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Forced Perspectives: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Wednesday, December 18, 2019 05:26 EST

 


 

A Lot of M&Ms And Cigarettes

    “Whoa!” exclaimed Taitz as the sock bundle swung around on the end of the string he held. “We just passed her, to the right!”

    “That was Sycamore,” said Tony from the driver’s seat, signaling for a lane change. “I’ll loop around the block.”

    “Quickly,” suggested Harlowe.

    “I’m on it.”

    Tony made a right turn and sped down a narrow street of well-kept old houses set back from the sidewalks, the SUV’s windshield flickering between direct sunlight and the shadows of curbside trees, and at the next intersection he turned right, and then right again, and then he was cruising slowly up Sycamore while the three men in the back alternately peered at the dangling sock and looked out the side windows.

    “To the right,” Harlowe muttered, “now directly to our right — I don’t see anybody — is she in that house? Where’s their car?”

    The sock jerked backward on its string. “She’s moving!” exclaimed Foster, hiking forward on his seat and opening the door. “Tony, stop the car!” A hot breeze smelling of cut grass broke up the cool interior air.

    The SUV rocked to a halt. Harlowe was snapping his fingers and frowning. “You’d better both grab her — and get Vickery too!”

    But Taitz stayed seated, glancing from the slanting sock-string to the pavement outside the open door. “Uh, Foster,” he said, “pick up that tissue paper on the sidewalk. Quick, it’s blowing away.”

    “I don’t see anybody!” Foster called back.

    To Harlowe, Taitz said, “Tell him to fetch it.”

    Harlowe raised his eyebrows, but said loudly, “Foster! Bring me that tissue paper!”

    A moment later Foster was standing on the pavement outside the SUV, still squinting up and down the street, while Harlowe sat back and gingerly uncrumpled the sheet of Kleenex and held it up by one corner.

    Red spots on the tissue paper were evidently blood. Taitz sighed and laid the sock-and-string on the seat beside him.

    “Get back in here, Foster,” Harlowe snapped, and when Foster had climbed back in and closed the door, Harlowe said to Tony, “East on Third again.”

    “Rightie-O.” The vehicle sped forward.

    “Rightie-O,” echoed Harlowe softly, with evident distaste.

    Foster was panting, and he swiped his sleeve over his bald head. “What,” he said, peering at the tissue paper in the relative dimness of the SUV’s interior, “she got a nosebleed?”

    “Or something,” agreed Harlowe, handing it to Taitz. “Burn this, will you? The effect apparently diminishes as the square of the distance, and this small thing was close enough to us to eclipse her signal.”

    Taitz took the tissue paper from him and with his free hand dug into his pocket for a lighter. He flicked the flint wheel, and the tissue readily caught fire. The SUV had no ashtrays, so when the thing was flaming out he looked around and then dropped it on the instep of his right shoe and ground it out with the heel of his left.

    Harlowe nodded, and Taitz blew on his fingers and then picked up the weighted string. Soon the sock was detectibly pulling away from vertical again, distinct from the rocking of the vehicle.

    “You should have cut the sock into three pieces,” said Taitz. “We could triangulate her location.”

    “Of course I thought of that,” snapped Harlowe, “but the stains are so faint and dried out — I was afraid a third, or even a half, of the sock wouldn’t get a perceptible pull.” He frowned at the dangling sock. “I didn’t expect her to throw chaff.”

 


 

    Wilshire Boulevard cuts MacArthur Park in half from east to west, and Vickery found a parking space alongside the southern half, within sight of the park’s broad lake glittering in the sun. He and Castine got out and made their way across the grass to a curling lane lined with tarpaulin-roofed booths, and tables under umbrellas, and even just blankets spread out on the grass, all decked with merchandise for sale — fruits and vegetables, toys, clothing, cell phones, Spanish language CDs — and the breeze was redolent with the smells of salsa, teriyaki and marijuana.

    Vickery bought a gaudy Hawaiian shirt and another pair of sunglasses for himself, and a baseball cap with “Hollywood” stitched on the front for Castine. The yellow blanket was still draped over her jacket and the right knee of her trousers was torn and spotted with blood, and altogether they didn’t look much like the couple who had fled Canter’s less than an hour earlier.

