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Prescott "Scott" Hyland Jr. fidgeted in his chair, discomfited by the oxford shirt and Dockers he wore. Left to choose his own wardrobe, he'd be in a wife-beater T-shirt and board shorts, but Lathrop insisted he go for the preppie look.
"And lose the rings," the attorney had commanded, referring to the silver bands that pierced Scott's ears and eyebrows. "The press will be on your tail twenty-four/seven until this thing is over."
Scott smoothed his left eyebrow. The holes were already starting to close. Lathrop had accomplished in five minutes what his parents had failed to do in three years.
If only Dad could see me now . . .
The thought unnerved Scott, and he pushed himself straight up in the chair, focusing on what the lawyer was saying as if his life depended on it, which it did. Although Scott was still technically a minor at seventeen, the D.A.'s office had pushed to try him as an adult in order to seek the death penalty.
"I don't need to tell you, we've got a lot of points against us." Malcolm Lathrop leaned forward in his leather-upholstered throne and consulted some papers on his desk as if reviewing a grocery list. "Although your parents' bedroom appeared to have been ransacked, almost nothing of value was taken, and every other room in the house was left untouched--including yours."
Scott shifted in his chair and said nothing.
Not a single ruffled hair disturbed the perfect rayon wave of Lathrop's pompadour. "Then there's the broken window, where the 'burglar' supposedly entered the house. Unfortunately, the police found glass fragments outside the window, not inside. And as for those little accounting 'mistakes' you made at your father's business--well, the less said, the better."
Scott picked at a hangnail but still said nothing. Lathrop had forbidden him to say anything more about the case, even in private.
The attorney rose and strolled around the enormous walnut altar of the desk. "The good news is, we now have your parents on our side."
"My parents?" Scott's scalp prickled. In his mind, he saw his dad slumped back against the headboard of the bed, a crimson impact crater in his chest, while his mother sprawled on the floor nearby, the left half of her face blown off, her skull bleeding brains . . .
Lathrop regarded the boy as if he'd just slouched out of a cave. "You are familiar with the North American Afterlife Communications Corps, aren't you?"
"Yeah." Last year his dad had dropped a bundle on a brand-new painting by Picasso or some other dead guy. It looked like something you'd stick on your refrigerator with Snoopy magnets.
He'd seen NAACC dead-talkers in cop shows and movies, too, of course. Purple-eyed freaks known as Violets, they'd allow murder victims to take over their bodies and speak with their voices. But if the killer wore a mask, the victims' testimony wouldn't matter . . . would it?
"The Corps' conduit for the L.A. Crime Division recently contacted me," Lathrop informed him. "He's kindly offered to summon Elizabeth Hyland and Prescott Hyland Sr. to testify at the trial."
Scott's face went numb as the blood drained from it. "But . . ."
Lathrop held up his hand. "Not to worry. They'll tell us the truth about what happened that night." He propped himself on the edge of the desk and folded his arms, putting on a more sympathetic face. His eyes remained keen and cold, however. "We know you were framed, Scott. Can you think of anyone who'd want to kill your parents and set you up to take the blame?"
Scott suddenly felt like an actor who'd forgotten his lines. "Sir?"
"How about your dad's business partner?" Lathrop glanced at a sheet of paper on the desk. "Avery Park. Our private investigators found that he has no credible alibi for the night of the killings. And he does stand to gain by your father's death, doesn't he?"
"Yeah. I guess." The lawyer's insinuations gave Scott the queasy sensation of being hypnotized: Lathrop was telling him what to believe.
"Never fear, Scott. We won't let him get away with it." Lathrop tapped a button on the intercom beside him. "Jan, would you show in Mr. Pearsall?"
A moment later the office door opened. With the poise of a game-show model, Lathrop's receptionist ushered a pudgy, troll-like man resembling an alcoholic undertaker into the room and shut the door behind him. Scott stood to greet him, but the man crossed the ocean of carpet with an unhurried air, hands in his pockets. His pear-shaped body made the jacket of his cheap suit limp on the chest and tight at the waist, and his toupee looked like a dead poodle, its permed hair three shades lighter than the coarse brown brush of his mustache. A pair of Oakley sunglasses sunk his eyes in shadow.
"Scott, I'd like you to meet Lyman Pearsall, the conduit I told you about."
