It was one of those special late June days that the Greater Los Angeles
Area Chamber of Commerce tries to bronze and preserve for all eternity--as
well as for the sake of civic advertising. Semitropically hot but not
suffocating, multicolumnar traffic on the freeways actually free of
vehicular stasis by nine o'clock in the morning, no major sigalerts, and
the limpid turquoise sky brandishing a lovely pink tint thanks to a
wispier-than-usual permeation of smog.
Other than in his highly restricted capacity as a civic-minded citizen,
Maxwell Parker could not have cared less about the current condition of
the metastasizing megalopolis's vaunted but frequently arteriosclerotic
freeway system. As one of those fortunate folk who could commute from home
to office on the overstressed but still highly preferable surface streets,
he was immune to such vehicular concerns. All he had to do was drive the
few blocks from his apartment building up to Lincoln Boulevard, cross the
Santa Monica Freeway, turn right on Wilshire, and mosey his leisurely way
up to Bundy Drive, occasionally shaking his head in empathetic but
distanced wonder at the traffic reports that periodically interrupted the
He would have preferred keeping the Aurora's stereo set to one of L.A.'s
innumerable small specialty FM music stations, but starting the day by
listening to one of the several all-news channels was one way of getting a
jump on work. After all, the news was his business. Or rather, a certain
fringe element of it was. Max worked, unabashedly, in the journalistic
freak zone. His job was to make the news--not read about it.
Scrupulously avoiding eye contact with the haggard homeless hawkers of
makework newspapers who crowded the median on Lincoln and haunted the
street signals at the freeway overpass, he turned up Wilshire Boulevard.
Maneuvering skillfully around a shambling, shaggy, vaguely anthropoid
figure fervently hoping to force his energies upon the Aurora's already
speckless windshield, Max crossed Bundy and ducked smoothly down into the
Investigator's underground parking lot.
As a prolific, inventive reporter whose current status vacillated between
junior stringer and respected craftsman, his status was sufficiently
ambivalent to qualify him for a comparatively convenient parking space,
but on the lower level. Not only did he not mind having his car consigned
to the concrete abyss, he preferred it. The deeper in the multilevel
labyrinth one parked, the cooler one's car stayed during hot weather, and
the less it was subject to the unwanted attentions of visiting delivery
The modest but modern glass-sided high-rise was home to other enterprises
besides the paper, from the ubiquitous law offices that migrated
constantly in search of more prestigious addresses, to fledgling film
producers unable to afford locations close to the studios, Beverly Hills,
or the better parts of the San Fernando Valley.
The top six floors and most of the parking spaces belonged to the
corporation that owned Max Parker's employer, the International
Investigator. A youthful but energetic competitor of other weekly tabloids
like the Star, and the World, the Investigator had carved out a niche for
itself by emphasizing the newly grotesque as opposed to the traditionally
bizarre. Its computer-generated graphics were lively, its layout fresh,
its prose florid, its weekly quota of insupportable but nonlitigious
accusations slyly incendiary. It was a paper on the way up, its
circulation steadily increasing, and always on the lookout for
enthusiastic, moldable, and generally unprincipled young talent.
Max considered himself lucky. Still only in his late twenties, he had
already succeeded in dumping whatever ethics and integrity he might have
once possessed in return for scads of filthy lucre and a modicum of fame
within the field. Unlike some of his less fortunate coworkers, he had been
blissfully free of scruples for several years, dating his freedom from the
morning he had taken his carefully collected bonuses and used them to move
from the dump he had been shar-ing with a hopeless would-be screenwriter
and a short-order cook into a prime one-bedroom Santa Monica beach
apartment. By the end of the first week he knew in his heart that the
location and setting were worth any number of abstract moral principles.
He smiled to himself as the aged but still serviceable elevator carried
him upward. The owners didn't have to put more than the minimum back into
their hugely profitable old building. Given its location, people would
have lined up to rent the small but cozy apartments if they had come
without electricity, telephone, or running water.
The California summer sun was out and the UCLA coeds would soon be
emerging from hibernation, shedding their heavy winter coats in favor of
freshly molted thong and net swimsuits. Though it was still midweek, he
was already looking forward to the weekend.
