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Forced Perspectives: Chapter Three

       Last updated: Friday, December 27, 2019 06:55 EST



Is Supergirl Thirsty?

    Lateef Fakhouri steered his rented Nissan around the curled onramp onto the northbound 405 freeway, and he was troubled by the way he had handled the pair of fugitives. He had dropped them off at the Delta departures terminal, but he had very little confidence — none, in fact — that they would actually buy tickets and fly to some distant city. He really should have detained them, somehow.

    His present posting with the Ministry of Antiquities was temporary; ordinarily he was employed as a clerk in the research division of the General Intelligence Directorate, in a branch office in Lazhogli Square in Cairo, and his duties until recently had consisted mainly of cross-referencing reports of illegal tunnels between Sinai and Gaza. But while tracing the origins of some wooden ushabti statues looted from a tomb in Saqqara, he had come across a disturbing, decades-old file — it was marked as property of the State Security Investigations Service, which had been shut down shortly after the 2011 revolution. The SSI had purged most of its records in the turbulent days before its official dissolution, but this file, labeled Austria, 1855, had somehow escaped the hasty shredding of files.

    Some of the papers in the file had been very old, having to do with the gift of a number of Pharaonic antiquities to Archduke Maximilian of Austria in 1855; those items had eventually found their way to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, but notes in the SSI file indicated that one particular item, designated Ba: World Soul: Restricted, had disappeared between the initial indexing and a later inventory conducted in 1862. The item was described as a fired clay panel of Third Dynasty hieroglyphics, four or five thousand years old. A report dated 1922, badly translated from the French, indicated that the artifact had been destroyed in Paris, but noted — with evident disapproval — that a Norwegian Egyptologist had photographed it beforehand.

    Lateef Fakhouri had been ready to consign the file to the vast records archive at Heliopolis when he noticed newer pages on blue-lined notebook paper tucked into a pocket at the back of the file. These proved to be handwritten notes made by the assembler of the file, an SSI agent named Khalid Boutros, who had died in the 1990s.

    According to these notes, Boutros had become concerned about the Norwegian Egyptologist’s photograph of the lost artifact after viewing some — Fakhouri had had to read the words twice — some coloring books published in Los Angeles in 1966. A page cut from one of the coloring books was paper-clipped to Boutros’s notes; printed on the page was a complicated stylized design, and in the margin someone had written, in blurred and faded ball-point ink, Acid test, Cinema Theater, Hollywood, February 25 ’66.

    From the description in the 1855 transfer index, the SSI agent Khalid Boutros had known that the clay panel of hieroglyphs had originally been taken from a particular tomb in Saqquara, the ancient necropolis twenty miles south of Cairo, and he had driven out there in 1967. According to his notes, Boutros had spent two days picking his way among the weathered walls and tumbled stones of the necropolis until, in a sand-clogged corridor near the pyramid of Djoser, he had found the recessed rectangular patch that the clay panel had once occupied. It was high up on a shadowed wall, and Boutros had piled up stones to reach the spot. A corner of the missing panel had still been clinging to the wall, and from the state of that fragment Boutros had somehow come to conclusions that impelled him to fly to Los Angeles.

    The only notes which might have referred to that trip, and which apparently concluded the file, were a few words scrawled on the back of the last sheet of lined paper: Chronic egregore, neutralized by Nu hieroglyph, and below that, Saqqara fragment inert, as of 31/10/68. In Christian cultures, 31/10 was All Hallow’s Eve — Halloween.

    And behind the last page of notes was a photograph of a hieroglyph depicting three pots, three wavy lines, and what appeared to be a bracket laid on its side like a table. On the back of the photograph someone, presumably Khalid Boutros, had scrawled NU.

    Fakhouri had looked up the word “egregore,” and found that it was used in Eliphas Levy’s book Le Grand Arcane, posthumously published in 1868, to describe ancient quasi-angelic beings dangerous to mankind; though in the writings of the later Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the term referred to a kind of group-mind, arising from a number of strongly aligned individual human minds but existing independent of them, autonomous — a new and superior category of being.

