room.
"Look at this," Lil told him. He came and crouched down in front of the television set next to her.
"You're blocking the set," Marc complained, but his voice was hushed.
"What's going on?" Peter asked him.
"I don't know. I think they found a ghost. Shit, I think I just found a ghost."
Arthur was sitting quite motionless, staring at the image on the television screen. All at once, Lil put her arm around his shoulder and kissed him. "We got it. You were right in the first place, you idiot. And sweet heavens above, we got it on tape."
Arthur didn't say anything.
"Do you have any champagne around? Arthur?"
He nodded, but couldn't turn his face away from the screen.
"A comic book? What comic book?"
Marc was putting two bottles of champagne in the freezer to chill.
Arthur laid his shaking hands down flat on the kitchen counter. He didn't know whether it was exultation or terror that made them tremble so badly. "Do you remember the night you came over and I wasn't here?"
"But there have been so many." Marc smiled, and his grin made the long, dark scab on his right cheek bunch up around the black stitches.
"It was the night Lil and I sat up in that office." Arthur gestured towards the living room, where Morgan Teague's outer office was still frozen on the television screen.
Marc's expression softened. "Of course I remember. What about it?"
"When I came in that morning, you'd dropped a stack of your comics on top of the tarot cards on the coffee table--"
"Are you still upset about that?"
"Oh, Marc, please."
"I'm sorry. I'm trying to be good, but it's so hard. Do you know, up until this very evening I still had never been able to decide whether or not you and Lil were just a happy pair of flakes--"
"Why thank you," Lil said dryly.
"I mean that in the best possible sense," Marc assured her with a dazzling smile. "But there it is on videotape, and it's real. I almost feel like going to church or something."
"The comic book?" Arthur asked with more patience than he was actually feeling.
"I'm sorry. Now what comic are you so interested in?"
"The one on top of the stack. It looked old--"
"I do remember I'd bought some comics down at Hi-De-Ho that afternoon, but I really couldn't tell you now what I bought. I can't remember that far back."
"This comic had a picture on the cover of a man about to get his eye put out with a nail file."
"God almighty, Marc," Peter complained. "Is that how you get your jollies?"
Marc ignored him. "Right, I know the one you mean. Great cover, huh? It was just a reprint of an old EC comic. I couldn't have afforded the original. The reprint's a few years old, and even that set me back some. What do you want to know about it?"
"Everything. Anything you can tell me."
"I just don't see what--oh." Realization dawned. "Oh shit, Arthur. You think that comic has something to do with them? On the T.V. in there? How could it?"
"I don't know. But it keeps coming back to me. I haven't been able to get it out of my head since I first saw it."
Lil said, "When Arthur and I had lunch right after he got back to L.A., he told me about that comic book, Marc." She glanced over at Arthur. "He told me it upset him so much because it seemed like a premonition of your getting hurt."
Marc's hand stole up to cover the line of stitches in his cheek. "But that's crazy, Arthur. It's just a comic book."
"I know." Arthur agreed quietly.
"All right, all right. That comic. Like I said, it's just a reprint of an old EC comic book. I'll have to dig it up again to give you the date the original was published. 1953 or 1954. Johnny Craig drew the cover, and it's a rare instance of the injury-to-the-eye motif showing up in an EC comic. They were usually a little bit classier than the competition. That's one reason even the reprint is valuable. I don't know what else--"
"What do you mean by 'motif'? Was this sort of cover common?" Arthur asked.
"Like I said, not with EC--they were the people who went on to publish Mad--but looking at the whole field of pre-Code comics, yeah, the injury-to-the-eye motif was one of the torture themes that showed up fairly often on the covers of the crime and horror comics. Nowadays collectors classify those comics by cover subject--flagellation, bondage, injury-to-the eye. The eyeball covers are the weirdest. You can understand the other fetish covers, but who gets off on putting someone's eye out?"
Peter's lip wrinkled in disgust. "And these are comic books we're talking about?"
"Yeah. There was a lot of criticism at the time, even congressional hearings on the supposed link between comic books and juvenile delinquency. Finally in the mid-fifties the comic book publishers adopted a self-censorship code. No violence, no sex, and the bad guy always has to lose. It nearly destroyed comics. It wasn't until the mid-eighties that direct marketing allowed publishers to skirt the Code and begin publishing really violent comics again." Marc shrugged. "So that's my lecture. I don't see how it really helps. I mean, it was just chance that you spent a night in that office surrounded by those--things--and came home and found that comic book."
"I'm sure it was," Arthur said. "That doesn't mean it's not important. Could we go over to your place tomorrow and pick it up? I'd like to see it again."
"Sure, whatever I can do. You know that. Just so long as I get prominent listing in the journal articles."
"You'll be featured in every footnote," Lil assured him.
Peter drove home by himself some time after midnight. Marc lasted until three a.m. Huddled in front of the television set with Lil, Arthur didn't realize that he had fallen asleep until he heard the first gentle snore, and turned to see Marc's head resting on the arm of the sofa, his mouth open and the knuckles of one hand on the carpet. Lil followed Arthur's gaze and smiled. "Do you want to call it a night?"
"Then neither do I." She sighed and stretched and ran one hand through her hair, making it stand up in a ridge. For the fifth or sixth time this evening she said, "I still can't believe I missed it. It makes me think I ought to hang up my hat."
"Now?" Arthur said. "On the eve of what Marc's calling our greatest triumph?"
"And we nearly missed it."
"There was no confirmation from any other source, Lil. The thermograph readings didn't show any temperature changes. There was no evidence of unusual magnetic fields. And I'd managed to convince myself there was nothing there. I didn't expect you to pore over eighteen hours of videotape looking at glitches and static--"
"That's my job," she said, still annoyed with herself.
