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Forced Perspectives: Chapter Four

       Last updated: Wednesday, January 8, 2020 05:31 EST

 


 

If You’d Just Try

    Leaving Los Angeles at last, Vickery and Castine drove east to San Bernardino, then up through the Cajon Pass into the Mojave Desert. They stopped for half an hour at the little town of Hesperia, thirty-five miles north of San Bernardino, then they were on the freeway again.

    During the straight forty-mile drive up the 15 freeway north of Hesperia, Vickery eventually realized that it wasn’t the few other cars on the sun-baked lanes that Castine kept hitching around to look at, but the flat expanses of the desert itself, dotted with star-thistle and saltbush weeds, stretching away to distant foothills.

    “Civilization again soon,” he told her finally. “Just a bit more curvature.”

    She nodded. “We should have got some Cokes or something,” she said absently, “when we stopped in Hesperia.” She slid lower in her seat, as if to avoid being seen — though the nearest car was a hundred yards ahead of them. “The sun’s going down,” she said faintly, “but I’m glad the sky is still blue.”

    Vickery nodded sympathetically without looking away from the onrushing pavement. The Labyrinth afterworld had had the appearance of a desert ringed by low hills, with a highway curving through it, but the turbulent sky there had been various shades of brown.

    “I know what you mean,” he said. “When I first moved out here, I liked to drive with the windows down, so I could be sure it was fresh air outside.” At the moment the car’s air-conditioner was set to the maximum, and he was keeping an eye on the temperature and battery gauges.

    “What if we were to see that house,” said Castine, with a visible shiver, “now, way out there in the desert?”

    Vickery’s lips pulled back from his teeth. “With a figure standing on the roof — beckoning.”

    “Shut up! Where the hell do you live, anyway?” She plucked bewilderedly at the denim jacket she was now wearing. “Yesterday I still had a — an identity!”

    In Hesperia they had found a Ross Dress for Less store, and she had bought entirely new clothing and shoes; they had stashed her old things, including her billfold, in a locker at the Greyhound bus station. She had kept only her driver’s license, which was now in the front pocket of her new jeans. The Hollywood baseball cap she had left in a shopping cart.

    Eventually a little cluster of buildings became visible on the flat horizon ahead, and within a few minutes Vickery was driving past it — an outlet mall, with Target and Skechers and Old Navy stores and broad parking lots ringed with young camphor trees.

    “Barstow in just a couple of miles,” he said, “though you can’t see much of it because of the concrete-block sound walls. Not that there’s much to see anyway.”

    And in fact tan sound walls were virtually all there was to be seen of Barstow, and Vickery drove through it in only a couple of minutes. Out past the east end of town, the view on either side of the highway was nothing but tumbleweeds and a few anonymous buildings in the distance, and low hills on the horizon.

    Castine looked back. “We’re in the desert again,” she said uneasily. “I think you passed it.”

    “Nearly there.”

    Soon an overpass loomed ahead, and Vickery eased the car into the right lane. “That’s Old Highway 58, coming up,” he said. “When we pass under it, look at the little shelf up where the slope meets the underside of the bridge. That’s where I’ve got my nest. We’ll drive out to it.”

    “To talk to ghosts, I suppose,” said Castine as Vickery steered the Saturn around the off-ramp and under the freeway bridge, heading north now. The sun was above the remote bumpy horizon to his left, and he swung the visor to the side to shade his eyes.

    “There’s a few things I want to check,” he agreed.

    “Ghosts are all idiots.”

    “True, but they do love to talk.”

    The highway curled around to the northwest for half a mile, and then there were widely spaced houses visible ahead, and Vickery made a left turn onto a two lane road flanked by occasional old trailers and houses set well back from the narrow pavement.

    Having traced a long loop, Vickery drove under an overpass of the 15 freeway that they’d traversed a few minutes earlier, and soon steered right, into the driveway of a small trailer park. His own single-wide trailer was around to the rear of the fenced-in area, its back side facing a mile of empty scrub with railroad tracks beyond.

    He stopped the Saturn beside a set of wooden steps that led up to a narrow wooden porch and the trailer’s front door, and at last switched off the engine. In the ensuing quiet, he could hear country western music from a nearby radio mingling with the rustle of dry wind in the bordering trees.

    Castine had opened the passenger side door and swung her legs out onto the gravel, but paused to stretch before climbing stiffly out. The warm air smelled of heated stone and creosote.

    “Eight hours in a coach airline seat, and now two hours in a car,” she said. “I’ll never stand up straight again.” She stepped unsteadily away from the car and shut the door. “I hope we’re not going back to L.A.”

    Vickery closed the driver’s side door. “Not today.”

    Castine looked over the top of the car at the trailer, probably noting the row of spinning pinwheels mounted on the roof. “Have you got a spare room?”

    “The couch in the living room opens to a bed,” he said as he started up the steps. “I’ll take that.”