    Food vendors pushed shopping carts, equipped with coolers or little ovens, across the open area beside the lake, and from one of them Vickery bought a couple of tamales in waxed paper and two plastic cups of agua de tamarindo, and he and Castine carried them across the grass to a cement bench. Only a few yards away a flotilla of ducks patrolled the shore, and seagulls whirled in the blue sky overhead, and the bench proved to be nearly whitewashed with bird dung old and new. Vickery and Castine sat down on the grass.

    “This is nice, actually,” said Castine, looking around as she pulled a rubber band off a paper napkin wrapped around a plastic fork. “I hate it that I’m — back in trouble in L.A. again! — but I wish I’d known about this park when I was working here.”

    “It’s nice now,” Vickery agreed. He had already freed his fork, and, after glancing back toward the car, he began digging into his steaming tamale. “Ten years ago it was rough. When I was in LAPD, I was mostly assigned to the Hollywood and Wilshire Divisions, but for a while I was out here in Ramparts. It was all gangs here in those days, the 18th Street Gang and MS-13. This was where you came to get crack or heroin, or fake green cards and driver’s licenses. Or to get killed.”

    “But you quit that, and became a Secret Service agent.”

    “Sure did. And that nearly got me killed.”

    “Don’t look back,” she said. Then, seeing him again glance toward the street, she added, “What did I just say? Why do you keep looking at the car?”

    “They can’t sneak up on us here,” he said, “if they’re tracking us somehow. And I’ve got a gun.”

    “How can they be tracking us?” Castine looked around in alarm, then frowned at him and took a forkful of her tamale. “Even if they,” she said, chewing, “I don’t know, followed me from the United terminal and put a GPS tracker on my rental car and followed me to Canter’s, they can’t have put one on your car, and you made sure nobody followed us here.”

    She paused, then looked away over the lake. “Maybe — God help me — maybe they were after you, all along, and figured I’d lead them to you. Which I did!”

    He nodded. Certainly her notice in the Times had brought him out of hiding. “I think they want both of us. That guy with the red boots that I threw onto the table said, ‘It’s him, we’ve got both of them.'”

    “But I busted your anonymity for them! Now even if you go back to your Bill Ardmore life in Barstow, they at least know what you look like these days.” Guilt appeared to make her irritable, and she faced him and added sharply, “Why Barstow, anyway? That’s not very far from L.A. What was wrong withâ¦Las Vegas, New York, London?”

    Vickery started to crush his plastic cup, then made his hand relax. “Partly,” he said in a carefully level tone, “to be close enough to L.A. to get to Canter’s quickly and cheaply, on the specified date, if you gave me short notice.”

    “Oh. Sorry, again.” She took a deep breath and let it out. “Both of us. You said these people tried to corner you, in February — what happened?”

    “Yeah.” He sat back and set his half-eaten tamale aside. “Well. For a week or so I’d had a sort of itchy feeling that I was under somebody’s surveillance. I seemed to pass too many people with earbuds, and my phone battery ran down quicker than usual, and twice I didn’t get my phone bill. Altogether it wasn’t enough to make me jump ship, but the echo vision was still working consistently then, not just showing me that terrible old house in the canyon like it does lately — ”

    She huffed one syllable of a mirthless laugh. “‘Echo vision!'”

 



 

    “That’s how I’ve thought of it. A time-spike, a replay of the recent past, right?” He shrugged. “Echo. So I started checking on how long cars had been parked on my street. And early one morning I saw a Ford van parked for a while down the block with its engine running, and when I walked toward it, it drove off. But when I stepped back and focused into echo vision to look at the street as it had been an hour or so earlier, I saw the same van at dawn, parked right across from my apartment, so I walked across the street — ”

    “Sebastian! Inâ¦in echo vision? You’re lucky you weren’t run over by a car in real time!”