"And you were trying to do it all by yourself because I'd run home to Georgia."
"All right, already. I blame you instead of myself. Happy?"
"Deliriously." Arthur picked up the remote and let a few more seconds of tape run.
Shadows moved on the television screen, and Arthur froze the picture again. There were faces in the lines of static and the fuzz of video snow. They clustered in the murkiest corners of the picture, in the blurred line where the door frame of Morgan's inner office faded into the darkness beyond, in the shadow behind the computer monitor and beside the desk, and behind the glass window that looked out into the waiting room.
So far this evening Arthur and Lil had been able to pick out eight distinctive faces. There were at least that many more whose features were too partial or indistinct to differentiate among.
All of them had ragged black holes where their eyes should have been.
"Look at that one," Arthur said quietly. He pointed to a faint image at the side of the desk. "It almost looks like Marty."
"How is that possible?" Lil paused with a delicacy that was out of character for her. "Arthur, she was still alive when these tapes were taken."
"I don't know. And it's hard to tell." Like all the others, the face was a composite of shadows, apparently made visible only by the imperfections of the recording process. "But really, Lil, none of this makes any sense."
"I know. The thing that's hardest for me to understand now is how we sat in the office for hours without an inkling of anything going on around us. In the middle of this sort of activity, we should have been jumpy as cats all night long. But I didn't feel a thing until you keeled over."
Lil took the remote from Arthur and advanced the tape a few more frames. The ravaged faces twisted in the shadows, some fading into the darkness, others moving forward into something like clarity. Their mouths were wrenched open in soundless, mindless screams. Watching them, Arthur realized it was the gaping black holes for eyes that brought the faces into focus at all. Without those empty black pits staring out through the fuzz and static, Marc and Lil might never have seen the host of phantoms at all. When Arthur forced himself to look away from the eyes, to concentrate, for example, on the swell of a cheek or the line of a jaw, the face disappeared against the mundane details of Teague's office furnishings.
Lil asked, "Is Morgan going to let us come back?"
"No. As far as he's concerned, I practically helped Marty do away with herself."
Lil reached out and squeezed his hand briefly. "That poor girl. Imagine her working there day in and day out, with those things pressing in all around her. Even if Morgan won't let us continue the investigation, we have to let him know what's going on."
"I know. I'll call him Monday."
"I can afford to take a few days off from work. I think we should spend it going through these tapes together."
"All right. If you're sure you can spare the time. The sooner we can get something put together on this the better. This is--this is bad. This is as bad as my parents' home." A yawn overtook him. "You sure you don't want to call it a night?"
"Are you giving out on me?"
"Yes." Arthur stood up. His back was stiff from hours of sitting on the floor in front of the television. Smiling, Lil reached up one hand, and he helped her to her feet. "We're getting too old for this," Arthur said.
"Nonsense. A few hours of sleep and we'll be right as rain."
"Would you like me to drive you home? Or you're welcome to spend the night here."
"You're too beat to drive. I'll just stay here if you don't mind." She looked over her shoulder to where Marc was slumbering on the couch. "Have you got a roll-away for me?"
"No, but I'll roust Marc so you can have the sofa."
"Oh, don't bother him. He looks so peaceful lying there. Do you kick or snore?"
"Aren't you even going to ask me if I do?"
"I'm sure you don't."
Lil shook her head. "You've never been a very good judge of character."
Marc woke them up the next morning with breakfast in bed. Marmalade and stacks of toast, and the brown betty teapot full of hot black coffee.
"Well, this is a fine thing," he upbraided them, setting the wicker tray down on the side of the bed.
Lil pushed back the bedclothes and sat up. She had slept in one of Arthur's white t-shirts and a pair of Marc's plaid boxers. She looked strangely frail without the armor of her tailored wardrobe, but she took a piece of toast off the tray and cocked an eyebrow at Marc with her usual air. "Does this mean you're going to be taking Peter off my hands now?"
"Aw, wait a minute." Marc sat down on the end of the bed. "Don't take this the wrong way, Lil, but it hardly seems like a fair trade. I mean, Arthur gets you, and I have to make do with a man who spit-shines his Adidas?"
Arthur sat up more slowly, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes with the heels of his hands. Marc poured a cup of coffee and handed it over to him. "And what do you have to say for yourself?"
Arthur gulped the coffee gratefully. "I don't know. What have I done now?"
Marc was beaming with mischief. "Did you hear that, Lil? He doesn't even remember. If I were you, I'd kick him right out of bed."
"Oh, I'll leave that to you." Lil poured herself a cup of coffee. "Do you have any milk?"
"Don't go away." Marc jumped up and ran to the kitchen, returning with a carton of skim. "So did you find anything else after I fell asleep?"
"I don't remember. Did we, Arthur?"
"We may have picked out a couple more faces. Nothing more than that."
"And you don't have any idea who they are? Why they look like that?"
Arthur reached for a piece of toast and spread it with marmalade. "No."
"Do you think you'll find out?"
Lil pulled her legs up, half-resting the coffee cup on one of her bony knees. "I don't know. Frankly, it doesn't look very promising since our client fired us a month ago. We're going to have to make do with those tapes, and the research Arthur has already done."
"And my comic book. Do you know what that means yet?"
Arthur shook his head.
"Well, I have a theory," Marc announced. "I think that office is being haunted by all the people who died and went to hell for reading comics books, just like their parents threatened they would."
"Is that what your parents told you?" Lil asked, smiling.
"Are you kidding? My folks were much too hip to believe in heaven and hell. When I misbehaved, Mom would tell me that I was accumulating bad karma."