"Hey, Max!" Phil Hong was a hyper would-be movie reviewer who lived beyond
his means by cadging loans from the gullible and uninformed, his relatives
as well as his coworkers. Around the office he was known, not always
affectionately, as Phil No-dough. Executing a feint to the left while
accelerating to his right, Max put a move on the eager younger writer
that, if he had been dribbling a basketball in a college game, would
certainly have made the Monday-night-after highlight film on any local
"Sorry Phil--I'm late for the morning bull session. Talk to you later,
man." Leaving a slightly bedazzled Hong gaping foolishly in his wake, Max
lengthened his stride. He paused only long enough to say good morning to
Calliope Charming, manufacturing idle small talk sufficient to gain him a
decent gander at her estimable cleavage before moving on.
conference room boasted a long window with a pleasant, if not sweeping,
view of the Santa Monica Mountains. The stunted chaparral that clung
forlornly to those smog-swept slopes was barely visible through the
increasingly turgid brown atmosphere. As the sun rose higher in the sky,
the atmosphere heated up and the ozone gremlins awoke to their noxious
toil. What had begun as a Chamber of Commerce day was rapidly becoming
little more than a fading morning memory.
The room contained a long conference table; chairs fashioned of shiny,
fine-grain plastic; insistently throbbing air-conditioning; and small
green garbage cans that were already half full. He greeted his colleagues
cheerily, swapping unforced insults and convivial small talk with the ease
of long practice, before sliding into a chair and removing his laptop from
its satchel. Hatcher (oh blissfully apropos moniker for a tabloid
scribe!), who concentrated on sports-related scandals and turpitude, used
pen and paper. So did the excessively slim but unmodelish Penelope
Nearing. Their concession to tradition impressed no one.
The raucous chatter terminated when Kryzewski lumbered in and took the
chair at the head of the table. It was as if a raven had somehow bought a
ticket to a convocation of crickets. Not only at the offices of the
Investigator but within the greater tabloid universe as a whole, Moe
Kryzewski commanded a good deal of respect as well as admiration. In the
elegiac prose of an esteemed contemporary, it wasn't so much that the
senior editor knew shit from Shinola as the fact that during his more than
thirty years in the business he had been consistently able to sell the
former as the latter.
Flipping open the laptop, Max fingered a few keys. It was
middle-of-the-line, six months old, and would be outdated in another
three. At that time he would have to buy a new one. Not because the one he
now owned was insufficient for his needs. In point of fact, a two-year-old
edition of the same machine would have been more than adequate for the
work he did. But it was important to keep up appearances. In the tabloid
business the appearance of the writer didn't matter nearly as much as the
appearance of his laptop.
After insuring that the requisite files had been brought up to where he
could get at them quickly, he looked out into the respectful silence.
Eager, venal expressions transfixed the faces of his colleagues. He was
confident his own was no less.
"Well, what have you lazy pricks and prickesses got for me this morning?
There's a weekend edition to fill and we ain't got shit to put into it.
Longstreet!" Kryzewski barked.
The reporter in question looked up from her palmtop. Her delicate fingers
were small enough to manipulate the tiny keys, and to minimize mistakes
she had filed her nails down short as a longshoreman's. Around the office
she was known as "Longstocking," as in Pippi.
"It's been a slow week, Moe. My boy in Florida tells me some cracker's
hauled a six-legged gator out of the 'glades."
The editor snorted. In the old days he would have been filling the room
with cigar smoke: carbonized essence of Havana. But this was contemporary
Los Angeles. In his day Moe Kryzewski had battled crooked union bosses,
corrupt cops, angry politicians, and homicidal movie stars, but not even
he could stand against the nicotine police.
"Photo op, no story," he commented curtly. "Got anything else?"
Longstreet pursed her lips. "L'Elegace's new summer line for the ladies
features soft transparent plastic tops over Vassarely-styled printed
skirts and culottes."
"Angling for a trip to Paris?" Kryzewski grinned. "Sorry, Charlie. If
readers can see naked French tits in People, why should they want to read
about it in the Investigator?"
Longstreet looked crushed, but not to the point of giving up. "There's a
rumor going around that one of L'Elegace's senior models is supposedly
sleeping with Anais Delours."
Kryzewski perked up. "Isn't she the one who's married to Phillipe Boison,
the director? The guy who makes all those interminably boring flicks about
French adolescents growing up, and all that crap?"