    For a week Fakhouri had brooded on the enigmatic old file, and then he had done two things.

    First, he had put an aluminum ladder in the back of his car and driven south to the ruins of Saqqara, and, following Khalid Boutros’s old account, had found the section of wall from which the ancient panel had been taken. He had to roll aside the stones Boutros had stacked there fifty years earlier in order to set up his ladder. Crouched with a flashlight at the top of it, Fakhouri had seen the fragment of fired clay that remained on the wall, as Boutros had described; but when he touched it, his hand sprang away. It was vibrating, and as hot as a pan over a high flame. Anything but “inert.”

    Then, back in his office, Fakhouri had put through an official research request for any recently published American coloring books, especially any that might originate in or around the city of Los Angeles. The request must have struck the consulate and embassy staffs as peculiar, but there had been no indignant replies.

    While waiting for results, he had dug out some research volumes on the gods of ancient Egypt, and found that Ba, represented in hieroglyphs by a hawk with a man’s head, wasn’t a specific god, but was a “world soul” — something analogous to a magnetic field or carrier wave — that defined, and even permitted the existence of, gods. And Nu, he learned, was the oldest of the ancient Egyptian gods, and was likewise more of a force than a person — it embodied profound absence, lack of form, the ultimate welcoming void. It was represented by the sea.

    And when a bundle of new coloring books had eventually been delivered to his office, he’d found in several of them the same intricate, stylized pattern that Khalid Boutros had found in the coloring book from 1966. These new coloring books, in both English and Spanish, were apparently aimed at adults, consisting mainly of diagrams of people sitting yoga-style or standing with spread arms and rays emanating out of their heads, but the mysterious pattern occupied the first and last pages. These coloring books had been printed in 2017 by a company — ChakraSys Inc. — that was located in Los Angeles.

    Fakhouri had noticed that the many curved and straight lines in the center of the repeated pattern formed the profile outline of a hawk with a spike-bearded human head.

    After he had put all the flimsy booklets away in a desk drawer, he had tried to recall the profile outline — and it seemed to him that it had differed, in some lines, from the illustrations of the Ba hieroglyph he had seen in the reference books. And he was obscurely glad that he had not stared at it for more than a few seconds.

    The patchwork data he had assembled so far was troubling:

    A variant depiction of Ba, the World Soul, on a hieroglyph panel — restricted, eventually destroyed, but photographed some time before 1922 — appearing decades later in coloring books in California, in connection with some enterprise — some egregore? — that Boutros had believed he had stopped in October of ’68 by somehow using the contrary Nu hieroglyph. And Boutros had confirmed the closure of the affair to his own satisfaction by again visiting the wall in Saqqara from which the panel had originally been taken, and finding the remaining fragment of it reassuringly “inert.”

    Saqqara fragment inert, as of 31/10/68

    Boutros had stopped it then, at any rate.

    But when Fakhouri had recently touched the fragment on the wall in Saqqara, it was hot, and vibrating — no longer describable as inert. And now the image-concealing pattern was again appearing in coloring books printed in Los Angeles. Whatever phenomenon it was that old Khalid Boutros had discovered and stymied in 1968 — Ba: World Soul: Restricted — Chronic egregore — it was evidently happening again.

    Nobody in the General Intelligence Directorate was likely to take these vague and outlandish suspicions seriously, so Fakhouri had told his chief that he had discovered some possible irregularities in the “King Tut: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh” exhibit at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, and requested a temporary transfer to the Ministry of Antiquities, which had organized the exhibition. The transfer had been approved by both agencies, and Fakhouri had been assigned to the Los Angeles Egyptian Consulate.

    And he had begun his investigation by tracing the source of the new coloring books — ChakraSys Publications.





