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OTHER LIVES

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        Then it happened again. Melvin Fall woke one morning with a bad headache and found a bloody knife on the bedside table. Blood on the sheets, blood on the floor, bloody handprints on the walls. Bloody fingerprints — presumably his — on the door handles.
        His first thought was for Phyllis. He had to know. So he rang her.
        "Melvin?" she said, picking up the phone. "Melvin? Don't play silly games with me, Melvin, I've got caller ID, I know it's you. Don't you go forgetting that non-molestation order now."
        "What day is it?" said Melvin.
        "Day? It's Monday. You've been drinking again, haven't you? Well, don't look to me for sympathy. As soon as I put this phone down I'm calling my lawyer. Goodbye!"
        Well, Phyllis was still alive, and, by the sound of it, had made a good recovery from that nasty attack of laryngitis. So, reassured, Melvin checked himself out in the mirror.
        On his forehead, a nickel-sized wound scabby with blood. Maybe someone had hit him with a two-by-four or something. That would account for the headache. On the left cheek, a nasty laceration. His wristwatch was missing, but his date-time clock confirmed that it was Monday. Not just six hours this time. Instead: all of Saturday, all of Sunday, and maybe a chunk of Friday as well.
        "Hello?"
        "Jordan?"
        "Yeah. Who's this?"
        "Melvin. It's happened again."
        "Okay. I'll get on to it. Don't call me, I'll call you. Got that?"
        "Got it."
        In the bathroom, more blood. A lot more. In the kitchen, a gun. A big .45 parked on the dusty black Formica of the kitchen table with a glitter of live rounds scattered around it. And an unfamiliar piece of equipment which Melvin tentatively identified as a speed loader.
        Anything in the fridge?
        Hesitantly — he remembered last time all too well — Melvin opened the refrigerator. And recoiled. There were two naked kidneys sitting on a white plate. Then remembered: he had bought the kidneys from the butcher on Friday.
        "Okay," said Melvin.
        He called the police, and stated that he had just gotten back to New York after a weekend hunting trip.
        "Someone's broken in, looks like they made off with my credit cards and some other stuff."
        The police took the report by phone. Chances of some cop finding time to actually come round to the apartment and check things out: zero. Then Melvin phoned the credit card people, the insurance company and the office.
        "Food poisoning," he said, when he got Penny on the line. "Should be in tomorrow."
        He cleaned himself up, then went to the clinic to have himself checked out.
        "Went hunting," he said. "I fell down a mountain or something, I don't remember too good."
        Then he bought bleach, sandpaper, wire brushes, rubber gloves, paste, paint and six rolls of wallpaper, and spent the rest of the day cleaning up the apartment.
        That was Monday. Tuesday, Melvin got to the office early, but found Penny Mayflower already at her desk.
        "There's an idiosyncratic lifeform waiting to see you," said Penny, using cautiously neutral politically correct language.
        "How idiosyncratic?" said Melvin.
        "It has three heads."
        It did indeed. One head had the restlessly flickering tongue of a snake, one the big fat lolling tongue of a water buffalo, and the third a tongue of fire and shadows. It was the third tongue which did the talking.
        "You're Melvin Fall," said the demon, without preamble.
        "I think at this point I want to have my attorney present," said Melvin.
        "But you are an attorney," said the demon.
        "A physician who treats himself has a fool for a patient," said Melvin, quoting proverbial wisdom.
        "It's like that, is it?" said the demon. "You think I'm with the cops, do you?"
        "The thought had crossed my mind."
        "I am not one of those servile lackeys who works for the law enforcement authorities in New York," sneered the demon. "I am the demon Garshelgrosh, and I am here because we have a deal."
        "Then you're right out of luck," said Melvin brusquely. "Under the laws of New York state, contracts with, uh, transcendental entities are unenforceable. You think you've got some kind of deal, we should be holding this conversation in California."
        The moment the words were out, he realized it was hideously possible. Missing Friday, back on Monday. More than 48 hours were unaccounted for. In that time, he could easily have flown to California. Or, worse, to Nevada — to the city of Covenant, for example.