    “Well, I looked both ways first, and as it happened I only saw the past for a few seconds. Anyway, I was able to walk to where the car had been earlier. I couldn’t make out the license plate number in that monochrome echo light — couldn’t even crouch and try to feel the embossed numbers, since the van wasn’t actually there anymore! — but I could see the driver through the windshield. And it was that guy that put something in your water glass today. Different haircut, but it was him, I could see him clearly. You know the way people kind of glow, when you see ’em in the past?”

    She nodded. “I remember. Something like brown, but bright.”

    “Yeah. I think it’s infrared, and in echo vision we get it directly in the primary visual cortex, not through the narrow-band retinas at all.” Again he peered across the grass at the parked car, and then around at the people walking along the lakeside pavement, but saw nothing out of the ordinary.

    “So as soon as I was back in real, common time, I got in my car and drove off,” he went on, “aiming to scout the surrounding streets in real time and then — parked, of course! — in echo time. But at the first intersection, a woman was pushing a baby carriage across the crosswalk, against the light, and I had to stop — and when I did, two cars behind me stopped too, and their doors opened and four guys got out and started sprinting toward me. One of them was the guy from the Ford van, having switched vehicles –”

    “You sure it was the same guy? You only saw him in your echo light, and he’d have had to switch vehicles awful quick –”

    “Well, they knew I’d spotted the van. Yes, I’m sure it was him. The woman kept her baby carriage right in front of my bumper, not moving, and she wasn’t looking at me.”

    Castine’s eyes were wide. “Did youâ¦run over her?”

    “Hah. No. I reversed hard into the car behind me and did a sharp U-turn. The car whose radiator I hadn’t wrecked tried to follow me, but I got away from him with no trouble.”

    “I’d be surprised if you didn’t.” She finished her tamarindo drink and looked around for a trash can. “And so you became Bill Ardmore.”

    “Well — not that instant. After a couple of hours I snuck back into my apartment, through the bedroom window, from the next street over.”

    “You did?” she asked in surprise. “Why?”

    Vickery was staring past her. “There’s a gray Chevy Tahoe,” he said thoughtfully. “It just drove by my car without stoppingâ¦but it’s moving way slow.” He got to his feet. “Up. Face me, not the street.”

    “Just a minute, let me gather up our trash. Probably a lot of cars drive slow.” She balled up the cups and waxed paper and stood up.

    “Let’s move around the south side of the lake,” he said, “and keep facing east.”

    “We should find a trash can. You don’t want to go back to the car?”

    “No, I don’t want them connecting the car with us. If they show up, we’ll evade them and come back later for the car.”

    “Evade them. Okay.” She was looking past him, evidently scanning the clusters of people nearby. “You said you went to Barstow partly to be close to L.A., in case I signalled for a meeting. Why else?”

    Vickery hesitated, then said, “You remember that old guy, Isaac Laquedem. When we last heard of him, he was in Barstow, and I wanted to find him and ask him if he knew anything about that attempt to snatch me.”

    Apparently having satisfied herself that nobody in their vicinity was a threat, Castine was unfolding the wax paper, peering at it. “Did you find him?”

    “No. A couple of times I thought I had a kind of intuition about where he might be, but it didn’t lead to anything I was able to track down. He may be back in L.A., but I haven’t been, except for a couple of furtive sneaks. And I’ve had no luck with internet searches, and he wasn’t the sort to be traceable online anyway.”

    “But you stayed on in Barstow.” She poked at the remains of his tamale. “Why him? He mostly knew about ghosts, and the — the Labyrinth.”

    Vickery looked away, toward the ducks out on the water. “The Labyrinth,” he said, and forced a laugh. “The afterworld! By the time I left L.A., the story among the freeway gypsies was that you and I died, to get there, and were resurrected from the dead, when we came back.”

    “Well, most people did have to die, to get there.” She had freed some fragments of Vickery’s tamale, and tossed them out over the water toward the ducks. “So why did you want to talk to Laquedem? Grouchy old guy, as I recall.”

    “There’s signs that say don’t feed the ducks.”

    “You’re not a cop anymore. So why?”

    He stopped walking and turned to face her. “Oh hell. You’ll think I’m crazy. There’s a trash can over there, if you want to pitch that stuff.”

    Castine waved her fistful of litter. “It can wait.”

