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Forced Perspectives: Chapter One

       Last updated: Monday, December 9, 2019 06:12 EST

 


 

Some Kind of Hobo

    The enigmatic ad in the Los Angeles Times classified section had read, in its entirety, “Skeet thrower for sale, October 29, 2018, 2 PM,” and at 1:30 PM Sebastian Vickery was sitting on a bus bench across the street from Canter’s Delicatessen.

    There was a plexiglass roof on struts over the metal-screen bench, and he had taken off his faded tan bush hat and set it beside him. His hair and graying beard were clipped short these days, and aviator sunglasses hid his eyes. The breeze down Fairfax Avenue was cool on his damp forehead.

    He had spent the previous fifteen minutes in the Council Thrift Store across Oakwood Avenue, to all appearances giving close scrutiny to a dining table and a china hutch and several chairs, all of which stood by the window that gave a good view of the parking lot and entrance of Canter’s. In another ten minutes he planned to cross Fairfax and take a while sorting through the various sizes of shipping cartons at the FedEx Print and Ship outlet, from the window of which he would be able to watch the Canter’s parking lot and sidewalk and the rooftops of the nearby buildings. At 1:50, if he still saw no signs of surveillance, he would go into Canter’s and take a seat at the far end of the counter, by the back wall.

    Aside from a couple of brief, furtive visits to certain clearings beside the 710 and 405 freeways, Sebastian Vickery hadn’t been to Los Angeles in eight months, and he was glad Canter’s, at least, was still in business. The FedEx outlet was new, replacing a bar, as he recalled, and the thrift store had been called Out of the Closet when he had last been down here.

    His car, an oddly angular bright blue sedan, was parked across the street, only a dozen yards from the Canter’s front door. While waiting for a curbside spot to open up, he had driven around several blocks, noting alleys and unevident parking lots.

    No one was likely to bump into him on this bus bench in the next few minutes, so he decided to risk a look back in what he thought of as echo time.

    Most of his echo time intervals were brief, and he could afford to lose nearly half an hour here in apparent catatonic oblivion. He would at least feel it if any Good Samaritan were to touch or shake him, and though he wouldn’t be able to see what was going on, he’d be able to say reassuring things to dissuade any unwanted help.

    His attention, though, would be elsewhere. Elsewhen.

 


 

    Last year he and a woman named Ingrid Castine had been driven to cross over, alive, from ordinary reality into a nightmarish afterlife, known as the Labyrinth, populated by deceased or never-born spirits. The two of them had managed to return, still alive, and close the leaky conduit between the two worlds — but, among other things, they had learned that the moment of “now” is not a distinct, uniform instant, as irreducible as a point on a line in geometry.

    What normal people perceive as the instant of “now” is in fact just the blanket average of an infinity of time-spikes that spring up and disappear at the interface between the fluid future and the crystallized past. The spikes are quantum extensions of the past into the future, but they’re far too brief to have any effect on the world’s smooth continuity, except possibly in the dreams of poets and madmen.

    But those traumatic experiences of last year had left him able to drop himself — his perceptions, at least — into whatever flickering time-spike he might at some moment be in contact with; and time tends to be especially spiky in populated areas, so in a crowded city like Los Angeles it was unlikely that any spot would be absolutely chronologically flat.

    Leaning back on the bus bench, he looked at his watch: 1:35. He memorized the cars at the curbs and in the deli parking lot, then took off his sunglasses and sat back and let his eyes unfocus; and when the street and buildings in front of him seemed to be no more than a flat collage of shifting random colors, he made himself look past it, as if trying to see the image hidden in the confetti dots of a stereogram print.

    Lately the echo view had been alarmingly unreliable, but today it worked as expected, and abruptly he was seeing parked and moving cars and pedestrians in three dimensions again, but in a sepia twilight; the faces and swinging hands of the human figures glowed with a color he never saw in real time, a sort of silvery bronze. The grumble of traffic was muted, almost inaudible.

    What he was seeing now, dimly, was the recent local past.

    He looked carefully at the cars parked along the street and in the lot. Colors were virtually indistinguishable in this echo view, but he noted that a pale Honda Accord was parked over there in front of Canter’s; a moment ago, in real time, he had seen an apparently identical white Honda on this side of the street, to his right.

    All at once the buildings and cars and people sprang into color again, and the rattling tremolo of car engines resumed. His eyesight was back in alignment with real common time, and the cars and pedestrians he saw now were actually present.

