"Ray", a troubled medium Arcanum Neophyte
A raw, exposed nerve, a collection of twitches and tics and anxieties. Perpetually sneaking glances out of the corners of his eyes at everything and nothing, touching things hesitantly as though they might shatter beneath his fingertips, alternating between urgent muttering and abrupt silence. Unshaven, poorly-dressed in rough clothing from surplus and discount stores, a faint haze of whiskey around him. An ugly, twisting, melted-looking mass of scar tissue across his right ear, shoulder, and arm.
The first day of combat was also his worst. And his last: the bullet entered his chest before he took more than a half-dozen steps up the hill they had been ordered to capture, and he was in the comfortable embrace of bandages and morphine before the rest of his unit had even reached the halfway point. He’s not entirely sure when the ambulance arrived to take him and the rest of the wounded back to the nearest aid station. The ride is just a blurry, distant memory of jolting up and down along what passed for a road in that part of Korea, right up until the whole world rolled over and buried him beneath it.
Army records say that a Chinese mortar scored an improbable very near miss on the ambulance, flipping it over and starting a small fire that resulted in a few serious burns, and when he looks in the mirror he thinks that it must be true. It must be the truth. An explosion, close but not too close. An already top-heavy ambulance nudged too far by the force of it. A handful of other injured infantrymen toppled out of their stretchers into a groaning heap. Spilled gasoline, an ignition source, the metal roof heated like a burger shop’s grill. Shouts and scrambling as men are pulled out of the vehicle. The truth.
The rest of it, the things he remembers — the darkness, the heat, the voices, the impossible sense of distance, the strange invisible light — that’s not something that can be true. Not true enough for the Army, anyway. Certainly not a truth they would understand.
And so he collected his Purple Heart and his medical discharge at a brief ceremony in Tokyo, and his ticket to Honolulu and his pay packet at the airport. Everything but the money went into a trashcan out by the taxi stand, and he tried to sink as far as he could over the next ten years. Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Australia…all of them just a succession of grimy expat bars and poor decisions, all of them too haunted to dwell upon. Any job that paid a bar tab was good enough. A bottle that made sleep possible was more valuable than a room to sleep in.
He first met the notorious Édouard Aubuchon in Thailand, and soon fell into the Frenchman’s latest scheme. Aubuchon would choose a mark, invariably the bereaved family of a prominent criminal. In smooth, comforting tones, Aubuchon would give them the reassurance that their loved one was in a better place, and finally at peace. While the family was mesmerized by this performance, the dead man’s spirit would be questioned privately. Hidden caches of money or drugs would be located and collected, and the pair would move on.
It was a sordid and empty way to earn a living, and it ended predictably: a false seance in Sydney for the spirit of a local gun dealer went sour, and they fled in different directions. Aubuchon, no one’s fool, took the lion’s share of the profits to the airport, never to be seen again. The freight train out of Sydney was strangely cold, and barely seemed to move.
When his sister Anna walked into that miserable bar in Melbourne, she looked exactly like a rescuing angel. How could he not follow her?