Longstreet nodded. "It's just gossip going around."
"Gossip my prostate! Get on it. When you've got the story done let me know
and I'll tell Travel to cut you a ticket. To 'verify sources.' And you'd
better do some work this time instead of hanging out in Montmartre trying
to pick up the overage graduate students who drift over from the Sorbonne."
Longstreet mustered as much indignation as she could manage. "I do not
pick up college boys." Her mouth subsided into a fey smile. "They pick me
"Whatever. Just pin a source or two to the board. I want it by next week."
The session continued in that vein, the writers laying out their
respective story ideas, the majority of which were immediately shot down
by Kryzewski. Too old, too thin, not involving enough, insufficiently
provocative, hard news, too expensive to research, inadequate glamour, no
buzz--Kryzewski could kill a story with a cocked eye. Though everyone at
the table was open to all possibilities, each writer tended to specialize
in one area, from sports to entertainment, crime to consumer goods,
politics and politicians to miracles and popular music.
Having been dragged kicking and screaming through several science courses
while he was at university, and having been injudicious enough to commit
this fact to print in the form of a line in his resume, Max had been
assigned to the wonderful world of weird science by default. Faced with a
fait accompli and no accomplices to pass it off on, he had chosen to
accept the appointment and run with it--or at least hobble. The result had
been some singularly notable stories whose popularity with the paper's
readers had surprised and delighted everyone from himself on up.
In his skilled hands a report that started out as a straight piece on the
CERN collider in Switzerland would end up informing readers not that a new
subatomic particle had been discovered, but that gremlins had sabotaged
the apparatus to prevent physicists from opening a door to Hell, or that
bosons and mesons were really different species of elves moving at high
speed, which was why humans could not see them unless they chose of their
own accord to slow down--or could be trapped in the accelerator.
From a reporter's standpoint it was reassuring to be able to turn in
stories knowing that nearly one hundred percent of those who read them
understood absolutely nothing about their scientific underpinnings. Max
preached bullshit to the ignorant, who were ever ready to accept the
outrageous as gospel provided it was described in words of more than three
syllables. Wasn't that, after all, what science was all about, and didn't
folks know what was really going on in this country, and wasn't it his,
Max Parker's, job to tell them the real truth? As opposed to the fake
truth, which was usually embodied in unreadable, incomprehensible
When the piercing glare of the senior editor finally focused on him, he
was ready. The screen of his laptop glowed with multitudinous absurdities,
any one of which he was ready to promulgate as the absolute truth to a
gullible public. The people wanted to know, and the Investigator was ready
to tell them. So was Maxwell Parker.
"Evan Thibodeux of Avery Island, Louisiana, has caught a mermaid."
Kryzewski rolled his eyes. "Pictures?"
"Not yet." Max smiled confidently. "Binky Chavez, our photo stringer out
of Houston, is going to check it out and get back to me some time tonight
or tomorrow. If the photos are usable I figure it's worth at least half a
Kryzewski nodded approvingly. "We'll make 'em usable. That's what computer
photo touch-up programs are for." He looked momentarily wistful. "Wish
we'd had a couple of those around in the old days. Half a page, you got
it. We haven't had a good mermaid story in years."
Farther down the table, Stu Applewood piped up. "Wonder if anybody's got a
Cajun recipe for blackened mermaid?"
"Oy, that's good!" added Brick the Brit from his chair. "Maybe it's a
black mermaid. Then we could run a recipe for blackened black mermaid."
"The Japanese would do her as sushi," put in Deva Singhwar. "The Japanese
will eat anything."
"Full page, maybe." Kryzewski was clearly warming to the story's potential
for exploitation. "Half for the story, half on how unscrupulous chefs
around the world have been serving mermaid to unsuspecting customers for
years, and passing it off as shark." The editor was almost enthusiastic, a
rare state of being. Beneath the envious stares of his associates, Parker
swelled with a sense of accomplishment. "What else you got for me, Max?"
Parker searched his "new" file. "Truck farmer in South Jersey claims to be
able to grow tomatoes with the face of Jesus on them."
"Great." Dyan Jefferson had just had her tres chic rows done by a
hairstylist recently immigrated from Windhoek, Namibia, who week after
week brought forth for the edification of all who might gaze upon his
favorite client yet another new and wondrous prodigy of coiffure. "People
will be able to slather their dead cow burgers with holy ketchup instead
of holy water."