    When the pearl-white Ford pulled into the parking lot and slowed, and then stopped fifty yards away from the back side of the ChakraSys building, a boy who had been sitting beside a bicycle in the shade of a camphor tree stood up and got on the bike and began pedaling across the hot asphalt. His gray hoodie was thrown back, and the wind fluttered his uncombed black hair.

    Within the last half hour, three U-Haul trucks had driven into the lot and backed up to the rear entrance of the ChakraSys building, and people were carrying desks and lamps out and wrestling them up the ramps of the trucks.

    The boy halted his bike by the rolled-up driver’s side window of the Ford. This car had driven into the parking lot several times over the last couple of days, and had always parked this way, far from the ChakraSys building but in a position to watch it.

    The window buzzed down, and the boy noted for the first time that the man behind the wheel had a moustache and black hair — perhaps he was Hispanic too.

    “Can I help you?” the man said in a harried tone.

    “You’re afraid of them,” the boy said, “but you watch.” The man just blinked out at him in evident confusion, and the boy went on, “I watch them also.”

    “Them? What them?”

    The boy nodded toward the U-Haul trucks.

    “Uh⦔ The man scratched his nose. “So why is it that you watch them?”

    The boy squinted speculatively at him, then said, “I mean to stop them. I think you do too.”

    The man laughed weakly. “How have they offended you?” He raised one hand and flipped his fingers toward Venice Boulevard. “Go home, young bey.”

    The boy sighed and glanced at the trucks. “They mean to make a monster, did you know that?”

    “A monster.” The man sighed, looking at the trucks. “You could say so.”

    “And Simon Harlowe’s people killed a man I loved, who knew about them and tried to fight them.” The boy braced one foot on a pedal, ready to ride away quickly; then pulled at the back of his hoodie, and when the fabric over his right pocket was drawn tight, the raised outline of a pistol was visible. “I want to finish my friend’s work, and avenge him.”

    The man recoiled in the car seat. “Ach, so many guns here! Even a child! And Simon Harlowe is not in that building now — he is off pursuing two people he wants for his, his monster. Go home, forget this, leave it to othersâ¦and throw that thing away.”

    “My home is wherever I am. What people?”

    The man laughed again, no more strongly than before. Perhaps to himself, he muttered, “Two people who drove a taco truck to Hell, and came back, in this mad country. Go away now, boy.”

    The boy nodded. “Sebastian Vickery and Ingrid Castine.”

    The man was staring intently at him now, and twice he opened his mouth and closed it without saying anything. Finally he asked, “Who are you?”

    “Santiago.” The boy went on, “I watch and carry messages — I keep track of things. Vickery and Castine owe me money, they are not for Harlowe’s monster.”

    “And you know — you know? — about Harlowe, ChakraSys, what they are doing?”

    Santiago nodded solemnly. “I know what my friend told me, and what the freeway gypsies say.”

    After a moment of hesitation, the man waved toward the trucks and spoke quickly: “Harlowe is obviously moving his base of operations, and I need to follow them. But — ya allah, saa’edni! — how can I get in touch with you?”

    Santiago recited the number of one of his disposable phones, and as the man scribbled it on a receipt from the console, he asked, “And who are you?”

    “Oh — it is best that you don’t know. What you –”

    “I won’t work with someone whose name I don’t know.”

    The man looked at him and laughed in surprise. “But how can you know I’ll tell you my real name?”

    Santiago waved toward the ChakraSys building and the people carrying furniture into the trucks. “You work against the Harlowe pulgas, so you are like my friend, who they killed. And he was honest.”

    The man barked one syllable of a surprised laugh. “A street urchin compels me! Well, so be it, inshallah.” Carefully he said, “I am Lateef Fakhouri.”

    Santiago nodded. “Call me if you think you can help me in this fight.” He nodded, then stepped up on the pedal and rode away from the car toward Venice Boulevard.