    “Oh, I can take the couch. You’ve already –”

    “You’re the guest, no arguing.” He unlocked the door, and it opened with a squeal when he tugged on the knob.

    She spread her hands in wry surrender and followed him in.

    They were in the dim kitchen, with a round formica-top table and the refrigerator six feet ahead. He switched on a ceiling light and said, “I’ll get the air going,” and hurried to the left, past the table. A moment later a light came on there in a small living room, and then the clatter of an air conditioner started up.

    “Come on in,” he said. “It’ll be cool in a couple of minutes.”

    Castine stepped around the kitchen table into the living room, and Vickery imagined her response to the old couch and pair of easy chairs, the coffee table with a couple of issues of the New Oxford Review on it, the two standing lamps with yellowed parchment shades, the mismatched rugs partly covering the linoleum floor, and the bookshelves around the windows and over the back door. The place, he realized for the first time, smelled of coffee and motor oil. Could be worse, he thought.

    “Get you a drink?” he said. “Sit down, or sprawl on the couch if you’d rather.”

    “I think I’ll sprawl.” She lowered herself onto the couch, resting her head on one arm and her ankles up on the other. “This is the first time I’ve relaxed inâ¦lots of hours. Are we for sure safe here, fromâ¦whoever?”

    “I think so. Drink?”

    “Ohâ¦whiskey, if you’ve got any, with ice. Bourbon, rye, scotch, whatever. You think so?”

    Vickery stepped into the kitchen. “Well, we’ve certainly got no electronic tags on us now,” he called as he opened a cabinet over the sink, “nothing rational. As for irrational, each of those pinwheels on the roof has a bit of organic stuff — wood, bone, leather –”

    “– With a terminally subsumed ghost in it,” guessed Castine.

    “Right. Mounted at the hub. When they’re all whirling — and it’s always windy here — they project definitive nullity, nobody here, to most kinds of supernatural scanning.” He fetched down a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon and a couple of glasses. “At least I’m pretty sure they would, if anybody were to come snooping around with dowsing rods or a ghost guide or anything like that.”

    He opened the freezer and took an ice-cube tray to the sink and banged the cubes out into a bowl. “I’ve even got Jack Hipple’s pinecone in one of them.”

    “Hah!” came Castine’s voice from the living room. “He’s doing some good at last.”

    Last year they had learned that frightened or exhausted ghosts — or even animate potentials-of-persons that never quite achieved actual existence — could be fixed forever into organic objects, as Vickery had saved his never-conceived daughter in a copy of The Secret Garden. And the ghost of a magic-dabbler and blackmailer called Jack Hipple had at one point collapsed itself into a pinecone, and Vickery had kept it.

    “I hope he gets termites,” said Vickery now.

    He shook ice cubes into the glasses, sloshed a liberal measure of bourbon into each, then picked them up and carried them into the living room.

    “I’ve seen several of Hipple’s ghost portraits on eBay,” said Castine as she took a glass from him. “Thanks! They go for a couple of hundred bucks, usually. People collect this stuff.”

 



 

    Vickery sat down in the easy chair closest to the couch. “I remember he thought the paintings were tethers, to keep a ghost from dissipating. I doubt they still work, if they ever did.”

    Castine took a big sip of her drink and then set the glass on a magazine on the table. “And now you want to go talk to some ghosts — in your nest under the 15 freeway. That’s still possible, I gather.”

    “Sporadically, these days.” He took a liberal sip of his own drink. “There’s a dirt road that takes you to the overpass, and I drive out there a couple of times a week, and the freeway provides enough rapidly moving free wills to generate the old current.”

    She waved her hand in a circle indicating the surrounding area. “Your neighbors wonder about that?”

    “There’s a lot of dirt roads that lead out into the desert in every direction from here, and I make sure I’m seen taking them all, at one time or another. I get in a good deal of shooting practice in real remote spots. That’s covert, but I always conspicuously take a metal detector, and I’ve dropped a few hints about Roswell and the Von Daniken books.”

    “So Bill Ardmore is a saucer nut.”

    “If anybody was to wonder about him, sure. A UFOlogist. I’m going to cook us up something to eat, and then we can drive out to my freeway nest. I’ve got eggs, bacon, onions, cheddar cheese — how about a big old omelette?”

    “Drive out tonight? It’s — it’ll be dark.”

    “The 15 has a fair amount of traffic at all hours, since it’s the way from L.A. to Las Vegas and back, so there’ll be current. And the ghosts come through clearer after sundown — I think ultraviolet interferes with their composition.”

    “And they don’t attack you?” she asked, clearly remembering one they had encountered last year in the Hollywood Forever cemetery.

