Early Wednesday morning, not much past 10:30, I wheezed my way through downtown in my old ‘31 Ford. Down to White Center, where the city sprawl collided with the suburban rents, resulting in rows of dingy cheap apartment buildings, absentee landlords and the retreats of the old or underemployed. I found the place easily. A building of wooden clapboard, still advertising ‘covered parking’ even though those parking spaces were filled with rusting Chevys, discarded washing machines, and mildewed mattresses.
I parked along the street and walked up to the front door, then leaned on the button next to the peeling paper with ‘Linaman, Manager’ penciled on it.
After a long while there was a muffled voice.
“Naw, he left months ago.”
“You the manager now?”
“Yeah. You a cop or what? No one here been making any calls.”
“Nothing like that. I have a small business proposal that you might be interested in.”
“A business proposition, huh? So there’s money involved?”
“There’s money involved.” I’d met plenty of guys like him in prison.
“Well come on up, then, I guess. 203.”
The door opened, and I climbed the stairs. The thin carpet, perhaps originally a beige sort of color, was held together by stains, and the narrow staircase exuded the tang of cat piss.
Mr. Manager was, as I would have guessed, dressed in an old t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants, and smelled a lot like the staircase. I explained my needs, he articulated his, and we reached an agreement.
I checked out the deceased woman’s room next. It was tiny, and the windows didn’t open. There were a few sticks of shabby furniture, and one yellowing photograph on a wall, of a young man in a uniform standing in a desert somewhere. The room at least smelled a little better; a lavender-kind of scent lingered there. I closed the door behind me when I left to go back downstairs.
I left the building and took a deep breath. At least the apartment was still vacant. I wouldn’t have to make any more deals on behalf of my client. Vampires, we called them, but not the blood-sucking kind. I made a commission on each deal, but they still made me feel like I needed to shower.
“Koehl’s Quality Impressions” was stenciled in black gothic letters on the glass of my office door. A little crooked. All it needed was a cheesy little “While U Wait” card taped under it. Well, in this building, this neighborhood, I couldn’t expect the clients I used to get at First Impressions; over there, Pichrenn’s name still brought in the classy set, even this long after his death.
Was “Quality” accurate? Well, it’s not bragging to say that I can raise ghosts with the best of them. I can make latent ghosts visible, clear as day, short-term or long. At least I can when I can afford to lay my hands on quality equipment. The gear I use now is so shoddy I’m lucky if Fred and Mary can even recognize dear jowly Aunt Greta.
So, yeah, clients were not lined up outside my door. I came in every day, though, in at nine or maybe ten or eleven and out at five or maybe four, when I wasn’t out on a job. I couldn’t afford to miss any walk-ins. I got the occasional referral of a double-booked or cheap client from my old friend Nol at First Imp, and some job orders from a few regulars, vampires, some of whom I knew from my prison days. But walk-ins, impulse buyers, were my main source of income. Sometimes people do act on whims. I stayed in the office daily, watching TV or reading or surfing for obits or drinking until I could justify the return to my apartment.
The glass on the door was at least frosted. A classy touch. Most of my clients didn’t particularly want to be seen from the street, no more than I wanted passersby to see my empty reception room.
Empty it was, when I got back from arranging the vampire feeding. I hung my jacket on the rack near the door.
Ah. There was a new message for me on my computer. I went to the desk and jabbed the button.
“Hello, Koehl.” I was sitting in the chair, and I didn’t remember sitting down. Lindsay. “I have a job I’d like to discuss with you. I can come by tomorrow about eleven, if that’s good for you.”
I hadn’t seen her since… when? Oh, yeah. Not since the trial.
God, how I wanted to see her again. And I also really wished that, tomorrow at eleven or so, I could be somewhere else, far away.
“I need you to come see me.” Pichrenn’s voice on the phone had been thin and uneven, air forced through rusty valves. I was in the middle of a job, taking the impression of a young couple’s son, four years old at the time of death, but this was Pichrenn, so I called Nolan to take over for me.
This kind of thing wasn’t unusual. The job I was doing was routine, though never tell a family that, and Pichrenn often called me away from those to attend him on more interesting cases. Or more high-profile. I figured, and hoped, he was grooming me to take over once he passed on.
I apologized to the couple, saying I had a family emergency, and took a cab over to the address Pichrenn had given me. I found him in one of those huge, lavish condos on 12th, squatting in the corner of a bedroom. The equipment was still boxed, lying in its contoured foam.
The room was dominated by an immense bed, brass. A window took up most of one wall, affording an impressive view of the city and the mountain, and ostentatious abstract paintings garnished the other walls.
There was another bit of apparent abstract art on the peach carpet, a dark red Rorshach image, all that physically remained of the room’s former occupant: a bloodstain like an obscene starfish that had been crushed into the floor. There were additional random splashes and splatters on the mussed bed, and even on one of the walls.
Well, this family wasn’t shy about displaying their money, if they could afford to keep the condo, untenanted (so to speak), for four and a half months after the murder of the husband. No wonder they could afford Pichrenn himself.
He stood up and looked down at the carpet stain, back straight, perfectly still, but his hands, jammed deep into his jacket pockets, were twisting and pinching the material. He did that a lot, as if his hands were the only vents for whatever emotions roiled within.
Lindsay was next to him, sitting on a clean part of the bed, composed and quiet. Her eyes were on Pichnrenn, but she was breathing a little too heavily.
“The Dudanna murder,” Pichrenn said. I raised my eyebrows. The story had been a big one.
“The wife was the one who did it,” Pichrenn said. “Made it look like a robbery, or tried to.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I saw it on TV. Hi, Lindsay.”
She nodded at me, her eyes flashing secrets over Pichrenn’s lowered bald head.
I said, “Our client, then, must be the dear departed’s murderer’s sister, is that right?”
Pichrenn smiled. “Right. The sister of the killer. That’s what makes it interesting, isn’t it?”
I squatted on the floor next to him and surveyed the scene. He was waiting, I knew, for me to see it. Our job, if we did it well enough, would be both a reflection on the murder, and a comment on the client. And of course we had to please our client while doing so, which sometimes meant hiding or disguising our own comments. We were portrait artists. Well, that’s how we thought of ourselves. We wanted to do more than get a snapshot of a corpse. Our equipment amplified the energies embedded in the walls, the floor, the air, to reveal not a carcass, but the shade of a living man.