Jefferson was a notoriously militant vegetarian. It exposed her to a
certain amount of ridicule around the office, which she handled with
aplomb. And the occasional a-punch.
Ignoring the chuckles and wisecracks, Kryzewski wrestled briefly with the
proposal before giving it the thumbs-down. "Can't use it, Max. But don't
throw it away, file it. Two weeks ago we had the face of Jesus in the oak
tree in South Carolina, and the week before that it was the Polaroid from
New Mexico. The Star just did a story about a crucifix in Guadeloupe
weeping real tears, and there was something out of Italy about a month ago
on blood liquefaction." He scratched at his chin. "It's too soon for your
take. Christ's a little overexposed right now."
Max melodramatically pushed the Save button. "It's filed, Moe."
"Fine. What else you got?"
Parker considered the screen. "A local source I've used before told me
yesterday that there's a Mary Collins in Toluca Lake who's convinced she's
found a medium capable of contacting and conversing with her dead son." He
looked up from the laptop. "Cost me, but I got her address. The medium's
supposed to show this afternoon." He checked his watch. "Three o'clock."
Kryzewski nodded brusquely. "So what are you doing here? Get out to the
Valley, find the place, and invite yourself in. I don't have to tell you
how." He waved indifferently. "Position yourself as a distant cousin who's
heard about the contact, as a psychic investigator--whatever the situation
Max nodded. "Pictures?"
The editor shrugged. "Psychic sessions usually don't make for good photo
ops. All mumbling and no action. But take a Minox along. If the light's
not too bad you might get a good shot of the weepy mom."
"I'd rather interview the mermaid catcher."
Kryzewski was conciliatory. "Let's wait and see what we can do with the
photos. Meanwhile, you can do something on Mom and the medium this
afternoon. Oh, and I've got something for you." He scrolled his own
Max turned the right end of his machine toward the head of the table. A
moment later, the infrared information transfer was complete. He studied
the new file.
Kryzewski made a face. He was a master of the disgusted expression and
utilized them with the profligacy of a true connoisseur. "You can read it
later. It's a lead on some nut in North Malibu. But a nut with money.
Monied nuts are always worth a column or two. From what I see the angle is
right up your alley." Summarily dismissing Max, he turned back to
Jefferson. "Now what have you been able to come up with on that Philippine
'spiritual surgeon' working out of Miami? That's right in our competitors'
backyard. Be great to steal a nice, juicy story right out from under them."
Max tuned out much of the rest of the brainstorming session. As usual,
Kryzewski was pleased with his work, and that was all that mattered. The
approbation of his colleagues he could not care less about.
After making a cursory check of his desktop, fax, and in-file, he left the
building and headed north. Taking the not-too-bad San Diego to the
could-have-been-worse Ventura, he exited on Buena Vista Drive, having to
prowl around a few back streets before he located the address that had
been provided by his source.
The house was substantial, a sixties-era dichondra-fronted pseudo-ranch
wood and brick sprawl in a nice old heavily treed neighborhood. It bespoke
a solid upper-middle-class income--or a substantial inheritance. Parking
on the street, he set the Aurora's alarm and made his way to the gate in
the waist-high chain-link fence. It was unlocked. A winding path of
cobbled stepping-stones led past neatly trimmed rosebushes and explosively
beautiful rhododendrons flush with California sun and imported Sierra
water. A late-model blue Lexus and an older black-and-silver Mercedes were
parked in the driveway.
At his touch the bell chimed and the door reluctantly opened half a foot,
to reveal a gold-hued safety chain and the uncertain face of a diminutive
but not unattractive woman in her mid-forties.
"Yes--can I help you?"
"Mrs. Collins?" Max employed his most boyishly sympathetic voice: sincere,
with a touch of helplessness. "Mrs. Mary Beatrice Collins?"
"That's me, yes." Her expression squinched to match her tone. "Do I know
"No, ma'am. I'm a reporter for a magazine called the Skeptical Enquirer.
Maybe you've heard of us?"
"I'm afraid not, Mr. ...?"