    “I dragged a roll of chicken wire to the shelf under the bridge, and made a barrier, like a Faraday Cage. It’s an old trick I learned from the freeway gypsies in L.A. Does an omelette sound good? Or I could do scrambled eggs, fried eggs –”

    “But you just had a, an episode, a vision of that awful house, a couple of hours ago! What if it were to happen again, out — ” She waved toward the window, clearly meaning: out there in the desert, at night!

    “I’d come out of it again pretty quick,” he said stolidly. “Either one of us would.” He tipped up his glass for another sip and got one of the ice cubes as well as a mouthful of bourbon.

    “I’ll go with you,” she said firmly, “in the morning.”

    For several seconds neither of them spoke. Vickery chewed the ice cube.

    Then, “You’ll be safe here,” he said gently. “Lock the doors, and I’ll give you a gun. And when I come back, I’ll knock — ” He reached out and rapped knock-knock-knock, knock on the table, ” — before I put the key in the lock, so you’ll know it’s me. I shouldn’t be more than two hours.”

    “Oh, damn you, I’ll go along,” she said angrily. “Omelette, cooked through, not runny. And I want a gun anyway.”

    Vickery nodded respectful acknowledgment and stood up to go back into the kitchen.

 


 

    Only a few surfers still bobbed on the darkening waves out past the surf line, and a chilly onshore breeze had driven most of the beachgoers to pack up their towels and coolers and head for their cars, and the parking lot was a good deal emptier now than when the woman with the two pre-teen girls had arrived. The three of them scuffed quickly now through the loose sand around the volleyball nets, their shadows stretching out in front of them to the parking lot pavement. The woman wore a blue cotton dress that fluttered around her legs, and a leather purse swung on a strap over her shoulder; her eyes were hidden behind sunglasses and her mouth was a tight line. The girls wore identical Batman T-shirts and denim shorts, and they glanced at each other and bit their lips to keep from giggling.

    “Oops!” whispered one of them to the other, and then they both looked away, shaking as they hurried to keep up with the woman.

    Six notes of Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration chimed faintly in the wind, and the woman snatched a phone out of her purse. “This is Agnes,” she said, angling the phone through her disordered chestnut hair, “speak up, it’s windy.” Then, “We’re leaving right now, as a matter of fact.” She nodded emphatically as she walked. “Yes, I think you could call it that! A big black hole event on the beach. Yes — yes, a whole family, six people, at least, all babbling in unison. Something about Dr. Zhivago, and buying clothes in Hesperia. What? I said Dr. Zhivago — How should I know? No, this family was drunk, they didn’t connect it with us. Yes, all of them, they had a jug of wine under a blanket, I should have called the cops.”

    The three of them had reached the pavement, and the woman paused to take off one of her flat canvas shoes and knock sand out of it. The girls were barefoot. “No,” snapped the woman, bracing the phone awkwardly between her ear and her shoulder, “I wouldn’t really have called them. I’m not an idiot.” She took off her other shoe. “No,” she went on, “just therapy wading, not even up to their knees! I know — ” she glanced at the girls, ” — their history. Here, I’ll let Amber explain.”

    She thrust the phone at one of the girls.

    “I’m Lexi,” the girl said, but she pushed back her wind-blown brown hair and took the phone. “Hello, Uncle Simon.” After a few seconds she said, “Well, we were wading, and Lexi slipped –”

    “I thought I slipped,” said the other girl.

    “And so I caught her, to keep her from falling. Yes, by the hand, but we were just holding hands for a second! We didn’t mean to start that family all squawking away!”

    She nodded several more times, blinking away tears. “Don’t let Agnes leave us here! We won’t do it again!”

    The other girl was now wringing her hands and glancing anxiously back at the sparsely populated shore and the sea beyond.

    “Make her promise not to leave us here!” said the girl with the phone. A moment later she held it out toward Agnes Loria. “He wants to talk to you.”

    Loria was shaking sand out of her other shoe, and now took the phone impatiently with her free hand. “Agnes again,” she said. “Elisha? Yes, he’s texted me a few times, but I haven’t had time to reply.” She frowned then, her shoe evidently forgotten in her hand. “He did?” She listened intently, then said, “Of course he will. I’ll let you know where.” Again she was silent, and Lexi and Amber exchanged nervous looks.

    “And the twins,” Loria went on, “should I — oh! Okay. Holiday Harbor Marina now? Where’s that?” She dropped her shoe to dig a pen and an envelope out of her purse, and she scribbled briefly on the envelope. She lifted the pen and didn’t speak for a few seconds, then glared at the girls. “No, I was far enough away, but I felt the black hole effect — like I was a big super centipede. Right, we’ll see you there.”

    Loria tucked her phone and the pen and envelope back in her purse and put on her shoe. She was frowning.

    “The sun’s going down,” wailed one of the girls. “We’ll die out here!”

    “Ass — asphyxiate,” sobbed the other.

