Frowning with impatience, Mr. Sinatra waved a hand dismissively, as though brushing aside the subject of his entry into the world, and he pointed to the steel door to focus my attention on what mattered.
Sir, I’m going somewhere with this, I promised him.
He looked dubious but remained attentive.
Because the circumstances of his birth were family legend, he knew what I told him: The doctor used forceps, and didn’t use them well. He ripped your ear, cheek, and neck, puncturing your eardrum. When he finally got you out of your mother, you weren’t breathing.
His grandmother took him from the doctor, rushed him to a sink, and held him under cold running water until he gasped for air.
The doctor would likely have certified you as born dead. You entered the world fighting, sir, and you never really stopped.
I glanced at my watch. I had a lot to achieve in five minutes, but Mr. Sinatra’s fate and my life depended on getting it done.
Because his parents had worked and because his mother had been a committeewoman for the Democratic party, with many outside interests, young Frank was a latchkey kid before the term was coined. From the age of six, he often made his own dinner—and sometimes had to scavenge for it when his mom had been too busy to go food shopping.
Lonely, almost desperately so at times, he drifted to the homes of other family members and friends. People said he was the quietest kid they knew, content to sit in a corner and listen to the adults.
In your teens, your mother was in your life more. Always she was demanding. She set high standards, had a dominant personality.
She belittled his hope of a singing career, and was not entirely convinced even after he became the most famous singer in the world.
But, sir, you’re not like Elvis. You aren’t lingering here because you’re reluctant to face your mother in the next world.
A combative expression hardened his features, as if, ghost or not, he would punch me for ever thinking that his beloved mother might have been the reason he lingered in this world.
Your mom could be exasperating, contentious, opinionated—but loving. Eventually you realized that your ability to stand up for yourself arose from the need to hold your own in arguments with her.
Mr. Sinatra glanced at the door and made a hurry-up gesture.
Sir, if I’m going to die here tonight, at least I’m going to help you move on from this world before I leave it myself.
That was indeed my motive for this short session of straight talk. But I also had another.
Although Dolly’s steel will led to contention between them, Mr. Sinatra honored her without fail and took good care of her. Unlike Elvis’s mother, Dolly lived a long life. The Chairman was sixty-one when she died, and he had no reason to regret anything between them.
He had adored his gentle father, Marty, who died eight years before Dolly passed. If anything, his deep love for his dad should have made him rush away into the next life.
No disrespect, sir, but you could sometimes be a bastard, hot-headed and even mean. But I’ve read enough about you to know those faults were more than balanced by loyalty and generosity.
In sickness and in hard times, friends received his devotion, not just significant money sent unsolicited but also daily calls for weeks, to give emotional support. He was capable of reaching out to a deserving stranger and changing a life with a generous gift.
He never mentioned these kindnesses and was embarrassed when his friends spoke of what he had done. Many of these stories surfaced after his death; the number of them is both inspiring and humbling.
Whatever waits beyond this world, sir, is nothing you need to fear. But you fear it, and I think I know why.
The suggestion that he feared anything whatsoever annoyed him.
Acutely aware of how little time remained before Shackett would return, I said, Almost died at birth. Lived in a bad neighborhood, they called you a wop. Walking home from grade school, you had to fight. Always had to struggle for what you got. But, sir, you got it all—fortune, fame, acclaim, more than any entertainer in history before you. And now what keeps you in this world is pride.
My statement compounded Mr. Sinatra’s annoyance. With one cocked eyebrow and a gesture, he seemed to say So what’s wrong with pride?
Nothing is wrong with pride based on accomplishment, and your life was packed full of accomplishments. But justifiable pride can sometimes mutate into arrogance.
Mouth tight, he stared at me. But then he nodded. He knew that in life he had sometimes been guilty of arrogance.
I’m not talking about then. I mean now. You don’t want to move on to the next world because you’re afraid you won’t be special over there, that you’ll just be equal to everyone else.
Although he resisted moving on, he wanted to make the journey, as do all of the lingering dead. He seriously considered my words.
I needed to channel him from polite consideration to a strong emotional response. I regretted what I was about to do, but his soul and my neck were on the line. Extreme measures were required.