        "Our deal," said the demon Garshelgrosh, "owes nothing to the laws of New York. Our deal dates back to Berlin."
        "Berlin? I've never even been to Germany!"
        "The Russians were close," said Garshelgrosh, grinning with that mouth of fire and shadows. "You were desperate to get out of the city. He was dead in the bunker. You — "
        "Hey!" said Melvin. "Are you saying I was a Nazi?"
        "There!" said Garshelgrosh, triumphantly. "You remember!"
        "I remember nothing," said Melvin, though he did in fact have an uneasy memory of the stench of scorched hair, and of red flame gnawing at the edges of an eclipsed sun.
        "We did a deal in that past life," said Garshelgrosh. "And I have come to claim you as my servant."
        And he laughed hugely, breathing all over Melvin in the process. The demon's breath managed to smell, at one and the same time, of vanilla icecream and pepperoni pizza.
        "But that's crazy," said Melvin. "For a start, I'm not even German-American."
        "The bloodlines are irrelevant," said Garshelgrosh. "The fact is that we made a deal. And you remember!"  
        Well, this was plainly unacceptable. For a start, Melvin Fall was that rare thing in an Age of Faith: he was an atheist. While the physical reality of angels and demons was undeniable, Melvin was sure that there was a perfectly good scientific explanation for such phenomena. It just hadn't been discovered yet, that was all. Meantime, Melvin steadfastly refused to believe in Heaven, Hell, God, the Devil, past lives, past life memories, the transmigration of souls or any of that other stuff.
        Melvin drummed his fingers on his desk, thinking. At the firm of Usher, Devlant, Fall & Crippen, they firmly respected the principle that time is money. Writing off Monday had been painful enough, and now this demon business was eating even further into his billable hours.
        "There are advantages, you know," said the demon.
        A faint whine in the voice. And Melvin sniffed weakness. Probably the three huge heads were only a transient illusion. In reality, the demon was probably far smaller and weaker than it seemed. But it still possessed a certain nuisance value.
        "What exactly do you want me to do?" said Melvin, cautiously.
        "For a start, spray-paint a subway car."
        "What?"
        "You heard me. Graffiti. Big time."
        "Nobody does that kind of thing any more."
        "I know," said Garshelgrosh. "That's exactly it. I'm tired of living in Mayor Allbright's Shining City. I want the old New York we used to know and love. You know. Bums on the sidewalk, crack dealers on every corner."
        "And spray-painting a subway car is going to bring it all back?"
        "It's a start."
        There was something pathetic in the demon's patent yearning nostalgia. And the lawyer in Melvin smelt blood.
        "Give me till 3 pm," said Melvin briskly. "I'll clear my calendar, we can talk."
        And, pressing the intercom, he summoned Penny Mayflower and had her show the demon the way out. Five minutes later, Melvin was on his way out himself.
        The offices of the Neo Stuttgart Corporation, New York's leading firm of demonologists, were on the 50th floor of the Bell Breldges Building. There, Melvin was shown into the corner office occupied by his old friend Rizley Owl. The breathtaking view included the actual Big Apple itself — the gold-plated symbol of hope and renaissance which stood on the site formerly occupied by the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.
        Looking at the Big Apple, Melvin remembered The Day. The day Saddam's nuke took out the World Trade Centre. Melvin's first blackout had occurred on the 14th anniversary of The Day. Was there some kind of connection?
        "Problem is," said Rizley, recalling Melvin to reality, "your medical plan doesn't cover demonic possession."
        "I'm not actually possessed."
        "Possession, association," said Rizley, with a shrug. "Sorry, Melvin. We're talking big bucks here. The bottom line is that you're not covered. Full stop. Unless you have money."
        "No," said Melvin. "No, I don't have money."
        Paying Jordan Pink to clean up after last time had pretty much cleaned him out. And now there had been a recurrence, and Jordan was back at work again.
        "Well," said Rizley, spreading his hands. "There we are."
        Big white toothpaste advertisement smile. You're a friend, so you get the big smile, even if you can't pay for it.
        "So what can I do?" said Melvin.