    Suddenly the thoughts in Loria’s mind all collapsed, replaced by an impression of frightened fluttering, like a bird helplessly falling in vacuum. She could feel that her hands were extending, fingers spread, and after a few seconds she was aware that she was holding two other hands.

    Then her thoughts flooded back, and she took a quick step to catch her balance. She saw that she was holding the twin’s hands. At least they weren’t touching each other.

    Loria mentally replayed the recent conversation. “Don’t be silly,” she said, a bit breathlessly, “I’m not going to abandon you. You’re both part of the big family, right? Come on.” She let go of their hands and started toward the car, which was parked at the back of the lot, by the narrow road that separated the beach from the big waterfront houses. “But I think I’m going to make you two wear gloves, all the time.”

    “We can’t wear gloves,” objected the one that Loria was pretty sure was Amber. Tears still streaked the girls’ faces, but their momentary despair was evidently forgotten. “Without fingerprints, there’d be no difference between us, and we’d melt.”

    Loria’s face was chilly with a dew of sweat. It was them, again, she thought. They were in my mind for a moment, and this time they made me hold their hands because they were afraid of being abandoned. A week ago I found myself violently tearing open a bag of Toritos, after I had told them they couldn’t have any. I wish their identities — identity? — would stay in their heads!

 



 

    “Did your boyfriend do something wrong?” asked the probable Lexi now.

    “Is Uncle Simon mad at him now?” piped up the other girl.

    “How cheerfully he seems to grin,” said Lexi, “how neatly spread his claws!”

    That was a quote from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Loria wished the girls had never got hold of a copy of the book.

    “Oh, shut up, shut up,” she breathed, “poor demented things.” More loudly, she went on, “Get in the car, we’re going to spend the night on the Black Sheep. It’s berthed somewhere down in Wilmington now.”

    “It’s birthed!” said one of the girls. “Uncle Simon has to slap its ass, make it cry, or it won’t breathe.”

    The two of them ran awkwardly ahead toward Loria’s yellow station wagon. I’ll have to tell Simon about it, she thought. He hates hearing alarming news about the twins, but I’ll have to tell him.

 


 

    A hundred yards away, at the other end of the parking lot, Lateef Fakhouri stood beside his pearl-white Nissan, watching the woman and the two girls get into the station wagon. He shrugged out of his tan-and-orange plaid sportcoat and tossed it across the front seat, then hurriedly got in and started the engine. The station wagon drove to the parking lot entrance and turned right onto Pacific Coast Highway, and Fakhouri followed at a discreet distance.

    For the past two weeks, Fakhouri had been exploring the occult subculture of Los Angeles. His knowledge of Khalid Boutros’ visit fifty years earlier — and Fakhouri’s own Egyptian name and Ministry of Antiquities credentials — had led to a few confidential, nervous referrals, and at last, a few days ago, he had managed to purchase the privilege of igniting some sticks of punkwood from an “eternal flame” that was maintained in a garage in San Pedro.

    The flame’s caretaker was the self-described High Priestess of a local coven. She had told Fakhouri that the flame was a direct continuation of the Baba Gurgur fire that had been burning for thousands of years in Iraq, and that her grandmother, a previous High Priestess, had acquired the relayed combustion from it in 1928. The flame had been carefully kept burning ever since in an oil drum in the grandmother’s garage.

    The grandmother had died in the ’40s; the man who had originally acquired the flame, one Claude Wystan, had gone blind from drinking bootleg gin and killed himself in the ’30s; and this current High Priestess had been in a hurry because she worked as a waitress in a nearby Denny’s, but she gave him an old coffee can to carry the smoldering punkwood in.

    Fakhouri had driven quickly back to the Egyptian Embassy on Wilshire and used the smoldering sticks to light an oil lantern, and the junior staff had been strictly ordered to keep the oil replenished in the lantern so that the ancient combustion wouldn’t go out.

    Then Fakhouri had found a bottle of Bic White-Out and drawn random white squiggles on Khalid Boutros’ old photograph of the Nu hieroglyph, and got a Staples store to make a four-foot-tall cardboard blow-up of it. He trusted that the random white lines would prevent the symbol from having any effect on the Staples employees, and he would be able to “erase” the lines later with a gray felt marker.

    He had looked up ChakraSys Incorporated, the source of the new coloring books, and had then researched its CEO, Simon Harlowe: the man’s vagabond past, his troubled family, and, most of all, his current pursuits, associates, and activities; and it had become clear enough that Harlowe intended to consummate Conrad Chronic’s interrupted egregore of 1968, on the fiftieth anniversary of that aborted attempt.

    And on Halloween night, when Simon Harlowe would try to complete the long-delayed birth of the Ba-enabled egregore, Fakhouri intended to be present, and to illuminate the potent Nu hieroglyph with the ancient flame. It was the method he believed Khalid Boutros had used to defeat the quickening 1968 egregore, and he was cautiously confident that it would do the same for Harlowe’s, two days from now. The Nu hieroglyph would surely negate the Ba one.