    Sebastian Vickery and Ingrid Castine, back in Los Angeles! Santiago wished his surrogate father had not been killed — old Isaac Laquedem would have known what to do here.



    At the airport, Vickery and Castine had waited inside the Delta terminal until their enigmatic rescuer had steered his white Nissan back into the flow of traffic. When the car had disappeared in the one-way current of taxis and shuttle buses, they had walked to the International terminal, got into a taxi there, and asked to be driven to MacArthur Park. They didn’t speak during the twenty-minute ride except to make absent-minded small talk; Vickery remarked on the resemblance of several downtown L.A. office buildings to rocket ships, and Castine noted that modern cars all used to look like computer mouses and now all looked like trendy athletic shoes.

    At the street on the west side of MacArthur Park, Vickery told the taxi driver to halt a few car-lengths short of his old Saturn, which was still sitting where he’d parked it, and he looked around before opening the taxi door; but he didn’t see anyone in a dark windbreaker or red suspenders. He stepped out onto the pavement and paid the driver.

    “At this point,” he said to Castine as she climbed out and hurried with him toward the Saturn, “I think we may have lost our friends from Canter’s. Neither of us can have anything as big as a GPS tracker stuck to us, and a radio frequency tag’s only good for a hundred yards or so.”

    “I don’t have a tag on me,” she said. “You think I wouldn’t notice one? — stuck on, I don’t know, the rental car’s key fob?”

    He opened the Saturn’s passenger-side door for her. “It might be the fob itself,” he said. “You should throw it away. For all I know, they can –”

    “What happened to you, there,” she interrupted, “just before that guy pulled a gun on us? It was like you were blind for a few seconds.”

    “Get in. I — I had a vision of the old house. Spontaneous, obviously I wasn’t trying to see by echo vision when it happened. It just –”

    He paused and looked past her. A teenage girl who had been riding a bicycle down the sidewalk had braked to a sudden stop six feet away, and visibly shuddered. She mumbled something, then said clearly, speaking to no one, “â¦to Canter’s in her rented Honda. We can take her blood pressure any time.”

    The girl shook her head as if to clear it, then glanced around and gave Vickery and Castine an embarrassed smile, and pedaled away.

    Castine stared after her for a moment, then got into the car and pulled the door closed, and Vickery hurried around and got in on the other side.

    “You’ve got a billfold or something?” he asked as he closed the door and quickly started the engine. “For ID and credit cards?” When she tapped her jacket and nodded, he went on, “And a return airline ticket, I assume. Why didn’t you stay at the airport?”

    He had backed the Saturn out of the parking slot and now clicked the engine into drive and accelerated north toward Wilshire Boulevard.

    Castine was facing him, and her eyes were wide. “She was talking about me, wasn’t she? My rental car is a Honda.”

    “Yeah, I think she was. Damn.”

    “Like she was talking in her sleep!”

    Vickery turned right on the boulevard, driving now along the curve of Wilshire between the north and south expanses of the park, with the lake on the right. “I should loop around and get you back to the airport, fast,” he said. “Why the hell didn’t you stay there, after Omar Sharif dropped us off? You’ve only got trouble in L.A.”

    Castine slumped in her seat and looked straight ahead. “Oh shut up, can’t you? My flight’s not till tomorrow.”

    He rocked his head back and forth as if her answer settled the question.

    “And Omar Sharif is dead,” she added. She pulled a keyring from her pocket and began sliding the single key off the ring.

    Vickery sighed. “True.” Absently, watching the traffic, he said, “He was great in Doctor Zhivago.”

    Castine just muttered, “She was talking about me!”

    “Look,” Vickery said, “I’m going to reconnoiter, at my place in Barstow. You can come along, or I can take you back to the airport.”

    She rolled down the window and tossed the keyring and fob out, and pocketed the key. “That probably wasn’t it, was it? The key fob?”



    “Probably not. But it was a good idea to get rid of it anyway. It wouldn’t hurt to get you a whole fresh set of clothes, from the skin out, though that might not help either.”

