Skin Deep Page 1

Part One


“What’s her angle?” Ivy asked, walking around the table with her arms folded. Today, she wore her blonde hair in a severe bun, which was stuck through with several dangerous-looking pins.

I tried, unsuccessfully, to ignore her.

“Gold digger, perhaps?” Tobias asked. Dark-skinned and stately, he had pulled a chair over to the table so he could sit beside me. He wore his usual relaxed suit with no tie, and fit in well with this room of crystalline lighting and piano music. “Many a woman has seen only Stephen’s wealth, and not his acumen.”

“She’s the daughter of a real estate magnate,” Ivy said with a dismissive wave. “She has wealth coming out of her nose.” Ivy leaned down beside the table, inspecting my dinner companion. “A nose, by the way, which seems to have had as much work done on it as her chest.”

I forced out a smile, trying to keep my attention on my dinner companion. I was used to Ivy and Tobias by now. I relied upon them.

But it can be damn hard to enjoy a date when your hallucinations are along.

“So . . .” said Sylvia, my date. “Malcom tells me you’re some kind of detective?” She gave me a timid smile. Resplendent in diamonds and a tight black dress, Sylvia was an acquaintance of a mutual friend who worried about me far too much. I wondered how much research Sylvia had done on me before agreeing to the blind date.

“A detective?” I said. “Yes, I suppose you could say that.”

“I just did!” Sylvia replied with a chittering laugh.

Ivy rolled her eyes, refusing the seat Tobias pulled over for her.

“Though honestly,” I said to Sylvia, “the word ‘detective’ probably gives you the wrong idea. I just help people with very specialized problems.”

“Like Batman!” Sylvia said.

Tobias spat out his lemonade in a spray before him. It spotted the tablecloth, though Sylvia—of course—couldn’t see it.

“Not . . . really like that,” I said.

“I was just being silly,” Sylvia said, taking another drink of her wine. She’d had a lot of that for a meal that she’d only just begun. “What kind of problems do you solve? Like, computer problems? Security problems? Logic problems?”

“Yes. All three of those, and then some.”

“That . . . doesn’t sound very specialized to me,” Sylvia said.

She had a point. “It’s difficult to explain. I’m a specialist, just in lots of areas.”

“Like what?”

“Anything. Depends on the problem.”

“She’s hiding things,” Ivy said, arms still folded. “I’m telling you, Steve. She’s got an angle.”

“Everyone does,” I replied.

“What?” Sylvia asked, frowning as a server with a cloth over her arm made our salad plates vanish.

“Nothing,” I said.

Sylvia shifted in her chair, then took another drink. “You were talking to them, weren’t you?”

“So you have read up on me.”

“A girl has to be careful, you know. There are some real psychos in the world.”

“I assure you,” I said. “It’s all under control. I see things, but I’m completely aware of what is real and what is not.”

“Be careful, Stephen,” Tobias said from my side. “This is dangerous territory for a first date. Perhaps a discussion of the architecture instead?”

I realized I’d been tapping my fork against my bread plate, and stopped.

“This building is a Renton McKay design,” Tobias continued in his calm, reassuring way. “Note the open nature of the room, with the movable fixtures, and geometric designs in ascending patterns. They can rebuild the interior every year or so, creating a restaurant that is half eatery, half art installation.”

“My psychology really isn’t that interesting,” I said. “Not like this building. Did you know that it was built by Renton McKay? He—”

“So you see things,” Sylvia interrupted. “Like visions?”

I sighed. “Nothing so grand. I see people who aren’t there.”

“Like that guy,” she said. “In that movie.”

“Sure. Like that. Only he was crazy, and I’m not.”

“Oh, yeah,” Ivy said. “What a great way to put her at ease. Explain in depth how not crazy you are.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be a therapist?” I snapped back at her. “Less sarcasm would be delightful.”

That was a tall order for Ivy. Sarcasm was kind of her native tongue, though she was fluent in “stern disappointment” and “light condescension” as well. She was also a good friend. Well, imaginary friend.

She just had a thing about me and women. Ever since Sandra abandoned us, at least.

Sylvia regarded me with a stiff posture, and only then did I realize I’d spoken out loud to Ivy. As Sylvia noticed me looking at her, she plastered on a smile as fake as red dye #6. Inside, I winced. She was quite attractive, despite what Ivy claimed—and no matter how crowded my life had become, it also got terribly lonely.

“So . . .” Sylvia said, then trailed off. Entrées arrived. She had chic lettuce wraps. I’d chosen a safe-sounding chicken dish. “So, uh . . . You were speaking to one of them, just now? An imaginary person?” She obviously considered it polite to ask. Perhaps the proper lady’s book of etiquette had a chapter on how to make small talk about a man’s psychological disabilities.

“Yes,” I said. “That was one of them. Ivy.”

“A . . . lady?”

“A woman,” I said. “She’s only occasionally a lady.”

Ivy snorted. “Your maturity is stunning, Steve.”

“How many of your personalities are female?” Sylvia asked. She hadn’t touched her food yet.

“They aren’t personalities,” I said. “They’re separate from me. I don’t have dissociative identity disorder. If anything, I’m schizophrenic.”

That is a subject of some debate among psychologists. Despite my hallucinations, I don’t fit the profile for schizophrenia. I don’t fit any of the profiles. But why should that matter? I get along just fine. Mostly.

I smiled at Sylvia, who still hadn’t started her food. “It’s not a big deal. My aspects are probably just an effect of a lonely childhood, spent mostly by myself.”