    Streetlights had come on at some point. The yellow station wagon turned inland at Beach Boulevard, and Fakhouri let a couple of cars merge into his lane ahead of him as he made the same turn; the station wagon was still clearly visible, and not going fast.

    But Boutros’ use of the Nu hieroglyph in 1968 might not be effective now. Fakhouri suspected that this launching of the egregore had more power than it had had then — people on the streets, who had no connection to it, had in the last few days begun helplessly speaking the thoughts of Harlowe and his cultists. Fakhouri had heard nothing about such an effect occurring in Los Angeles in 1968. The victims recovered their own consciousnesses within seconds, with only momentary disorientation afterward — but might that possession soon become irreversible?

    What if Harlowe’s revitalized, Ba-quickened egregore could simply roll over the Nu sigil, now, even when that sigil was illuminated by the primordial Iraqi flame?

    And what if it had been some other factor, unrecorded or completely unsuspected by old Boutros, that had stymied the egregore in 1968?

    As a precaution, Fakhouri should really have some other tactic in readiness too, to prevent the egregore from attaining coherence, agency, mentation — irresistible dominance.

    According to a neurologist to whom he had described the matter as a theoretical hypothesis, such an entity would need the equivalent of a switchboard or computer router, a communication nexus, analogous to the two cooperating halves of the thalamus in the human brain. And since the egregore was to be made of human minds instead of physical neurons, it would probably require a reciprocating pair of minds that suffered from something like what psychiatrists called dissociation. This idea seemed to be borne out by Harlowe’s pursuit of Vickery and Castine, who were said to have fallen into the afterworld and come back with a compromised connection to normal sequential time; but Vickery and Castine were in the wind now. Perhaps they had taken Fakhouri’s advice after all, and got on a flight to a distant city; in any case, Harlowe had not caught them and didn’t seem likely to.

    The yellow station wagon had sped up, and Fakhouri passed a slower-moving Volkswagen to keep it in sight.

    But Harlowe had adopted his brother’s two pre-teen daughters, after their parents’ puzzling suicide, and it was a matter of public record that the girls had been treated for psychological ailments. Depending on what sorts of ailmentâ¦could Harlowe be planning to use those girls as replacements for Vickery and Castine? They seemed to be part of his inner circle, in spite of their age, so they must certainly have been initiated by now with the Ba figure in the coloring books.

    Today he had watched the two girls through binoculars, and he had been bothered by an old memory. For no discernible reason, Lexi and Amber had reminded him of two Coptic girls he had seen many years ago in Manshiyat Naser, the Garbage City of Cairo, east of the El-Nasr Road at the base of the Mukatam Hills. He had been there on official business, tracing Pharaonic artifacts believed to be smuggled out of Egypt by way of that trash collecting district; and the two Coptic girls, perched on top of a load of malodorous bags in the back of a battered old Chevrolet pickup truck, had appeared to be in no more peril than any other of the Zabaleen, the “garbage people,” the untouchables whose lives were spent sorting through Cairo’s refuse. Undoubtedly the girls had had a family, which had probably specialized for generations in salvaging some particular category of stuff from the collected trash of Cairo — broken glass, or plastic bottles, or old discarded food for the ubiquitous pigs of the district. Undoubtedly they were Christians, with the blue cross tattooed on their wrists. But after he had returned to his office in Lazhogli Square, three miles to the west, he had been troubled by the thought that he should somehow have saved them from their inherited predicament, and to this day his sleep was sometimes disrupted by a nightmare in which those two Zabaleen girls figured.

    The yellow station wagon slowed for a moment by a Starbuck’s, then sped up and caught the last seconds of a green traffic light at the intersection, and Fakhouri had to step on the accelerator to cross after them before the yellow light turned red.

    Within the last few hours Harlowe’s ChakraSys team had vacated their office on Sepulveda, and Harlowe’s boat, the Black Sheep, had been moved from its berth at a Santa Monica marina. Fakhouri told himself — firmly! — that he was following the Loria woman this evening only to discover Harlowe’s new center of operations.

    He would not even consider making any plan to abduct the twins.

    He quailed at the thought of committing a perilous felony, in a foreign country. He reminded himself that Harlowe’s nieces were entirely unlike those two Coptic girls, who in fact were probably mothers of children of their own by now.

 



 

    But the twins would be better off away from their obsessed and dangerous uncle, probably. Arguably. Secondarily.

    Fakhouri groaned out loud, and for a moment he glanced at the side mirror, intending to pull to the curb and let the station wagon go; then he remembered the figure in the new and old coloring books, and he sighed and stayed in his lane.

    It was foolish to imaging that abducting the twins — even though it would be saving their souls, really — would relieve him of the troubling memory of two girls sitting on top of trash bags in the back of a pickup truck in Manshiyat Naser.