"Crowley, ma'am. Al Crowley. I hope you don't mind my just dropping in on
you like this, but our sources have reported to us that you have actually
managed to make contact with your unfortunately recently deceased loved
one and ..."
The door started to close. "Go away, please. I have company and ..."
Max spoke quickly in hopes of keeping the door from closing. "Please, Mrs.
Collins! Our magazine specializes in exposing the fraudulent and deceptive
who prey on grieving individuals such as yourself. When something
wonderful happens for real, as has apparently happened to you, we
desperately want to share it with our readers." He tried to see past her,
but the front curtains were closed and the room beyond the entry hall only
The door slowed, motherly incertitude playing across the face of the woman
within. "You ... you're not from one of those awful tabloid newspapers,
the kind you see at all the supermarket checkout stands?"
Max was properly aghast. "Absolutely not, Mrs. Collins! The Skeptical
Enquirer prides itself on the objectivity and fairness of its reports. I
am here at the behest of another to do my best to validate whatever
experience you believe you have been having. At," he hastened to add, "no
charge. And of course nothing will appear in print without your express
consent and signed permission."
"Well ..." What she feared wrestled with what she had been told. "It might
be nice to have an expert present. I don't see how it could hurt anything."
"Nothing whatsoever, Mrs. Collins. I promise only to observe and not to
interfere with the proceedings in any way. Surely you can sympathize with
the need to insure scientific accuracy in such matters, and to promote the
truth of such a remarkable assertion?"
"Yes, yes." Whether convinced of the veracity of his claim or too tired to
argue he could not say, but she conceded, and a hand reached up to
unfasten the security chain. "Please come in, Mr. Crowley."
The house was upper-class San Fernando Valley, as old and comfortable as a
favorite easy chair. Family portraits lined the hallway wall, and the
furniture was relentlessly ranch contemporary. She led him through the
living room, past the homey kitchen, and into a sunken den located at the
back of the house. The drapes there had been closed tight and secured in
the middle with clothespins to block out as much of the light as possible.
In the center of the room, facing a large fireplace of distressed brick,
was a round oak table encircled by four matching chairs. It was original
oak, Max saw as he stepped down into the room, and not one of those
veneered and laminated mass-produced reproductions. A simple silver
candlestick stood in the center of the table, the tall white taper it held
flickering energetically. Its light was barely sufficient to cast shadows
in the darkened room.
In a tall chair on the far side of the table, her back to the fireplace,
sat a voluptuous woman who might have been thirty-five--or ten years
older. Given the subdued light and aggravated makeup, it was hard to tell.
She wore a simple silk dress emblazoned with flowers, an entire thrift
store's supply of cheap copper and silver bangles, and a silk scarf over
her long hair. Her eyes refocused from something off in the distance to
acknowledge the arrival of hostess and guest. The start of recognition Max
experienced on seeing her face when her eyes came up was instantly
Their fidgety, anxious host performed introductions. "Madame Tarashikov,
this is Mr. Al Crowley, from the Skeptical Enquirer magazine. Mr. Crowley,
With great deliberation, Max walked over and lifted the woman's hand off
the table, kissing the back of it firmly. "Madame Tarashikov, it's always
a pleasure to meet a true master of the otherworldly."
The kindly Mrs. Collins was taken aback. "You--you know Madame Tarashikov?"
"I know of her. She has quite a reputation." What sort of reputation he
was not about to say.
Madame Tarashikov, alias Ms. Billie Joe Heppleworth, originally of Topeka,
Kansas, but late of Beverly Hills, California, and points equally
transcendental, relaxed as soon as she saw that her visitor was not going
to expose her. Greatly relieved, she turned solemnly to their hostess. Her
accent was distinctively Midwestern. Midwestern East Europe.
"Ve should begin as zoon as possible, Mrs. Collins. I discern that the
auguries are propitious, and ve dare not vaste time."
"Yes, yes, of course! I'll be right back." Their breathless hostess
vanished in the direction of the kitchen.
As soon as she was out of the room, Max leaned forward in his chair. "So
now you're a genuine, gosh-darn-for-real medium, hmmm? Okay, I keep an
open mind and I'm always willing to be convinced. Let's hear you spell
Heppleworth-Tarashikov raised a hand to shush him. "Shut the fuck up,
Maxwell! I've got a real thing going here." Straining to see past him, she
glanced nervously toward the doorway that led to the rest of the house.