 


 

    He put on his sunglasses and looked to his right, at the white Honda parked three spaces up the street. Sun-glare on the windshield made it impossible to see any occupant or occupants, but by echo vision Vickery had seen that it, or a car very like it, had been parked on the other side of the street not long before. The extents of his echo visions were variable, but he had never been able to see his surroundings as they had been more than a couple of hours earlier.

    The Honda might belong to somebody who had moved it to avoid a parking ticket; Vickery was asking for a ticket himself, leaving his car parked where it was. Or there might simply have been two light-colored Hondas parked on Fairfax Avenue this afternoon.

    Or it might be that Ingrid Castine had been careless, and unwittingly led them to this meeting, and to himself.

    Whoever them was, exactly. At least this wasn’t the Ford van he had seen parked in front of his apartment on a cold February morning eight months ago, triggering his flight from the city and the adoption of this new identity.

    He had spent these eight months of exile covertly trying to find a way to retrieve a uniquely precious book that had been stolen from him on that morning — a worn paperback copy of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden that contained, fossilized in its unliving but organic pages, the spirit of a little girl. He and Castine had encountered her in the Labyrinth afterworld — ghosts’ memories often fell out of their insubstantial heads and were scavenged by other spirits, and this wraith had picked up a memory of the Burnett novel; and, lacking a name of her own, had taken to herself the name of the book’s heroine, Mary Lennox. The small spirit had told him at one point that a robin had shown Mary Lennox where to find the key to a secret walled garden, and it had seemed that the spirit, too, was hoping to find a key to some enduring refuge.

    The girl-spirit had followed Vickery back from the turbulent afterworld last year, and even before being subsumed into that copy of the book, the spirit had been especially frail and evanescent — for it was not even the ghost of a deceased person, but just the unfulfilled likelihood of a little girl who had never actually been conceived, whose chance of existence had gone by, unrealized.

    It was, in fact, the shade of a girl Vickery would have fathered, if he had not, long before, taken steps to ensure that he would never have children — it was, or was to have been, his daughter, whom circumstances had cheated of life.

    She was inert in the pages, but, driven by guilt and a love whose object had tragically never existed, he had daily read aloud sections of the book, and imagined that his unconceived daughter might somehow be aware of his voice, her almost-father’s presence.

    These days his main concern was trying to find a clue to where the book was now, and his researches didn’t depend on his location — but he had felt bound to come back to Los Angeles today.

 



 

    Before parting last year, he and Castine had agreed that if she put an ad having to do with skeet shooting in the Times classifieds, the two of them would meet at Canter’s at the date and time specified in the ad. October 29, 2018, 2 PM. Now, in retrospect, the scheme seemed foolhardy, and he was tempted to get into his car and drive back north to his trailer in Barstow.

 


 

    The driver’s-side door of the Honda opened — and it was Castine herself stepping out. She closed the door and began walking this way, toward the corner and the crosswalk. Vickery put his hat back on and faced straight ahead, watching her peripherally.

    Her auburn hair was longer now, bouncing around her shoulders as she walked, and she was wearing tan slacks and a matching jacket and white sneakers. She didn’t have a purse, and her jacket seemed too short and close-fitting for her to be wearing a holster.

    Vickery himself had a Glock 43 behind his belt buckle, under his untucked shirt. The gun was six inches long from backstrap to muzzle and only an inch wide, but it held seven 9-millimeter rounds.

    He let Castine walk past the bus bench and stop at the corner, waiting for the green walk signal. He wasn’t surprised that she hadn’t recognized him. His dark hair had been longer last year, and he had been more or less clean-shaven; and spending a lot of time outdoors lately had given him a deep tan.

    She’s thirty-one now, he thought. Standing straight, shoulders back, slim and graceful — she seems to have brushed her hair over the gunshot scar above her right ear, or maybe she had got hair implants.

    Vickery recalled that she had been engaged last year, and that her fiancé had been murdered. The last time Vickery had seen her, last August, she had said she was on paid leave from the Transportation Utility Agencyâ¦which had pretty clearly been responsible for the man’s death. He wondered, not for the first time, how she had reconciled herself to going on taking the agency’s paychecks, and what her situation was these days.