It was early afternoon when Arthur drove Lil home. Marc came along so that they could go to his place to get the comic book after dropping her off. Arthur managed to find parking in front of her apartment, and Lil started to get out, then said, "You know, I've still got some of your notes from this case. The history of the building and your interview with Marty. Hold on a minute and I'll bring them down."
Arthur turned off the engine and set the parking brake. "I'll just come up and get them."
"All right. Thanks."
"I'll only be a minute," Arthur told Marc, who was already climbing into the front seat Lil had just vacated.
He smiled skeptically at Arthur. "You really think I don't know that you two are just trying to snatch another stolen moment together?"
"There's no fooling you," Lil admitted, and swung the car door shut with vigor.
Her apartment was on the second story, at the top of an enclosed stairwell. Her heels were loud on the wooden stairs. Arthur followed more quietly. A welcome mat lay in front of her door, a plain rectangle of coconut bristles bleached nearly white by years of passing feet. The apartment numbers on her front door were tarnished brass. Lil fitted her key into the lock and swung the door open.
The sweet, musty odor of fresh eucalyptus and dried roses spilled out into the landing. Lil didn't go in.
Standing beside and slightly behind her, it took Arthur a moment to realize that something was wrong. "Lil?"
"I think someone's been in my place."
Her voice was quite level and controlled. Arthur touched her shoulder, then stepped around her into the living room.
To his eyes, at least, nothing seemed to have been disturbed. Everything was spare and tidy as he remembered, from the plain, comfortable living room set she'd brought with her from Houston twenty years ago, to the white particle board bookshelves lined with notebooks and videocassette tapes, all neatly labeled by date and location. A large boston fern was suspended in front of the window, and the only splash of color in the room came from the worn braided rag rug that Lil had once told Arthur her mother had made while she was pregnant with Lil's older brother.
Arthur looked back at her. "What is it? How do you know?"
"I can feel him," she said bleakly. "Even from out here." She came slowly and reluctantly in from the hallway, and turned slowly around. "He must have been here for hours."
Her shoulders sagged and her face was drawn into a sad, tight mask. She ran her hand lightly over the cushions on the sofa, as though she thought they might burn her.
"Ah," she said joylessly. "I'm not crazy. Look at that."
A drinking glass half full of water was sitting on the side table on the far side of the couch. There was no coaster underneath, and condensation had made a round, pale stain on the finish.
She had already moved down the short hallway towards the bedroom. Arthur followed her, and found her standing at the foot of the bed, both her hands wrapped tightly around the top of the blonde maple baseboard. The bed was made, but the pillows showed the clear imprint of a resting head.
"Lil, you're sure Peter couldn't have come over?"
She didn't answer him. She only stood there twisting her hands around the baseboard. Arthur went to the bedroom closet and pulled the door open. Then he pushed open the bathroom door and pulled back the shower curtain. He walked back through the apartment to the kitchen, and that was where he found the broken window and the cut screen.
When he went back to the bedroom, Lil was sitting on the very edge of the bed. He had never seen her so bleak and miserable.
He sat beside her on the bed and told her about the broken window. Then he said, "I'm going to call the police now, all right? Would you like me to call Peter too?"
She shrugged heavily. "What can he do? He'll just get angry." Then she laughed without mirth. "Someone should let Marc know what's going on."
"Yeah, why doesn't someone tell me what's going on?" Marc stood in the bedroom doorway, evidently having gotten tired of waiting in the car for them.
"Someone broke in last night," Arthur told him.
"Oh, man, Lil, I'm sorry. What did they take?"
"I don't know." The thought hadn't occurred to her before. "I don't know if he took anything." She got up and opened the jewelry box that was sitting out on the vanity. A few thin gold chains and the handful of rings were undisturbed. She went to the living room. "TV, stereo, VCR all ok."
In the kitchen she skirted the circle of broken glass, and pulled out a cabinet drawer. "Grandmother's silver is still here. Too bad. If he'd taken it, I never would have had to polish it again." She managed a rueful smile. "Besides, if he broke in to rob me, I don't think he would have stopped to take a nap on my bed first."
"Aw, gross, Lil. Did he really?" Marc's face wrinkled in sympathetic disgust.
Arthur picked up the phone in the living room. Taped to the underside of the receiver was the number of the West Hollywood Sheriff's Station. Lil had typed it neatly on a slip of paper that was now yellowed with age.
Lil said, "The bedspread's twisted a little. And you can see where his head was lying on my pillow. Oh, damn."
She wrung her hands in anger at the tears that came to her eyes. Marc was nearest. He pulled her gently into his arms, patting her on the back with awkward sympathy. Lil's hands were clenched into fists on his chest. "Oh damn," she said again, stomping one foot as the tears continued to flow. "I'm sorry about this. Maybe you better call Peter after all."
It was early evening before Arthur and Marc left Lil's apartment. The police had taken nearly two hours to arrive, and their presence had not been reassuring. Marc made eyes at the back of the broad-shouldered blonde patrolman who looked at the broken window, the cut screen, and then said, "We'll get the lab boys out tomorrow for you and see if they can lift any prints."
Peter had arrived by this time. He was standing protectively close to Lil, but he didn't touch her when she asked quietly, "But what's to keep him from coming back?"
"Well, not much, I'm afraid," the patrolman said, matter-of-factly. "You might tell your landlord to cut back the underbrush behind the fire escape, but with these old buildings, it's just not that easy to keep someone out if he's determined to get in."
Lil looked around the apartment that would never seem wholly safe again, and finally, defeated, wrapped one arm around Peter's waist. And after the policemen had gone, she began packing an overnight bag.
