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PIN SENT ME the picture and I e-mailed it to a gearhead friend, Crazy Ed, who lived in Wilkes-Barre, to see what he could make of it. Though I didn't forget about the stars, I got slammed with business and my consideration of them and the late William Garnant had to be put on the backburner, along with Stanky's career. Against all expectations, Liz had not fled screaming from his bed, crying Pervert, but stayed with him most nights. Except for his time in the studio, I rarely saw him, and then only when his high school fans drove by to pick up him and Liz. An apocryphal story reached my ear, insinuating that she had taken on a carload of teenage boys while Stanky watched. That, if true, explained the relationship in Stanky-esque terms, terms I could understand. I didn't care what they did as long as he fulfilled his band duties and kept out of my hair. I landed him a gig at the Pick and Shovel in Waterford, filling in for a band that had been forced to cancel, and it went well enough that I scored him another gig at Garnant College. After a mere two performances, his reputation was building and I adjusted my timetable accordingly—I would make the college job an EP release party, push out an album soon thereafter and try to sell him to a major label. It was not the way I typically grew my acts, not commercially wise, but Stanky was not a typical act and, despite his prodigious talent, I wanted to have done with this sour-smelling chapter in my life.
Andrea, for all intents and purposes, had moved in, along with a high-energy, seven-month-old Irish Setter named Timber, and was in process of subletting her apartment. We were, doubtless, a disgusting item to everyone who had gotten to know us during our adversarial phase, always hanging on one another, kissing and touching. I had lunch with her every day—they held the back booth for us at McGuigan's—and one afternoon as we were settling in, Mia materialized beside the booth. "Hello," she said and stuck out a hand to Andrea.
Startled, Andrea shook her hand and I, too, was startled—until that moment, Mia had been unrelentingly hostile in her attitude toward my ex, referring to her as "that uppity skank" and in terms less polite. I noticed that she was dressed conservatively and not made up as an odalisque. Instead of being whipped into a punky abstraction, her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. The raspberry streak was gone. She was, in fact, for the first time since I had known her, streakless.
"May I join you?" Mia asked. "I won't take up much of your time."
Andrea scooted closer to the wall and Mia sat next to her.
"I heard you guys were back together," said Mia. "I'm glad."
Thunderstruck, I was incapable of fielding that one. "Thanks," said Andrea, looking to me for guidance.
Mia squared up in the booth, addressing me with a clear eye and a firm voice. "I'm moving to Pittsburgh. I've got a job lined up and I'll be taking night classes at Pitt, then going full-time starting next summer."
Hearing this issue from Mia's mouth was like hearing a cat begin speaking in Spanish while lighting a cheroot. I managed to say, "Yeah, that's.… Yeah. Good."
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner. I'm leaving tomorrow. But I heard you and Andrea were together, so.…" She glanced back and forth between Andrea and myself, as if expecting a response.
"No, that's fine," I said. "You know."
"It was a destructive relationship," she said with great sincerity. "We had some fun, but it was bad for both of us. You were holding me back intellectually and I was limiting you emotionally."
"You're right," I said. "Absolutely."
Mia seemed surprised by how smoothly things were going, but she had, apparently, a prearranged speech and she by-God intended to give it.
"I understand this is sudden. It must come as a shock…"
"…but I have to do this. I think it's best for me. I hope we can stay friends. You've been an important part of my growth."
"I hope so, too."
There ensued a short and—on my end, anyway—baffled silence.
"Okay. Well, I…I guess that's about it." She got to her feet and stood by the booth, hovering; then—with a sudden movement—she bent and kissed my cheek. "Bye."
Andrea put a hand to her mouth. "Oh my God! Was that Mia?"
"I'm not too sure," I said, watching Mia walk away, noting that there had been a complete absence of moues.
"An important part of her growth? She talks like a Doctor Phil soundbyte. What did you do to her?"
"I'm not responsible, I don't think." I pushed around a notion that had occurred to me before, but that I had not had the impetus to consider more fully. "Do you know anyone who's exhibited a sudden burst of intelligence in the past few weeks? I mean someone who's been going along at the same pace for a while and suddenly they're Einstein. Relatively speaking."
She mulled it over. "As a matter of fact, I do. I know two or three people. Why?"
"Well, there's Jimmy Galvin. Did you hear about him?"
"The gardening tool. Yeah. Who else?"