        "Well, you could go to a psychologist, who would probably write you a prescription for Prozac."
        "Would that get rid of the demon?"
        "No, but it'd make you feel better about it."
        "Or?"
        "A do-it-yourself job," said Rizley. "Aversion therapy. Burn it alive, or shoot it. You want to shoot it, you'll need something big, at least a .38. Don't try this with a .22. And you gotta shoot it several times. These things don't die easy."
        "But they die."
        "No, not permanently, but it sure does give them a hell of a hangover."
        Methodically, Rizley ran through the problems with aversion therapy.
        "Your best bet," said Rizley, "is to get a bank loan, come back to us. We'll do a proper scrub job. Bring in the laser team, hire the linear accelerator for the day — the whole nine yards. It's a guaranteed job."
        Sure. But Jordan Pink had to be paid, and there was Phyllis's alimony. A loan was out of the question. So Melvin Fall put a call through to Walt Delgrado, his friend at the mayor's office. The results were satisfactory. And, at 3 pm, Melvin Fall was back in his own office, with a written contract for Garshelgrosh to sign.
        "One subway car, and that's it," said Melvin.
        "What do you mean, that's it?" said Garshelgrosh.
        "Take it or leave it," said Melvin. "Or I'll get a gun and shoot you in the gut."
        For a moment, the three-headed apparition wavered. And, momentarily, Melvin saw through to the reality beneath the illusion. Saw a dank creature with two stumpy legs, an incredibly long and weirdly concave torso made of a pallid and gelatinous jellyfish flesh, and a wide wet mouth fringed with ragged black gums. Three mutated arms. Height: a bit short of six feet. Mass: at a guess, maybe 180 pounds.
        "I could tear you in half here and now," said the head of fire and shadows, leering at him.
        "Great act," said Melvin. "Maybe you should take it to Hollywood. Now — you want to sign, or you want to get out of here? You're going to sign? Okay. Penny — could you step in here? I've a contract I want you to witness."
        The contract was simple. All Melvin had to do was spray-paint one subway car and he was through. The demon would relinquish all claims on him. And, at 6 pm that same day, Melvin showed up at the subway depot, where he was met by Walt Delgrado and a team from the Civic Arts Project. With video cameras recording the whole thing, Melvin duly engaged in a lawful act of Citizen Art, painting a mural in which Justice shed her blindfold and went to work with a two-handed sword.
        "Over the top," said Walt, doubtfully.
        "So change it," said Melvin, sweating.
        It was not what he had meant to paint. He had come to the depot with the vague notion of doing a still life with apples, or maybe something indulgently surrealistic with pretzels snails. Not this luridly violent scene of criminals with their red scalps stuffed into their toothless mouths.
        Still.
        Contract finished.
        Debt discharged.
        So Melvin went home, where he found Jordan Pink waiting for him. Melvin's lawyer had let himself into the apartment with the keys Melvin had given him after the first occurrence, and now he was sitting at Melvin's black Formica kitchen table with a bottle of whiskey open in front of him.
        "Thought you were going to get rid of the table," said Jordan, without preamble.
        "Yeah. I was meaning to."
        Phyllis's purchase. Black. Melvin had bad feelings about black. It was a color which made him think of red, and of white. And that combination — black and red and white — made him think of fire. Fire, and smudged dreams in which an apparition fashioned from piano wire spoke to him with a hectoring voice which he could almost but not quite identify.
        "Saw your subway car on the news tonight," said Jordan.
        "Yeah?"
        "You'd already seen the reports on CNN. Right?"
        "What reports?"
        "The two guys. You know. The guy in Texas, the guy in Florida."
        "They were scalped?"
        "So you saw it. Right. And the subway car was your, uh, artistic response."
        "I guess."
        "Details are here," said Jordan, handing him a slim manilla file.
        "Any eyewitnesses?" said Melvin.
        "We're looking," said Jordan shortly. "But, if there are, this time there might not be enough money in the world to handle it."