    He exhaled and shook his head. “Okay. When I snuck back to my apartment, about five hours after the attempted snatch with the baby carriage in the crosswalk, there was a guy waiting there, standing by the street-facing living room window. But I had climbed in through the bedroom window, silently, and I made sure he was alone and then came up behind him and got him in a blood chokehold — as opposed to an air one — and when he lost consciousness I tied and gagged him. These guys aren’t pros, whoever they are.”

    “Oh, Sebastian,” said Castine with a look that was both pitying and exasperated, “I bet I know what you went back for.”

    “I — well, damn it, I bet you do. That copy of The Secret Garden. And it was gone. It was the only thing missing, as far as I could tell. The only person besides you and me who knew about that book was my old boss –”

    “Lady Galvan,” said Castine, nodding. “With her supernatural-evasion car service.”

    “– And I went straight to her garage and braced her about it. It turned out she had told somebody about the book, some guy who claimed to collect such things and asked if she knew of any for sale. He left her a business card, but it was fake. So then I drove to Barstow and became Bill Ardmore.”

    “And that’s the other reason — the main reason? — that you didn’t want to get too far away from L.A.”

    He shrugged and nodded. “I want to get the book back. I don’t want them to have it — and maybe,” he added, “use it, somehow.”

    “It’s not a real person,” said Castine, wearily. “You know that. She never existed! She’s imaginary.”

    “Right,” said Vickery, his voice flat. “Imaginary. My daughter times the square root of minus one. But when the conduit to the Labyrinth was open, we were able to see her. Speak with her, even. She talked about the robin who showed Mary Lennox the key to the secret garden, in that story.”

    After a moment, Castine nodded, making even that concession with evident reluctance. She walked to a nearby trash can and dumped the lunch remains, then walked back, wiping her hands on the blanket draped over her shoulders.

    “So what have you been doing?” she asked, “in Barstow?”

    “I’ve got a little nest alongside the 15 freeway, outside of town, and I’ve been — well, I’ve been calling up ghosts from the freeway current, and asking them if they can sense her. I think fresh ghosts can sometimes senseâ¦fossilized spirits, the ones that are subsumed forever in some organic object. The ghosts seem to hear them as a subsonic note, if they can be persuaded to listen for it.” He smiled, not happily. “I go through a lot of M&Ms and cigarettes, bribing them.”

 



 

    Vickery took a look back the way they’d come, but he couldn’t see the street from here. He turned to Castine.

    She was staring at him wide-eyed. “I thought the ghosts were all gone now! Since we closed the conduit to the Labyrinth!”

    “People still die, Ingrid, and as long as particles of indeterminism — that is, free wills, which is to say, people — move rapidly past non-moving particles, like on freeways, the current is going to be generated, and ghosts canâ¦manifest themselves! They do still crop up.”

    “And you a Catholic! Consulting the dead!”

    Vickery spread his hands. “I don’t consult dead people! They’re in Heaven or Hell or someplace. I consult their ghosts, which aren’t them.”

    Castine gave him a disapproving look. “They’re pretty dead, though.”

    “Lively sometimes, you gotta admit.”

    “But — you don’t talk to them in complete sentences, do you? They’ll get a fix on you, try to switch places with you!”

    Vickery shook his head. “They’re not as substantial, not as powerful, as they were last year, when they were plugged into the crazy dynamo of the Labyrinth. It’s like dropping a radio into your bathtub — if it’s just working on its own batteries, not plugged into 120 volts, you’re okay.”

    Castine shook her head. “Well remember your math anyway. Jeez.”

    Vickery smiled and nodded. “Two plus two is four and nothing else. I remember.” The field in which ghosts could appear was one of gross indeterminism, irrationally expanded possibility, and the hard, unyielding logic of mathematics could drive ghosts away — if they paid attention.

    “And don’t let them stick their tongues out at you,” she added, for the ghosts they’d encountered last year had been able to quickly extrude their tongues, which were freezingly, incapacitatingly cold.

    “I’ve got a chicken-wire screen there, to keep them away from me.” Like the screen in a confessional, he thought — except in this case the figures on both sides of the screen are looking for absolution. “And what have you been doing, back east? Are you stillâ¦with the TUA?”