    He had first met her five years ago, when he had been a Secret Service field agent and onetime Los Angeles Police officer, and she had been an active agent of the TUA. He had broken protocol during a Presidential motorcade on Wilshire Boulevard, and stumbled onto the TUA’s top-secret clandestine use of ghosts as a security measure, and she had arrested him and turned him over to a couple of higher ranking TUA agents. They had taken him away in handcuffs, intending to summarily execute him in the desert out by Palmdale, but he had managed to escape by killing both of themâ¦and for the next five years he had led a furtive, covert life as the fictitious Sebastian Vickery.

    And then last year he and Castine had been thrown together again in fleeing the lethal attentions of a rogue regional TUA directorâ¦and they had wound up fleeing together right out of the normal world into the Labyrinth afterworld, and back.

    Vickery and Castine had become allies, during it all — friends, even.

    The rogue director had decisively disappeared, the TUA had undergone a drastic reorganization, and Castine had stayed on the TUA payroll.

 


 

    When the walk signal came on, he waited until she was halfway across the street before he stood up from the bench and followed her. Glancing from side to side behind the lenses of his sunglasses, he didn’t see any car doors opening or anyone who seemed to be watching her.

    On the west side of the street, he paused as if to look at the display in a mattress store window while Castine walked on and pulled open the steel-framed glass door of Canter’s. When she had gone in, he followed and caught the door before it had quite closed.

    The air inside was cool and smelled of corned beef and pickles. Castine was already past the cashier and being shown to the left, where Vickery remembered a row of orange vinyl booths by the stairs that led up to the restrooms. He paused as if to look at a display of eclairs and brownies on the street side of the cash register; before joining her, he wanted to see who else might follow her in.

    Canter’s is a busy restaurant, even after the lunch rush. A couple in their twenties, wearing shorts and probably tourists, pulled open the door and crossed to the cashier’s desk to ask if they could get their parking slip validated; a middle-aged red-haired man in a black turtleneck sweater and red cowboy boots came in after them and stepped directly to the “Please Wait To Be Seated” sign, and a waiter escorted him straight ahead, toward the back of the restaurant; he was followed a few moments later by a goateed teenager in a black Bob Marley T-shirt, who waved familiarly at the clerk behind the bakery case before making a beeline to the right, toward the lunch counter. None of them glanced to the left, toward where Castine was presumably sitting.

    Vickery had just turned to step past the cash register into the dining room when the front door was pulled open again, and a young man in round black-frame glasses and a a white shirt with red suspenders stepped quickly in from the street. His hair was now long and styled on top and shaved close over the ears — but Vickery recognized him.

    Vickery’s chest was suddenly cold and his pulse was pounding in his ears, though his expression didn’t change as he let his gaze shift unhurriedly to the tables in the dining room — and the man hurried past him with no sign of recognition.

    Did my beard and sunglasses fool him? Vickery wondered. He knew me eight months ago, when he and his accomplices stole The Secret Garden and nearly grabbed me too. And now he’s after Castine? What the hell’s going on?

    The man paused to glance around at all the tables and the counter along the right-side wall; when he looked to the left he seemed to stiffen, and then started in that direction.

    Vickery followed him, closely, and saw Castine sitting alone in a booth ten feet ahead.

    The young man lifted a dish from a table he passed, and he tossed it past Castine’s booth; and when the thing shattered loudly on the linoleum floor, and Castine had turned a startled glance in that direction, the man crowded close to her table — and Vickery saw him surreptitiously shake the contents of a tiny envelope into her water glass and then without a pause move on toward the restroom stairs.

    Vickery quickly stepped forward, but was shouldered aside by the red-haired man in the black turtleneck, who reached across him and slapped Castine’s water glass right off the table onto the seat across from her.

    “Stop Elisha, damn it,” the man snapped at someone behind Vickery. “We’ve got this.”

    For just an instant Vickery looked anxiously after the man disappearing up the restroom stairs; then he leaned in and grabbed Castine’s shoulder. “Up,” he said, “we’re out of here.”

    She tried to throw herself back in the booth, but Vickery’s grip was unyielding. “Get away from me,” she said, as hands from behind clamped on Vickery’s left arm and the back of his neck.

    “It’s him!” said one of the people holding him. “We’ve got both of them!”

    “Stun-gun if you have to,” rasped another, “just get ’em both into the car, quick.”

    Vickery felt a blunt object bump across his back — evidently a stun-gun, and he knew that in a moment he might be knocked down by millions of volts of electricity.

    Instantly old training took over. He sprang back away from Castine and spun to his right, sweeping his arm around to knock the hand away from his neck — it belonged to the man in the turtleneck, his white teeth now bared with effort — and in the same motion pistoned the heel of his left hand very hard into the goateed chin of the teenager who was holding his left arm with one hand and gripping a black plastic stun-gun in the other. The incongruous pair tumbled backward onto the table behind them, overturning dishes and glasses. People at other tables were getting to their feet.