        Then Jordan showed himself out, leaving Melvin alone with the details. Benny Cable and Eric Web. Both dead. Obscenely slaughtered, grotesquely mutilated, and found with their scalps stuffed into their broken mouths. Benny Cable: the alleged Glue Killer. Eric Web: the so-called Gas Man. Both, in earlier days, prosecuted by Melvin Fall. Unsuccessfully prosecuted.
        Given the circumstances, depicting the slaughter on the subway car had been grotesquely inappropriate, to put it mildly. Melvin was unable to handle it, and he kind of faded — just ceased to exist. When he came to again, the demon Garshelgrosh was standing in front of him.
        "What do you want?" said Melvin.
        "You cheated," said the three-headed demon sullenly.
        "Cheated?" said Melvin.
        "You did it lawful."
        "Well, I'm a lawyer, so what do you expect?"
        "You're a multiple murderer," said Garshelgrosh. "You killed the glue guy, the gas guy, I was there when it happened. I can go to the cops, Melvin. I can point them to the evidence. Your pen, you dropped your pen, your watch, they're engraved with your name."
        "Okay," said Melvin. "But you haven't done that, so I guess you don't want to. So. Lighten up, okay? Have a drink. Have a couple, okay?"
        Demons like to drink, but they're not good at handling strong liquor. And Garshelgrosh had got through the better part of the bottle by the time midnight rolled round. All that time, Melvin watched, sipping at his own drink while he listened to the demon rave about death camp obscenities and the more extreme extravagances of the Inquisition. Frankly, Melvin didn't have the faintest idea how he was going to handle this one.
        Then, toward midnight, Melvin finally swallowed down the last of his drink and got up from his chair.
        "What is it?" said Garshelgrosh, as Melvin stood.
        "Come through to the bedroom," said Melvin, guttural, big-throated. "I've something to show you."
        Drunkenly, Garshelgrosh followed the lawyer, who seemed to have grown physically bigger, and who moved quickly, with a loping, wolfish gait inappropriate to their confined setting.
        "See this?" said the lawyer, holding up a CD.
        "Yeah, it's a CD," said the demon, blinking stupidly with the eyes of all three heads.
        "Scrap metal," said the lawyer. "Which is louder than thrash metal, which is louder than heavy metal."
        And, with that, he popped the CD into the CD player and set it playing. And reached under a cushion and hauled out a .44.
        "You wouldn't dare," said the demon nervously. "You're an officer of the court, you can't just shoot me."
        "You think I'm Melvin, don't you?" said the lawyer, licking his lips in a predatory manner.
        "Of course you're Melvin," said the demon. "Who else could you be?"
        "I'm Loomis," said the lawyer. "I don't come out very often."
        Then Loomis cranked the volume all the way up, filling the room with an earthquake avalanche of hurricane sound. And Loomis heaved the mattress off the bed and charged the demon, slamming the central mass up against the wall.
        The three hallucinatory heads span in the air then vanished. All that was left was the scrabbling mutant which thrashed and bucked against the suppressive weight of the mattress. And Loomis shot it one two three four five six times — contrary to all principles of safety, there had been a live round under the revolver's hammer.
        "Aversion therapy," said Loomis.
        Kill them good enough, and they don't come back.
        When Melvin Fall recovered consciousness the next day, he found himself lying in the bathtub, where he had apparently slept. There was an ectoplasmic mess in the bedroom where it looked as if something had died, and there were bullet holes in the mattress and the wall.
        Though his number was unlisted, there were six messages on his answer phone's tape. One from his neighbors, complaining about the noisy party. (Party? What party?) One from Walt Delgrado, simply asking him to call urgently. Two separate messages from a newspaper reporter who had somehow got hold of his number. Another from a homicide detective, asking him to come in for an interview. And one from Phyllis. The message from Phyllis was real short.
        "Melvin," said Phyllis. "I've got really happy memories of the wonderful weekend we spent together. Why don't you call me?"
        She didn't say which weekend — she wasn't going to come right out and give him an alibi just like that, oh no, it wasn't going to be that easy — but it seemed she was ready to deal. And this time, arguing from a position of strength, she would surely get everything she wanted.
        "Phyllis? Yeah, this is Melvin ... yeah, we have to talk."


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