“Not a happy family, I take it,” I said. “I mean between the sisters.”
“I’d guess not.”
“The wife got away with a slap on the wrist, as I recall. The best justice money could buy.”
Pichrenn said nothing.
“Sis is, of course, married herself. An older gent, if I recall.”
“Very happily married. There’ve been no reports of trouble.”
“Right. And so there would be no jealousy of the sister who snagged the young movie-star-handsome millionaire, no sexual tension at family get-togethers, no younger-sister resentments or buried bitternesses.”
“These people were the top predators of the social jungle, Scott. We’re not talking about trailer trash.”
“Would it make a difference if they were trailer trash? People all do the same things to each other, no matter their positions,” Lindsay said. “Cheat on each other, sneak around.”
I decided to ask Lindsay what she had meant the next time I was alone with her. But I knew I wouldn’t. Betrayal was not something I wanted to discuss. And anyway, Lindsay had a way of making me forget scruples, even as they clearly gnawed at her.
But I had to say something. Something safe. “Sure it would,” I said. “They couldn’t afford us. They’d have to make peace with their dead and move on.”
We were all silent for a time, then I stood up and squatted down again next to the box of highlighters. I took the first one out and stood up, looking the room over again. Then I crossed the room to the bedroom door and extended the tripod. After setting it in place, I put another highlighter just behind and to the left of where Pichrenn still stood. He observed my choices.
I pulled a third highlighter out of the box and placed it just in front of the window. I punched in some settings. Then I looked down at Pichrenn. He cocked his head.
“There was a lot of emotion flying around here, before and during,” I said. “The whole area is bound to be saturated.”
“Then we wouldn’t need three highlighters,” Pichrenn said. “I can almost see the remnants without the use of even one.”
“You’re sensitive, so you don’t count. I’ve set up these two —” I pointed at the one near the door and the one near Pichrenn — “with complementary frequencies. They’ll nearly cancel each other out, with just enough bleed-through to give us something to work with. As you say, it’s so thick in here that even that amount should be plenty.”
“And the third one, near the window, I’ve set much lower.”
“To pick up the background.”
“Right,” I said. “With only one, and with all the other energies flying around, all it’ll probably pick up will be ghostly half-images, like something seen out of the corner of your eye.”
“You did that at the Joshi place,” Pichrenn said.
“Are you accusing me of repeating myself? But these will probably be a little weaker, more ghostly. I’ve been thinking about getting the chance to try this since the Caceres job. There, the energies were so weak there that half-images were the best I could get, but I did think the effect was an interesting one.”
Pichrenn nodded. “And why here?” he asked. “A neat effect is just so much dazzle without a purpose to it.”
“The energies released during the act,” I said, “will be powerful, and I’m sure they’ll be compelling as all hell. But they’re all of violence, and terror, or its aftermath. We’re sure to get some striking images. But what interests me just as much is the underlying tension. I doubt the victim was entirely shocked by his wife’s deed.”
I chanced a glance at Pichrenn, but his gaze remained focused on the floor, his brow creased. I would have given a pinkie to know his thoughts just then, to know why he wanted me there. Just for the job? Or was he sending me another message? “He knew, he must have known,” I said, “that she was on the edge. He probably enjoyed baiting her, flirting with the sister, making her feel unwanted, bullying her, whatever. I don’t know. But I’m sure there was something there. If we can display some of that, even as — or especially as — ghostly after-images behind the main action, I think it’ll be something worth looking at.”
“Hmmm,” he said. Lindsay was nodding along.
“And I was thinking. They specified suppression of sounds, knocks, smells, temperature variations, I suppose?”
“I don’t know if it’s totally ethical, but if we allowed a little of the subsonics to leak through…”
“Yes,” said Lindsay. She looked over at me.
“Unsettling.” Pichrenn got up, bones creaking, and shook a leg that had apparently gone numb. “Very interesting, Scott,” he said. “You have a good grasp of things. I believe I’ll leave this one in your hands.”
I kept my face blank. There was no way he could have found out about what Lindsay and I had been up to. He had called to say he’d be late for a meeting up at his cabin, and things had just happened. And then they happened again, in other places at other times.
“The client paid for your personal attention,” I said. “She’s bound to be upset.”
“I’ll smooth things over with her,” he said. “If she wants to pay for my judgment, she’ll have to accept my judgment that you’re the best one for this job.”
Maybe that was all there was to it — that he thought I was best for the job.
It kind of makes me sorry that I killed the old guy.
Lindsay settled into the chair and leveled her eyes at me. Lindsay Ingham, Charles Pichrenn’s former lover, or at least the final one. And mine. She used to breeze through the outer offices on her way to his inner sanctum, slim, elegant, and moneyed, with glossy black hair that bounced off the small of her back.
After Pichrenn’s death, she’d pretty much disappeared. At the funeral it seemed to me, at least, that an understanding look had passed between us, an acknowledgement that I was still part of her world. But I had been out on a job when she came by the studio to pick up her mementos. She called me twice. I put off answering. But when she heard that I had taken Pichrenn’s impression, she vanished. Felt like I’d betrayed him even unto death. Or maybe it was just guilt that she felt, however unwarranted. Our affair hadn’t killed him.
Then the law finally caught up with me, and I saw her in the witness box at the trial, and there was prison. She didn’t visit.
And now here she was, in my own little studio, in one of those new skirts that’s tight in some places and loose in others, and a black blouse with ruffles around her neck. The air was low in oxygen just then, and my gaze stole back to her face, tracing the line of the chin, her cheeks and eyes and hair, whenever she looked down.
“So. Welcome to Koehl’s Quality Impressions,” I said. “It’s uh, good to see you again, Lindsay.”
Lindsay looked around her at the decor — the faded carpet, the Degas print on the wall. “Nice,” she said. She didn’t say it was nice to see me again.
“Yeah,” I said. “High class all the way.”
“Do you keep your equipment here?” she asked.
“I got a closet. This place came with every convenience. So, what have you been up to?”
“I remember you used to only use the best. You know, Charles really admired your ability to keep all of it in such top shape.”
