Pay the Piper – Chapter Twenty One

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“… Stryper, Dokken and Judas Priest.” Jackson finished pouring himself a glass of wine, holding the bottle in a linen napkin, and then held it out to me, offering a drink. His mind had already moved on to other things – he knew I wouldn’t take the offer – but his subconscious drove him to make the offer in spite of the fact. “Convinced yet?”

“Well, I wouldn’t have pegged you for a metal fan, to be sure,” I admitted. “But I’ve heard of all of those bands so… I suppose it’s possible that I put that list together for you on my own.”

Jackson took a sip of his wine. His face remained totally impassive but there was a glimmer of something at the back of his mind. Distaste? My eyes narrowed and at that moment I saw a pattern like the shifting of a constrictor snake in the branches overhead, a warning of hidden intent. “You don’t like wine, do you Mr. Jackson?”

He smiled and carefully set the glass down in a cupholder built into the tabletop. “Please, AJ is fine. And no, I don’t. If I admit to testing you, is that a point in my favor or against?”

“I’m not sure.” I mulled it over for a minute. “Jackson is a famous conspiracy theorist…”

“You really think I’m a delusion, don’t you?” Jackson laughed. “Before I met Hat Trick I never thought psychic powers would make a person so afraid of their own mind. Now I wonder if the Gift is more trouble than it’s worth.”

“Most psychometrics share your doubts.” Hat Trick wasn’t a psychometric alias I was familiar with. The father I had been looking for was Helio, his daughters hadn’t been assigned aliases before being placed in care. Another point in favor of this being the real A.J. Jackson. “You know, there’s a really simple way to prove you’re real.”

“What’s that?” Jackson reached in to his jacket’s inner pocket and pulled out a flask as he asked the question.

“Monologue.”

He hesitated, the lid of the flask held loosely in one hand. “You… want me to explain my evil plan?”

“It’s certainly not something I could make up off the top of my head, no?”

Instead of answering he took a long pull on the flask. I’m not telepathic so I wasn’t sure what was in it but he definitely approved of it a lot more than the wine. Jackson’s jaw and lips moved about in a weird mix of reacting to the burn and thinking over my suggestion, then he put the cap back on the flask and put the whole thing away. “You know what I hate the most?”

“I don’t know what your Hat Trick friend told you, but we’re not actually psychic.”

Jackson leveled a finger at my chest. “That. I hate smug bastards, no matter what their color, shape or mental state.”

Apparently that had come out snarkier than I’d intended. “I’d remind you that I’m the one who’s been put in a choke hold then drugged and dragged out on to the open ocean.”

“Doesn’t change the facts.” He sat back and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Do you want to know how I learned your name?”

“From you psychometric friend, Hat Trick I’d assume.”

“I was looking in to the Harris art heist. Really minor case.” He leaned back on his bench folding his hands behind his head, rocking subconsciously with the motion of the boat. “You remember that?”

“A couple of paintings stolen while on display at Berkley, by art student Richard Harris,” I said. “That was what, four years ago?”

“Harris made copies of the paintings – really good copies – and swapped them for the originals. It took the State Police all of two days to trace him and bring him in. Suspiciously fast. I was working on the presumption that there was something special about the paintings – it wasn’t the first art theft that had been resolved with suspicious speed in the last few years – and I thought there was some kind of connection.” Jackson pulled his chin down and looked at me without sitting up. “But the truth was actually more bizarre. They’d brought you in and you’d identified who painted the fakes just by touching them. It was enough to get a warrant and find the originals in the storage facility Harris rented. Open and shut case, nice and easy.”

“You didn’t have to touch an original Van Gogh to confirm its authenticity.” I suppressed a shudder. Paintings aren’t much better at holding psychometric imprints than a book or a wooden wall but something about art objects cause them to collect weird impressions from the people who look at them. It can be deeply unsettling and the more evocative the painting the more unsettling the detritus that builds up around them. It’s like walking through a dozen daydreams at once, and none of them are yours. Copies can do that, too, but for some reason original art always seem to attract more and stronger impressions.