At Lathrop's prompt, Scott shook the newcomer's hand. He noticed how Pearsall grimaced at the touch, the man's lips moving as if he were silently repeating a phrase he didn't want to forget. Scott shivered, remembering how the Violets in the movies would always mumble some sort of mystical gobbledygook whenever dead people were around.
"Mr. Pearsall has requested a two-million-dollar retainer for his services," Lathrop said. "With your permission, I'll pay him now, and you can reimburse me when you inherit your parents' trust later this year."
"Sure." Scott stared at Pearsall's flabby face, the submerged menace of his unseen eyes. "Thanks."
Lathrop indicated the twin chairs in front of him. "Let's all sit down and get to know each other, shall we?"
He moved back around behind the desk while the other two seated themselves, still staring at one another. Pearsall casually removed his sunglasses.
His violet irises burned Scott's face with invisible fire.
"Now then, Mr. Hyland," he said, his voice a cobra's rasp, "tell me everything you remember about your mom and dad."
Two in the Sandbox
Natalie knew the session was going to be bad, even before Corinne Harris opened the black leather-bound case containing her dead father's pipe. She could tell from the moment she set foot in Corinne's immaculate living room, each object placed with fanatical precision, the white carpet brushed so that every shag bristle bent north, like compass needles. She could see it in her host's eyes as they avoided looking into Natalie's own violet irises, could sense it in the way Corinne stalled for time with small talk and excessive offers of hospitality.
"I've made some lemonade." She set a tray of finger sandwiches on the glass-topped coffee table. "Or I could brew some coffee? Or tea?"
"No thanks. Water'll be fine." Natalie smiled at the tumbler sweating on the coaster in front of her.
"Oh . . . fine." Like a parakeet alighting on its perch, the woman settled herself at the far end of the sofa, knees together, and interlaced her thin fingers. "So . . . you said you have a daughter?"
"Yes. Callie. She'll be six next June."
"That's such a sweet age!" Corinne gushed.
"And your kids?" Natalie inquired, more from politeness than curiosity.
"Both teenage boys, I'm afraid. Tom's seventeen, Josh fifteen. They were adorable before the skateboards and rap music. Now they give Darryl fits." She smiled as if apologizing for her own sense of humor. "You and your husband must be thrilled to have a little girl."
Natalie's smile flattened. "Callie's father passed away before she was born."
Corinne put her hands to her mouth in horror. "I'm sorry! I had no idea."
The faux pas stung like a stiletto between Natalie's ribs. "It's all right," she said, although it was really all wrong. Dan should not have died barely a week after they fell in love. It wasn't fair.
"Mmm. It must be hard for you." Corinne's lips quivered with an unasked question. No doubt it was the same question everyone wanted to ask when Natalie told people about Dan: Do you still talk to him? A better question would have been Does it matter? She might as well have tried maintaining a marriage with no more connection to her lover than a long-distance phone card.
The hemorrhage of sorrow threatened to bleed onto her face. Eager to drop the subject, Natalie took a sip of water and swirled the ice cubes in the glass like tea leaves in a cup. "When did your dad die?"
Corinne's mouth crinkled. She'd managed to avoid any mention of Conrad Eagleton since Natalie had arrived, but now she could no longer pretend that she was simply enjoying afternoon tea with a friend.
"Sixteen years ago."
A knot tightened in Natalie's stomach. When Corinne had phoned to schedule the appointment, she'd sobbed into the receiver as if prostrate before her father's corpse. "How old was he?"
"Fifty-six." Corinne smoothed her skirt. "He had a bad heart."
"And why have you waited so long to contact him?" Natalie asked, although she could guess the answer.
Corinne shrugged and gave an airy giggle. "I don't know. There was Darryl and the kids to think about. Darryl . . . he'd think this's all a big waste of money."
"Your husband doesn't know?"
"He doesn't need to." She crossed her arms in adolescent defiance. "It's my money. I saved it up from my allowance."
Allowance? Natalie thought. Hubby Darryl sounds like a real peach. "You sure you're ready for this? Reconciliation with a dead loved one is never easy."
"I just want to show him that I've changed. That everything turned out okay."
Natalie nodded. "Did you find a touchstone?"
"I think so." With the care of a museum curator, Corinne lifted the small, oblong black case from the coffee table and pried open the lid. "Will this work?"