    “You really think they can still track us?” she said, rolling the window back up. “Or specifically me?”

    “God knows. With luck their method isn’t very long-range, whatever it is. And Barstow’s separated from L.A. by a twelve-thousand-foot height of rock.” When she gave him a haggard, incredulous look, he explained, “The Cajon Pass is four-thousand foot elevation, and the plain-old curvature of the earth adds another eight or nine thousand feet to that. And the curvature is shallow at either end, obviously, but from here to Barstow it’s a hundred and fourteen miles wide.”

    “Let’s go to Barstow. Fast.”

    “Are you sure? The airport’s –”

    “I said Barstow! I — dammit, my flight’s not till tomorrow, I told you.”

    He just nodded. And in spite of his concern for her, he was glad she was staying. Last year, when she volunteered to accompany him in a terrible-odds dive into the Labyrinth afterworld, old Isaac Laquedem had told Vickery, You’ll need help. Respect her choice.

    “Okay,” he said finally, shifting to the left lane to pass a slow-moving bus. “I’m glad.” Then he added, diffidently, “We do have to make a slight detour on the way. To, uh, Hollywood Boulevard.”

    “What?” She slapped the dashboard. “Why, for God’s sake? Just drive straight out of here to Barstow, right now!”

    “I think we need to find out about that old wrecked house that’s been pre-empting our usual echo vision. Why it’s closer, and later in that day, every time we see it. I can’t believe it’s a coincidence that it started happening right before these guys decided to grab us. There’s –”

    “Grab you. With the baby carriage.”

    He waved a hand impatiently. “I’m part of us. There’s somebody we need to consult.”

    “Who, that Laquedem guy? You said you couldn’t find him.”

    “No. Um — a superhero, actually.”

    Castine had been craning her neck to look behind them, but now she flopped back in her seat again and closed her eyes. “You’re all I’ve got,” she said. “You’re not going crazy, are you? Superheroes, curvature of the earth?” Now she was giving him a worried look. “Say something sane.”

    He smiled bleakly, his eyes on the cars ahead. “You and I are not normal people.”

    “Huh.” She shook her head. “That’s not sane, that’s just true.”

    “I’m going to catch the 110 north, up here. If you want to think sane thoughts, you should probably close your eyes again.”

    It had been from a spot on the northbound 110 that Castine and Vickery had exited the real world last year, and found themselves in the nightmare Labyrinth afterworld.

    She rubbed both hands over her face, and pushed her hair back and exhaled. “Oh, I remember,” she said. For a while she just swayed in her seat as Vickery swerved from lane to lane, passing slower vehicles, and she might have been thinking about their time in that savagely counter-rational world. “Do you still go to church?” she said finally. “Latin Mass?”

    “They don’t have Latin Mass in Barstow, but yes, I still make it to Mass on Sundays. I went yesterday.” He spared her a sideways glance. “Last year, when it was all over, you told me you got a rosary. Do you still have it?”

    “No. No, I moved to an apartment in Gaithersburg, and it must have got lost.”


    She quickly went on, “Do you think that guy, your Omar Sharif, is really with the Egyptian Antiquities Patrol, or whatever it was? It’s weird he just told us to get out of town.”

    “He’s really from Egypt, at least,” said Vickery, “that’s a Masri Arabic accent. What was it, ‘an artifact that was negligently curated’?”

    “‘Long ago,'” agreed Castine. “I got the idea he means to destroy it. Do you suppose he was following us too?”

    “My impression was that he was monitoring the other crowd, and stepped in quick to stop Red Suspenders from shooting you. You’ve still got his gun, I trust.”

    “You were pretty quick there yourself, especially just coming out of a vision. Yes.” She pulled the little gun out of her jacket pocket and held it in her lap. “How soon till we’re on the 110?”

    “A few more miles yet. Say ten minutes.”