    Turning back to Castine’s booth, Vickery leaned in and grabbed her by both shoulders. “It’s me, Vickery!” he hissed at her. “Come on!”

 



 

    Castine stared into his face for a moment, then nodded and slid out of the booth, and together they ran to the entryway and past the cash register. Several people hurriedly stepped out of their way, and Vickery noticed a moustached man in a tan-and-orange plaid sportcoat, whose brown eyes seemed to widen in surprised recognition at the sight of them — and then they were out the door and on the sidewalk. Vickery pulled Castine to the left, toward his blue sedan.

    “I’ve got a car across the street,” she said breathlessly, but a moment later he had pulled open the passenger-side door of his car and shoved her in.

    As he got in on the driver’s side and started the engine, the man in the black turtleneck and red boots came slamming out of Canter’s, shouting into a cell phone; and a couple of men were now shoving past the pedestrians on the sidewalk to the north. Glancing that way, Vickery caught only a quick impression of gray hair and a dark windbreaker.

    Castine had locked her door just as one of them grabbed the outside handle, and Vickery clicked the gear shift into reverse, backed into the car behind them with a jangling crash, and then shifted to drive and swerved out into traffic. From the corner of his eye he saw the young man in red suspenders burst out of the restaurant and stare after them for a moment before dodging his way across the street.

    Vickery gritted his teeth at having to let him get away, and fervently hoped to see him again.

    The traffic light at Oakwood was red, but Vickery leaned on the horn and edged through, glancing quickly left and right; then he was past it, and accelerating south on Fairfax.

    Castine pulled her seatbelt across and clicked it into its slot.

    “Who,” she said, and took a deep breath, “were they?”

    “They weren’t yours?”

    Vickery flexed his right hand on the wheel. The wrist ached — he had reflexively hit that teenager pretty hard.

    “What,” said Castine, “the TUA? They don’t do this sort of stuff anymore.”

    Vickery nodded. She had mentioned last August that the functions and personnel of the Transportation Utility Agency had been cut way back, and its days of unsupervised ruthlessness were long past. So who was this crowd, and what did they want?

    Castine shifted in her seat now to look out the back window. “They must still be behind that red light. Where are we going?”

    “Parking lot up here on the right,” he said. “We only need about a twenty-second window, if you help.”

    “I think I see ’em behind us now, changing lanes. Two cars. Or three.” She looked at him. “Help with what?”

    Halfway down the next block Vickery stomped on the brake and swung the wheel to the right, and the car bounced up a curb and he drove fast between two rows of parked cars to an alley at the far end of the lot. He steered left into the alley, but braked to a jolting halt in front of a big delivery truck that blocked the way.

    “Shit!” yelled Castine, blinking at the obstacle, but Vickery was already out of the car and crouching by the front bumper.

    “Out!” he yelled. “Help me!”

    He had peeled up the edges of a blue plastic film from around the left headlight, and he was tugging it up off of the fender, where a wedge-shaped chunk of styrofoam came away with the thin, sticky film as he peeled it back toward the driver’s-side door. Castine quickly followed his example on the right side, and within seconds they had stripped the blue film from the sides and the roof of the car. Two children watched them wonderingly from behind a chain link fence.

    “You get the hood and the doors!” Vickery yelled, standing on the trunk now and wrestling with the bundle of crumpled blue plastic and styrofoam blocks. He leaned back, and the rest of the thin sheet came free from around the taillights with a ripping sound, and then he was sitting on the pavement. The rear license plate frame was secured only by two snaps, and he pulled it open and snatched out the blue Santa Ana dealer’s plate, exposing a red Anaheim one, and snapped the frame back into place.

    He rolled over to the right and shoved the sticky blue-and-white bundle under the car, just forward of the right rear tire, as Castine slid to a crouching halt beside him, a somewhat smaller bundle in her arms. She pushed it too under the car, rattling fragments of a broken beer bottle on the pavement.

    The car blocked their view of the parking lot they had just driven through, and Vickery couldn’t see under the vehicle because of the masses of crumpled plastic and styrofoam. But he heard a car, and then another, come rocking into the parking lot from Fairfax.

    “Move to the front,” he said hoarsely, “and slide around to the bumper when they pass this.”