But it’s worse than that. You’re afraid to move on because you think maybe you’ll be starting over from nothing, with nothing, just a nobody, and all the struggle will begin again. You’re as scared as a little boy.
His face knotted with offense.
Your first breath was a struggle. Will it be again? To win any respect, you had to fight. You can’t stand the idea of being a nobody again, but you don’t want to fight your way to the top like you had to do the last time.
He put up his fists.
Sure, threaten to fight me. You know I can’t hurt a ghost, what courage does it take to threaten me?
He rose from the chair and glared down at me.
You want all the respect you won in this world, but you don’t have the guts to earn it again, if that’s the way it is over there.
Never would I have believed that those warm blue eyes could have produced such an icy stare as the one with which he skewered me.
You know what you’ve become in death? You’re a scared little punk like you never were in life.
In anger, hands fisted at his sides, he turned away from me.
Can’t handle the truth, huh?
Treating him with such disrespect, when in fact I respected him, was difficult, and I was particularly afraid of revealing the falsity of my contempt by using the word sir.
I believed that I had in fact arrived at the reason that he lingered in this world, but I did not despise him for it. In other circumstances, I would have led him gently to accept the truth and to see that his fears were ungrounded.
Certain that Hoss Shackett would come through the door at any moment, I said witheringly, Chairman of the Board, Old Blue Eyes, the Voice, famous big-shot singer, big cheese of the Rat Pack—and now all you are is another gutless punk from Hoboken.
He turned toward me once more.
His mottled face, his dead-cold stare, his lips skinned back from clenched teeth, his head lowered like that of a bull that sees not one red cape but a hundred: As lingering spirits go, this one was as pissed off as any I had ever seen.
The steel door opened.
Chief Hoss Shackett entered. Utgard Rolf followed him, rolling a cart on which was mounted the polygraph.
IN MY ROOM AT HUTCH’S HOUSE, WHEN MR. Sinatra had levitated all the biographies of him and had spun them slowly around the room, out of my reach, he had shown poltergeist potential.
In my experience, only deeply malevolent spirits had been able to conjure the dark energy necessary to cause havoc. Mr. Sinatra had his moods, but he harbored no true malevolence.
Judging by the evidence of his life, however, his was a powerful spirit that might be able to bend the rules as I knew them.
The thing most certain to light a short fuse with Mr. Sinatra was unfairness. From his early years as an unknown singer, he had been angered by bigotry and had taken risks with his career to open doors and gain opportunities for black musicians in a era when many white performers were cool with the status quo.
The attack I had launched on him—calling him a gutless punk—qualified as grossly unfair. My first hope was that he would seethe as hotly when he was the target of unfairness as he did when he saw it being directed against others.
My second hope was that I had not cranked him so hard, so fast that he would blow like Vesuvius while I remained locked to the table.
As Utgard Rolf closed the steel door behind him and wheeled the polygraph, Mr. Sinatra turned his furious glare from me to the chin-bearded hulk.
Spoke to the man, Chief Shackett told me. The money’s yours, as long as the machine says you’re the real deal.
Because being shackled to the table would raise my stress levels and affect the reading, the chief kept his promise to free me. The cuff fell away from my ankle.
As Utgard readied the polygraph and the chief went around to the other side of the table, I said, What do you think of Sinatra?
Think of what? the chief asked.
Getting to my feet, I said, Sinatra, the singer.
The tone of Utgard’s bearish voice suggested that he did not like me, did not trust me, and did not want me in their game, no matter how much top-secret intelligence from Homeland Security I might be able to share with them: What the hell do you care what we think?
Sinatra, the chief said dismissively. Who listens to that crap anymore?
The Voice, voiceless since death, pivoted toward Shackett.
I had this girlfriend, I said, she swooned for Sinatra, but I say he was just a gutless punk.
They’re all punks, the chief said. Fact is, they’re all pansies.
You think so? I asked.
Sure. The big rock stars, the heavy-metal idiots, the lounge lizards like Sinatra, they all act tough, want you to believe they’re true wise guys who made their bones, but they’re all light in the loafers.
Here was contempt, bigotry, and insult served up steaming on a platter, and I was so grateful to the chief that I almost cried.
In World War Two, I told Shackett, Sinatra dodged the draft.