    “I might shut my eyes when we drive by that spot.” She stretched and yawned, and Vickery knew it was a yawn of tension rather than fatigue. “So are we allies again? Like last year?”

    “Looks like it.”

    “Friends, even, as I recall.” She found the magazine release button on the gun and popped the magazine out, then pulled the slide back, ejecting a .380 round. “I didn’t really lose the rosary,” she said, staring down at the gun as she let the slide snap back. “I’ve even been to Mass, a couple of times.” She pulled the trigger, and with a tiny click some part of the gun flew out onto the floor.

    She bent down and picked up a tiny metal rod, and held it out on her palm.

    Vickery glanced at it. “The firing pin. I guess you weren’t supposed to dry-fire it. Never mind, I’ve got a couple of spare guns at home.”

    She dropped the firing pin in the ashtray, and seemed relieved that the gun had changed the subject.



    Vickery parked in a lot off Highland Avenue, a block south of Hollywood Boulevard, and he and Castine walked up to the crowded black sidewalk with its inset pink stars, and paused in the recessed entry of a store called Souvenirs of Hollywood. A cold wind was blowing straight down the boulevard from the west, and Castine pulled her jacket tighter and gripped her elbows.

    “She’ll probably be out in front of the Chinese Theater, across the street,” Vickery said. Castine still hadn’t asked, so he explained, “The person we’re looking for is one of the costumed superheroes that tourists pay to have their picture taken with.”

    Castine rolled her eyes but didn’t say anything.

    The traffic light ahead of them switched from red to the green silhouette of a walking man, and masses of pedestrians in bright T-shirts or tank tops or grimy overcoats stepped out onto the pavement, moving simultaneously straight ahead across Hollywood Boulevard and to the right across Highland, and even diagonally to the far corner, since the crosswalks at this intersection formed a big square with an X in the middle, and all motor traffic faced red lights. Vickery and Castine moved with the northbound stream of the crowd, glancing cautiously around at the brightly dressed tourists and bearded street lunatics jostling them, and on the sunny north sidewalk Castine hurried out of the crowd to stand beside a wide window in the shade under an awning. Over the awning, Vickery had noticed tall letters on a higher row of windows spelling out LIVE YOUR LIFE.

    Castine had seen it too. “I’d like to live my life,” she said crossly. “We should have picked a different city to meet up in. Does everywhere in L.A. smell like marijuana?” She glanced left and right at the bobbing heads of the people moving in conflicting eddies in both directions on the sidewalk in front of them.

    More quietly, she asked, “Do you think any of these are ghosts?”

    “Among all these — sure, a few, though not as many as there would have been last year, before you and I closed the afterworld conduit.” He looked away from the rocking parade of now-questionable profiles to look at her. “I imagine there’s one or two who’ll soon spin away to nothing, which will startle any tourists who’re able see them. But the ones who attached themselves to us then are gone.”

    She tugged the cuffs of her jacket and pulled the bill of her Hollywood baseball cap further down. “I’d like to get home without picking up any new ones.”

    “Right. We shouldn’t hold still anyway, in case everybody’s following our trail of breadcrumbs or whatever. Let’s see if we can find Supergirl.”

    “Supergirl.” Castine’s voice was flat.

    Vickery just nodded and took her arm. Rejoining the pedestrian stream, he led the way west along the broad, glittering black sidewalk, past curbside evangelists and pirated-CD sellers and plain beggars, choosing paths where the crowd ahead opened up for a moment, and soon they stepped out of the flux into the more static crowd in the Chinese Theater forecourt. Here the stiller air smelled of car exhaust and sunblock and chocolate from the Ghirardelli’s ice cream parlor on the other side of the boulevard.

    A Captain Jack Sparrow, in full pirate costume and beaded beard, was standing between a couple of girls while an older woman took their picture with a phone, and when the tourists had hurried off toward a towering yellow Transformer figure, Vickery caught the Sparrow’s eye and held up a palm with a twenty-dollar bill crimped in it.