    “Oh.” The question seemed to have startled her. “It’s not the same TUA now, it’s been merged into Naval Intelligence — it’s not the agency that killed Eliot, anymore.” Vickery recalled that Eliot had been the name of her fiance, murdered last year by the TUA when it had still been a rogue, antonymous agency. “I do clerical work there. I — after last year, I just want the rest of my life to beâ¦humdrum. Boring, even.” She laughed without smiling. “Socrates said the unconsidered life is not worth living, but that’s what I want. Wanted.”

    She walked slowly to the trash can and dropped the crumpled wax paper into it, then looked around at the lake and the grass as if to reassure herself that she was still in the blessedly ordinary world. “But then,” she went on in a harsh whisper, “the visions of that terrible old house started intruding, and I — I can’t — I hardly dare sleep anymore, thinking that it’s leading up to something — that I might one day soon see it for real, be standing in front of it!” She turned to him, her eyes frightened. “Do we die there?”

    “I –” Vickery paused, looking past her.

    On the other side of the lake, two men were walking swiftly along the shore-side pavement, and to Vickery they seemed to be looking closely at the people they passed. The dark windbreaker one of them wore reminded him of the two men who had rushed at their car in front of Canter’s.

    He took Castine’s elbow and turned her south, away from the lake. “Don’t look back,” he said, “and don’t visibly hurry — but hurry.”

    She nodded and took long steps off the pavement and across the grass to keep up with his stride. “Bad guys?”

    “I’m pretty sure.”

    “No — how?”

    “Dunno. We’ll try to get on a bus or something before they see us.”

    Past a cluster of acacia trees and a couple of tall palms, he could see traffic moving from left to right on Seventh Street, which lay at right angles to the street on which they had left the car. He tried to remember if there was a bus stop on Seventh along this block. A free taxi, or any taxi at all, would be very unlikely.

    Then his view of the street and cars seemed to flatten. He clutched her arm and whispered, “Oh no!”

    He heard her say, “What –” and then the light dimmed and all sounds faded away to silence.

    He could still feel the grass brushing past under his shoes, and Castine’s arm in his gripping hand, but what he saw was a dilapidated two-story Victorian house fifty yards in front of him, with an eroded dirt slope rising behind it. In the coppery echo light he couldn’t make out the color of the house, and it seemed to crouch out there in front of him like a huge, ragged spider. Several of the downstairs windows were broken, and the broad porch slanted down sharply to the right, its farthest extent partly buried in the sand. A motorcycle, an old Harley Davidson panhead, leaned on its kickstand close to the porch railing.

    Castine was palpably leading him now. They were stepping more slowly but with evident deliberateness, and he hoped she understood that he was — briefly, God willing! — experiencing an involuntary time-spike echo vision.

    From his point of view he was striding quickly toward the old house, and the difference between his real, felt pace and his visually perceived one brought back memories of treading moving walkways at airports. He reminded himself that he was in no sense physically present in the scene he was seeing, and that he couldn’t be sensed by any people who might appear in it.

    And in fact he saw a man step out of the front door, onto the porch. Vickery knew that Castine must have felt his shudder when he recognized the lean face — it was the same face he had seen in an upstairs window, in previous episodes like this.

    Vickery’s view of the house stopped expanding, as if he had halted, though he could feel that he and Castine were still trudging forward; the sensory confusion almost made him stumble, but he concentrated on the texture of the real MacArthur Park grass under his pacing feet.

    He knew that in real time he and Castine must be approaching the edge of the park and the lanes of Seventh Street, but what filled his vision was the porch and the man standing on it. The man’s face was framed by tangles of long dark hair that hung down to the shoulders of his open Nehru jacket, and when the man moved to the porch rail and gripped it, Vickery glimpsed the curved grip of a revolver in the man’s belt. The man looked left and right, and then stared with clear recognition directly into Vickery’s point of view.

    Then the sounds and sunlight of present-day MacArthur park washed over Vickery and he could peripherally see Castine in the yellow blanket to his right — and he found himself looking straight at another face, also alarmingly familiar.

