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Authors: F. Paul Wilson

The Haunted Air

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for two MIAs
Poul Anderson
Richard Laymon
I owe a debt to works by James Randi (
An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and
Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, The Psychic Healers,
and
Flim-Flam!)
and M. Lamar Keene (
The Psychic Mafia
). These acted as invaluable guidebooks on what to look for on my visits to Spiritualist churches and psychic mediums.
Thanks to the usual crew for their editorial help on the manuscript: my wife Mary; my editor David Hartwell; his assistant Moshe Feder; Elizabeth Monteleone; Steven Spruill; and my agent Albert Zuckerman. And thanks to Blake Dollens, typo master, for his help with this edition.
The bride wore white.
Only she wasn't a bride and the dress—two sizes too small at least—had faded to beige.
“Can I ask again,” Jack said, leaning toward Gia, “why our hostess is wearing her wedding dress?”
Gia, seated next to him on the tattered, thirdhand-store sofa, sipped from her plastic cup of white wine. “You may.”
A casual little get-together, Gia had told him. Some of her artist friends were going to gather at a loft in a converted warehouse on the fringe of the old Brooklyn Army Terminal, throw a little party for one of their clan who'd started to make it big. Come on, she'd said. It'll be fun.
Jack wasn't in a fun mood. Hadn't been for some time now. But he'd agreed to go. For Gia.
Maybe twenty people wandering about the space while Pavement's last album pounded from a boom box, echoing off the high ceilings, huge windows, and stripped-to-the-brick walls. The occupants sported hair colors that spanned the visible spectrum, skin that was either pierced or tattooed or both, and clothes that redlined the garishometer.
And Halloween was better than two months away.
Jack took a pull from his bottle of beer. He'd brought his own, opting to forego his usual Rolling Rock long necks for a six-pack of Harp. Good thing, too. The bridal-bedecked hostess had stocked Bud Light. He'd never tasted watered-down cow pee, but he imagined it tasted better than Bud Light.
“All right. Why is our hostess wearing her wedding dress?”
“Gilda's never been married. She's an artist, Jack. She's making a statement.”
“What statement? I mean, besides
Look at me
?”
“I'm sure she'd tell you that it's up to the individual to decide.”
“Okay. I've decided she just wants attention.”
“Is that so bad? Just because you're frightened to death of attention doesn't make it wrong for other people to court it.”
“Not frightened to death of it,” Jack grumbled, not wanting to concede the point.
A tall, slim woman passed by then, a dead-white streak running along the side of her frizzy black swept-back hair.
He cocked his head toward her. “I know her statement: her husband's a monster.”
“Karyn's not married.”
A guy with gelled neon yellow hair slid by, each eyebrow pierced by at least a dozen gold rings.
“Hi, Gia,” he said with a wave and kept moving.
“Hi, Nick.”
“Let me guess,” Jack muttered. “As a child Nick was frightened by a curtain rod.”
“My, aren't we the cranky one tonight,” Gia said, giving him a look.
Cranky barely touched it. He'd been alternating between bouts of rage and the way-down dumps for a couple of months now. Ever since Kate's death. Couldn't seem to pull himself out. He'd been finding it hard to get out of bed in the morning, and once he was up, there didn't seem to be anything he wanted to do. So he'd drag himself to Abe's or Julio's or Gia's and pretend he was fine. Same old Jack, just not working on anything at the moment.
The angry voice mail messages from his father, ragging on him for not showing up at Kate's wake or funeral, hadn't helped.
“Don't tell me you had something more important to do. She was your sister, damn it!”
Jack knew that. After fifteen years of separation, Kate had come back into his life for one week during which he'd
gotten to know her again, love her again, and now she was gone. Forever.
The facts said it wasn't Jack's fault, but the facts didn't keep Jack from blaming himself. And one other person …
He'd searched for the man he'd suspected of being in some way responsible, a man whose real name he didn't know but who'd called himself Sal Roma once, and maybe Ms. Aralo too. He'd put the word out but no one knew anything. Never heard of him. Jack wound up with a taste of his own medicine—Sal Roma didn't seem to exist.
Kate … she might still be alive if only he'd done things his way instead of listening to …
Stop. No point in traveling that well-worn trail again. He hadn't returned his father's calls. After a while they stopped.
He forced a smile for Gia. “Sorry. Pseudo-weirdos crank me off.”
“Can't be much weirder than the people you spend most of your day with.”
“Those are different. They're real. Their weirdness comes from inside. They wake up weird. They dress weird because they reach out a hand and whatever it touches first is what they wear that day. These people here spend hours in front of a mirror making themselves look weird. My weirdos have hair that spikes out in twenty directions because that's the way it was when they rolled out of bed this morning; these folks use herbal shampoo, half a gallon of gel, and a special comb to achieve their unwashed bed-head look. My weirdos don't belong; these people seem to want desperately to belong, but don't want anyone to know, so they try to outdo each other to look like outsiders.”
Gia's lips twisted. “And the biggest outsider of them all is sitting right here in a short-sleeve plaid shirt, jeans, and work boots.”
“And spending the evening watching pretensions collide with affectations. Present company excluded, of course.”
One of the many things he loved about Gia was her lack of affectation. Her hair was blond by nature and short for
convenience. Tonight she was wearing beige slacks and a sleeveless turquoise top that heightened the blue of her eyes. Her makeup consisted of a touch of lipstick. She didn't need anything more. She looked clean and healthy, a very untrendy look in this subculture.
But the subculture had percolated into the overculture, the fringe had become mainstreamed. Years ago construction workers threw bricks at longhairs and called them faggots, now the building trades were packed with ponytails and earrings.
“Maybe it's time I got myself adorned,” Jack said.
Gia's eyebrows shot up. “You mean pierced? You?”
“Well, yeah. Sometimes I feel like I stand out because I'm not bejeweled and be-inked.”
“Be-inked?”
“You know—tattooed.”
Everyone seemed into it, and if he wanted to remain invisible, he'd have to follow the crowd.
“But nothing permanent,” he added. Didn't want to lose his chameleon capabilities. “Maybe a clip-on earring and one or two of those temporary tattoos.”
“Didn't you do something like that to your fingers once?”
“You remember those?” Phony prison tats. With indelible ink. A one-time thing for a hairy job that left a couple of toughs from a Brighton Beach gang blazing mad and combing the five boroughs for a guy with HELL BENT tats on his knuckles. He hadn't been able to wash those off soon enough. “No, I think I need something big and colorful.”
“How about a heart encircled with rose vines and GIA in its center?”
“I was thinking more on the order of a green skull with orange flames roaring out of its eye sockets.”
“Oh, how cool,” Gia said, and sipped her wine.
“Yeah. Slap that on one deltoid, maybe get a bright red Hot Stuff devil for the other, put on a tank top, and I'll be set.”
“Don't forget the earring.”
“Right. One of those dangly ones, maybe with the Metallica logo.”
“That's you, Jack. A speedmetal dude.”
Jack sighed. “Adorned … accessorized … I was brought up thinking that real men didn't bother with fashion.”
“So was I,” Gia said. “But I have an excuse: I grew up in semi-rural Iowa. You … you're a northeasterner.”
“True, but all the adult males I knew as a kid—my father and the men he knew—were plain dressers. Most had fought in Korea. They dressed up for things like weddings and funerals, but mostly they wore functional clothes. Nobody accessorized. You stayed in front of the mirror long enough to shave and comb the hair out of your eyes. Anything more and you were some sort of peacock.”
“Welcome to twenty-first-century Peacockville,” Gia said.
Nick drifted by again.
“What's Nick paint?” Jack asked.
“He doesn't paint. He's a performance artist. His stage name is Harry Adamski.”
“Swell.” Jack hated performance art. “What's his performance?”
Gia bit her upper lip. “He calls it stool art. Let's just say it's a very personal form of sculpture and, um, let it go at that.”
Jack stared at her. What was Gia—?
“Oh, jeez. Really … ?”
She nodded.
“Christ,” he said, letting loose, “is there anything out there that
can't
claim it's an art? There's the art of war, the art of the deal, the art of the shoe shine, the Artist Formerly Known As Prince—”
“I think he's back to calling himself Prince now.”
“—the art of motorcycle maintenance. Smearing yourself with chocolate is art, hanging a toilet on a wall is art—”
“Come on, Jack. Lighten up. I was hoping a night out would lift your spirits. You've got to rejoin the living.
Lately your life's consisted of eating, sleeping, and watching movies. You haven't worked out or taken a job or even returned calls. I'm sure Kate wouldn't want you to spend the rest of your life moping around.”
Jack knew Gia was right and looked away. He saw a willowy blonde in her mid twenties swaying in their direction. She carried a martini glass filled with reddish fluid, probably a cosmo. The bottom of her short, zebra-striped blouse did not meet the top of her low riding, skintight leopard miniskirt; in the interval a large diamond stud gleamed from her navel.
“Maybe I should pierce my navel,” Jack said.
“Fine, but don't show me until you've shaved your belly.”
“How about a pierced tongue?”
Gia gave him a sidelong glance and a sultry smile. “Now
that
could be interesting.” She looked up and saw the blonde. “Oh, here comes Junie Moon, the guest of honor.”
“That her real name?”
“Not sure. But that's the one she's used since I've known her. She was struggling along just like the rest of us until Nathan Lane bought one of her abstracts last year and started talking her up. Now she's about as hot as you can get.”
“What's a Junie Moon original go for?”
“Twenty and up.”
Jack blinked. “Twenty thou? She's that good?”
“Big difference between hot and good, but I like Junie's work. She creates this unique mix of hot and cold. Sort of a cross between De Kooning and Mondrian, if you can imagine such a thing.”
Jack couldn't, because he couldn't recall any works by either.
“You sound happy for her.”
“I am. She's a good kid. I've got almost ten years on her and she sort of adopted me as a surrogate mother over the past few years. Phones me a couple of times a week to chat, asks advice.”
“And no hard feelings that she hit it and you haven't?”
“Not a bit. I won't say I don't wish it were me instead, but if it had to happen to someone else, I'm glad it was Junie. She's ditzy but she's got talent, and I like her.”
That was Gia. The nurturer without a jealous bone in her body. Another of the many reasons he loved her. But even if it didn't bother her, it rankled Jack to see the crap that hung in the galleries and exhibits she was always dragging him to, while her own canvases remained stacked in her studio.
“Bet her stuff's not half as good as yours.”
“Mine are different.”
Gia made her living in commercial art. She did a lot of advertising work, but over the years she'd developed a reputation among the art directors at the city's publishing houses as a talented and reliable artist. She'd walked Jack through a Barnes and Noble last week, pointing out her work on half a dozen hardcovers and trade paperbacks.
Nice stuff, but nothing like the paintings Gia did for herself. Jack loved those. He didn't know a lot about art, but he'd picked up a little following Gia around, and her urban roofscapes reminded him of Edward Hopper, one of the few artists he'd pay to see.
Junie dropped into the narrow space next to Gia on the couch, spilling a few drops of her drink. Her blue-shadowed lids drooped slightly. He wondered how many she'd had.
“Hey,” she said, and kissed Gia on the cheek.
Gia introduced her to Jack and they shook hands across Gia. She looked about as down in the dumps as Jack felt.
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