So she didn’t want to get personal. No old friends and lovers catching up crap. “That’s the trouble with the best stuff,” I said. “It’s temperamental.” Like people. I waited for her to talk.
“Charles used to say you were the best in the studio,” she finally said, not looking at me. “No knocks, no temperature swings or stopped clocks when you did a job.”
The second mention of Pichrenn. “I miss him too, you know,” I said, opening and closing a desk drawer for no reason. “I was there with him from the beginning.”
“I know. Until the end. Well, if you miss him so much, stop by his place. You can see him anytime there, right?” Her voice had shifted out of neutral, but not in a direction I liked. “Sorry,” she said. “I know you didn’t mean… I mean, that you never wanted…”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m past that. So what’s up, Lindsay?” I leaned back in my chair. It creaked a little. I thought Lindsay had perhaps changed her perfume, but I couldn’t be sure.
“I need a job done, Scott.”
“And you came here? As far as I know they’re still taking commissions at First Impressions. They’re the best. And I know you always did like the best.” I couldn’t look too long into her eyes.
“If you’re fishing for a compliment, I’ve given you too many already. Do you want to take the job?”
“I need to hear a little about it first,” I said. A lie, but I didn’t want her to know how far I’d sunk and how desperate I’d become. Oh, when I first got out on probation, I was the talk of the town, the indispensable impressionist and party guest. Offers both personal and professional came in the daily email. I had turned them all down; they had all been just a different kind of vampire, getting their jollies with a touch of death. But my fifteen minutes had ended.
Back to business. I clasped my hands on my desk. Clients liked it when you seemed to give them your full attention, and going to an impressionist is a little intimidating to some, like going to confession, or revealing your dirty little secrets to a psychiatrist. People take death seriously, even if it’s not their own.
“It’s my mother.”
“I don’t remember you talking much about her.”
“No. We didn’t have a lot of contact the last few years.”
“So you had a fight. Teen angst, I suppose?” She didn’t say anything. “But now you decide that you want to raise her. Planning to enact a little posthumous make up session, a sort of after- death mother-daughter heart to heart? You know it doesn’t work that way.” I don’t know why I was being such a bastard.
“Look, I just owe it to her. There’s nothing else I can do for her.”
“ ‘For her’ ? How’s that? It’s just a damn ghost, Lindsay. It’s got as much self-awareness as a black and white photograph. Your mom, she’s gone.”
“Call it a gesture then. It’s too late for anything else.” She looked down at the floor, as if the topic were too personal for her to go on. I didn’t believe that for a second, but I let it ride. I didn’t need to talk myself out of a job.
“OK. You’re the customer.” I slid a brochure over to her. Nice how desktop printing can make your hole-in-the-wall look like a real-live business. “Here are the rates.”
She took it, but she didn’t look down at the brochure. At least she didn’t crease it; I could use it again next time if she didn’t stick it in her purse. “I came to you because you’re good. I don’t want the effect spoiled by second-rate equipment.”
“I don’t really have the resources I once did.”
“With the advance I’m prepared to pay, you can afford to get some of those resources again.” I liked the sound of that; I missed the feel of properly tuned and maintained equipment, its quiet, even hum and ozone smell. The garbage I used now tended to sputter, and the focus kept going out unless you constantly kept on top of it.
Also, an advance that big could pay some of my less important bills, too. Rent and food came to mind.
Lindsay began tapping her code into my paypad.
I forced myself not to look. I pulled up an empty file on the computer, and started filling it out. “I’ll need your current address.” She took one of her cards out of her purse and passed it to me. I saw that nowadays she was employed at EarthTenders, Inc., a non-profit environmental umbrella. Part-time, no doubt. It was just the kind of feel-good job an over-indulged rich girl would have. It shouldn’t have made me so bitter. If she spent her time suckling endangered wildebeest puppies, what was it to me?
“Any other legally interested parties?”
“Mom’s latest ex has signed off on it. That satisfies your legal requirements, I believe.”
“Sure does.” I kept typing. “Visual, audio, olfactory?” Most people want only the visual, even though it’s more work to suppress the taps and moans and temperature swings.
“Just the visual.”
“Short-term, long-term, or permanent?”
“OK.” I stopped typing and looked at her, but she was doing her stare-at-the-floor act again. I saw a few wrinkles on her face that hadn’t been there all those years before.
“I really just have to say goodbye,” she said. “I don’t need an endlessly repeating exhibition, for people to gawk at.” Another little dig at me for raising Pichrenn. So I guess the guilt still gripped her. But I’d show her that nowadays I was immune to that kind of subtle reprimand. I was a businessman now, not some overpaid artiste.
“Short-term it shall be. Cause of death?”
“OK, good. Place and time of death?”
“June 19th, this year. It was a Saturday. At 9:10 p.m. At 7th and Bell.”
I typed. Then, “If the death occurred on the street itself, or in any public area, we’ll need all kind of permits.”
“That’s not a problem. She actually died in a restaurant there, Grasso’s. They’ve already given their permission.” She fished some papers out of her purse and passed them across the desk. Standard release forms. The restaurant probably figured a ghost would be good for business, and maybe they were even right, at least for the short term. But I doubted it. “When can you do it?”
I pulled my appointment book out of a desk drawer and made a show of flipping through its blank pages. “How about this Thursday? Say one o’clock.”
“That would be fine.”
I didn’t suppose the restaurant would object to that hour of the day. The raising of a ghost would be good entertainment for their lunch crowd.
After Lindsay left I sat in my chair, blinking. What the hell had I done? She’d reached out – clumsily, indirectly, but she had made contact. And all my defenses had shot up. I’d needed her, on many levels, after Pichrenn died. My friend, my mentor. According to the law, my victim. And I’d had no one to lean on, because she was dealing with her own issues.
I could still smell her. I didn’t know if it was a perfume or just her, but now I knew it hadn’t changed from back when. The office was suddenly small, dingy, dark and close. I had to get out.
I had to visit Pichrenn again.
The apartment building was now owned by a foundation that had agreed to allow suite 612 to remain vacant. They rented out the other rooms, and probably not one in ten of the current inhabitants knew that the former occupant up there on the sixth floor had not really left.
The doorman knew.
“Mr. Koehl. Good to see you again.” Jacob removed his hat and put it under an arm. I noticed that his hair was graying, the tight curls looking like ash.