"It's just for a little while," she told them all, but she couldn't fit all the clothes she had pulled out of the closet into the little bag, and had to have Peter get the rest of her luggage down from the top closet shelf.
Marc was quiet on the ride to his apartment, but he drummed his fingers angrily on the dashboard. They had reached Westwood before he finally said, "I know just how Lil feels. It must be even worse in a way, happening in your own place. At least I don't have any emotional attachment to the library parking lot."
Bill and Rob were both home, sitting in the living room watching the Sunday night rerun of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
"Well, look who's here." Rob glanced over his shoulder at them. "The faces are familiar, but I can't quite place the names."
Bill didn't bother to look back. "We already sublet your room, Marc. What are you doing back here, anyway?"
"It's nice to see you assholes too," Marc said. He led Arthur down the hallway, picking his way around the laundry baskets heaped with BVDs and athletic socks. Marc's room was neat but it felt as though it had been abandoned. The bed was made, and the closet door stood open. An empty gap marked the place where Arthur had grabbed an armload of shirts for Marc the last time he was here.
"Let's see. It should be right around here somewhere." Marc pulled the fitted lid off a pale blue cardboard box and thumbed through the loosely packed rows of comic books. "Here we go. This is the one, right?"
He pulled a comic out and passed it across to Arthur. Arthur hesitated before looking down at it. The ghastly image had haunted him for so long that he felt a certain trepidation at facing the thing itself again.
But it was just an old comic book. The colors on the cover were garish, and the drawing itself was too cheerfully vulgar even to be shocking. Thick, spiky red veins ran through the white of the menaced eyeball, and the hand wielding the sharpened file had long, equally blood-red fingernails.
Marc saw the look on his face. "No flash of insight, huh?"
"I don't know. No. Not really. Can I take it out of the bag?"
Arthur sat down at Marc's desk and eased the comic out of the mylar sleeve. Opening it, he skimmed through three grisly little tales of wrongdoers eventually meeting hideously apt retribution. The last was about a peeping tom who, when the object of his gaze finally caught up with him, suffered the appalling fate threatened on the front cover.
Arthur handed the comic back to Marc. "It's charming, but I don't see how it helps. Maybe I was wrong about this after all."
Marc looked a little crestfallen, but he said philosophically, "Well, I thought it was pretty far-fetched, but you seemed so certain."
"Do you have any more information about this book? Maybe more about this type of cover?"
"Not out here. Most of my reference books are up in Santa Barbara. We could see what the library has, though." Marc sat down at his desk and turned on the computer. The modem buzzed and clicked. Marc typed a few words, then drummed his fingers impatiently on his wrist rest. "Always slow as as molasses on Sunday nights. Forgot about that. OK, here we go. "
Arthur stood looking over his shoulder as Marc scrolled through lists of reference books and journal articles on the screen. "I'm guessing that price lists and buyers' guides won't do you much good," he told Arthur.
"I don't know. Probably not."
"Let's see here. Biographies of the artists, the writers, the publishers, general history of comics, cultural significance--" Marc flipped past screen after screen of information, "Just say the word and I'll stop. We've got transcripts of the l954 hearings on comic books in the Congressional Record, Frederick Wertham's articles in Woman's Day from the early fifties, public backlash against comics, comics and the Red Scare, comics and juvenile delinquency--hey, this is interesting." He stopped the cursor on a listing for an article in The Journal of Popular Culture. "This was published just last year. I wonder what it's about?"
Arthur leaned forward over his shoulder. "Which one?"
"The article by Michael Kaz. 'The Pierced Eye: Freeman's Transorbital Lobotomy and the Pre-Code Horror Comics.' All I can think of is Jack Nicholson with those stitches in his forehead at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I wonder what that has to do with comic books?"
Arthur stared at the screen. He didn't trust himself to speak, because he was afraid that if he did, this sudden, astonishing moment of clarity would slip away from him like it had so many times before. Images crowded into his mind. Marty's empty gaze while she held her cat. Brownley saying, "People get lost here. I've seen it happen more than once." Himself doubled over on the floor of Morgan' Teague's office with a terrifying, inexplicable pain coiling behind his eyes.
Finally Marc spun the computer chair around and looked up at him quizzically. "So what do you think? Is it worth checking out?"
Arthur laughed hoarsely. He pulled Marc up out of the chair and kissed him on the mouth. "Yes. I think it's worth checking out."
Peter's kitchen was sunny and small. A basket of nasturtiums bloomed on the window sill. Arthur, Marc and Lil were huddled around the speckled formica breakfast table, which they had heaped with library books, xeroxed journal articles and blurry newspaper pages reproduced from microfilm. Crowded off his own kitchen table, Peter retreated to the counter by the sink, where he stood peeling grapefruit sections and eating them one by one for breakfast.
Marc was doing most of the talking. "This is the first thing we found, the Michael Kaz article in The Journal of Popular Culture."
Arthur had said little all morning. He hadn't gotten much sleep the last two nights, and the bright morning light hurt his eyes.
"Remember Saturday night," Marc said, "and how I was talking about those strange injury-to-the-eye comic book covers back in the fifties?"
Lil smiled. "Yes, I remember."
"Well, in this article Kaz has come up with an explanation for them. It all has to do with the popularity of lobotomies back in the 30's and 40's as a treatment for certain kinds of mental illness. The only thing that kept it from being practiced even more widely was that it was really expensive. There was just no way to pay for lobotomizing all the people who were prime candidates for the procedure, mostly the incurable psychotics cluttering up the public nut houses. And then in the late forties this one psychiatrist came along--lemme see--" Marc flipped through the xeroxed pages, "A guy named Walter Freeman. He perfected a way to sever the frontal lobes without actually having to cut open the skull, like you had to do in the traditional lobotomy. Freeman's method was quick and easy, you didn't need to be a neurosurgeon, or even have special tools. Freeman used an icepick as a leucotome."