“There you go again, making your Gift sound like a curse. Anyway, I didn’t learn your name then. But I managed to put together that it wasn’t the painting of the old tree that got the case closed so fast, it was who they asked to investigate. Someone well connected graduate in Silicon Valley had asked a personal favor of some hush hush private investigator and that was all it took.”

Vinny had gotten me that contract. He’d gotten his degree in Computer Theory at Berkeley. It had been a small case and I had almost forgotten it. I certainly wouldn’t have pegged it as how Jackson learned about me. “How did you learn my name, then?”

Jackson slowly levered himself back upright. “Believe it or not, it’s because I went to cover Newell High.”

It felt like a sliver of ice had slid down my back. “That is pretty hard to believe. I didn’t work that case.”

“No. But High Top did, and it killed him.” Jackson shrugged. “I knew what to look for, by that point, I knew the signs of psychometric involvement in a criminal case. Warrants are issued unexpectedly. Lines of inquiry vanish with no apparent movement on them. Forensic evidence is invoked over witness testimony without enough time to ship anything to a lab, much less get back tests on it. So I got curious and went to take a look.”

“Why did you think the disappearances were faked?”

Jackson blew out a heavy sigh. “I didn’t. Not really. But, Armor, you’ve got to understand. I have… a brand if you will.”

“So you insulted worried and grieving parents because of your brand?” I snorted in contempt.

“No. Well – ” Jackson cut himself off and pulled his mirrored glasses over his head and dangled them on one finger in front of me. In the process a seismic shift in his thinking process took place. I’ve never seen an actor coming off stage and breaking character before but it fit the descriptions I’d heard from psychometrics who had. “I play a character, Armor, it’s part of how I entertain people and keep them coming back.”

“And conspiracy theories are part of that.”

“I don’t bring up those I know are false, just mention those that have a chance at being true. Moon landings were real, but who really killed JFK, you know?” He shrugged and seemed to deflate a little, looking much more like a skinny old man all of a sudden. “And sometimes, when there’s no conspiracy to be had, I make up something that feels harmless.”

I could almost buy that but there was one little problem with the theory as stated. “You said they faked their kids’ disappearances, Jackson.”

“I…” He spread his hands, real regret and helplessness running through his mind. “You found the paintings so fast. Almost every case with a psychometric investigator assigned to it I could find cleared up fast. And with good results. I honestly expected the kids to be found, safe and sound, within a day or two.”

“But it was weeks,” I murmured, “and the kids were dead.”

“It was my mistake, and I own it. That’s why I settled with the parents out of court.” He sighed. “I was working with Hat Trick by that point, so I showed his card to one of the surviving investigators, Ink Spot, and managed to ask a few questions.”

Ink Spot I knew. “And you got my name from him. Never trust an Alan Moore fanboy.”

“No comment on that count,” Jackson said. “But yes, that’s how I learned your name.”

“You know, I recently started working with one of the FBI agents who worked on the Newell High case…”

The boat actually rocked a bit with the force of Jackson getting to his feet in exasperation. “I can’t believe this.”

At this point I was mostly just pulling his leg. I was eighty percent sure he was real, and willing to let the other twenty percent go. But to my surprise he pulled up the seat of the bench he’d been sitting on, revealing a kind of locker space beneath. From there he pulled out a package about twenty inches square wrapped in brown cloth, opened it and set it down in front of me.

It was Van Gogh’s “A Wind Beaten Tree”, the painting from the Harris case. Or more accurately, as I realized the moment I touched it with my bare hand, it was Richard Harris’ copy of that painting.

“Once the case against Harris was over it wasn’t evidence anymore and I offered to buy it from his family to help cover their legal costs,” Jackson explained. “Hat Trick seemed to think it would be useful dealing with you so I brought it along.”

I sat back on my own bench and studied A.J. Jackson with a new appreciation. He was a man used to taking gambles and playing the long game. And that suggested something else that was interesting. “Okay, Mr. Jackson. I’ll admit you’re as real as anyone else I’ve ever met in my life. So why have you spent all this time convincing me of that. Why not just toss me off the pier in the marina after you knocked me out?”

Jackson smiled, as if he’d been waiting for that question the whole time. “Because I want you to break ties with the FBI and work for me.”