“Good to see you, Jacob.”
Jacob turned to open the door for me. “Time for the renewal, Mr. Koehl?”
“No. Just a visit.”
“Ah.” Jacob led the way across the plush lobby to the bank of elevators. “Well, that’s important. Remembering.” He gently pressed the elevator call button, and the doors opened immediately.
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said. We entered the elevator. “Many tourists come by lately, Jacob?”
“Not so many. There was an old lady eight, ten days ago, and some art student early this week.”
The elevator car stopped. We paced the cream carpet down to 612. Jacob turned the key in the lock, then stepped back. “Have yourself a good visit, now, Mr. Koehl.”
He never came in.
“Thank you, Jacob.” I opened the door.
Usually he was in the big easy chair, head up, one hand touching his chin. He must have done that a lot, for it to have imprinted so strongly; he couldn’t have planned a better portrait.
And, I must admit, I had done well with the material. Nothing flashy here, nothing avant-garde, not for him. A quiet study of a thoughtful, gentle man. I’d let a sound of even breathing come though. The legs were almost invisible, mere suggestions of lines and the drape of his trousers. But his body became more substantial as you moved up, and the chair back was nearly completely obscured by his torso. The head was preternaturally distinct, the dark eyes burning.
God, I missed him.
The foundation kept some equipment in a closet. I set it up the way I always did, going through the motions, and renewed the imprint. It wasn’t time yet, I just needed to do something with my hands. Then I sat in a chair for a while. It doesn’t do any good to talk to a ghost. I never know what to say, anyway.
I shouldn’t have set the appointment for Thursday. It gave me three days to wait. Sure, I had wanted her to think I was busy, but I could’ve claimed a sudden cancellation. She’d have seen right through me, but then, she almost certainly already had anyway.
There was one thing I could do. I fed her check to my computer. Now I had the money, I could stop using the shoddy broadcasters that spit all over the spectrum, and the tuneless highlighters and the touchy suppressors. Now it would be topline stuff, paid for in full with Lindsay’s advance.
At the shop they greeted me like an old friend who’d killed someone — fair enough. But once we got to going over the equipment — oh, the way those new suppressors squelch noise! — all awkwardnesses and discomforts were forgotten, and I walked out of there with the best stuff I’d ever worked with, and slaps on the back.
Then, of course, I had to go to the scene of death, to scout out the territory. I hoped my car still had some juice in the bat.
It was in a good part of town. A very good part, in fact, where I stuck out like a zombie at a wedding. Grasso’s was the kind of place a Mafioso would kill to be murdered in — all indirect lighting, widely-spaced tables, dark reflective wood, candles, and hovering waiters. And expensive. Conscious of my old jacket, my shoe with the loose sole, I didn’t want to go in.
I knocked on the glass door anyway.
A guy in a billowy white shirt, his tie undone, peered out at me. I flashed him my business card, which should mean nothing, but flash any sort of ID when you aren’t being asked to and people just start thinking police or Homeland Security. He opened the door.
“I’m afraid we’re closed,” he began.
“Yeah, I figured. Lindsay Ingham asked me to stop by.”
“One moment, please.” He disappeared into the bowels of the restaurant and soon came back with a Mr. Sarkouhi. Apparently there was no Grasso.
“Ms Ingham mentioned you would come to see the site, Mr. Koehl. Thank you for visiting before we open for dinner.” Mr. Sarkouhi, comb-over plastered to his wine-colored skull, a thin moustache drooping against jowly cheeks, nodded me inside. “When you have prepared everything, of course, then we will go public, as they say. The table where it occurred is just through here.”
Nothing special about the table. It was against one wall, a painting above it. But I saw some interesting possibilities, and the setting was appealing — death and money, death and elegance; these were and remain powerful combinations. They pushed buttons, and I found myself getting excited by the work ahead. Such a change from that which I had been getting lately.
I made some mental notes. Places I could shoot from, surrounding material resonances. I forgot that Mr. Sarkouhi was hovering behind me until he delicately cleared his throat.
“I’m almost finished, Mr. Sarkouhi. Just figuring the angles.”
“Of course, Mr. Koehl. The passing of Ms Mehrer in our establishment was, I’m sure you understand, quite a shock.”
“I’m sure it was.”
“What I mean is, Ms Mehrer was more than a customer here. She was here so often, and she enjoyed a close relationship to those here, the staff and the other diners.”
I could see what he was working up to. “Do you suppose they’ll enjoy seeing her here again?”
“It might be disquieting to some.”
“And yet Lindsay told me you agreed to the raising. She showed me the paperwork.”
“Yes, that’s true. It’s just that, well…”
“I know. I guess you don’t say no to Lindsay.” I never could, for different reasons. Or maybe they weren’t so different. “Mr. Sarkouhi, she’s asked for just a temporary raising. I’ll make sure it’s as tasteful as I can. I don’t know what else I can tell you.”
“Thank you, Mr. Koehl. And my thanks, again, for coming when we are closed between lunch and dinner. I appreciate that you are trying to minimize the disruption.”
“No problem.” Actually, I hadn’t even thought about the restaurant being open or not.
As Mr. Sarkouhi turned away, a thought struck me. “Mr. Sarkouhi. On the night in question, was Ms Mehrer dining alone?”
Mr. Sarkouhi’s face flushed a deeper red. “Ah, no, Mr. Koehl. She was dining with her husband.”
Her husband? Lindsay hadn’t shown me any paperwork from him. And I would need it. As she well knew.
Back in the office, I called up the news stories about the death of Ms Mehrer on the computer.
Alicia Mehrer had indeed died of a heart attack on June 19th, at 9:10 p.m., at Grasso’s. According to witnesses she murmured something, stood up, took a few steps and then collapsed, dying a few moments later.
I wondered at the last name. I looked up Lindsay’s bio. Skimpy. She must have paid someone monstrous sums to keep her bio so short. But it did show that her dad, Joseph Ingham, had left the family when she was just seven. The mom remarried two years later. The second husband had died. Cancer. Then mom had married Joseph again, and divorced him again two years after that. Well. Sounded like an interesting family. Money and death, and Lindsay’s family had a lot of both. But with a divorce on record, at least I wouldn’t have to meet the old man to get a signature.
