A Repairman Jack Novel
By F. Paul Wilson, David G. Hartwell
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2000 F. Paul Wilson
All rights reserved.
Jack looked around the front room of his apartment and figured he was either going to have to move to a bigger place, or stop buying stuff. He had nowhere to put his new Daddy Warbucks lamp.
Well, not new exactly. It had been made sometime in the 1940s, but it was in great shape. The base was a glazed plaster cast of Daddy from the waist up, his hand gripping a lapel of his tuxedo, a tiny rhinestone in place of his diamond stick pin. He was grinning, and his pupilless eyes showed not the slightest trace of concern about the lamp stem and socket shell emerging from his bald pate.
Jack had found it in a Soho nostalgia shop, and talked the owner down to eighty-five dollars for it. He would have paid twice that. The apartment didn't need another lamp, but Jack needed this one. Warbucks was such a stand-up guy. No way Jack could pass it up. No bulb or lampshade, but that was easily remedied. Problem was, where to put it?
He did a slow turn. His home was the third floor of a brownstone in the West Eighties, and smelled of old wood. Not surprising since the place was crammed with Victorian golden oak furniture. The walls and shelves were cluttered with memorabilia and tchotchkes from the thirties and forties. Everything in sight except for the computer monitor existed before he was born. Even the Cartoon Network — he could see the large-screen TV in the extra bedroom — was playing a toon from the thirties with a big-eyed owlet crooning how he loved "to sing-a, about the moon-a anna June-a anna spring-a. ..." And here in the front room, not a single empty horizontal surface left ...
Except for the computer monitor.
Jack placed the Daddy Warbucks lamp on top of the monitor, which sat atop Jack's antique oak rolltop desk. The processor sat on the floor in the kneehole, and the keyboard hid under the rolltop. The monitor didn't look comfortable perched up there, but then, the computer didn't really fit anywhere in the room — a plastic iceberg adrift in a sea of wavy-grained oak.
But you couldn't be in business these days without one. Jack didn't understand all that much about computers, but he loved the anonymity they afforded in communications.
He hadn't checked his email since this morning, so he lit up the monitor and rolled up the tambour top to reveal his keyboard. He logged on through one of his ISPs — Jack had multiple accounts under various names with a number of Internet service providers, and maintained a Web site through one of them. Everything he'd read said that people were increasingly looking to the Internet to solve all sorts of problems, so Jack figured he might as well make himself available to folks searching there for his kind of solution.
Half a dozen emails from the Web site waited, but only one seemed worth answering, and that barely:
I need your help. It's about my wife. Please call me or email me back, but =please= get back to me.
It was signed "Lewis Ehler" and he'd left two numbers, one in Brooklyn, the other on Long Island.
It's about my wife ... not some guy who wanted to know if she was cheating, he hoped. Marital problems weren't in Jack's line.
He had another job just starting up, but that promised to be mostly night work. Which meant his days would be free.
He wrote down the numbers, then headed out to make the call.
Jack walked east toward Central Park, looking for a phone he hadn't used recently, while the little toon owl's song echoed in his head.
I love to sing-a, about the moon-a anna June-a anna spring-a ...
Spring had sprung and NYC was lurching out of hibernation. The air smelled fresh and clean, bright flowers peeked from window boxes on the upper floors of the brownstone regiments, and tiny leaf buds bedizened the branches of the widely spaced trees set in the sidewalks. The late morning sun sat high and bright, keeping Jack comfortable in a work shirt and jeans. Winter coats were gone, leaving short skirts and long legs on display again. A good day to be alive and heterosexual.
Not that the women paid much attention to him. They barely seemed to notice the guy with the so-so build, average-length brown hair, and mild brown eyes. Which was just fine with Jack. He'd be disappointed if they did, considering the effort he put into being a walking trompe l'oeil.
Jack cultivated anti-presence. The anonymous look took effort — not too trendy, not too retro. He kept an eye on what the average guy on the street was wearing. Jeans and flannel shirts never went out of style, even here on the Upper West Side; neither did sneakers and work boots — real work boots. Twill work pants were another safe bet — never stylish, but they never attracted attention either.
He found a pay phone on Central Park West. The apartment buildings stopped dead here, as if sliced off with a knife for dozens of blocks in either direction to leave room for the park across the street. Through the still-naked trees he could see the Lake, a blue lozenge in the greening grass. No boats on it yet, but it wouldn't be long.
He tapped in the access number on his prepaid calling card. He loved these things. As anonymous as cash and a hell of a lot lighter than the pocketful of change he used to have to carry.
Everybody seemed so frightened of the potential threat new electronics posed to security. And maybe it was a genuine peril for citizens. But from Jack's perspective, electronics offered an anonymity bonanza. He used to keep an answering machine in an empty office on Tenth Avenue, but a few months ago he unplugged it and had all calls to that number forwarded to a voice-mail service.