Lil said mildly, "My god."
"Here, I've got a picture of him in action somewhere around here." Marc flipped through one of the library books on the table. "First he knocked the patient out with a jolt of electricity. He had a little black shock box he carried around with him that just plugged into the wall. Then while the patient was lying there stunned, he'd pull the eyelid back, insert the icepick into the socket above the eyeball, ram it home and wiggle it around up there to sever the lobes. The whole thing took maybe five minutes, and voila, instant lobotomy. Here's a picture."
He passed the book across to Lil. Peter came forward and looked over her shoulder. The grainy black and white photograph showed a middle-aged woman lying on her back, partially covered with a sheet, and surrounded by stony-faced men in lab coats. A long, slender handle protruded from under each of her eyelids.
Lil shook her head. "That's appalling. It's almost unbelievable."
"Isn't it, though?" Marc continued cheerfully. "And the best part was, the patient would be awake again in ten minutes or so, and after an hour or two of a little dizziness, a little nausea, be on his feet and ready to go home again."
Lil glanced sharply across the table at Arthur. He was shading his eyes with his hand from the sun coming in the kitchen window. Seeing his discomfort, Peter turned and pulled the venetian blinds partway down the window.
"This Freeman guy was a real self-promoter," Marc was saying. "He seems to have thought he deserved a Nobel prize in medicine."
"You've got to be kidding," Peter burst out at last. "For sticking icepicks in people's brains?"
"Well, it was 1950. Better living through psychosurgery, right?" Marc grinned. "Anyway, Freeman did everything he could to popularize his technique. He went around performing his icepick lobotomies all over the country, at VA wards, state mental institutions, public hospitals, anywhere he could get an audience. There are stories of him performing, ten, fifteen, lobotomies in an afternoon.
"Now the creepy thing is, in the beginning Freeman only advocated lobotomy as a last resort, like for people who had been in mental homes for years with no hope of ever getting better. But when he didn't get the results he was hoping for, he began performing the treatment on his private patients, people who weren't nearly so bad off, as a preventative measure before they went too crazy. Eventually he was lobotomizing people who were suffering from depression, or compulsive behavior, deviant sexual impulses--" Marc smiled, but without much amusement. "He even lobotomized teenagers diagnosed with antisocial tendencies. Good thing I hadn't been born yet or I'd be a sure candidate on multiple counts."
Arthur made a quiet sound, and Marc looked over at him. "What is it? Am I leaving something out?"
"No," Arthur said softly, "you're doing beautifully. Go ahead."
"OK. Anyway, the press loved him. You should see these articles we found in Life and the Saturday Evening Post. They're praising his lobotomy as the breakthrough treatment for mental illness, and Freeman as this great humanitarian. I think it gave me bad dreams last night, I really do. And I don't know if Arthur slept a wink. I woke up a few times and he was just lying there looking up at the ceiling."
Peter agreed unexpectedly, "It would give anyone bad dreams."
"You're not kidding. Reading all these interviews with doctors, all these editorials and stuff, and everyone's just so happy that it's so easy to sever the frontal lobes now. That's where comic books covers come in. This critic Michael Kaz sees all those threatened eyeball covers as the low-culture response to the attitude of the powers-that-be. While the medical establishment was praising the procedure, these horror comics were reminding their readers--maybe not directly, but on some level--that lobotomy was really about getting an icepick in your eye."
Lil leaned forward, resting her chin on the back of her hands. "This is all fascinating, Marc. But I'm not sure I understand what it has to do with Morgan Teague's office. Could lobotomies have been performed there? Is that what you two are getting at?"
"This is where all the grunt work that Arthur did digging up the names of previous tenants finally pays off. A psychiatrist named Teller Waite rented that office from 1950 through 1952. And whattaya know, we found him listed among the participants at the 1952 convention on psychosurgery in San Diego. He even gave a paper. The medical library didn't have the complete text, but they did have an abstract. Here it is."
He passed a xeroxed page with yellow highlighter markings sacross the table to Lil. "Apparently he was one of the psychiatrists who got into Freeman's lobotomy technique in a big way. In his paper he says he performed about 50 lobotomies in the course of eighteen months. He makes a lot of the fact that no hospitalizations were necessary, except for a couple of times when he hooked a blood vessel and the patient had to be rushed to the emergency room. The lobotomies were all performed right in that very office."
For a few moments no one said anything. Arthur sat with his head in his hands.
It was Peter who finally said apologetically, "I'm sorry to interrupt the horror show, Lil, but I've got to get to work. Have you definitely decided to take the day off? I'll be glad to drive you if you want to go in."
"No, they can spare me for a few days at the salt mines."
She got up and kissed his freshly-shaven cheek. "Thanks for everything. I'll be fine. Besides, I've got these two to look after me."
"No wonder I worry. You boys take care. Stay away from icepicks."
The silence continued after Peter had gone. Lil had wandered over to the window to look at the nasturtiums. She pinched off one fragile orange blossom and carried it back to the breakfast table. She touched Arthur's shoulder, and when he looked up, handed him the bloom.
He glanced down at the flower in his hands, twirling it between his thumb and forefinger. "So what are they?" he said at last. "All those faces that showed up on the videotape. We can't really call them ghosts, can we?"
Marc said to Lil, "I've only read a little so far about what people were like after getting icepicked, but depending on how healthy the patients were before the operation, they didn't necessarily end up like Jack Nicholson, grinning and drooling all over themselves. But they did become docile, easily confused, and pretty much incapable of creative thought." Marc paused, then looked across the table at Arthur. "Should I go on?"