My computer search turned up plenty of gossip concerning the late Alicia and her ex Joseph. Curiosity got the better of me and I expanded the search a bit and came up with some charming hospital records. All of the sources agreed that Mr. Ingham had been one real bastard. The kind of guy a jury would wink at you for killing.
And yet, even after the abandonment and after the divorce, Alicia had kept coming back for more pain. Again and again.
Sex and death is another powerful combination; the oldest and the strongest of them all.
And why had Lindsay neglected to mention that her dad was with her mom at the time?
Closet skeletons can make a raising a lot more interesting.
Thursday. The restaurant door opened, and Lindsay entered with the grace of a predatory eel, dressed all in satiny black. She stood and watched me work for a while. Of course, a small crowd had already gathered; the equipment summons them as reliably as it summons ghosts. Mr. Sarkouhi stood prominently in the center, his arms folded in pride, surveying the crowd.
Lindsay came closer. “How’s it going?” If she was so cool and commanding, why did her fingers clench her bag?
“Just finishing up the underlays now.” I tightened a tripod leg, then checked the broadcast shadow.
“I’ve decided to go long-term, Scott.”
I looked up. “What?”
“I said I’ve decided to go long-term. With an option for permanency.”
I looked at Mr. Sarkouhi. “It’s all right,” Lindsay said. “Mr. Sarkouhi has given us permission.”
“I’ll need to see that for myself.”
“Of course.” She opened her purse without looking at it and took some papers out. She held them out to me.
“Why the change in plan?” I left her holding the papers and picked up another broadcaster.
Lindsay was silent for a short time. “Does it matter?” She allowed her hand to drop to her side, the papers slapping against her tailored slacks.
“No, I guess not.” I extended the tripod legs on the broadcaster and set it up at a 45-degree angle to the first. I’d put a highlighter just between the two. “You just wanted to say goodbye — wasn’t that the purpose of this raising?”
“Maybe I just thought I would need more time with her.” I didn’t even pretend to look convinced, and she continued, “She was my mother, Scott.”
I flipped the test switch on the ‘caster and checked the levels as it hummed. “Not a very private place for getting in your quality time with mom.” I adjusted the levels and checked the output. I looked up at her.
Lindsay looked at me, her eyes just slightly narrowed. I knew why she had chosen me for the job. Not because I was the best, but because she knew that I would do it, that I would gratefully touch things more reputable studios sneered at.
Or there was another reason, but I veered away from that thought.
“Well, if you change your mind, remember I do collapsings, too,” I said. “In fact, I lay more ghosts than women.” It was a standard joke, and she gave it the response it deserved.
“Are you ready?”
“Another ten, fifteen minutes.”
“Fine.” Lindsay passed the papers to Mr. Sarkouhi and greeted some oldsters sitting at a nearby table. Mr. Sarkouhi stood there, one hand on his moustache, not looking at anything.
“I guess you’ll be getting a permanent tourist attraction, right here at table eight, Mr. Sarkouhi,” I said.
“Permanent, maybe.” Sarkouhi looked less than thrilled.
“None of my business, but it seems to me that what might attract a crowd for a short while might grate on the nerves of your diners, if it’s constantly in view. Of course, you’d be a better judge than me of what might pique a person’s appetite.”
Sarkouhi narrowed his eyes. “If you talk me into withdrawing my permission, Mr. Koehl, you’ll lose the job.”
“Last thing on my mind, Mr. Sarkouhi.”
“I could revoke permission, though, at a later date. Couldn’t I? I read the contract.”
“Yeah, maybe. But Lindsay might try to sue if you try it. The lawyers would have to decide what your contract actually says. Better to just curtain off the table.”
Sarkouhi met my eyes briefly, then nodded thoughtfully.
Memories intrude like unwanted ghosts.
The day Pichrenn died, I’d gone to see him at home. That memory was a persistent visitor. He’d been sick for some time, and he’d had his bedroom outfitted with all kinds of medical equipment and monitors. The place smelled of disinfectants and futility, and Pichrenn lay in his huge bed, looking over at me with eyes too bright in a head become too large.
His voice was as weak as his body, but he could still speak, was still coherent.
“Art,” he told me. “That’s been my life, Scott, these last thirty years.”
“And you’ve done well,” I said. “You know how impressions were looked at before you got into the field. Dodgy at best. You made a whole new artform. I guess not many can claim that distinction.”
Pichrenn smiled sickly, not falling for the flattery, sincere though it was. “And now this.” With an arm little more than papery skin stretched over knobby bones, he gestured at the IV feeds, the machine that beeped his heart along. “They tell me I could live ten more years like this.”
What could I say to that?
“They’re making advances all the time.”
“So maybe I’ll only lie here for eight years, or six. That’s no way to be, Scott. But the law says I can’t take the easy way out, with ten ‘good’ years ahead of me. Damn Republicans.”
I looked away.
“Help me, Scott.” He whispered it.
And then, “Make me a work of art.”
“Huh?” But I knew.
There is no kind of death that can compare with a properly-conducted suicide. Despair, desperation, pain, a reckless courage, and even a strange sort of hope: that someone will stop you, that you’ll be delivered into heaven, whatever. It makes for one hell of an impression.
And it’s almost as hard to kevork as it is to do it yourself. Sure, lots of laws make it all right to kill someone, if they really want you to, and if the doctors have signed off on the sign-off. But that’s not what Pichrenn was asking for, a sterile room and a certifiably painless fade out. My way would be less clinical.
But afterwards, I made the impression, and it’s still drawing the occasional connoisseur. Maybe Pichrenn, or part of him, thought he was doing me a favor, giving me so much pain to work with.
Lindsay came over, ushered by a hostess. “Everything’s ready?”
“Fine. Let’s do this.”
Sarkouhi raised his eyebrows at me. I nodded.
“I think your host would like to get everyone here for the unveiling,” I said. “That’s his payoff, right? That he can show this off to his customers.”
“Who knows why anyone does anything. He gave his permission. That’s all I needed.”
“Still, we can give him a minute to get his people assembled.” I made some final, unnecessary adjustments. “I have to say that I don’t feel this will be representative of my best work, Lindsay. The image is fairly clear and sharp, but the background hum is, at best, just…”
“I don’t need art. I just want to see Mother.”