    The roar of car engines quickly grew louder, and Vickery waved at Castine and began crawling toward the front of the car; and they had both scrambled around to crouch by the front bumper when two cars turned right and gunned away up the alley away from them.

    “Are there any more?” gasped Castine, sitting up on the cracked cement pavement. One bloody knee showed through a rip in her slacks and she pushed her tangled hair back from her face. “There’s broken glass all over the place.”

    “Give ’em a minute.” The breeze on his scalp let him know that his hat was gone. “I think they were following you. One of them shook some kind of powder into you water glass, and it was another of them who knocked it over.”

    Castine was getting to her feet, cautiously. “They couldn’t have followed me! You’re not the only one who’s been trained in this stuff, you know.”

    Vickery stood up, wincing and rubbing his hip. “Then they knew when and where we were supposed to meet,” he said, looking north along the alley. He didn’t see any moving cars. “We’ve got to get clear of the area.”

    Vickery’s sedan was now visibly a white 1990s Saturn, with dented fenders and a primer-red driver’s side door. He and Castine got in, and he backed it off of the tangled mess of blue plastic and then drove sedately out of the lot and turned right on Fairfax. The interior of the car was hot from sitting in direct sunlight, and he switched on the air conditioner. Dust and hot air blew out of the vents, then cooler air.

    Vickery took off his sunglasses and waved them toward Castine. “Put these on,” he said, “and there’s a blanket in the back seat — pull it around yourself.”

    The blanket was bright yellow, and Vickery hoped that the changes in their appearances would deflect the attention of any very attentive pursuers.

    He caught a green light at Beverly Boulevard and sped through the intersection, watching his rear view mirror; but no cars seemed to be following them.

    “This is a Saturn,” said Castine, gingerly tucking the old blanket around her shoulders. She peered out through the windshield. “White. It looked like some kind ofâ¦caricature sky-blue Mercedes a few minutes ago. And I never told anybody that we were to meet at Canter’s.”

    Vickery pursed his lips. “I believe you. I –”

    “Oh, thanks!” A box of Kleenex was wedged between the dashboard and the windshield, and she pulled a sheet free and dabbed at her cut knee.

    “Well, I do,” said Vickery. “But there they were.” He glanced at her. “Did you recognize any of them?”

    “Damn it — I thought we were through with this kind of stuff! Have youâ¦done something?”

    Vickery made himself keep the nervous irritation out of his voice: “I’ve been living very low profile in a trailer park outside Barstow, under a new name, since February.”

    “Well — I haven’t done anything either. No, I didn’t recognize them. I hardly saw them. Something broke, and some guy knocked over my water glass, and then you threw him and some kid onto a table.”

    “I,” Vickery said heavily, “recognized the one who put something in your glass.”

    “So you do have some connection with this!”

    “It was before I went dark. It was why I went dark. Eight months ago, in February, that guy and a couple of other people cornered me. Tried to.” He started to mention the stolen book, but said instead, “I’d had a new identity prepared and ready to assume since September of last year–”

 



 

    “I should have cooked up an escape identity myself!”

    Vickery rocked his head judiciously. “– And I stopped being Sebastian Vickery altogether.”

    “And you only ran as far as Barstow? What’s that, a hundred miles?”

    “A hundred and fourteen.” Vickery made a left turn and drove east on Third Street, past the old Farmer’s Market clock tower. “Why did you place the ad?”

    “Oh. I guess I got you into this, didn’t I, with that ad? Back into it, anyway. Sorry, I guess. Why did I put the ad in the paper?” She was silent for a moment, then shrugged. “Because I was scared.”

    “Well, yeah, I’ve been scared too,” Vickery admitted, alternately watching the traffic ahead and glancing at the rear view mirror. The sun was bright on chrome and windshields, and he wished he hadn’t given Castine his sunglasses. “Before I went into the restaurant just now, I tried the look-in-the-past trick to see the street a little while earlier — and for once the trick still worked, I did see that.”

    “You were lucky.” She shivered. “I never even try it anymore, and I drink gallons of coffee to stop it happening spontaneously. All I see now, when it happens, is –”

    He nodded grimly. “That solitary wrecked house.”

    “Ooh, I’m glad you see it too, Sebastian! Right, a two-story Victorian house, all dilapidated, in some kind of little valley, right? And you can’t move, not voluntarily, anyway. In the — hah! — ordinary visions of the past, I could at least decide whether I walked in some direction, or held still.”