    “Not a picture,” Vickery told him. “I’m looking for Supergirl.”

    “Got a couple of such, mate,” said the Jack Sparrow.

    “I mean –” Vickery paused; Rachel Voss might not want her name known to just any superhero on the boulevard. “She used to be Wonder Woman, but she was really too short for that.”

    The Jack Sparrow nodded and reached out and took the bill. “She was over by the Ghirardelli a few minutes ago. Can’t have got too far.”

    Vickery nodded and took Castine’s elbow again as he eased and sidestepped back out to the sidewalk. As they pushed their way through the crowd to the right, toward a crosswalk, she leaned in close to him to be heard over the multilingual babble around them.

    “Supergirl?” she said again, more insistently.

    “When I was an L.A. cop,” he said, “she was what they call a CRI, confidential reliable informant. You’re supposed to register all your CRIs with a central database, but I kept a few of them secret, and she was one of those. She was very good with some ATM fraud cases I handled, but she was always –”

    He paused while they separated around a Captain America.

    “She was always,” he went on when they had rejoined on the far side, “telling me about occult activity in Hollywood. When I was a cop I didn’t pay much attention to that stuff, but last year I looked her up because I needed to get in touch with somebody who could allegedly talk to ghosts.”


    “Right,” he said, pausing at the crosswalk. “She steered me to him. Of all my old contacts, she’s likeliest to know who to ask about our haunted house visions.”

    At the curb below a towering Madame Tussaud’s wax museum sign, a man was hunched over a smoking grill, turning browned bratwursts and sliding them into split rolls.

    Castine nodded in that direction. “I once thought we were going to get lunch at that deli.”

    The light turned green, and Vickery stepped into the street. “You had a tamale,” he said. “And I’ve got stuff in Barstow.”

    “Stuff,” she said, falling into step beside him. “But you’re right, we shouldn’t slow down any more than we — maybe — have to.”

    “There’s a good chance that Rachel’s worth the delay,” he said, standing on tip-toe to scan the crowd to the east. “I just wish she were taller.”

    They had sidled and edged their way past the ornate foyer of the El Capitan Theater when someone tapped Vickery on the shoulder, and when he quickly turned around he saw the short, blonde figure of Supergirl, still trim and fit-looking in her red and blue Krypton suit.

    “I think you’re Herbert Woods,” she said, using his nearly forgotten real name. She had stepped back, apparently leaving herself room to duck away if he was not.

    “Hi, Rachel,” he said. He pulled Castine back and said, “This is Ingrid, a friend of mine.”

    Rachel nodded politely. “Jack Sparrow sent a relay hand-jive signal that somebody was looking for me and coming this way, so I was waiting behind the box office here to see who it was. You’re lucky I recognized you again — a beard now? And where have you been? I’ve heard some weird stories.”

    “Out of town,” he said. “Is Supergirl thirsty?”

    “What do you think? It’s got to be after four, Boardner’s should be open.”

    The crowd thinned out when they had walked the two blocks east to Cherokee Avenue, and Rachel was able to stop explaining to tourists that she was on a break and not open to posing for photographs. Vickery led the way around the corner and across the narrower street, and as he held open the door of Boardner’s he looked back and scanned the 180-degree view, and sighed with relief to see no sign of pursuers or watchers. He stepped inside after his two companions.

    The interior was dim, lit mainly by the glow of blue lights under the glass shelves behind the bar, but Rachel led the way to the booth she and Vickery had occupied a year and a half ago. Vickery and Castine sat down on one side, facing Rachel.

    “I bet,” Rachel began, then paused when a waitress stopped at their booth to take drink orders — a large Coke for Castine, a Coors beer for Vickery, and a sidecar for Rachel; “I bet,” she went on when the waitress had moved away, “you’re the woman this guy is supposed to have gone to Hell with!”