    The eyes behind the round black-framed glasses met Vickery’s for a moment and then swept past him, toward the crowded lawns of the park. Sweat was now trickling down the shaved areas over the young man’s ears, and the white shirt under the red suspenders was darkened across the chest.

    Vickery pushed Castine past him, blocking the man’s view of her and wishing he had bought her a garish head-scarf in addition to the baseball cap.

    Ahead of them, a pearl-white Nissan sedan pulled in to the red curb at the same moment that a voice from behind called, “Hold it, you two.”

    Vickery’s hand was on the grip of his Glock as he spun toward the speaker; it was the young man in red suspenders who had spoken, and he was now facing them and holding a pocket-sized semi-automatic pistol.

    “Turn around, lady.” The young man’s voice was tight with evident tension. “And take off the shades.”

    Vickery’s gun was out and pointed at the man’s chest, but before he could speak, a voice from the street behind him said, loudly, “I will shoot you –” and then went on more quietly, “through the heart, if you do not drop your gun.”

    Several pedestrians had exclaimed and stepped back, and a woman screamed — not loudly, but as if the situation seemed to call for it.

    Gritting his teeth, and relying on the fact that the voice had said “through the heart” rather than “in the back,” Vickery held his own gun steady.

 



 

    Behind the lenses of the round glasses, the young man’s eyes were wide; he lowered the little gun and then let it fall to the grass. “I was only –” he began.

    Vickery stepped quickly to the side so that he could see both speakers, and he noted the moustache and the plaid sportcoat of a man standing now beside the white car that idled at the curb — this one had been in the entry at Canter’s when Vickery and Castine had run out of the place, and he was now holding a big-caliber stainless steel revolver pointed toward the young man in red suspenders.

    “Go!” he shouted now, waving the gun, and then stepped back and opened the rear door of the white sedan. To Vickery and Castine he said, “Inside, quickly! They must not have you.”

    The young man hesitated, then went sprinting away east down the Seventh Street sidewalk.

    Vickery almost started after him — he was one of the people who had stolen The Secret Garden! — but the gray-haired man in the dark windbreaker and his companion were closer, and moving quickly this way.

    “Let’s do it,” said Vickery to Castine. He crouched to snatch up the gun on the grass and toss it to Castine, and then he shoved his own gun back under his belt and scrambled into the back seat after her.

    Their apparent rescuer tucked the revolver under his sportcoat and ran around to get in on the driver’s side. The car’s interior smelled of licorice.

    In moments the car had sped away west on Seventh Street, but not before Vickery had glance out the back window. The young man in the white shirt and suspenders was hurrying away up the sidewalk, and Vickery noticed something like a bulky white handkerchief stuffed into a rear pocket of his black jeans.

    The man behind the wheel raised his right hand. “You needn’t touch your weapons,” he said. “I am employed by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, doing work from the Consulate on Wilshire Boulevard.” He waved ahead vaguely. “You must both leave the Los Angeles region, far, immediately. Funds if necessary can be provided.” He glanced at Vickery in the rear view mirror. “I think,” he went on, “you do not know why those various men are pursuing you.”

    Vickery was breathing carefully and focusing through the windshield at the sunlit cars in the lane ahead of them, forcing his eyes to comprehend volume, depth of field; he didn’t want to fall into another involuntary echo vision.

    “No, we don’t,” said Castine. “Do you know why?”

    “Guesses based on guesses are of no value. My concern is the recovery of an artifact that was negligently curated long ago.” He lifted one hand from the wheel in a dismissive wave. “I will drive you now to the LAX airport, and you will get a flight, do you understand? These men are following you by some means, but they no longer have time to chase you in a distant city. Do you have money, and identification, for tickets?”

    “Uh,” said Castine, giving Vickery a bewildered, questioning look.

    Equally puzzled, he just shrugged. At least this is getting us away from the guy in the dark windbreaker, he thought. Just so this fellow doesn’t insist on seeing us actually buy tickets.

    Vickery cleared his throat. “Well — yes.”

    “Good,” said their driver. “In a few days their project will have become ended, willy nilly, and you could safely return, no matter what their intentions toward you have been.”