“Well, then everything’s fine.”
Sarkouhi, all smiles and broad gestures, led a small group of his well-fed and overdressed patrons into a semicircle around the table. I showed them where they could stand for the best view, then stood before them. I waited for their gossiping to slow to a trickle, their eyes to wander to me.
“Before I unveil this, I’d like to clear up a few common misconceptions about my craft, for those who may not be as deeply involved in the netherworld as I am,” I said. I saw that Lindsay was annoyed with my delay, but hell, this was too good a chance to pass up. I just might pick up some high-class clients.
“First, what this is not.” I started passing out business cards. “Ghosts are not self-aware, they’re not beings. They can’t see you or hear you. They’re simply impressions, imprinted on the local area by the trauma of death. Or by other trauma, or other emotion. That’s why you sometimes see ghosts of the living.” I’d passed out all my cards. Time to wrap it up.
“The impressions are often of the moment of death, but not always.” I went back to my equipment. “Dominant feelings, commitments left unfulfilled, unsaid messages, all these things can and do show up, and it’s up to the artist to see that they do. And that’s all I have to say. Let’s see what we can see.”
I checked my viewer. Yeah, I was satisfied with what I had called forth. I flipped the final switch.
At first there was nothing, except for the low hum of the ‘caster. The smell of ozone grew in the air. Slowly an image started to form, in mid-air next to the table. It started as a grainy mist, like fine television snow, a vague human shape. It slowly intensified and clarified as the highlighters brought more of the energy out into visible forms, kicking it to the focusers. All this was needed to get the image formed in the first place — although of course natural ghosts do form, usually of an inferior quality, and with odd, annoying, aural and temperature effects — but once it was there, it would stay until properly laid, as long as it got boosted now and then.
The image continued to clear, and soon we were looking at a woman. It was a loop. Not uncommon. She moved, in jerky, uncertain movements, from the table to a spot a few feet away. Then suddenly we would see her lying on the floor, face down. Then she would be up again, moving around, as if confused. Her death had obviously come as a shock to her.
Her body, her clothes, were not too distinct — vague suggestions of a matronly form, decked out in some kind of conservative dark dress. Maybe the neckline was a bit lower, the dress a bit tighter, than society would choose to dictate. Was that a string of pearls around the fleshy neck? It was hard to tell.
But none of that mattered. Because the face — the face was clear, very clear. Real.
It was an aged face, but not heavily lined; Lindsay’s mother would have been happy to hear that her face-lifts had survived her death. The forehead, fringed by curled white hair, was nearly smooth, the cheeks still full, the chin small and weak but still single.
You could see all that eventually. But it took time to take in, because what caught the attention were the ghost’s eyes. They were startlingly blue in that papery face, and as the woman paced they sought something, something to be wary of. You could almost see a hunched form, a shadow, a dark aura, hovering at her back. And the expression in Mrs. Mehrer’s eyes—
They were imploring. That’s the word. But why? Was Ms Alicia Mehrer asking for mercy, for freedom? Or for understanding, compassion? There was shame in those eyes, too.
Even in death, she remained in thrall to her husband, bound to him by pain and need.
I couldn’t have manufactured such a thing. But an impressionist can choose what to highlight — lives are complicated things — and I’d made sure that sick dependency came through. Call it art, showing a truth in place of the prettified picture that was asked for. Call it a stab at Lindsay. I don’t know.
Maybe it was just what Lindsay had wanted to see. I had to look over at her. Her expression was at first smug, then horrified, lips parted and wide-eyed, but soon a mask slid down over her face. Her eyes narrowed and the right edge of her mouth curved up slightly. She coolly surveyed the onlookers; before her eyes met mine, I quickly looked down.
Then I looked at the crowd. I’d seen the same reactions a hundred times before. Some looked on in horror, lips curled, and clutched at the arms of those next to them. Some tried to avert their eyes, as if embarrassed, but their gazes were continually drawn back to the apparition before them. And some few leaned forward, drinking in the death.
Sarkouhi was watching the crowd, too. He seemed less than pleased. He saw me looking at him and walked over to me.
“Is this normal?” he asked in a low voice. “I mean, will it do anything else?”
“Some few do seem to react to things near them. Some look like they are trying to talk to you — the impressions can react to the impressed energies of those still living. Some act out the worries on their minds at the moment of death. Sometimes they even communicate what that was. Or try to. But, to answer your question, no. This is it. It’s a fairly short action loop this time. She wasn’t here long enough to lay down much more narrative.”
Sarkouhi looked back at the impression, his face sour. I began packing up my stuff. Sarkouhi looked back at me.
“Yep. Job’s done.”
“And this will just go on, repeating here in my place?”
“That’s right.” I folded a tripod and laid it gently in its foam-lined case. “I’ve pumped a lot of energy into the floor and walls, enough to keep it going for at least five or six weeks. And after that, I’ll come back and pump it up some more. Can I use your phone? I have to call to have this stuff picked up.” I couldn’t just toss equipment of this caliber into my trunk, but it was humiliating to have to ask.
“Of course.” He handed it over and I turned to the wall to give the man a moment, and sure enough, Sarkouhi went to talk to Lindsay.
Their conversation apparently didn’t last too long, because when I clicked off and resumed packing, Sarkouhi was over by the other restaurant patrons. I guess he was trying to put a good face on the show, but the diners weren’t buying. Several had already left, and a few in the back were realizing that they would have to pass uncomfortably close to the ghost to get to the door.
“Mrs. Sorensen!” Lindsay called, and one of the biddies looked up. A much younger man, his hair still dark, put a protective arm on her shoulder.
Lindsay made no attempt to get closer to her. “Enjoying the show, Mrs. Sorensen?”
“Not sure? Perhaps your latest young man has an opinion — what’s this one’s name?”
The man scowled, whispered something to Mrs. Sorensen, and they turned away. Then she pulled away from him and looked back.
“I didn’t know, Lindsay. I swear, I didn’t know what he was doing to her.” She turned and walked away.
Lindsay looked after them, her mouth fixed in its smile, her eyes full of hate.
Then she blinked and looked back at her mother for a moment. She strolled over to me. “Good work, as always.”
“Thanks. And the rest of the money will be in my account when, exactly?”