"How'd you know I was here?"
"I didn't." He sat back in the hard wooden chair. "One of my sources just
fed me this story about a dead kid's mom and a medium. I had no idea it
was you until I walked into the room."
Madame H-T sighed resignedly. "All right, what do you want? How much? For
a change, I can afford it." She jerked a finger in the direction of the
distant, unseen kitchen. "The old broad's the best mark I've hit on in six
months. Got real money. Her late husband left her plenty."
"So she's lost her husband and her son." Max was making notes as they
talked. He looked up from the pad and grinned thinly. "You really are an
unscrupulous bitch, Billie."
She sniffed, unperturbed and unimpressed. "And who the fuck are
you--Walter Cronkite? What do you want?"
"How about a date?" He leered openly at the tight dress.
"I'd rather cough up a kickback. Besides, I'm too experienced and too much
for you, Max my boy. You wouldn't survive." But she returned his slippery
smile. "It's the story you want, isn't it? Just leave it to me. I'll pour
it on like molasses. You'll get a good one."
"You read my mind. How appropriate." Anxious footsteps signaled the return
of their hostess, and he lowered his voice. "But I'd still like that date."
Her smile widened, her tone a blend of disgust and admiration. "The Fates
do not foretell it in your future, you nasty little shit."
He chuckled. "Well, that's sure as hell proof of nothing."
They adopted an air of mock solemnity as Mrs. Collins returned.
The seance itself was very straightforward and convincing. The room was
not adulterated with hackneyed howling, nor did the curtains blow
forcefully inward, but at Tarashikov's invocation the single candlestick
levitated impressively, hovering above the center of the table while
bobbing slightly. Their thoroughly enthralled hostess uttered a squeal of
delight when a deep male voice seemed to emanate from the vicinity of the
There followed a five-minute question-and-answer-session during which
Tarashikov prompted appropriate queries from the tearful Mrs. Collins
while the flame supplied sufficiently nebulous answers. The blatant
absence of definitude, so transparent to an uninvolved outsider, made no
difference. By the end of the encounter, at which time Tarashikov
pronounced the relevant spirits "exhausted," their hostess had her head in
her hands and was bawling unashamedly, convinced she had just spent five
minutes conversing with her recently deceased son. Max could not make out
the figure on the check that Collins handed the medium, but from the half
smile that made Tarashikov's face twitch he knew it must be more than
"And you, Mr. Crowley." Collins wiped the crust of dried tears from her
cheeks with a cotton handkerchief. "What do you have to say about what you
have just seen and heard? What will you write in your Skeptical magazine
Glancing over at Tarashikov, he saw her watching him closely, trying hard
not to appear too interested. It was a struggle, but he kept a straight
face as he replied.
"A most impressive demonstration, Mrs. Collins. It certainly gives one
something to think about. Why, if I were in your position I would take
every opportunity to utilize the extraordinary talents of Ms. Tarashikov
to the fullest. Cabalistic perception like hers doesn't come along very
often. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever seen anything quite like it
before." On the other side of the table, the comely medium smiled softly
as she expertly snuffed the candle.
"You can be assured that I will. Skeptics!" Haughty, dignified, and flush
with success, their hostess escorted both of them to the door.
"Same time next week then, Mrs. Collins?" Tarashikov's faux empathetic
smile bordered on the artlessly predatory.
"Of course, Madame." Her face was shining, her enthusiasm unbounded. "To
be able to hear my dear Eric again, after the accident ..." Choked, she
took the medium's free hand in both of hers and squeezed thankfully.
Tarashikov gently but firmly disengaged her fingers. "Rest assured that I
am at your service, Mrs. Collins. And if I am not available because I am
helping another poor soul in distress, please do not forget to fax me, or
leave a message with my answering service."
A last parting handshake and they fled the house and its tearful but
satisfied owner. Max escorted the medium to her parked car, enjoying the
sway of her hips as they walked the short distance together.
"You need an answering service? I thought the spirits would take messages
She snorted derisively. "Sometimes even the spirits refuse to work
overtime. On such occasions a little technological supplementation may be
called for." Grabbing his shoulder, she squeezed hard, the nails digging
slightly into his flesh. "Thanks for backing me up in there."