"Waite seems to have specialized in behavior modification," Marc said. "In this paper he describes his success using lobotomies to treat troubled adolescents, depressed housewives, pedophiles, and of course our favorite deviants, homosexual men. Sure enough, the bad kids quieted down, the women stopped complaining, and the gay men and child molesters reported a relief from their unnatural cravings. Or as Waite put it, the sex drive became so unfocused that it was possible for the therapist to guide his patients towards a more acceptable object of desire."
"Oh lord, Arthur," Lil said.
Arthur said, "I think those rooms must be littered with the bits and pieces from all those minds Teller Waite mutilated. He cut up the souls of fifty people, and the fragments are still there, like amputated limbs buried under the floorboards."
His hyperbole seemed to sober Lil, and she answered more cautiously, "If that's really the cause of the phenomena, it is astonishing."
Marc said, "But it all ties in so perfectly. The comic books and the missing eyes on the videotape, even Arthur's headache, and those two secretaries going crazy--"
"Blanche and Marty," Lil said. "Is that what's happening to people who stay in that office too long? They start acting like lobotomy victims? Was suicide common after a lobotomy?"
Arthur said, "It seems to have been one of the common side effects, even of Freeman's modified lobotomy procedure. Depending on the source you look at, the suicide rate was as high as twenty percent within the first year of the operation."
Lil sat back. "Then we don't really have time to make sure, do we? We've got to convince Morgan to get out of that office."
"He's been there for nine years now," Arthur said. "Maybe he's just not affected by it."
"He has a new secretary working for him now, doesn't he? She could end up like Marty and Blanche," Lil pointed out. "Besides, when he first called us in on this case, he said it was because that office was beginning to get on his nerves. It wasn't just the alleged poltergeist phenomena. It was a feeling that there was someone else in the office with him, remember? Maybe he is starting to be aware of all those--" Lil paused, searching for a way to describe it, "--of all those psychic fragments. It's after nine o'clock now, isn't it? Let's see if he'll talk to us."
Lil got up and went to the next room, returning with a heavy, black rotary phone on a long black cord. "Have you got his phone number somewhere in that pile of papers?"
"Yes, somewhere. Here." Arthur handed her his notebook, folded back to the first page of their investigation. It seemed a very long time ago now.
Lil dialed laboriously and waited. Then with a slight, thin smile in Arthur's direction she asked, "Is Morgan Teague available? Oh. Well, do you expect him in today?" A pause. "Tomorrow, then? My name is Lillian Arceneaux. I was involved in an investigation of his office. It's really very important that I speak to him as soon as possible. If I leave my number, do you know how soon he would be able to return my call?"
Still holding the phone, Lil shook her head at Arthur and Marc, then shrugged. "All right. Thanks for your time."
She hung up. "No luck on that front. Let's drive down there. Even if he really isn't in, we might be able to intimidate his secretary into getting him on the phone for us if we show up in person."
"You're ruthless," Marc said, delighted. Then his face fell. "But I can't go with you. I've got a doctor's appointment. You'll have to drop me off at school."
"Are your stitches coming out?" Lil asked. She began stacking the pages on the kitchen table back together into some semblance of order.
"Finally. And Arthur's devastated." Marc flicked at one of the threads in his cheek. "He liked me looking like Frankenstein's monster. He figured he didn't have any competition that way."
The last time Arthur had been in the aging Santa Monica office building, Morgan Teague had told him that Marty was dead. Since then, this unprepossessing suite of rooms had never been far from his thoughts. He was only now beginning to realize how long he'd been haunted by visions of hurt, wide open eyes.
As they rode the elevator to the fifth floor together, Lil saw him wince when he remembered Marty's ghost, and she asked sympathetically, "Still got your headache?"
"It's not so bad now," he said. "I think it's mostly just being in this building again."
"We shouldn't spend any more time here than we have to," she said seriously. "This place is poisonous. Being here again, I don't have any doubt of it."
Amy, the young secretary Arthur had met the last time he had been here, was sitting behind the desk. She didn't look noticeably wide-eyed or nervous, just a little put out when she realized who Lil and Arthur were.
"I'm sorry you've had a wasted trip. But I already told you over the phone that Mr. Teague isn't here today." She looked steadily at Arthur and then ventured in a burst of bravery, "I'm not sure he'd want to see you even if he was here."
She was young enough to be almost immediately ashamed of herself. She dropped her eyes and said flatly, "I'd be glad to take a message. But that's all I can do for you."
"I guess that will have to do then," Lil said. "Please impress upon him how urgent it is that we talk to him as soon as possible."
Lil waited patiently while Amy took down both her name and Arthur's and their phone numbers. Then Lil asked her, "Do you know where there's a water fountain? I didn't see one in the corridor."
"Oh, but there isn't one," Amy cried. She sounded as though she were afraid that this last disappointment might be more than Arthur and Lil could reasonably be expected to bear. She went on hurriedly, "But we have a water cooler in back. Can I bring you a cup?"
"That would be very kind."
Transparently happy to be of some use after all, Amy jumped up from her desk and hurried to the rear alcove. As soon as her back was turned, Lil went through the rolodex on her desk, the cards flipping softly against her nails. When she found the one she wanted, she slipped it off the roller and into her coat pocket.
Amy returned a moment later with a little paper cup of water which she handed to Lil. Arthur ventured to ask her, "Has Mr. Teague been in his office recently at all?"
She hesitated. Then with an unhappy, apologetic smile she said, "I'm sorry. I'm really not supposed to be discussing this with anyone."
Lil handed back the empty paper cup. "Does Mr. Teague call in for his messages every day?"