“Oh, how you’ve come down in the world, Scott.” She fished around in her purse and then started writing out a check.
“Yep. All the way down to the bottom line.” I swiped her check through my reader. “Pleasure doing business. Please remember me whenever a loved one dies on you.” I went back to the packing.
“This is my mother, Scott. You make me sound like one of your ghouls.”
I folded a tripod and lay it gently in its foam. “The term is ‘vampire.’ But you’re right. I know that you had me do this out of the love and respect you hold for your dear mom.”
Lindsay moved in front of me, and spat her words. “You, of all people, have no right to judge me. I paid you for the job, and you did it. You didn’t complain.”
“I’m no judge, Lindsay.” I closed and locked the lid on the case. I stood up. “They are, though.” I nodded over to the last of the restaurant patrons. “You’ve given them a good show.” I couldn’t resist. “Was it the one you wanted?” I really was curious about that.
“You’re done here, I think,” she said, and walked out of the restaurant, almost striding through her mother’s image.
Lindsay, Lindsay, Lindsay. Our shared betrayal of Pichrenn had eaten away at us both. Maybe my time in prison had given me a chance to let it go just a little more than she had, had convinced me that she was now out of reach, a subject of wistfulness and what-if. And how did she feel, now? No way would she think of me as out of her league; she could scrape me off the sidewalk any time she felt like it. But having me in her life would just remind her of what we had done to Pichrenn, how our relationship had been tainted from the start by that duplicity.
Sarkouhi headed over to me. I was getting downright popular. “This,” he said, “is a bad business.”
“Disappointed with the show? You’re not alone.”
“Oh, Mr. Koehl, I’m sure you have done an excellent job. But this is… It’s not dignified.”
“Death usually isn’t.”
He looked at me. “This isn’t just death. How can I serve food, with this obscene thing here?”
Dear, dead Ms Mehrer continued her routine.
He hadn’t thought of that before? Just what kind of idiot was he? Or, more to the point, what had Lindsay done or said to him? “You’d be surprised,” I said. “This kind of show does bring a certain subset of the population. Not like your current crowd, though.” I waved a hand at the people. “Like I said, you can always withdraw permission, Mr. Sarkouhi. These things are a lot easier to collapse than they are to bring out. And I work for reasonable rates.”
“Ah. Mr. Koehl. As you reminded me, Lindsay Ingham has very many friends.”
“She can make trouble for you, is that it? Not just legally.”
“That is it.”
“Looks like she’s making trouble for you, anyway, Mr. Sarkouhi.”
“That she is, Mr. Koehl.”
As I climbed into my car I saw Lindsay watching the ghost through the window of the doorway, smoking an actual cigarette, the smoke making her features a little unclear. You can’t do that in a restaurant. It’s slow suicide. That wouldn’t bother anyone, but even worse, it’s public suicide.
The next day I was sitting in my office, staring out the window. I felt like shit. With the money and new stuff, paid bills, I should have felt like a pop star. Instead I kept seeing Ms Mehrer’s face, and I felt like a whore.
The phone buzzed. I picked it up, and there was my vampire, Justin Hoben — excuse me, “John Robertson”. The idiot called himself that, and then paid me through his personal account.
“You said to call today. You said that you would scout out the, that job we talked about.”
There was a pause. “Well?”
I didn’t know why I was giving him a hard time. Lindsay’s money would only last so long, and the bills would come due again eventually. So I roused myself. “Yeah, John. I checked it out. The manager is willing to go along, except he wants a cut. The usual amount, three hundred, and there’s my fifty negotiating fee, on top of the baseline costs.”
“Yeah, that’s fine. When?”
I made a show of looking at my watch, although he wouldn’t see it. “I guess I could squeeze it in late this afternoon, say four o’clock, if that works for you.”
“Yeah, that would be good for me. Four o’clock.”
I hung up. Sure, Mr. Hoben, that time works for you. I figured it would. Your wife thinks you’re still at work, your office thinks you’ve left for the day. That works for you just fine.
It was sacrilege to use the new equipment for a job like this. Wiping grandma’s priceless china with a rag made of old underwear. I could just as easily dig out my old stuff. My Mr. Robertson deserved no better.
But the lure of using that fine new gear was just too strong. My breath actually quickened as I thought about it. I felt like a pervert at a schoolyard. But I got it out anyway, and by three I was on my way.
Once there, it didn’t take long for me to set up. Everything snapped into place just as it ought to, just as it used to. No sputtering, no loss of definition or control or focus, no stray signals. I played with the fine tuning, bringing out effects and details I hadn’t been able to play with in years.
The old woman had died in the chair, just slumping further down, further down. No drama, just death. Her image flickered at the edges a bit; I toned it down, then brought it back up just to the edge of sight. She kept her eyes half closed, and she seemed to be mindlessly staring at something, probably a television set that the landlord sold off when the body was found. She wore a gray blouse, and a necklace of fat glass beads, red and brown. She also wore some fading blue jeans. She was barefoot.
Some current celebrities say in their wills that their houses or places of death should be destroyed, to forestall this kind of thing from ever happening to them. The rest of us can’t afford that kind of protection, though there are restraint policies that are supposed to prevent the kind of thing I was doing. The very poor, though, are wide open to the predations of vampires after death.
My vampire knocked at the door. I opened it. “John.”
“Mr. Koehl.” Justin Hoben’s eyes barely brushed me before they focused on the dying woman. His breath caught in his throat.
“I’ll be outside.” I went down the stairs and I heard Justin close the door and lock it.
I sat in the open door of my car. It’s a shame I never took up smoking; it would pass the time. I watched the traffic go by, the single occupants of single vehicles. An hour or so later Justin came back out. His shirt was no longer tucked into his pants, and there was drying sweat on his flushed face. He walked up to me, and didn’t look at me as he slipped me his check.
But after he turned away, he spoke.
“You’re a genius,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. “That was the best — the best I’ve ever had. Amazing.” Still without looking at me, he said, “Thank you,” then hurried away.
So the new equipment had an endorsement.
I went back upstairs, and put down the ghost.
Afterwards I drove slowly past Grasso’s, though it wasn’t on the way home. Grasso’s didn’t look to have many customers. I laughed, and went home, wishing I had eaten something so I could vomit it back up.