Mr. Sinatra snapped his head toward me so fast that had he been alive, he would have broken his neck. He knew that I knew this was a lie, which made my attack on his character especially unfair. His face contorted so extremely that it conveyed both astonishment and rage at the same time.
Of course he dodged, the chief said. What would he have done if he’d come up against Nazi badasses—slap them with his perfumed handkerchief?
Concentric rings of power, visible only to me, began to radiate from Mr. Sinatra’s fists.
So, I said to Hoss Shackett as, in blissful ignorance of the building storm, he settled on his chair, then you think maybe he and Dean Martin were more than just friends?
Utgard Rolf stepped around the polygraph, scowling. What’re you going on about?
In the corner, the third chair began to rock slowly side to side as the pulses of power from Mr. Sinatra disturbed it.
I’m just saying he was a gutless punk, I replied, wishing I could think of a new insult.
Anyway, the chief volunteered, that old music—Rod Stewart sings it better.
That should just about do it, I said.
Utgard’s yellow eyes were not half as scary as Mr. Sinatra’s blues had become. Looming over me, he said, Why don’t you shut up?
Why? Are you a big Rod Stewart fan or something?
He was such a solid package of bone and beef that most punches he took probably resulted in shattered hands for those who threw them.
With the menace of a grizzly suffering a toothache, he growled, Sit down.
Hey, pal, take it easy, okay? We want the same thing. Don’t you want this stinking country nuked to its knees?
Perhaps one of Grandma Melvina Belmont Singleton’s gorillas had been an ancestor of Utgard’s, because the big man’s instincts were closer to the jungle than were the chief’s. He knew something about me was wrong, and he acted on it.
Utgard backhanded me across the face so quick I hardly saw his arm move, and so hard that gorillas in Africa would be looking up in surprise from their bananas when the crack of the blow reached them at the speed of sound.
I thought I had taken the hit without losing my footing, but when I tried to run, I discovered that I was sprawled on the floor.
Licking my lips, tasting blood, I shouted inspiration to Mr. Sinatra: God bless America!
Denied the chance to fight for his country in World War II, Old Crazy-Whirling-Blue Eyes seized this opportunity. He went ballistic.
He opened his fists and held his arms out straight, palms bared, fingers spread. Pulses of power, pale-blue rings, flew from him and animated the inanimate.
In the corner, the third chair started spinning on one leg, striking from the concrete a shriek as shrill as a drill bit might have made.
Instead of decorating my face with repeated impressions of his shoe tread, Utgard turned toward the whirling chair.
Chief Hoss Shackett, about to face the consequences of comparing Rod Stewart and Mr. Sinatra to the latter’s disadvantage, rose from his chair in astonishment.
As a first strategic step toward the door, toward freedom, toward the hope of living to eat another bacon cheeseburger, I crawled under the table with the expectation that it would provide a temporary shelter while I calculated my next move.
The whirling chair exploded to the ceiling, ricocheted off the concrete, and bounced off the table with a boom! that made me feel as if I had taken refuge inside a drum.
A greater clatter arose, and I figured all three chairs must now be whacking around the room, a disturbing amount of crazed furniture in such a small space.
Hoss Shackett cursed, and Utgard topped him in the potty-mouth competition, and the chief followed his expletive with a grunt of pain that suggested justice was sometimes done in this world, after all.
As the metal table began to levitate off the floor, I scuttled on my hands and knees between its turning legs, which an instant later began to revolve so fast that they cut the air with a whirring worthy of a descending plague of locusts.
I abandoned my half-formed plan to reach the door in cautious stages, and I crawled as fast as a cockroach, eager to escape before the heavy table and the heavier wheeled polygraph began to carom from wall to wall with lethal enthusiasm.
Behind me, the chief spat out several astonishing words strung together in an order that was too imaginative for me to recall with accuracy, and Utgard Rolf shouted a bizarre knot of syllables that I had never heard before, though I knew at once that this, too, was not very suitable for print. I heard less anger than terror in their cursing.
As I reached the door, something slammed into the plastic panel that covered the ceiling fixture. The panel cracked, and the slamming something slammed again. Light bulbs shattered, and the interrogation room went dark.
Clawing up the slab of steel, I found the handle, levered it down, and pushed on the door. Ball-bearing hinges carried the great weight with ease, and I opened the door only wide enough to slip into the basement hallway.