    But he might get a smaller, more easily portable facsimile of the Nu hieroglyph.

 


 

    The dirt road that curled away to the northeast from Vickery’s trailer park was just a flattened track across the desert, paralleling the 15 freeway and a line of power poles to the left. The sun had set, and their path was only discernible as a consistent gap between sparse weeds, but Castine didn’t suggest that he turn on the headlights. The dry wind from the south was still warm, blowing sand against the passenger side window until she rolled it up.

    “So what do you, you know, do,” she asked, “in Barstow?” Her voice was resolutely light. “Besides talk to ghosts?”

    “Oh,” he said, not looking away from the dim path, “under-the-table handyman work and car repair. And I, uh, manage events for the St. Joseph Catholic Church. Retreats, carnivals. Picnics, mostly. And I read a lot.”

    “Noâ¦girl?”

    “Oh.” The question had taken him by surprise, and he didn’t look away from the path. “It wouldn’t — well, no, nothing serious. I don’t think it’d be fair to get a girl involved with⦔

    “Somebody like us.”

    “Well — right, exactly.” He went on quickly, “And I hit the library pretty often, use their computers. I’ve got the TOR browser on a flash drive, so I can check the deep and dark webs to watch traffic in ghost-inhabited objects — which there’s a lot of, actually, and myâ¦my copy of The Secret Garden might show up on one of those.” He smiled uncomfortably. “It’s been eight months since I’ve been able to read to her.” He took a deep breath and let it out. “And I’m always careful to delete any traces afterward, and then click through a lot of general news or UFO websites, in case somebody should get curious and look at the computer’s history. But I keep searching.”

    He saw Castine shake her head.

    “And,” he went on stolidly, “yes, I do ask the ghosts about it. I told you they can sometimes sense subsumed entities, personalities — even ones that never –”

    “Never actually existed,” said Castine.

    Vickery nodded. “Pencil notes that never got inked in, on God’s ledger. I have to get the ghosts to look past the pinwheels on my trailer roof, but when I’ve done that they’ve told me several times that they sense one near the ocean. I’ve tried to track that one more closely by setting up impromptu nests down south beside the 405 and the 710, but the ghosts there haven’t come up with anything more precise — just ‘by the sea,’ with no details.”

    He shifted his hands on the wheel — the path slanted away from the freeway here, and a branching path ahead would take them straight to the south side of the overpass.

    “Almost there,” he said, watching in the dimness for the path. “And now I know a bit more about the people who stole the book. I can ask different questions.”

    Castine huffed air through her nose. “Sure, you know how a couple of them dress.” After a moment she went on, grudgingly, “And, okay, you know it may involve some sort of Egyptian artifact.”

    “And a wrecked old house in a canyon, with a panhead Harley Davidson parked out front, and a long-haired lean-faced guy who stands on the porch.”

    Castine shifted on the seat to face him. “I never saw that! Was that what you saw when you blanked out in the park this afternoon?”

    “Yes. And I was closer to the house than I’ve been in past visions.”

    “Oh shit. That means I will be too, next time I see it.”

    She was silent as he carefully steered to the left onto the side path, toward the freeway, and braked the car to a stop between the weeds, far enough from the bridge so that it wouldn’t show in any headlights circling around the off-ramp.

    He picked up a pack of cigarettes from the seat beside him and tucked it into his shirt pocket, then opened his door and stepped out onto the shadowed dirt. The dry wind that stirred his hair smelled faintly of sage.

    Castine had got out on her side and plodded around to stand beside him. “Lead the way,” she sighed.

    Back at the trailer, Vickery had left the little Glock and tucked a Colt Government Model .45 semi-automatic into the pocket of his old corduroy jacket, and had given Castine a .38 Special revolver; and when he pulled his gun out now, she did the same.

    “You threaten ghosts with guns?” she whispered as they began walking toward the freeway bridge.

    “Sometimes,” replied Vickery quietly. “They still know what guns are. But it’s always possible that some living person has crawled up onto my shelf, and any such are likely to be as crazy as the ghosts.”

    The sweep of the curved freeway off-ramp was up an embankment, and when no oncoming cars were visible, Vickery led Castine around it to the underside of the bridge. They stepped carefully up the dark dirt slope, and Vickery caught Castine’s denim-sleeved arm to stop her when they were still a couple of yards short of the shelf at the top. With his free hand he dug a little LED flashlight out of his pocket, and, after glancing back to be sure no cars were in view on the freeway, played its bright beam along the length of the shelf. The only thing visible was a wooden frame halfway along the length of it.

    “That’s my chicken wire barrier,” he said, switching off the flashlight and putting it back in his pocket. All that could be seen now was the dimly starlit pavement out on either side of the bridge. “You can put the gun away,” he added, pushing his own .45 into his belt and leaning forward to feel the slope as he climbed. “If you’re still hungry,” he added, “I’ve got an old peanut can full of M&Ms up there.”