The next morning Lindsay was already in my office corridor when I arrived.
“Where the hell have you been?” she greeted me. She stubbed out her cigarette in her pocket ashtray. “It’s almost noon.”
“Hello, Miss. Did an appointment slip my mind?”
I unlocked the door and Lindsay followed me inside. She sat down, a firm line to her mouth and a hard look in her eye.
“Have a seat,” I said. I seated myself behind my desk and rested my chin on my hands. “Something I can do for you?”
“More like something you did to me.”
I leaned back. That gaze was a little too intense. “I don’t understand, Lindsay. I did what you asked. The ghost hasn’t collapsed, has it?”
“To hell with you, Koehl.”
“Yep, anyone with one good eye can see the sick relationship she had with your dad. It’s all there for everyone to see. And that’s exactly what you wanted.”
“It’s disrespectful, mocking her like that. I wanted a tasteful—”
“In a restaurant. Yeah. Please, Lindsay.”
“Go to hell.” She folded her arms, looked away, and began to sniff.
“Cut the act, Lindsay. We both know what you wanted. You wanted to leave a bitter taste in the mouths of all her society friends. You hated them for not stepping in, or you hated them for leading perfect lives within calling distance. You hated her for what she allowed your dad to do to her, and you couldn’t resist a little public humiliation. And I gave it to you. Just like you knew I would. Because I’ve got the eye to see it, and the technique to show it, and the desperation to accept the job in spite of all that.”
She ended her pretense of crying, and just sat there. I wondered what she wanted, why she was here. To justify herself in my eyes —Oh, I never expected to see that — or to gloat with me over her triumph over her mother?
Gloat with me? Did Lindsay have no friends?
Did I care? “You always were a little self-centered. Justifiably so. But hardly blind — did you think the relationship obvious to her old friends would slip past me? I do know my work, Lindsay.”
“Your work! Raising ghosts for perverts!”
“Don’t worry. I don’t discuss my clients with anyone.”
I should have seen the slap coming. Maybe I did. Then Lindsay stood up and turned her back to me.
The inside of my cheek had been cut by a tooth, and I tasted blood.
“He hated you, you know. Towards the end. That was his parting shot — saddle you with a murder charge.”
“Manslaughter.” I kept the disinterested tone in my voice, but her words rang in my head. Pichrenn had hated me? I had practically been his son.
And yet — it rang true, also. It didn’t come as big a surprise as it should have.
“He taught me well. I owed it all to him. He had no reason to resent me.”
Lindsay turned back to me. “Idiot! It wasn’t your skill he resented!”
“You didn’t need to.”
She glared at me, expecting me to — what? Kiss her? Slap her, like Bogart in some old movie? Explain away the thing we’d had behind the old man’s back, when I’d been the favored son and it was clear that Lindsay would be free after the old guy had passed on?
I knew that there are ghosts all around us, hovering just at the edges of sight, on the fringes of our minds, as we go about our lives. I made my living revealing them. Now Lindsay was showing me others.
“Why do you keep renewing him, Scott? Why don’t you let him fade out?” Her voice was flat.
I had no answer.
“He’s gone, Scott. And you blamed me. You never returned my messages.”
Had she left messages? I’d told myself for so long that she had cut me loose. But yes, she had left messages I had brushed off. After killing Pichrenn, how could I just go on, take up openly with his lover?
I couldn’t think of anything to say, and Lindsay stalked out. Was I supposed to call her back?
Had all this been her way to get through to me?
I’ve always had trouble with moving on. Maybe everybody does. But I thought a lot about what Lindsay had said, there at the end. I sat in my apartment in the dark, the TV on with the sound turned low, and decided that maybe it was time to act, and maybe even time for Lindsay to take another peek at the sunlit world.
Me too. I not only have trouble moving on, I have trouble going back. Lindsay had reached out to me, coming to see me about a ghost; she had made contact, however awkwardly, and maybe that’s the only way she could do it. Still, she had done it. She had tried to show me herself at her most vulnerable, most unappealing, most venal, and most real. I could, too.
I had no idea if she would show up or not. The message I’d left hadn’t given her any details, any reason to see me, just the time and place. I watched Pichrenn in his chair, and tried not to think about it. About where she was now, what she was doing, that she was still in the world even though she wasn’t in mine.
The door opened. “Scott.”
Lindsay stood there.
She entered hesitantly. “I’m not sure what I’m doing here.”
“Yeah. Neither am I. But I’m here.”
She nodded as if that made sense. She crossed the room to the window. She hadn’t looked at Pichrenn. She wasn’t wearing black this time — light blues and yellows.
I joined her. “I need to tell you something, Lindsay.”
She nodded, but didn’t say anything.
It was easier talking when she wasn’t looking at me. “It’s like this. Yes, I killed Pichrenn. He asked me to do it, and maybe he had more than one motive. I don’t know. But I know that I’ve never forgiven myself, for that and for — you know. Us. And afterwards I pushed you away, like it was your fault or something. But I’m tired of pushing.”
She turned to me. Her eyes flickered to the impression, then back to me. “You don’t have to—”
“Yeah, I do. I really do. Since I got out of prison, since even before that, I’ve been moping and cynical, and it’s got me nowhere. Maybe I’ve been a little too much in love with death. Maybe that’s a job hazard. But I’m tired of it. Finally, I’m just tired of it.”
I went to the closet and pulled out a single piece of equipment. I didn’t even need a tripod. I could just hold it and point it at the apparition.
“Scott — you’re..?”
“Time to say goodbye.”
I pointed, and pressed the button, and Pichrenn vanished.
Lindsay looked at the chair where the impression had been. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking.
I held out the defocuser to Lindsay. She looked at it as if she didn’t recognize it, but didn’t take it. I put it on the chair.
“If you ever want it, here it is,” I said. “It’s easy to use. Runs on batteries. Just point, and push the nice red button.” I walked to the door. Lindsay still hadn’t moved.
At the door I turned. “I usually have dinner weeknights at a little place on Fifth, near Pike,” I said. “Rommie’s. It’s easy to find. I’m usually there from seven-thirty to eight-thirty or so.”
I walked out.
Maybe Lindsay was tired of death, too. Tired of looking back.
I’d have to wait and see.