    “True. These intrusive new ones are like watching a video.”

    “And,” she went on, “have you noticed that each time you see that terrible house, it’s always later in the day? A month ago I’d see it with shadows, but lately they’re gone, like it’s noon, there.” She was hugging herself now, gripping her elbows. “I don’t want to see it when the sun’s down. If I even could see it much, in that murky light.”

    Vickery decided not to ask her yet if she’d noticed the man’s face that he had sometimes seen peering out from an upstairs window of the hallucinated old house.

    “Yeah,” he said, “I’ve noticed that it’s later in the day, in some day, when I’ve seen it.”

    “Do you think that has something to do with –” She waved behind them.

    Vickery briefly spread his fingers on the steering wheel, then gripped it again.

    Castine hitched around to peer out the back window, then relaxed back into her seat again. “Where are we going?”

    “For now, just — away.”

    She nodded. “Away is good. Do you think it was arsenic or something? In my water glass?”

    “Whatever it was, the guy in the turtleneck didn’t want you to drink it.”

    After a moment of silence, she said, “I’m glad you were there. It’s sort of good to see you again, Sebastian. Though I’m not sure I like the beard.”

    “My name’s Bill Ardmore now.” She raised her eyebrows, and he went on, “The real Bill Ardmore was a grocery clerk in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and he died last May, single and childless.”

    “Youâ¦liked the sound of the name?”

    “It’ll do. Are you watching traffic?”

    “The only car that’s been steady in view for the last thirty seconds is that old Chevvy with kids in it that you just passed. Ah — and they just turned into the Ralph’s parking lot anyway.” Her knee had apparently stopped bleeding, and she rolled down the window and threw the blood-spotted Kleenex out.

    “I got the name from an obituary,” said Vickery. “All the states cross-index death and birth certificates these days, but Wisconsin didn’t start doing it till ’79, and Bill Ardmore was born in ’78; so I’m officially forty now, instead of thirty-seven.”

    “Oh.” She rolled the window back up. “I hope I don’t have to do that myself. I’d be adding nine years. Did he have a beard?”

    “Probably not. But I grew it because Sebastian Vickery didn’t have one.” He squinted at the traffic ahead. “I’m going to circle some blocks, so keep watching traffic. Then we can stop at MacArthur Park and catch up on — everything.”

    “I never did get lunch.”

    “We can probably get a couple of hot dogs or something there.”

    “Of course.” Her smile was faint, but he felt at last that this was the same woman he’d known last year. “I forgot about your dining style,” she said.

     


 

    Back at the Canter’s parking lot, two men stood on the sidewalk, blinking in the sun.

    “Where’s the cars?” one asked. He appeared to be in his early forties, and was dressed a bit too young in black skinny jeans and a faded blue denim shirt buttoned to the top. His head was entirely shaved and gleaming with sweat, and he wore sunglasses with a little leather wedge snapped over the bridge. “I’m going to go to that thrift store and see if they have any decent hats.”

    “When Harlowe shows up,” said his companion, “he’s not going to be happy. Pratt got knocked out back there, with his jaw dislocated, and now the Castine woman knows somebody’s after her. You best not be off hat shopping.” His brush-cut hair was gray, his tanned face was deeply lined, and his olive-green windbreaker and blue jeans were calculatedly unmemorable.

    “Damn it, Taitz, what were we supposed to do? The car didn’t even have a license plate, just a dealer’s plate!”

    “Harlowe didn’t say you should try anything like opening her door. This whole thing was supposed to be justâ¦let her meet Vickery and then follow them, and grab them somewhere less crowded. But I guess it was Elisha that really screwed it up.”

    The other man nodded. “What, he broke some dishes?”

    An old woman who had just finished laboriously pushing a shopping cart to this end of the Oakwood crosswalk paused and said, as if talking to herself, “Harlowe says he tried to poison her.”

    The younger man stared at her in alarm, and as she hobbled past them he took a step after her.

    Taitz caught his arm. “Steady, Foster. You think she knows anything? It’s just the black hole effect. We’re lucky somebody across the street didn’t say it.”

    “For all we know somebody did! Maybe half a dozen people did.” Foster shook his head and wiped his bald scalp. “Shouldn’t our guys have caught up with them by now? Shit. That didn’t look like any powerhouse car Castine drove away in.”

    “It was Vickery driving, if that guy was Vickery.”

    “And he’s what, some kind of hobo?”