The pipe lay cushioned in dingy green velvet, its darkly grained wooden bowl pointed downward like the butt of a dueling pistol. Deep bite marks scarred the tip of its black plastic stem, and Natalie could smell the sweet yet stale cherry scent of tobacco that seeped from the case. Despite the countless times she'd summoned souls, she still felt the familiar twinge of dread.
"Yeah. That'll do."
Actually, she could have used Corinne herself as the touchstone, for every individual or object a dead person touched during his or her lifetime retained a quantum connection with the electromagnetic energy of that person's soul. Natalie, however, preferred to use a personal item from the deceased because physical contact with a Violet made most clients uncomfortable.
With a deep breath, Natalie twisted her long sandy-blond hair into a bun, which she fastened in place with a plastic hairclip. Having real hair was one of the perks of working in the private sector. When she was a member of the NAACC's Crime Division, she'd been required to keep her head shaved so the electrodes of a SoulScan electroencephalograph could be attached to the twenty node points on her scalp. The device would then confirm when a dead person's soul inhabited her brain. Fortunately, she didn't have to bother with that now; seeing Natalie with a bunch of wires sticking out of her head would probably make a client like Corinne Harris run screaming from the room.
Natalie took the pipe from its case, silently mouthing the words of her spectator mantra. The repeated verse would hold her consciousness in a state of suspension, yet allow her to eavesdrop on the thoughts of the inhabiting soul while it occupied her mind:
Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily! Merrily! Merrily! Merrily!
Life is but a dream . . .
An encroaching numbness prickled in her extremities, as if her fingers and toes had gone to sleep. Memories that weren't hers sifted into her skull. Natalie pressed the pipe between her palms and shuddered.
Conrad Eagleton was knocking.
An old Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham sat before her with its hood up, billowing steam from its blown water hose. The summer sun baked her balding crown, and the armpits of her dress shirt sagged with sweat.
She was late. She'd miss the meeting, and Clarkson would get the contract. Twenty years with the same company, and this is what I end up with! Crappy car, lousy job, miserable life! She kicked the Caddy with her patent-leather dress shoe, kicked it until her toes crumpled with pain and her heart spluttered like the burst water hose. . . .
Natalie's pulse stammered in sympathy. Conrad Eagleton's bitterness throbbed in her temples as he relived his fatal heart attack, and she hastened to calm her autonomic functions before her own heart gave out.
Row, row, row your boat . . .
With long, yogic breaths, Natalie slowed her rabbit-quick heartbeat back to its normal rhythm. Through fluttering eyelids, she saw Corinne wave her hands excitedly and leap to her feet.
"Wait! Wait! I forgot something."
She fluttered out of the living room, leaving Natalie to squirm on the sofa in semiconsciousness. Corinne returned with a framed family photo of her, Darryl, and their two sons.
She brandished the portrait as if it were a report card lined with A's. "He'll want to see this."
Natalie didn't answer. Her tongue felt like a dead slug in her mouth, and her hands tightened on the pipe until its stem snapped. She dropped the pieces in her lap.
Life is but a dream . . .
With the clinical detachment of a psychiatrist analyzing someone else's nightmare, Natalie watched as Conrad Eagleton opened her eyes and gaped at the spotless white interior of the living room and the aging woman he didn't recognize as his daughter. "What the hell . . . where am I?"
The martinet bark quavered with fear. Easy, Conrad, Natalie cooed to him in the mind they now shared. There's nothing to be afraid of.
Eagleton clapped Natalie's hands over her ears, trying to shut out the internal voice. In doing so, he touched the soft skin of her cheeks, noticed the fine-boned grace of her smooth ivory arms. Her delicate hands trembled as he looked down at them. "What's happened to me?"
Corinne leaned forward, her eyes and mouth round O's of awe. "Daddy?"
Conrad shrank from her. "Who are you?"
Her lips curled into the crescent of an uncertain smile. "It's me, Daddy. Cory!"
He squinted at her puffy, pleading face. Dye kept her hair brown and Botox erased her crow's feet, but she couldn't hide the subtle drooping of her cheeks and chin and the perpetually tired look in her eyes.
"Cory? You were only twenty-four when . . ." His words fell to a whisper. "Has it been that long?"
Fidgeting in the ensuing silence, Corinne snatched up her family portrait as if grabbing a fire extinguisher. "Tommy's almost grown up now," she said, pointing to the older boy. "Darryl's been a wonderful father to him. And this's Josh. I think he looks like you."