Amy was starting to look a little desperate. She fiddled with a pen and finally said, "I do get all his messages to him, you know. You don't have to worry about that. And I'll be sure to tell him how important it is. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to work." To emphasize her point she rested her fingers on her keyboard, as though she would begin typing furiously as soon as they left.
In the elevator Lil said, "You know, I don't think Teague has been in for days."
"I gathered that. What did you take from the rolodex?"
Lil produced the card and handed it to him. On it was Morgan Teague's home address and phone number.
"I wouldn't have thought this would be in the office rolodex," Arthur said, impressed.
"A new secretary? Of course she has the boss's home phone number. Someone a little more experienced wouldn't leave it sitting out on her desk, but she's just a kid, poor thing." Lil suddenly smiled. "See what you missed by never having had an office job?"
Arthur's condominium seemed very empty and quiet when he returned home that evening. Marc's doctor had finally given him permission to drive again, and he had gone out with his roommates to celebrate his newly-regained freedom. Arthur felt like a jailer whose last, favorite prisoner has finally been released. He fixed himself a salad for dinner and opened a bottle of wine, which he drank slowly over the course of the evening while he watched more of the Teague videotapes. The shadowed, eyeless faces flickered between the lines of audio static.
The bottle was nearly empty, and he had another headache from hours in front of the television screen, when the front door banged open and Marc came barging in, loud and happy and smelling of beer and cigarette smoke. The stitches were gone, leaving only a long, pink scar down the side of his face.
Arthur clicked the screen off. "What are you doing here? I hope you didn't drive in that state."
"Of course not. I just teleported over. What kind of greeting is that, anyway? I thought you'd be glad to see me."
"Of course I'm glad to see you."
"Yeah, well, now you're going to have to prove it." Marc flopped down in an armchair and spread his legs wide. "Get over here."
Arthur shook his head at him, but he was smiling.
Marc laughed and shifted his hips forward. Arthur went to him and stroked both sides of his face while he kissed his mouth. Marc tasted of beer and garlic, and it felt good not to have to avoid the stitches while he touched his face. He tugged Marc's t-shirt up and bent his head to nuzzle the curling blonde hairs on Marc's chest. After three weeks with little exercise, he was just beginning to lose his washboard stomach. Arthur patted the slight round paunch affectionately before pulling open the buttons of his fly. Marc grunted happily and let his hands rest on Arthur's shoulders.
"Hey," Marc said later, bumping his knee gently against Arthur's cheek. "Don't fall asleep like that. You'll get a crick in your neck."
Arthur smiled drowsily up at him. "So much concern for my welfare?"
"No, mine. I'm in no mood to listen to you moan and groan about muscle cramps again."
"Oh." Arthur started to get up, forgetting that his sweatpants were still down around his knees, and sat down hard.
Marc said seriously, "I think it's your natural grace that I love most about you." He dropped down out of the chair and crawled over to Arthur, pulling him down so that he could lay his head on his chest.
Arthur ran his hand through the short blonde hair, moved by the unexpected and tender weight of Marc's head resting over his heart. For a long while Marc didn't say anything more, and Arthur thought he had fallen asleep. But then he asked suddenly, "So what happened this afternoon when you went to that lawyer's office?"
"What?" Arthur had been nearly asleep himself. "Oh, mothing really. Morgan wasn't in. Lil stole his home address from the rolodex."
"I had no idea you two were so sneaky. Are you going to just drop in on him?"
"If we can't get reach him any other way."
Marc sat up. "What are you going to do about that apartment in Hollywood? Does that get put on hold for now?"
Arthur sat up too, hiked up his sweats, and reached for the wine bottle sitting on the coffee table. When he found it was empty he set it down again. "No, we're continuing with it. We expect it to be a pretty passive investigation. Now that you're up and around on your own, I thought I'd go ahead and move in. Maybe Wednesday or Thursday, whenever's convenient for Eddie."
"Can I come with you?" Marc asked innocently.
"We've been through this before. I explained why I didn't think that was a good idea."
"Two weeks ago you went into conniptions every time I even mentioned going back to my apartment. Now it's like you can't wait to get away from me." Marc was joking, but there was a flicker of uncertainty in his eyes.
"Baby, you know that's not true."
Marc crossed his arms over his chest and looked up at the ceiling.
Arthur sighed. "Please don't pout. It makes both of us ridiculous."
"Ridiculous? Now you start worrying about being ridiculous?" Marc looked over at him. "And why does everything have to be such a crisis with us? My theory is you must be really neurotic."
"I know. You've expressed that opinion before."
"Oh, come on, Arthur. Why can't I go with you?"
"I think it would be a bad idea. This could turn out to be a bonafide haunting."
"But that's exactly why I want to come. It was incredible to see those faces on the videotape. I want to see something like that in person. I want to see it with you. Besides, I think you owe me. If I hadn't been watching that videotape, you and Lil probably never would have seen those faces. And it was my comic book that helped you figure out about the lobotomies."
Arthur felt an odd emotion twist in his chest, and realized it was pride. Then he remembered Charlie's dreadful whimper in the middle of the night, and he finally said, "Marc, I was with a lover once when an apparition materialized in the room with us."
Marc smiled a little. "Sounds like quite a night."
"It was terrible. It nearly ruined a very old friendship. I don't ever want to go through something like that again."
"Explain to me why it was so bad."
"He was absolutely terrified, and for that matter, so was I. Materializations always scare the hell out of me while they're actually going on. But because I was with someone else, someone I cared so much about, it was much worse. I hated seeing Charlie so scared."