    “I’m good,” said Castine, following him up to crouch on the narrow strip of flat dirt in almost complete darkness. Their heads brushed the cement underside of the freeway bridge until they sat down.

    An eighteen-foot-wide load-bearing wall stood down there at the edge of the freeway, blocking their view of any car that might stop directly below them, but the occasional cars that flashed past were only momentarily eclipsed by it. Vickery dug the cigarette pack out of his pocket.

    The close cement slab overhead and the dry dirt they were sitting on were suddenly visible when he snapped a Bic lighter and lit a cigaretteâ¦and then lit another, and another. The flame went out, and by feel he pushed the cigarettes through the hexagonal gaps in the chicken-wire barrier; they fell to the dirt on that side and made three glowing red dots in the darkness. He handed Castine the lighter, then groped to the side until he found a can propped against the wall. He popped the plastic lid off it, shook some M&Ms into his hand and tossed them through the wire.

    “We could do with a few more cars before we start singing,” he said quietly. “A sustained current.”

    He heard Castine shift around, and then she said, “Singing?” Her voice echoed under the bridge, and she went on more softly, “Are you kidding? Singing what?”

    A pair of headlights appeared in the west, and shortly another pair was visible behind it.

    “The song that works best is ‘What a Wonderful World.’ You must know it, everybody does.”

    “Sure, Louis Armstrong, but — what, ghosts like it?”

    “Come on, before the cigarettes go out.”

    Vickery began to sing the wistful, half-melancholy song, and after a few syllables Castine joined in. Vickery couldn’t see her face, but her contralto voice blended smoothly with his tenor, and she was evidently enjoying it in spite of herself. Vickery found himself wishing that no conjuring would happen, that they could sing the old song uninterrupted, just the two of them out here in the lonely Mojave Desert.

    The cars flashed past under the bridge, briefly hidden behind the wall, and as they reappeared on the other side and receded to the east, something bumped into the chicken wire barrier from the other side.

    Their song stopped abruptly, and Vickery heard Castine scramble back away from the barrier.

    “I thought you said they weren’t substantial now!” she hissed.

    “I said less!” whispered Vickery.

    And from the other side of the barrier a woman’s hoarse voice said, “Don’t look at me! I’m dead!”

 



 

    Vickery made the sign of the cross and took a deep breath. “We can’t see you,” he said. “Have a cigarette — I lit it for you.”

    In the darkness, one of the coals on the other side of the chicken wire rose into the air, and when it brightened for a second, Vickery glimpsed a high forehead and glittering eyes between locks of dark hair; then he felt smoky air brush his face and there was nothing to see but the bobbing coal.

    Vickery frowned. This was the first time out here that one of them had been able to pick up a cigarette; much less actually draw smoke though it. Previously they had just rolled them around in the dirt.

    “Thanks,” came the voice. “You could be dead too, if you’d just try.”

    “Not today.” He could hear Castine breathing behind him, but aside from the puff of smoke a moment ago, there was no breath audible from the ghost. “Can you see,” he went on, “if there are any strings attached to either of us? Or any kind of flags, beepers, beacons? Can people see where we –”

    “No, Steve,” said the ghost, in a new, breathy voice, “there are no strings tied to you. Not yet.”

    Vickery recognized the line — Lauren Bacall, in To Have and Have Not. He had noticed before that ghosts often quoted bits of dialogue from old movies. Scraps of memory somehow retained.

    “There’s people trying to find us, this woman and me,” he went on. “Can you see them?”

    There was silence from the other side of the barrier for so long that Vickery believed the ghost had dissipated; and he jumped when its voice quavered, “Ba ba black sheep, have you any souls?”

    The wood-frame barrier creaked, as if the ghost were leaning on it from the other side. Vickery hiked himself back, trying to remember how sturdily he had built it.

    We should get out of here, he thought — but if this ghost is more present than the others have been, I do have to ask it more questions.

    “They have –” Damn, he thought, this would be hard enough with a living person; “– some connection to an old house in a canyon, two stories, and the bottom story is full of sand –”

    “Spiral staircase!” called Castine breathlessly.

    “Right, it’s got a spiral staircase –”

    “Spiral is right-twist rifling,” said the ghost, speaking more rapidly now. “They fired that once, you know, and they’re gonna fire it again. Shut up about it.”

    “Do you know where it is –”

    The scratchy ghost voice interrupted: “I said shut up! If you want to be dead, you better get busy quick.”

    Again the frame creaked. Move on, Vickery thought.

    “Okay,” he said as the breeze under the bridge chilled the sweat on his face, “listen, there’s a fossil spirit, in a book, The Secret Garden, somewhere in the L.A. area. Can you catch any sort ofâ¦vibration from it?”

    “I always see the fossil spirits,” said the ghost, “dancing on the roof yonder. They only know one dance.”

    The bottom of the frame slid forward an inch in the dirt, and Vickery braced his foot against it.

    “Past them,” he said desperately, “by the sea. Can you make out where it is?”

    For several second there was silence, except for the windy rush of a car, and a few moments later another, speeding past under the bridge.

    Then, “The whole world is lit up,” said the ghost with something like a gasp, though the night beyond the bridge was as dark as ever. Then a man’s harsh voice, somehow familiar to Vickery, said, “It’s on a boat, among a lot of boats, andâ¦a crowd of people falling into the black hole, a shape with a hawk body and the head of a man, a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun⦔

    Castine leaned forward and gripped Vickery’s shoulder. “Some people in Los Angeles,” she said quickly, “have an Egyptian artifact –”

    A scream like a circular saw biting into sheet steel sent Vickery lurching back against Castine. The scream broke up into shrill, imbecilic laughter that echoed back from the close cement surfaces, and now there seemed to be a number of figures on the far side of the chicken-wire, all thrashing and grunting. The wooden frame fell right over onto Vickery, and he tried to shove it back in place as irregular impacts from the other side pushed it toward him.

    “Math,” said Castine in the darkness; then in a louder voice, “Two and two is four!”

    “Four subtracted from four,” shouted Vickery, “is nothing! Check it out!”

    But the ghosts clearly weren’t listening.

    “Ba, Ba!” another voice was yelling, and a woman’s voice, not the one that had been speaking a few moments ago, wailed, “Quoth the raven!” followed by a mumbled word that Vickery thought might have been Nevermore, and then wailed “Its hour come round again!”

    Again the frame creaked.

    Over the increasing tumult Vickery could hear wet things slapping against the chicken wire, and he knew it was the elongated, ice-cold ectoplasmic tongues of the maddened ghosts. He was still holding the chicken-wire barrier in place, and before he could pull his fingers free, one of the tongues touched the knuckles of his right hand; his hand was suddenly numbed and aching, and he lost his balance.

    He thrashed convulsively, brushing long, tangled hair away from his somehow sunken face, and his right foot slipped off the ledge and bent like putty on the dirt slope — and the realization crashed in on him that he was now on the other side of the barrier, while his body was still over there beside Castine. Soft, grunting shapes crowded against his back and shoulders.

    His breath was now rasping in an insubstantial throat that was not his own, but he managed to choke out the syllables, “Skeet shooting, help!”

    Over the bestial cries of the ghosts around him, he heard Castine gasp. Then the lighter flame flared up, and he saw that she was holding up her free hand with two fingers extended.

    Vickery quailed to see his own body over there with her on the other side of the chicken-wire; it was crawling clumsily past Castine, away from the light.

    She didn’t glance at it. “Two,” she said loudly, then raised her other two fingers in the light, “plus two, is four, and nothing else! See?”

    The flame wavered as her hand shook, but she closed her free hand in a fist and said, “Minus four — is nothing! Look! Nothing!”

    And then, with a mental and physical jolt, Vickery was on his hands and knees behind her. He looked over his shoulder and saw Castine’s crouching silhouette against the glow of the lighter.

    “I’m here,” he gasped, “it’s me, Vickery. Down the slope, back to the car. Fast.”

    “Thank God.” The light went out, and when, above the groaning and weeping of the turbulent ghosts, he heard her sliding away below, he dove down after her as things snatched ineffectively at his heels.

    As he slid head-first down the dirt incline, the wall and the underside of the bridge were suddenly lit with a yellow glow, and he guessed that at least one of the ghosts up on the ledge had burst into flame.

    He hit the base of the wall with his outstretched hands and let his flexing elbows absorb the impact, and then he had rolled over and got his legs under himself and was running out from under the bridge, following Castine, who was sprinting away across the open dirt a few yards ahead of him. He was panting, and the cold air stung his throat.

    When he caught up with her he grabbed her hand to lead her toward the car —

    And all at once the world was bathed in coppery light, and Castine squeezed his hand tightly as they both slid to a halt.

    The freeway bridge was no longer visible to Vickery’s left; and he could feel Castine’s hand, but he appeared to be standing by himself in a narrow valley, once again facing the crooked old two story house. Its porch steps were only a few yards away.

    The motorcycle was now parked off to the left, and the shadow of it was longer. Three people were standing on the wide porch this time, and Vickery’s field of vision swiveled involuntarily from side to side to see each of them: at the left end stood a woman in a long robe, and at the other, two men. One of the men leaned against the slanted railing, his face hidden in the shadow of a cowboy hat, and the other, in the familiar Nehru jacket, was the man Vickery had seen here before. That man’s right arm was extended toward the woman, and he was holding a revolver.

    Vickery yelled and started forward, dragging the invisible Castine by the hand, but the house didn’t draw closer, and of course none of the figures on the porch could hear or see him.


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