    Castine looked at Vickery, who nodded. “Yes,” she said.

    “I’d like to hear that story sometime,” said Rachel, scratching at her scalp under the blonde wig. “I heard you flew out in a hot-air balloon.”

    “A hang-glider, actually,” said Vickery. “I’ll tell you about it another time. Right now we need a pen and paper.”

    Castine slid the billfold from her inner jacket pocket and unclipped a pen from one side. “You can draw on the back of the rental contract for the Honda,” she said, pulling that free. “I’m afraid I’ll never return it.”

    “Okay,” said Vickery, beginning to sketch on the back side of the stiff paper, “we’d like you to ask around among your witchy contacts, Rachel, to see if –”

    Castine was watching him draw. “Leave room for two gables on the roof,” she interjected.

    “Oh yeah,” said Vickery, nodding.

    The drinks arrived, and he paused to take a long sip of the cold beer. “I think I’d be wise to have another of these,” he told the waitress.

    When she had smiled and nodded and withdrawn, he went on, “Ask your people if they know anything about a house that looks like this.” He inked in the ground floor verandah, tilted and partly sunk in the ground on the right side. “This is sand,” he said, writing the word below. “And the whole building is dark — brown or gray.” He drew wavy lines behind the drawing of the three-story house, then decided that they just looked like smoke, and wrote “dirt slope behind the house” to make it clear.

    Rachel put down her drink and craned her neck to see the picture. “It looks kind of wrecked.”

    “Yeah, there’s sand piled up on the left side here too.” He drew some bumps there, and wrote sand below them. “I think the whole ground floor was flooded sometime, and it’s probably full of sand all the way through.”

    “And –” said Castine, hesitantly touching a rectangle that represented one of the left-side ground floor windows, “there’s a spiral staircase inside.”

    Vickery frowned. “I never saw that.”

    “Somebody was going upstairs once,” Castine said. “I could tell.”

    “It’d help if I knew where it is,” said Rachel.

    “We don’t know,” Vickery told her. “We think it’s probably in the L.A. area.”

    Rachel was staring at them. “But you’ve seen it; seen people moving in it. What, in a movie?”

    “Inâ¦visions, sort of,” said Vickery. “And I think it involves a group of people who tried to grab us a couple of hours ago.”

    Castine had been crunching an ice cube from her glass of Coke, and now swallowed it and said, “And maybe an Egyptian artifact.”

    “Oh, right,” said Vickery, “these guys may have some sort of artifact that the Egyptian government wants back. We’ve got to run, but could we meet here again tomorrow? Say four o’clock?”

    Rachel gave him a suspicious look over the top of her glass. She set it down and said, “Is your ‘group of people’ still after you?”

    “I don’t think they can trace us,” said Vickery, “and anyway we got here fast — but yes, I’m sure they’re still after us. So we really should go. What sort of donation to the Justice League of America do you think would be appropriate?”

    “Am I going to get in the middle of something, even just asking about this place?”

    “I — don’t know,” said Vickery. “I don’t know the shape of this situation at all.”

    “You always were honest, and you did keep my name off the LAPD snitch list. A long time ago.” Rachel stood up and drained the last of her drink. “I think this is a thousand bucks, Woods. Even if I come back here tomorrow with nothing for you — even if I plain stand you up.”

    Castine had squeaked when she heard the amount, but Vickery hesitated only a moment before nodding and reaching into his pocket. Before becoming Bill Ardmore, he had cashed out his old Secret Service 401k and a settlement from the Transportation Utility Agency, and divided the cash and hidden it in several locations; and he had brought five thousand dollars with him when he had driven down from Barstow.

    “You’ve always been honest too, Rachel,” he said. He pulled the roll of hundred dollar bills from his pocket and peeled off ten of them.

    Castine gave Rachel a wide-eyed look. “You can at least pay for the drinks!”

    Rachel smiled and adjusted her wig and cape. “I got it. You two split.”

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