    “Why will their project be ended in a few days?” Vickery asked.

    “I will have retrieved the artifact by then, and taken it back to Cairo.”

    The man had hesitated very slightly before the word taken, and Vickery was certain that he meant in fact to destroy the artifact, whatever it was.

    Castine might have noticed it too. “What sort of artifact is it?” she asked.

    “Very new and very old. If you have cell phones, you can arrange a flight even now.”

    “We don’t,” said Vickery.

    “No matter. It is a large airport, there will be many flights available.”

 


 

    Harlowe’s men had all fanned out across the park, circling the lake, and Elisha Ragotskie now just needed to get away. The white car had disappeared into the westbound traffic, taking his Beretta Pico with it, so he sprinted across the lanes of Seventh Street to the sidewalk on the south side and began walking rapidly east, his head down. After a few steps he pulled his conspicuous red suspenders off his shoulders and tucked them messily into his black jeans. He was panting, and afraid to look across the street. Harlowe would certainly have Taitz kill him, if they saw him.

    Ragotskie looked down at his right hand, which was still visibly trembling. Would I, he wondered, have been able, actually, to shoot the Castine woman? My finger was on the trigger, the gun was pointed at the middle of her. She was wearing sunglasses, so I couldn’t see her eyes — I wonder if I’d actually have been able to pull the trigger, if I’d seen her eyes. It was so much easier, so much less momentous, to shake cyanide powder into her water glass!

    And who the hell was that man in the midtown orange-plaid sportcoat? If I hadn’t burned my bridges with Harlowe, I’d tell him there seems to be another player in the situation.

    Ragotskie ached to talk to his onetime lover, Agnes Loria, but, as she was now, she might very well just turn him over to Harlowe.

    Ragotskie had cautiously followed Harlowe’s three-car procession to MacArthur Park, and when two of the cars had split off to loop around the north half of the park, Harlowe’s SUV had stopped at a red no-parking curb on Wilshire. Harlowe and Taitz and Foster had all climbed out and gone loping away across the grass, leaving only Tony the driver in the vehicle.

    Ragotskie had stopped his own Audi right behind it, and then left the motor running while he grabbed a heavy flashlight and ran up to the rear passenger-side door of the SUV and with three rapid blows smashed the window. Tony had quickly got out on the driver’s side, shouting; but Ragotskie had leaned in through the ruptured glass, grabbed the polished wooden box off the rear seat, and raced back to his own car.

    He had gunned away in reverse, bouncing up the curb for a few yards and then thumping back onto the street again, while Tony had run after him; but Tony had jumped out of the way when Ragotskie shifted into drive and sped forward.

    Ragotskie had then driven around the park and left his car at a bus stop on the south side — he could see his green Audi now, and he was grateful that it had not been towed.

    He was hurrying past a storefront church and a clinic now, and he peered left and right past cars parked at the curb. Before running back across the lanes of Seventh Street to his car, he patted his back pocket to make sure the bloodstained sock had not fallen out. He couldn’t even remember now what he had done with Harlowe’s wooden box.

    The sock was stiff, and he grimaced and wiped his hand on his damp shirt as he crossed the street to his car.

    Maybe Harlowe, for all his insectile cleverness, had no way of tracing Castine or Vickery besides the sock. Or even if he did, maybe they would have the sense to flee L.A. very fast and far, right now. Without those two, Harlowe’s Singularity project would surely fail, and Agnes Loria would not lose her identity — even if losing it was what she wanted. In that case, Ragotskie would be fortunate in having failed to kill Castine!

    He peered back over the top of the car as he unlocked the door. He didn’t see Taitz or Foster, and he exhaled and relaxed as he got in.

    But Castine and Vickery might hang around. How much did they know? They might have, they probably had, plans of their own. They might even want to approach Harlowe, in some mutually secure location.

    Ragotskie’s face was cold with the realization that he might have to kill Castine, or Vickery, after all.

    The thought nauseated him.

    They had driven away west with the man in the plaid jacket. Luckily Ragotskie’s car was facing that way. He could drive west a few blocks and find a place to park, and then try to make the sock pendulum do its trick.


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