Email, voice mail, calling cards ... he could almost hear Louis Armstrong singing, "What a wonderful world."
Jack punched in the Brooklyn number Ehler had left. He found himself talking to the Keystone Paper Cylinder Company and asked to speak to Lewis Ehler.
"Whom shall I say is calling?" said the receptionist.
"Just tell him it's Jack, calling about his email."
Ehler came on right away. He spoke in a wheezy, high-pitched voice accelerating steadily in an urgent whisper.
"Thank you so much for calling. I've been half out of my mind not knowing what to do. I mean, since Mel's been gone I've —"
"Whoa, whoa," Jack said. "Gone? Your wife's missing?"
"Yes! Three days now and —"
"Wait. Stop right there. We can save me time and you a lot of breath: I don't do missing wives."
His voice rose in pitch and volume. "But you must!"
"That's a police thing. They've got the manpower and resources to do missing persons a lot better than I ever will."
"No-no! She said no police! Absolutely no police."
"She told you? When did she tell you?"
"Just last night. I ... I heard from her last night."
"Then she's not really missing."
"She is. Please believe me, she is. And she told me to call you, only you. 'Repairman Jack is the only one who will understand' is what she said."
"Yeah? How does she know about me?"
"I don't know. I'd never heard of you until Mel told me."
"Okay, but if Melanie can call you, why can't she tell you where she is?"
"It's very complicated — too complicated to get into over the phone. Can't we just meet? It'll be so much easier to explain this in person."
Jack thought about that. He stared at the hulking mass of the Museum of Natural History a few blocks away and watched a yellow caravan of school buses pull into the parking lot. This gig sounded a little wacky. Hell, it sounded way wacky. A missing wife who calls and tells her husband don't go to the police, call Repairman Jack instead. Kidnapped, maybe? But then ...
"No ranson demand?"
"No. I doubt whoever's behind Mel's disappearance is interested in money."
"Everybody's interested in money."
"Not in this case. If we could just meet ..."
Wackier and wackier, but Jack had nothing doing the rest of the day ... and Ehler had said no cops involved. ...
"Okay. Let's meet."
Ehler's relief flooded through the receiver. "Oh, thank you, thank you —"
"But I'm not going to Brooklyn."
"Anywhere you say, just as long as it's soon."
Julio's was close. Jack gave Ehler the address and told him to be there in an hour. After Ehler hung up, Jack pressed the # key and an electronic voice told him how much credit he had left on his calling card.
God, he loved these things.
He hung up and walked away from the park, thinking about what Ehler's wife had said.
Repairman Jack is the only one who will understand. ...
Jack sat at his table near Julio's rear door. He was halfway through his second Rolling Rock when Lewis Ehler showed up. Jack tagged him as soon as he saw the gangly, brown-suited frame step through the door. Julio's crowd didn't wear suits, except for occasional adventuresome yupsters looking for something different, and yuppie suits were never wrinkled like this guy's.
Julio spotted him too, and ducked out from behind the bar. Julio had a brief conversation with the guy, acted real friendly, standing close, clapping him on the back in welcome. Finally satisfied the stranger wasn't carrying, Julio pointed Jack's way.
Jack watched Ehler stumble toward him — the darkness at the rear here took some adjusting to after stepping in from daylight — but he seemed to be having extra trouble because of a pronounced limp.
Jack waved. "Over here."
Ehler veered his way but remained standing when he reached the table. He looked fortyish, starvation lean, with a big jutting nose and a droopy lower lip. Close up, Jack saw that the brown suit was shiny and worn as well as wrinkled. He noticed how the sole of his right shoe was built up two inches. That explained the limp.
"You're him?" Ehler said in that high-pitched voice from the phone. His prominent Adam's apple bounced with each word. "Repairman Jack?"
"Just Jack'll do," Jack said, offering his hand.
"Lew." His shake was squishy and moist. "You don't look like what I expected."
Jack used to ask the next question, the obvious one, but had stopped long ago after hearing the same answer time after time: they always expected a glowering Charles Bronson type, someone bigger, meaner, tougher-looking than this ordinary Joe before them who could step up to the bar in front and virtually vanish into the regulars hanging there.
Jack took the You-don't-look-like-what-I-expected remark as a compliment.
"Want a beer?" he asked.
Lew shook his head. "I don't drink much."
"I'm too nervous for coffee." He rubbed his palms on the front of his jacket, then pulled out a chair and folded his Ichabod Crane body into it. "Maybe decaf."
Jack waved to Julio and mimed pouring a coffee pot.
"I thought we'd meet in a more private place," Lew said.
"This is private." Jack glanced at the empty booths and tables around them. The faint murmur of conversation drifted over from the bar area on the far side of the six-foot divider topped with dead plants. "Long as we don't shout."