It felt odd to say his name to Marc, as though two separate worlds were suddenly and painfully coming together. He went on, more carefully, "Afterwards, he was furious at me for having exposed him to the phenomenon in the first place. But I think he was angrier because I had seen him so frightened. The next morning it wasn't the same anymore for either of us."
Arthur leaned over and kissed Marc's mouth. "Anyway, I don't intend to make the same mistake twice."
Marc was unconvinced. "But it's not the same thing at all, Arthur. I want to see a ghost. I know it'll probably scare the bejesus out of me, but I'm ready for that. Besides, you've already seen me at my bawling worst. I don't have any kind of butch pose to keep up with you."
"Marc, I don't--"
"I want to share this part of your life with you. You're the one who worries that we don't have enough in common. Don't turn around now and shut me out of the most interesting part of your dreary middle-aged existence."
"All right. All right. If you really want to spend a week with me in a very small, cockroach-ridden old apartment, fine. I wouldn't dream of standing in your way."
Arthur got to his feet, but Marc reached out and grabbed one of his hands and didn't let go. "So how long ago was this?"
"This guy Charlie you saw the ghost with. How recently did it happen?"
Arthur hesitated, then realized that his hesitation was answer enough and told him, "Not very long ago."
"It was while you were home, wasn't it?"
Arthur nodded, silent.
Marc scowled at him. "You were doing it in your haunted old bedroom, and one of the family ghosts showed up." He shook his head angrily. "Well, all I can say is, it serves you right. It serves you fucking right."
Arthur didn't say anything, and an eternity seemed to pass while he watched Marc's face.
Finally Marc shook his head again. His eyes were a little too bright, but he was smiling. "Goddamnit, Arthur. Goddamn you."
"Save it," Marc said shortly. He looked away. "You know what really gets me? I'm half your age and a helluva lot cuter, and the closest I came to any action was being cruised by some closeted businessman type in Westwood."
Arthur smiled sadly. "And you turned him down?"
"Uh, yeah," Marc took a deep, shuddering breath. "You really want to know what happened? I was having a protein shake in that yogurt shop just off Levering, and this guy comes up and asks me if I know of any good movies playing in the Village." He laughed. "Completely pathetic. I just gave him my 'What, are you kidding?' stare, but he wouldn't go away. He buys himself some yogurt and he sits there across the shop eating his frozen yogurt and pretending to read the Village News, but the whole time he's staring at me over the top of the paper."
"So what did you do?"
"I got up and left. He was starting to creep me out. I was halfway afraid he might follow me home or something, so I went on up to the library instead."
The color drained from Marc's face. He shook his head savagely and got to his feet. Arthur reached out for him. "What is it?"
Marc brushed Arthur's hand away and stalked across the room, where he stood at the window staring down at the late traffic on Wilshire Boulevard.
"Please tell me what's wrong."
When Marc turned back his eyes were red and angry.
"He did follow me. He was waiting for me when I came out of the library six hours later. Jesus Christ. I never even thought of him until now. That lousy psychotic bastard followed me and tried to bash my fucking head in. Oh, god."
Marc took deep breaths and paced across the floor. Arthur asked gently, "Can you remember anything about him? What he looked like?"
"I don't know. I don't know. I didn't look at him that closely. He was wearing a good suit, I think. He was older than you--fifty, sixty maybe? Gray hair. Or streaked gray. You know, I think he had a pretty good body, like he'd kept up his health club membership. Just to drool over the pretty boys in the shower, I bet. Christ. Crazy fucker. He'd probably been working up his nerve for months. To think of someone like that out wandering the streets--"
Arthur caught Marc in his arms as he stalked by. "It's all right. Calm down."
Marc tried to wrench himself free, but Arthur held on, and all at once Marc relaxed into his arms, dropping his head onto Arthur's shoulder and embracing him in turn. He didn't weep, but he held Arthur tight. "Oh man," he said softly. "I'm fucking pathetic."
"You're doing great."
"Liar." Marc pulled himself out of Arthur's arms.
"We should call the police and let them know."
"Why? Do you really think Jack Webb's out there scouring the city for a lone closet case who bashed a little fag's head in?"
"It might help the next person, or prevent it from happening again. I don't know. It might make it easier to convict the guy if they ever do catch him."
Marc finally nodded, grim-faced.
Arthur asked, "Who was first on the scene? Do you know?"
"Campus security." Marc sank into the chair again and watched with hollow, angry eyes as Arthur picked up the phone. Before he dialed anything, Marc said suddenly, "Doesn't it seem like you're calling the police an awful lot these days?"
Arthur laid the receiver back down in the cradle and stared at him with a feeling of cold astonishment. He meant to laugh at Marc and tell him not to be so paranoid. Instead, he found himself telling Marc for the first time about the gray-haired runner who had followed him one morning through Beverly Hills. When he was through, Marc smiled a little nervously and asked, "So what do you think it is? Did you and Lil get someone really mad at you? I'm gonna be pissed if I got my face cut up because of some crap you two were up to."
"It must be coincidence," Arthur said, trying to convince himself. "It doesn't make any sense, otherwise. It's just a streak of bad luck."
"Bad luck is right. What does this lawyer look like, this Morgan guy that you and Lil are trying to find?"
At that, Arthur finally protested, "Now that really is insane, Marc. You can't believe that some attorney is chasing us around, breaking into apartments--"
"Going after me with an icepick?" Marc interrupted quietly. And in a gesture that had already become a habit with him, he reached up and covered his scarred cheek with his hand. "What do you think he'd have done to Lil if she had come home while he was still there? What do you think he would have done to you?"
Arthur picked up the phone again. "Do you think it's too late to call Lil and Peter?"
Marc didn't bother to look at his watch. "I think maybe you better call them anyway."