    Taitz shrugged, scanning the cars east and west for some sign of Harlowe’s gray Chevrolet Tahoe SUV. “He showed up in L.A. about five years ago, and nobody seems to know where he came from. Eight months ago Elisha and Agnes tried to snatch him, and blew it, though they did get that book Harlowe wanted. Then Vickery totally dropped out of sight — until today, maybe — but before that he was working for a Mexican woman in East L.A., driving some kind of tricked-out santeria stealth car for people scared of ghosts.”

    “And, uh, he and the Castine woman both died last year, I understand, and came back from the dead.”

    “That’s the story.” John Taitz waved toward the old woman with the shopping cart, who was still visible making her way up the Fairfax sidewalk. “That’s why we need them, both of them.”

    “There’s Harlowe.” Foster stepped to the curb and waved at the westbound lanes of Oakwood Avenue, and a few moments later a gray SUV surged across the Fairfax intersection and swerved to a stop beside them. Taitz hurried to the curb and opened the left rear door and got in, with Foster right behind him.

    The middle pair of seats had been reversed, facing the third row, where Simon Harlowe sat. The sleeves of his turtleneck sweater were rolled back, and his probably-dyed burgundy red hair was disarranged, but he looked a good deal more alert and purposeful than he had this morning, when they had lost track of Castine. He crossed his left red boot over his right knee and waved Foster and Taitz to the facing seats as the vehicle moved forward.

    “Elisha has gone rogue,” he said, and added in a businesslike tone, “one of you is going to have to take his blood pressure.” Taitz repressed a wince; he had got along well enough with Ragotskie, and he hoped it would be Foster’s task to kill the young man. “The Black Sheep is being moved to a different marina,” Harlowe went on, “and I’ve told Biloxi to vacate the office on Sepulveda — put everything in a couple of U-Haul trucks and park it somewhere till we can move it to another property I’ve got.”

 



 

    Taitz shifted uneasily. “Any luck following Castine?”

    “No,” said Harlowe. “That blue car, whatever it was, simply turned in to an alley and disappeared. We had four cars circling fast around all these blocks, and up and down Beverly and Third — no sign of it.”

    “We had a black hole incident here a minute ago,” said Taitz. “An old woman walked by us and said Elisha tried to poison Castine.”

    Harlowe nodded, rubbing his chin. “Were you two holding hands?”

    “No,” said Taitz.

    “Well, you were standing close to each other, I imagine, and not moving. It’s not premature.” He raised his hand to preclude any objection. “Castine and Vickery are apparently traveling together, and,” he went on, patting a polished wooden box on the seat beside him, “we’ve got the bloody sock to see where she goes. Unless they get on a plane real quick, which isn’t likely, or that wasn’t Vickery she met, which also isn’t likely, we should have them both in the mix within the next few hours.”

    “We’d better,” said Taitz. “Halloween’s only two days off, and if you haven’t got a pair ofâ¦communicators by then — do you think it’s even still possible to damp the whole show down and try for next year?”

    Harlowe sat back and gave Taitz a benevolent smile. “Well, John, I tell you what. No, it’s not still possible. This thing is gonna take wing on the thirty-first whatever we do, and if we don’t have the right couple of people incorporated — our routers, our switchboard operators, our thalamus — then we’re all gonna be facets of one big cosmic imbecile. But,” and he eyed Taitz with something like cautious amusement as he went on, “if we don’t get Vickery and Castine for it, we can use the twins.”

    Taitz squinted at him. “The twins? You mean your nieces?”

    “I’ve had them in mind all along — lately as a fall-back. They’re a bit –”

    “Crazy,” said Taitz flatly.

    “Now now. They’re neurotic and deluded, but in directions that make them very suitable. I’d rather have Vickery and Castine, but the twins can do it.”

    “You think everybody willâ¦go along with that idea?” asked Taitz. “They’re all real serious about this thing.”

    Harlowe’s genial expression slipped for a moment, and Taitz forced himself not to flinch at the blazing eyes in the momentarily slack face; then the serene smile was reassembled, and Harlowe said, softly, “I’m more serious than any of them, and I know more about it than any of them.”

    Foster, looking out the window, had missed the momentary glare. “The twins,” he echoed wonderingly; then added, as he turned to his companions with a visible shudder, “At least Lexi and Amber want to be something besides themselves.”

    Taitz sat back, still watching Harlowe. “Huh. I think we’d better find Vickery and Castine.”

    Harlowe tapped the polished box on the seat. “The bloody sock has worked fine so far.”