Julio came strutting around the partition carrying a coffee pot and a white mug. His short, forty-year-old frame was grotesquely muscled under his tight, sleeveless shirt. He was freshly shaven, his mustache trimmed to a line, drafting-pencil thin, his wavy hair slicked back. This was the closest Jack had got to him this afternoon, and he coughed as he caught a whiff of a new cologne, more cloying than usual.
"God, Julio. What is that?"
"Like it?" he said as he filled Lew's mug. "It's brandnew. Called Midnight."
"Maybe that's the only time you're supposed to wear it."
He grinned. "Naw. Chicks love it, man."
Only if they've spent the day in a chicken coop, Jack thought but kept it to himself.
"Say," Lew said, pointing to all the dead vegetation around the room, "did you ever think of watering your plants?"
"Wha' for?" Julio said. "They're all dead."
Lew's eyes widened. "Oh. Right. Of course." He looked at the mug Julio was pouring. "Is that decaf? I only drink decaf."
"Don't serve that shit," Julio said tersely as he turned and strutted back to the bar.
"I can see why the place is half deserted," Lew said, glancing at Julio's retreating form. "That fellow is downright rude."
"It doesn't come naturally to him. He's been practicing lately."
"Yeah? Well somebody ought to see that the owner gets wise to him."
"He is the owner."
"Really?" Lew leaned over the table and spoke in a low voice. "Is there some religious significance to all these dead plants?"
"Nah. It's just that Julio isn't happy with the caliber of his clientele lately."
"Well he's not going to raise it with these dead plants."
"No. You don't understand. He wants to lower it. The yuppies have discovered this place and they've started showing up here. He's been trying to get rid of them. This has always been a working man's bar and eatery. The Beamer crowd is scaring off the old regulars. Julio and his help are rude as hell to them but they just lap it up. They like being insulted. He let all the window plants die, and the yups think it's great. It's driving the poor guy nuts."
Lew seemed to be only half listening. He stood and stared toward the grimy front window for a few seconds, then sat again.
"Looking for someone?"
"I think I was followed here," Lew said, looking uncomfortable. "I know that sounds crazy but —"
"Who'd want to follow you?"
"I don't know. It might have something to do with Melanie."
"Your wife? Why would —?"
"I wish I knew." Lew suddenly became fidgety. "I'm not so sure about this anymore."
"It's okay. You can change your mind. No hard feelings." A certain small percentage of customers who got this far developed cold feet when the moment came to tell Jack exactly what they wanted him to fix for them. "But don't back out because you're being followed."
"I'm not even sure I am." He sighed. "The thing is, I don't know why I'm here, or what I'm supposed to do. I'm so upset I can't think straight."
"Easy, Lew," Jack said. "This is just a conversation."
"Okay, fine. But who are you? Why did my wife say to call you and only you? I don't understand any of this."
Jack had to feel sorry for the guy. Lewis Ehler was no doubt a one-hundred-percent solid, taxpaying citizen; he had a problem and felt he should be dealing with one of the institutions his sweat-procured taxes paid for, instead of this stranger in a bar. This wasn't the way his world was supposed to be.
"And why do you call yourself Repairman Jack?" Ehler added.
"I don't, really. It's a name that sort of became attached to me." Abe Grossman had started calling him that years ago. Jack had used it for awhile as a lark, but it had stuck. "Because I'm in a sort of fix-it business. But we'll get to me later. First tell me about you. What do you do for the Keystone Paper Cylinder Company?"
"Do? I own it."
"Really." This guy barely looked middle management. "Just what does a Keystone Paper Cylinder Company make?"
And don't tell me paper cylinders.
"Cardboard mailing tubes. The 'paper cylinder' bit was my father's idea. Thought it sounded classier than cardboard mailing tubes. He retired, left the place to me. And yeah, I know I don't look it, but I own it, run it, and make a decent living at it. But I'm not here to talk about me. I want to find my wife. She's been gone three days and I don't know how to get her back."
His features screwed up and for a moment Jack was afraid he was going to cry. But Lew held on, sniffed twice, then got control.
"You okay?" Jack said.
Ehler nodded. "Yeah."
"Okay. Let's start at the beginning. When did you last see your wife — Melanie, right?"
Another nod. "Yes. Melanie. She left Sunday morning for some last-minute research and —"
"Research on what?"
"I'll get to that in a minute. The thing is, she said something that didn't sound so strange then, but sounds kind of creepy in retrospect. She told me if I didn't hear from her for a few days, not to get worried, not to report her missing or anything. She'd be all right, just out of touch for a while. 'Give me a few days to get back,' she said."
"Get back from where?"
"She didn't say."
"Don't know about you," Jack said, "but that sounds pretty strange from the git-go."
"Not if you knew Mel."
"Got a picture?"
Lew Ehler fished out his wallet. His long bony fingers were surprisingly agile as he whipped a creased photo from one of the slots and handed it across the table. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Conspiracies by F. Paul Wilson, David G. Hartwell. Copyright © 2000 F. Paul Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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