He shrugged. "Hey, if it works out I might get a small continuing series
out of this."
She leaned close and whispered. "You might also, as you said, get 'the
opportunity to utilize the extraordinary talents of Ms. Tarashikov to the
He eyed her in surprise, then smiled broadly. "I've got a candlestick of
my own you can manipulate. Speaking of which"--he indicated the one that
was poking out of the oversized handbag she was carrying--"how'd you
manage the levitation? That was well done. I didn't see any wires."
"There aren't any wires. I told you, there are times when a little
technology is in order. Even a professional medium needs to keep abreast
of the latest developments." Pulling out the candlestick, she upended it
to show him where the base was screwed tight to the shaft.
"There's a small but powerful magnet inside and a bigger battery-powered
electromagnet in my purse."
"Which was under the table," he filled in.
"Right. This ring," and she indicated one of the many bulky rings that
decorated her long fingers, "holds the on-off switch. Makes it easy to
raise and lower the candlestick. These new magnets are very precise. You
can really keep control."
"That's fresh. How about the dead kid's voice?"
"Tiny speaker inside the top of the candlestick." They were approaching
her fittingly sepulchral Mercedes and she nodded in its direction.
"George, my assistant, is in the trunk. Don't worry--he's in there with
air-conditioning and a cooler of cold drinks in addition to the base unit
for the candlestick. Staying in the trunk keeps him out of sight and
forestalls any awkward questions from the mark ... from the customer. We
found out by accident that it also adds a nice reverb to the voice. George
is very versatile. If the spirit I'm contacting is female, he does a nice
falsetto." Her smile widened. "There are a lot of unemployed actors in
this town. If George moves on to bigger and better things, I can always
find a replacement."
"And the questions and answers are kept general enough to satisfy the
suckers," he said.
"Please." She eyed him distastefully. "The bereaved supplicants. That's
been standard operating procedure in the business for hundreds of years."
She disengaged the Mercedes' alarm and opened the driver's-side door. The
thick, heady aroma of new-car leather drifted out.
"And it doesn't bother you that you're preying on the susceptibilities of
ordinary people who are drowning in their own misery?"
She all but laughed out loud. "That's pretty funny, coming from someone
who works for the vampire rag you do. I've always felt that if they're
stupid enough to fall for this old-fashioned traditional hokum, then if I
don't take their money someone else will. Besides, I give great seance and
my clients always feel better afterward. That's more than you can say for
anyone unfortunate enough to be the subject of one of your scabrous
stories. I like to think of what I do as therapy." She squeezed his hand.
"Give me a call, Max. I owe you a session." Favoring him with a last,
appreciative smile, she turned and slipped behind the wheel.
He nodded agreeably. "You bet I will. I've got one hell of a spirit you
can call up."
Waving a final farewell, he followed the Mercedes with his eyes as it
backed out of the driveway and turned south. A glance at the sky showed
that it was getting late. Time to head back home. As for the story itself,
there was plenty of time to do that. He could type it up after dinner. It
wouldn't take long, and he could add suitable embellishments in the
morning, before heading out to follow up on Kryzewski's tip.
On the other hand, he mused as he walked back to his own car, if he could
do the follow-up tonight it would save him a drive tomorrow. That would
allow him to do both stories in the morning and then take the afternoon
off. Not far beyond the front window of his apartment, the beach beckoned.
The cool Pacific and the first scantily clad sand bunnies of the season
were calling to him.
The true nutcases were often the most accessible, the most eager to
discuss their obsessions. From the notes Kryzewski had supplied, this
Barrington Boles character certainly sounded as if he qualified. If he
could get in to see him tonight, Max thought, and get enough notes to put
together a story, then he would not have to deal with him tomorrow.
He was already out in the Valley. If he could find a halfway quiet coffee
shop he could rough out the Boy-Killed-in-Car-Crash-Speaks-to-Bereaved-Mom
story while he was having dinner. Then shoot out to Malibu after rush hour
and do the Boles interview, polish both in the morning, and take the rest
of the day off. Maybe two, if the Boles lead turned out to be really
Feeling very good about himself, he slid into the Aurora, started the
engine, and headed off in search of sustenance and silence.From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Parallelities by Alan Dean Foster. Copyright © 1998 by Alan Dean Foster. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.