    The bloody sock. Taitz had seen Harlowe working the old white sock in the office on Sepulveda this morning, and it hadn’t so much looked bloody as just very dirty; but the brown stains on it were supposed to be Ingrid Castine’s blood, and she and Sebastian Vickery had experienced something last year — death and resurrection, according to some stories, or just a brief corporeal trip to the afterworld and back, according to others — something that made their souls oscillate irregularly, in a way normal souls did not, like a couple of Frequency Modulation radio transmitters in a world of Amplitude Modulation. And any samples of Castine’s FM blood would resonate in tune to the metaphorical transmitter, which was Castine herself, and be drawn to it.

    Harlowe’s ambitious Singularity project required the participation of a nearly unique sort of pair, and, because of their crazy history, Ingrid Castine and Sebastian Vickery were ideal.

    They were so desirable, in fact, that Harlowe had waited a dangerously long time in the hope of getting them. Constant monitoring of Castine had not been difficult — she worked in a government office in Washington D.C. and had an apartment in Gaithersburg — but after Elisha’s unsuccessful attempt to snatch Vickery in February, the man had effectively disappeared. The Singularity project was already in perilous gestation, but Harlowe had maddeningly postponed finding some other pair — because, it turned out, he had had his nieces in mind as an option all along. A dubious option, Taitz thought.

    And then, just three days ago, Castine had placed the ad in the Los Angeles Times, and Harlowe had guessed that it was a message to Vickery, stating the time, but not the place, of a proposed meeting. The guess had been effectively confirmed when Castine booked a flight for today to Los Angeles: the city where she and Vickery had reportedly died and somehow been resurrected last year, and where Vickery had last verifiably been living. On her arrival at dawn, Castine had rented a car from Hertz at the airportâ¦but had then unexpectedly done a fast lanes-crossing exit from the 405 freeway, shaking off the Singularity cars that had been following her, and she had not used her credit card since.

    At that point the bloody sock had been the only hope of tracing her. Harlowe had bought the unsavory thing months ago from a freeway-side gypsy who claimed to have inherited it from another of that furtive tribe, and this morning Harlowe had wrapped the stiffened white sock around a stapler, for weight, and tied a string around it and, holding the free end of the string, dangled it like a pendulum over his desk.

    It had consistently swung away from vertical toward the northeast.

    And so four cars had set out at noon, driving up Venice Boulevard, with Harlowe right here in the Chevy Tahoe, holding the string and calling directions to Tony, the earnest young driver.

    The pendulum had begun swinging more northward as they drove through Culver City, and at the Fairfax intersection the four cars had turned north; the pendulum had been tilting steadily northward then, but when they passed Melrose it had abruptly begun straining to the south, so they had all made U-turns.

    And the pendulum had swung to the right, and then backward, as they passed a white Honda parked at the curb near Canter’s Delicatessen, and Taitz had recognized Ingrid Castine’s profile in the Honda as they had passed it.

    Tony had managed to park the Tahoe SUV at the curb only a few spaces ahead of her, and the three other cars had sped on to find parking spaces nearby.

    Castine had been an hour early for the probable 2 PM assignation, and after sitting in her car for twenty minutes she had started it again and driven south; but before Tony had been able to steer out into traffic after her, one of the men in the other cars reported that she had simply turned right on Oakwood and done a U-turn at the next street — and when she had got back to Fairfax she had turned left and found a space to park on the east side of the street, across from Canter’s. And after another fifteen minutes she had got out of her car and walked to the crosswalk.

    And it had all been going as planned until Elisha got out of his surveillance car and went into the restaurant.

    “Did Elisha try to poison Castine?” asked Taitz now, as the SUV crossed Third Street.

    “I don’t know,” said Harlowe. “He put something in her water glass, and I knocked it over.” He opened the wooden box and lifted out the string-wrapped sock and stapler, and handed it to Taitz. “You track her for a while, my hands are shaky.”

    Taitz reluctantly took hold of the bundle and unwound the string. The sock and the stapler were perceptibly warm, though the interior of the vehicle was nearly chilly; and of course the sock had never been washed, and he made a mental note to wash his hands at the earliest opportunity.

    He held it up by the free end of the string, feeling both ridiculous and uneasy, and stared at it as it swung with the movement of the car. “I dunno, chief,” he said, “it seems to be swinging east more than anything else.”

    “Take a left on Third Street, Tony,” said Harlowe, “and call the other drivers, tell them to catch up.”


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