"This guy in my office. A paralegal. He's a hard worker, but basically a drone. Lately, whenever we ask him to dig up a file or find a reference, he's attached some ideas about the case we're working on. Good ideas. Some of them are great. Case-makers. He's the talk of the office. We've been joking that maybe we should get him to take a drug test. He's going back to law school and we're going to miss.…" She broke off. "What's this have to do with the new Mia?"
I told her about Rudy's cartoons, Beth's novel, Kiwanda's newfound efficiency, the millworker, Stanky's increased productivity.
"I can't help wondering," I said, "if it's somehow related to the stars. I know it's a harebrained idea. There's probably a better explanation. Stanky…he never worked with a band before and that may be what's revving his engines. But that night at the Crucible, he was so polished. It just didn't synch with how I thought he'd react. I thought he'd get through it, but it's like he was an old hand."
Andrea looked distressed.
"And not everybody's affected," I said. "I'm not, for sure. You don't seem to be. It's probably bullshit."
"I know of another instance," she said. "But if I tell you, you have to promise to keep it a secret."
"I can do that."
"Do you know Wanda Lingrove?"
"Wasn't she a friend of yours? A cop? Tall woman? About five years older than us?"
"She's a detective now."
The waitress brought our food. I dug in; Andrea nudged her salad to the side.
"Did you hear about those college girls dying over in Waterford?" she asked.
"No, I haven't been keeping up."
"Two college girls died a few days apart. One in a fire and one in a drowning accident. Wanda asked for a look at the case files. The Waterford police had written them off as accidents, but Wanda had a friend on the force and he slipped her the files and showed her the girls' apartments. They both lived off-campus. It's not that Wanda's any great shakes. She has an undistinguished record. But she had the idea from reading the papers—and they were skimpy articles—a serial killer was involved. Her friend pooh-poohed the idea. There wasn't any signature. But it turned out, Wanda was right. There was a signature, very subtle and very complicated, demonstrating that the killer was highly evolved. Not only did she figure that out, she caught him after two days on the case."
"Aren't serial killers tough to catch?"
"Yes. All that stuff you see about profiling on TV, it's crap. They wouldn't have come close to getting a line on this kid with profiling. He would have had to announce himself, but Wanda doesn't think he would have. She thinks he would have gone on killing, that putting one over on the world was enough for him."
"He was a kid?"
"Fourteen years old. A kid from Black William. What's more, he'd given no sign of being a sociopath. Yet in the space of three weeks, he went from zero to sixty. From playing JV football to being a highly organized serialist. That doesn't happen in the real world."
"So how come Wanda's not famous?"
"The college is trying to keep it quiet. The kid's been bundled off to an institution and the cops have the lid screwed tight." Andrea picked at her salad. "What I'm suggesting, maybe everyone is being affected, but not in ways that conform to your model. Wanda catching the kid, that conforms. But the kid himself, the fact that a pathology was brought out in him…that suggests that people may be affected in ways we don't notice. Maybe they just love each other more."
I laid down my fork. "Like with us?"
A doleful nod.
"That's crazy," I said. "You said you'd been plotting for months to make a move."
"Yes, but it was a fantasy!"
"And you don't think you would have acted on it?"
"I don't know. One thing for certain, I never expected anything like this." She cut her volume to a stage whisper. "I want you all the time. It's like when we were nineteen. I'm addicted to you."
"Yeah," I said. "Same here."
"I worry that it'll stop, then I worry that it won't—it's wreaking havoc with my work. I can't stop thinking about you. On a rational level, I know I'm an animal. But there's a place in me that wants to believe love is more than evolutionary biology. And now this thing with the stars. To think that what I'm feeling could be produced by something as random as a wavefront or a supernatural event, or whatever…It makes me feel like an experimental animal. Like a rabbit that's been drugged. It scares me."
"Look," I said. "We're probably talking about something that isn't real."
"No, it's real."
"How can you be sure? I only just brought the subject up. We can't have been discussing it more than five minutes."
"You convinced me. Everything you said rings true. I know it here." Andrea touched a hand to her breast. "And you know it, too. Something's happening to us. Something's happening to this town."
WE STEPPED BACK from that conversation. It was, I suppose, a form of denial, the avoidance of a subject neither of us wished to confront, because it was proof against confrontation, against logic and reason, and so we trivialized it and fell back on our faith, on our mutuality. Sometimes, lying with Andrea, considering the join of her neck and shoulder, the slight convexity of her belly, the compliant curve of a breast compressed into a pouty shape by the weight of her arm, the thousand turns and angles that each seemed the expression of a white simplicity within, I would have the urge to wake her, to drive away from Black William, and thus protect her, protect us, from this infestation of stars; but then I would think that such an action might destroy the thing I hoped to protect, that once away from the stars we might feel differently about one another. And then I'd think how irrational these thoughts were, how ridiculous it was to contemplate uprooting our lives over so flimsy a fear. And, finally, having made this brief rounds of my human potential, I would lapse again into a Praxitelean scrutiny, a sculptor in love with his stone, content to drift in and out of a dream in which love, though it had been proved false (like Andrea said, an animal function and nothing more), proved to be eternally false, forever and a day of illusion, of two souls burning brighter and brighter until they appeared to make a single glow, a blazing unity concealed behind robes of aging flesh.
The world beat against our door. Pin's photograph was printed on the third page of the Black William Gazette, along with the news that the University of Pittsburgh would be sending a team of observers to measure the phenomenon, should it occur again, as was predicted (by whom, the Gazette did not say). There was a sidebar recounting Black William's sordid history and Jonathan Venture's version of BW's involvement with the stars. The body of the article.… Well, it was as if the reporter had been privvy to our conversation at the Szechuan Palace. I suspected that he had, if only at second-hand, since my wavefront theory was reproduced in full, attributed to "a local pundit." As a result of this publicity, groups of people, often more than a hundred, mostly the young and the elderly, came to gather in front of the library between the hours of five and nine, thus depriving me of the customary destination of my evening walks.
Stanky, his ego swollen to improbable proportions by two successful performances, by the adulation of his high school fans ("Someone ought to be writing everything Joey says down," said one dreamy-eyed fool), became increasingly temperamental, lashing out at his bandmates, at me, browbeating Liz at every opportunity, and prowling about the house in a sulk, ever with a Coke and cigarette, glaring at all who fell to his gaze, not bothering to speak. In the mornings, he was difficult to wake, keeping Geno and Jerry waiting, wasting valuable time, and one particular morning, my frustration wth him peaked and I let Timber into his bedroom and closed the door, listening while the happy pup gamboled across the mattress, licking and drooling, eliciting squeals and curses from the sleepy couple, an action that provoked a confrontation that I won by dint of physical threat and financial dominance, but that firmly established our unspoken enmity and made me anxious about whether I would be able to maneuver him to the point where I could rid myself of him and show a profit.
A gray morning, spitting snow, and I answered the doorbell to find a lugubrious, long-nosed gentleman with a raw, bony face, toting a briefcase and wearing a Sy Sperling wig and a cheap brown suit. A police cruiser was parked at the curb; two uniformed officers stood smoking beside it, casting indifferent looks toward the Polozny, which rolled on blackly in—as a local DJ was prone to characterize it—"its eternal search for the sea." Since we were only a couple of days from the EP release, I experienced a sinking feeling, one that was borne out when the man produced a card identifying him as Martin Kiggins of McKeesport, a Friend of the Court. He said he would like to have a word with me about Joseph Stanky.
"How well do you know Joseph?" he asked me once we had settled in the office.
Kiwanda, at her desk in the next room, made a choking noise. I replied that while I had, I thought, an adequate understanding of Joseph as a musician, I was unfamililar with the details of his life.
"Did you know he has a wife?" Kiggins was too lanky to fit the chair and, throughout our talk, kept scrunching around in it. "And he's got a little boy. Almost two years old, he is."
"No, I didn't know that."
"Poor little guy nearly didn't make it that far. Been sick his whole life." Kiggins's gaze acquired a morose intensity. "Meningitis."
I couldn't get a handle on Kiggins; he acted as if he was trying to sell me something, yet he had arrived on my doorstep with an armed force and the authority of the law.
"I thought meningitis was fatal," I said.
"Not a hundred percent," said Kiggins cheerlessly. "His mother doesn't have insurance, so he didn't get the best of care."
"She's on welfare. Things aren't likely to improve for the kid or for her. She's not what you'd call an attractive woman."
"Why are we talking about this?" I asked. "It's a sad story, but I'm not involved."
"Not directly, no."
"Not any damn way. I don't understand what you're looking for."
Kiggins seemed disappointed in me. "I'm looking for Joseph. Is he here?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know. Okay." He put his hands on his knees and stood, making a show of peering out the window at his cop buddies.
"I really don't know if he's here," I said. "I've been working, I haven't been downstairs this morning."
"Mind if I take a look down there?"
"You're goddamn right, I mind! What's this about? You've been doing a dance ever since you came in. Why don't you spit it out?"
Kiggins gave me a measuring look, then glanced around the office—I think he was hoping to locate another chair. Failing this, he sat back down.
"You appear to be a responsible guy, Vernon," he said. "Is it okay I call you Vernon?"
"Sure thing, Marty. I don't give a shit what you call me as long as you get to the point."
"You own your home, a business. Pay your taxes…far as I can tell without an audit. You're a pretty solid citizen."
The implicit threat of an audit ticked me off, but I let him continue. I began to realize where this might be going.
"I've got the authority to take Joseph back to McKeesport and throw his butt in jail," said Kiggins. "He's in arrears with his child and spousal support. Now I know Joseph doesn't have any money to speak of, but seeing how you've got an investment in him, I'm hoping we can work out some arrangement."
"Where'd you hear that?" I asked. "About my investment."
"Joseph still has friends in McKeesport. High school kids, mainly. Truth be told, we think he was supplying them with drugs, but I'm not here about that. They've been spreading it around that you're about to make him a star."
I snorted. "He's a long way from being a star. Believe me."
"I believe you. Do you believe me when I tell you I'm here to take him back? Just say the word, I'll give a whistle to those boys out front." Kiggins shifted the chair sideways, so he could stretch out one leg. "I know how you make your money, Vernon. You build a band up, then you sell their contracts. Now you've put in some work with Joseph. Some serious time and money. I should think you'd want to protect your investment."
"Okay." I reached for a cigarette, recalled that I had quit. "What's he owe?"
"Upwards of eleven thousand."
"He's all yours," I said. "Take the stairs in back. Follow the corridor to the front of the house. First door on your right."
"I said I wanted to make an arrangement. I'm not after the entire amount."
And so began our negotiation.
If we had finished the album, I would have handed Stanky over and given Kiggins my blessing, but as things stood, I needed him. Kiggins, on the other hand, wouldn't stand a chance of collecting any money with Stanky in the slam—he likely had a predetermined figure beneath which he would not move. It infuriated me to haggle with him. Stanky's wife and kid wouldn't see a nickel. They would dock her welfare by whatever amount he extracted from me, deduct administrative and clerical fees, and she would end up worse off than before. Yet I had no choice other than to submit to legal blackmail.
Kiggins wouldn't go below five thousand. That, he said, was his bottom line. He put on a dour poker face and waited for me to decide.
"He's not worth it," I said.
Sadly, Kiggins made for the door; when I did not relent, he turned back and we resumed negotiations, settling on a figure of three thousand and my promise to attach a rider to Stanky's contract stating that a percentage of his earnings would be sent to the court. After he had gone, my check tucked in his briefcase, Kiwanda came to stand by my desk with folded arms.
"I'd give it a minute before you go down," she said. "You got that I'm-gonna-break-his-face look."
"Do you fucking believe this?" I brought my fist down on the desk. "I want to smack that little bitch!"
"Take a breath, Vernon. You don't want to lose any more today than just walked out of here."
I waited, I grew calm, but as I approached the stairs, the image of a wizened toddler and a moping, double-chinned wife cropped up in my brain. With each step I grew angrier and, when I reached Stanky's bedroom, I pushed in without knocking. He and Liz were having sex. I caught a fetid odor and an unwanted glimpse of Liz's sallow hindquarters as she scrambled beneath the covers. I shut the door partway and shouted at Stanky to haul his ass out here. Seconds later, he burst from the room in a T-shirt and pajama bottoms, and stumped into the kitchen with his head down, arms tightly held, like an enraged penguin. He fished a Coke from the refrigerator and made as if to say something; but I let him have it. I briefed him on Kiggins and said, "It's not a question of morality. I already knew you were a piece of crap. But this is a business, man. It's my livelihood, not a playground for degenerates. And when you bring the cops to my door, you put that in jeopardy."
He hung his head, picking at the Coke's pop top. "You don't understand."
"I don't want to understand! Get it? I have absolutely no desire to understand. That's between you and your wife. Between you and whatever scrap of meatloaf shaped like the Virgin Mary you pretend to worship. I don't care. One more screw-up, I'm calling Kiggins and telling him to come get you."
Liz had entered the kitchen, clutching a bathrobe about her; when she heard "wife," she retreated.
I railed at Stanky, telling him he would pay back every penny of the three thousand, telling him further to clean his room of every pot seed and pill, to get his act in order and finish the album; and I kept on railing at him until his body language conveyed that I could expect two or three days of penitence and sucking up. Then I allowed him to slink by me and into the bedroom. When I passed his door, cracked an inch open, I heard him whining to Liz, saying, "She's not really my wife."
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Copyright © 1998–2008 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide