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Forced Perspectives: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Monday, January 20, 2020 09:42 EST

 


 

Regressively Indiv

    By feel, for he had no visible body in this hallucination, Vickery pulled the .45 out from behind his belt with his left hand and flicked down the tight safety lever. He couldn’t see his arm or the gun, but the textured grip felt solid as he extended his invisible hand in the direction of the porch, between the woman and the two men, and the ridged trigger was pressed firmly against his finger as he squeezed it.

    The grip punched back into his palm in recoil, but there was no sound, and the three people didn’t react.

    The arm of the man with the revolver jerked upward, and Vickery did hear that shot — as a stuttering rumble — and the woman at the other end of the porch rocked her head back and then collapsed.

    Castine’s hand twisted free of his own. He turned his head, but the scene didn’t shift from in front of his eyes — he was still helplessly staring at the house; peripheral vision showed him nothing but trees and the close hills in the sepia light.

    The man in the leather jacket had lowered the gun, and now said something. The words were muffled — something like haddock tucker lud bishop — but in this dim interlude the gunshot had been no louder. The man laughed, which sounded like someone trying to start a car with a nearly dead battery, and turned away, toward the front door of the house.

    And then the world went dark, with a flickering glare off to Vickery’s left. He swung his head that way, and now his view matched the way he was facing; he saw the freeway overpass, with a few flames still visible at the top of the slope underneath it. He looked in the other direction, out across the dark desert, and hoarsely called, “Castine!”

    “Here,” came her voice from ahead of him. His night vision was not impaired by the just-closed hallucination, and he saw her silhouette standing among the weeds a a dozen yards off. She added, “Are you okay?”

    Vickery took a deep breath and let it out, and spat to get rid of the imagined taste of ghost saliva. Two and two is four, he thought. “I guess so.”

    “Where the hell’s your car?”

    He gingerly tucked his hot gun back into his belt and trudged up to her and extended his hand.

    She shied back and glanced toward the weakly underlit bridge. “I don’t think you should touch me skin-to-skin. Look what just happened.”

    Vickery closed his hand. “You may be right.” He yawned widely enough to creak his jaw. “The car. Right, the car’s over here.”

    He led the way across the weeds to his old white Saturn; the flames under the bridge had subsided, and the car was now the most visible thing in the nighted landscape. Castine hurried around to the passenger side, but stopped abruptly and drew her revolver, ducking below the rear fender.

    Vickery had seen her and heard her cock the gun, and he drew his own gun again and crouched, looking around and groping in his pocket with his free hand for the flashlight. He was breathing deeply, forcing alertness.

    He heard Castine’s harsh whisper: “Somebody’s shot out your rear side window!” After a moment she added, “Both of them, left and right!”

    Vickery had got his flashlight out when he paused, and then relaxed.

    “It’s okay,” he said, straightening up, “I think I did it myself.”

    “No, they weren’t broken when we drove out here! Stay down!”

    “Were you — in that vision, just now? The old house, the people on the porch?”

    “Yes! That man shot that woman! Will you get down?”

    “I pulled my gun and shot at the house door — as best I could — to get his attention — make him drop the revolver. But of course it had no effect there.”

    “Oh!” She stood up from behind the car, lowering the gun. “I didn’t hear your shotâ¦no, of course not. I did hear his.” She was facing him over the car’s roof. “Are you sure you’re okay? Some ghost switched places with you, for God’s sake!”

    “Yes, I’m fine, or okay, at least. Thank you for theâ¦visibly empirical math.”

    “You’re welcome.” She opened the passenger side door, glancing back at the rear side window. “In one and out the other. Lucky you didn’t hit the gas tank.” She slid onto the seat and pulled the door closed. Vickery heard a rattle of glass falling out of the rear windows.

    “Too bad I wasn’t able to save that woman,” he said as he climbed in on his side and started the engine.

    “I think it was a long time ago,” Castine said as Vickery carefully backed the car around and then drove forward along the dirt track. “And the visions aren’t time travel, just — like you said, echoes.” She dropped the revolver onto the floor and wiped her hands on her new blouse. “I hate ghosts!”

    Vickery’s hands were sweating too, and he knew they’d be trembling if they weren’t clamped on the steering wheel.

    Castine was peering ahead. “Still no headlights?”

    “Especially now, if somebody reports a fire under the bridge. I think at least one of the ghosts got excited to the point of ignition.”

    Castine’s breathing gradually slowed. Finally she burst out, “Not substantial!”

    “They weren’t like this before, not anything like this.” He gulped against a surge of nausea. “It’s as if they’ve found a fresh 120 volt socket to plug into.”

    “Or a black hole. Did you hear what the leather jacket guy said, after he shot that woman?

    “I couldn’t make it out.”

    “He said, ‘Had to take her blood pressure.'”

    Vickery was concentrating entirely on seeing the faint path. “Let’s talk when we’re back in the trailer.”

    She nodded, staring ahead. “Where the fossil spirits dance on the roof. I want to go home.”

 


 

    The trailer still smelled of fried bacon and onions, and Vickery decided the pan and the dishes could wait till morning. He saw Castine sniffing as she stepped into the living room and sat down on the couch, and he hoped she found the familiar domestic smells as reassuring as he did.

    He dropped ice cubes into two fresh glasses and carried them and the bottle into the living room and set it all down on the coffee table. “Help yourself,” he said as he lowered himself stiffly into an easy chair.

    Castine was frowning at him. “I don’t think you should go to your damn freeway nest anymore.”

    “Two minds with but a single thought,” he said, leaning forward to pour bourbon into one of the glasses. “All we learned about the echo-vision house –”

    “If we learned anything.”

    Vickery bobbed his head in acknowledgment. “If anything,” he went on, “is that it was ‘fired’ once, whatever that might mean, and will be again. Right-twist rifling refers to the grooves –”

    “In a gun barrel, I know.”

    “Okay.” Vickery leaned back. “That was Yeats, sort of, what that first ghost was quoting.” He handed her the bottle.

    She went on frowning at him for a moment, then relaxed. “I know that too. ‘Somewhere in sands of the desert’ — but it’s supposed to be ‘a shape with a lion body and the head of a man,’ not a hawk body — ‘is moving its slow thighs, while all about it reel the indignant shadows of the desert birds.’ And it’s supposed to be, ‘What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born.'” She had poured a good two inches into her own glass, and drank a third of it in one swallow. “Whew! And — something about a crowd of people falling into a black hole.”

 



 

    “It was a man’s voice, that said that.” Vickery lifted his glass and swallowed a mouthful of the bourbon, and sighed as he felt it begin to relax him. “Did you recognize it? I think I did.”

    After a pause, she said, “That old guy, Laquedem.” She sat back and stared at the stained ceiling. “So he obviously died, sometime in this last year. Well — God rest his soul.”

    “Wherever it is,” agreed Vickery.

    “So,” Castine went on, “you’ve found him in Barstow after all. You think he knew he was talking to us?”

    Vickery shrugged, remembering the gruff old man they’d met last year. “Poor old Laquedem. Setting fires under a freeway bridge in the desert now.”

    “His ghost isn’t him.”

    “I know, it’s just a thing that thinks it’s him.” Vickery looked around at his modest living room and wondered if some freeway gypsy might one day summon his ghost — a half-wit revenant believing it was still Sebastian Vickery, trying in its imbecilic way to meet uncomprehend goals, straining uselessly to convey broken thoughts to actual, living people.

    Castine might have been thinking along the same lines. “It’s a bad deal, for sure,” she said; and when Vickery raised his eyebrows, she added, “Death.”

    In a fruity, affected voice, he said, “Death is a natural part of life.”

    “It’s not, though,” she said. “According to Genesis, we weren’t originally meant to experience itâ¦that sundering, cleavingâ¦soul and body torn apartâ¦ghost fragments spinning away from the wreckage. If Adam and Eve hadn’t screwed up, it wouldn’t happen to us.”

    “At least we get to exist,” said Vickery, thinking of his never-conceived daughter.

    Castine took a breath, then just let in out in a sigh.

    For half a minute neither of them spoke, and the hum of the air conditioner was the only sound.

    Vickery stirred and said, “My daughter is on a boat. Among a lot of other boats. That sounds like a marina.”

    “Your nonexistent daughter. Fossilized now in a paperback book. Yes.” Castine set down her glass and looked around the room. “Do you even have a TV?”

    “In the bedroom. No cable, though, I just watch DVDs.” He stretched, and said, “Your friend with the red suspenders was outside my apartment when that copy of The Secret Garden was taken. Why would they take that?”

    She spread the fingers of one hand. “Ransom, I imagine — coercion — to get you to do something you wouldn’t want to do. But you evaded them and then disappeared, so they weren’t able to tell you their terms. And so you didn’t have to do something you didn’t want to do.”

    Vickery nodded and took a deeper gulp of his drink. “I do wonder, though, if they wanted it for its own sake, somehow. I told you I made another stop before I left L.A. eight months ago and became Bill Ardmore.”

    Castine set down her glass and laid back on the couch. “You went to see your old boss, Galvan.”

    “Right. I was still occasionally driving for her then, taking such supernatural-evasion fares as still came alongâ¦and doing occasional retro-surveillance jobsâ¦even working in her fleet of taco trucks, sometimes. Anyway, I asked her if she knew anything about my book being stolen, and she got all huffy and said she didn’t know my Secret Garden was any more a secret than it was a garden. And she told me –”

    “Some guy who collected fossilized spirits asked if she knew of any for sale. And she told him about your book. I remember.”

    Vickery idly moved his glass in a circle on the table. “And Galvan was the only one, besides you and me, who even knew about the book.”

    “Along with some of her family, you recall.”

    “Well, yeahâ¦and Galvan was known to have dealings in supernatural stuff, so I guess it makes sense that a collector of such things would approach her. But the guy was clearly, or probably, with this group that was after us today. Galvan pointed them to my book.”

    “Innocently –”

    Castine had started to say the word as a statement, but the last syllable went up in pitch, making it a question.

    “She kind of blew it off,” said Vickery, “when I asked her about it, like I’d lost a souvenir pen or something. I assumed she was embarrassed at having told a thief where to find it.” He laughed briefly. “Especially without her getting a cut.”

    “Unless, I suppose, she did get a cut.”

    Vickery drained his glass, and it clanked when he set it down on the table. “She gave me a description of this alleged collector. Now I think she was just describing Harry Dean Stanton. She was a big fan of Repo Man.”

    Castine yawned. “Doesn’t matter either way, now. She told the guy, and they’ve got it. On a boat, maybe.”

    She reached across for her glass and tipped it up to her mouth. The ice cubes rattled against her teeth as she finished it, and she caught one and began chewing it.

    Vickery shivered. “I wish you wouldn’t do that. Chew your ice cubes,” he added when she gave him a blank look.

    “I wasn’t,” she said. “Anyway, you do it yourself.”

    “I never — ” he began, then remembered doing it right here, less than an hour ago, before they’d set out for the nest under the bridge. “Must be a nervous habit,” he finished lamely.

    “Whatever.” She put the glass back and wiped her face with the sleeve of her jacket. “It seems to me,” she said, “that taking somebody’s blood pressure must be slang for killing them. And you remember that disoriented girl on the bicycle at the park? She said, ‘We can take her blood pressure any time.’ I think she was channeling one of those people who were at Canter’s, and I think that person was pretty clearly talking about me.”

    Vickery pursed his lips and nodded.

    “I wonder,” said Castine, “if Omar Khayyam would still give us those funds he mentioned.”

    “Omar Sharif,” corrected Vickery with a tired smile. “We never did learn his actual name. But I know where the Egyptian Consulate is. I picked up a few fares there, when I was a driver for Galvan.”

    Castine sat up. “Let’s just go. Away. Get on a plane tomorrow and fly to Maryland, and there’ll be a huge curvature of the earth between us and all this dreadful stuff. We were lucky today — guys were waving guns around! A ghost possessed you!”

    “We’d still have the echo-visions. Or old-house visions, as they are these days.”

    “Those are bound to stop, eventually, and it’s long ago stuff anyway.” She looked straight at him and spoke clearly. “Your daughter, the daughter you didn’t even have, is oblivious to everything, you know that. Even if they, I don’t know, burn the book, it won’t change her situation one bit.”

    “That is true,” he conceded.

    She looked down into her empty glass. “I could even put you up, till you found an apartment.”

    Noâ¦girl? thought Vickery. “I might even be able to hold your hand without setting off hallucinations.”

    “Worth a try. Then.” Hurriedly she went on, “Omar did say he had the situation well in hand, didn’t he?”

    “Over in a few days, he said.” Vickery shrugged. “If we stay, we’d probably only get in his way, mess up his plans.”

    Castine waved around at the furniture and the peel-and-stick faux wood paneling. “I hate to ask you to give up all this.”

    “My space rent’s paid up through next month. I can come back after it’s all blown over, if I want to.” He yawned. “We can stop at Hesperia on the way to LAX, and pick up your clothes and billfold.”

 



 

    Castine got unsteadily to her feet. “I said I could sleep on the couch.”

    “You’re the guest, you get the bed. I’ll put fresh sheets on it.” He stood up and walked down the narrow hall to the shelf that served as a linen closet. Behind him he could hear Castine humming “What a Wonderful World.”

   

 


 

    The tall windows in the bottom three floors of Clifton’s Cafeteria were outlined in red and yellow neon, and the marquee projecting out over the Broadway sidewalk held back the Los Angeles night with a white glare that was reflected in the roofs of passing cars. Looking down on the pillars and cornices from a fire-escape balcony on the fifth level of the parking structure across the street, Elisha Ragotskie thought the place looked like one of the movie palaces of the 1920s.

    He stepped back through the broad window opening, into the humbler glow of widely-spaced lights in the cement ceiling. Not many cars were parked on this level yet, and he wheeled his bicycle into the shadows behind a van parked next to the north wall. It was a second-hand Schwinn ten-speed bicycle, with canvas pannier bags, that he had bought for cash twenty minutes ago at El Maestro Bicycle Shop on Main Street; only three long diagonal blocks from here, but his white shirt was still damp with sweat and he was shivering in the evening breeze that whispered through the big open windows in the street-side wall. He had thrown away the red suspenders.

    He was carrying two cell phones: his Samsung and a new prepaid TracFone. By touch he pried open the back of the Samsung and took its battery out of his shirt pocket; and when he clicked the battery into place in the phone, snapped the cover shut and thumbed the phone on, the screen glowed sky blue in the shadows behind the van. When he touched the Messages icon, the top text was from Agnes — she had finally replied to his several texts.

    OK, read her text from an hour ago, where? And what did you do?

    He entered the words, You pick – one of our places – familiar – food, drinks — whatever you’ve heard, I can explain. Trust.

    Her reply was immediate: OK — n/naka on Overland.

    Sweating in spite of the cold, he tapped in, Feeling more oxidental – the Rose? The Rose was in Venice, and he knew she had been to the beach with the twins today, and wouldn’t relish driving back out there.

    Occidental, you mean, came her reply. Too far. Tesse, Clifton’s, Pizzana?

    He exhaled in relief, and tapped in, Pizzana sounds good and sent it; then immediately typed in, No, Clifton’s is better. Drinks at the 2nd floor bar — alone, off the record!

    He had first kissed her in that mellowly lit cathedral of a bar, just a few steps from the huge redwood tree that extended up through all the floors, at a table beside a stuffed deer in a glassed-in diorama.

    Agreed, came her reply. When?

    I can be there in half an hour.

    See you then.

    He turned off the phone and leaned back against the wall, breathing hard. She might come alone, he told himself, as she agreed to. Maybe I still mean a bit more to her than oblivion does.

    Agnes Loria had been a philosophy major at UCLA when Ragostskie met her, and she had already been inclined toward the pragmatic sorts of mysticism — she had progressed from the psychic training methods described in Alexandra David-Neel’s Magic and Mystery in Tibet to Guillaume Cendre-Benir’s Technomancy and the post-modern techniques of chaos magic, and claimed to have seen the future through the Burroughs method of reading random reassemblies of cut-up texts. She said the future was blurry.

    They had met at the Conscious Life Expo at the LAX Hilton in February of last year. She had been standing outside by the valet parking line, smoking a cigarette — “I’ve moved past any concern for my individual body,” she had told him when he asked her about the cigarette. He had found her individual body compellingly attractive, though — she was tall, her figure willowy and athletic, and her green eyes under chestnut bangs seemed deeper and more expressive than those of anyone else he’d ever met.

    He had lately moved down to Los Angeles from San Jose, along with the rest of Harlowe’s ChakraSys team, and he dropped a few hints about their work and their goal — and Agnes had seized on it. She had described their meeting as synchronicity, and within a week the two of them had moved into an Echo Park apartment together.

    And at first Agnes had found him fascinating. Many of his interests were in fields new to her, and she was a voracious pupil. Poetry and painting left her baffled, but semiconductor electronics and the formal logic of computer coding excited her enormously. The only classical music she had ever heard had been snippets in movie soundtracks and advertisements, and she gratefully followed Ragotskie’s guidance into the works of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Rimsky-Korsakov, Wagnerâ¦though she hadn’t cared for the austerity of Bach or Vivaldi. She told him one time that the great symphonies were superior to any literature, since they were emotional but not discernibly about people, and didn’t involve the language and vocabulary of the listener.

    But she had progressed in the Singularity disciplines faster than Ragotskie himself. Ego-death, the dark night of the soul, was something she seemed to crave; unlike Ragotskie, who, despite his best efforts, still clung to a lot of affective aspects of his particular existence — especially his growing affection for the particular person who was Agnes Loria.

    She had soon come to find his feelings for her, and her own feelings for him, “regressively indiv,” and a week ago she had moved out of the apartment, and wouldn’t tell him where she was staying now. She yearned to subsume herself in the Singularity, the big egregore that was taking form from the minds of the group — “gestating and gestalting,” as Harlowe put it.

    Ragostskie had been resolutely willing to let his own personality be dissolved in the transcendently greater entity which would be the egregore, but he had found that he could not bear the prospect of Agnes Loria ceasing to be specifically and fascinatingly herself.

    And so today he had broken ranks — and how. He had thrown away his chance at a kind of immortality, not to mention his career with ChakraSys, and possibly his life — and made himself the enemy of Simon Harlowe and probably of Agnes Loria too. And for nothing — he had used up his cyanide and lost his gun, and when he had tried to use the bloody sock pendulum to find the Castine woman again, he’d discovered that the job really called for a second person, to navigate; the necessity of pulling into a parking lot every few blocks to consult the thing had made it hopeless.

    Now he shook off those uncomfortable memories and pocketed his phones and stepped out from behind the van. He crossed the cement floor and stepped over the window sill and stood again in the chilly breeze on the fire-escape balcony, looking down at the traffic on Seventh Street and the glowing façade of Clifton’s. He would recognize Agnes’ station wagon when it turned in to the parking structure entrance on the street directly below; he would recognize Harlowe’s gray Chevy Tahoe SUV, too, if it were to show up, but Harlowe would surely still be pursuing Castine and Vickery, even without the bloody sock as a pointer. And he might find them.

 



 

    But with any luck Castine and Vickery would elude Harlowe — Harlowe had certainly lost what he liked to call the elephant of surprise, and those two seemed adept at running and hiding — and then Ragotskie’s clumsy attempts at assassination would have accomplished his purpose after all, without his having to kill anybody. The egregore would fail without the IMPs, and Agnes would surely be able to free herself from it then, and remain the precious individual that she had always been — even though she’d have preferred it otherwise.

    In order to emerge as a rational, self-consistent entity, the egregore would need to incorporate a reciprocating pair of special people — what Harlowe fancifully referred to as a couple of IMPs. IMP was an acronym for Interface Message Processor, which, in the early days of computers, was a kind of mini-computer that allowed many different sorts of computers to function together as a single network, and maximized internet communications. Routers served the purpose now.

    The various minds that would constitute the emerging egregore would need to be able to function together as facets of a single entity, pulses that could be applied anywhere in the system at any time. The structure, the entity, would need IMPs.

    Castine and Vickery would have been ideal. Their psychic foundations had been shifted by whatever it was that happened to them last year — Harlowe’s man Foster said they died and came back from the afterlife — and it had left them insecurely moored in now. Unlike normal people, Castine and Vickery were at least potentially in several moments at once, like figures in a time-lapse photograph. Integrated together into the egregore, they might very well have been able to operate across several seconds simultaneously, anticipate thought-signals that hadn’t even been sent yet, and make the egregore’s mentation instantaneous.

    Ragotskie wished them well in their continued evasion of Simon Harlowe.

    A car that looked like Agnes’ station wagon swung into view on the street below, and the breath caught in Ragotskie’s throat — but the car drove on past the parking entrance, and before it disappeared around the Seventh Street corner he saw that it was white, not yellow.

    She might not appear at all, he thought. She might simply have called Harlowe and told him to find me at Clifton’s and deal with me.

    But five minutes later a yellow station wagon slowed directly below, and it disappeared into the parking structure entrance. Ragotskie waited until he could hear the car’s tires squealing on the polished cement as it rounded the turns from one level up to the next, and then he hurried back to crouch beside the bicycle, between the van and the wall.

    Soon he heard the rumbling of a car engine echoing on this level, and after a few seconds it switched off and he heard a door clank open. He raised his head enough to see through the van’s side windows, and it was Agnes, alone, closing the door of her car.

    Ragotskie had to force himself not to stand up and speak to her.

    She looked toward the fire escape, then turned and scanned the several parked cars; Ragotskie ducked down before her gaze swept the van. He heard her walk to the elevator in the far corner, and after a few seconds he heard the elevator doors open and then close.

    She was about twenty minutes early.

    Ragotskie stood up. He was actually considering wheeling his bicycle back into the elevator and going down to meet her at the restaurant after all — he had bought a cable and lock at El Maestro, and could secure the bicycle to a lamp post — when he heard another car coming up the ramps.

    He hesitated, then crouched behind the van again.

    The engine noise expanded out of the ramp tunnel, and then a car idled to a halt on this level, and this time he heard two doors open and close, and the unmistakable knock of Harlowe’s cowboy boot heels.

    “He won’t be here for a while yet,” came Harlowe’s well remembered voice. “Taitz, wait here, you know his car — watch this level and the ones immediately below and above, and taser him if he shows up. Foster, you come with me.”

    Ragotskie heard footsteps knock across the cement floor in the direction of the elevator, and soon he heard its doors open and close again. He managed, an inch at a time, to shift his feet and sit down without making a sound. After a while he was wrinkling his nose at the scent of cigarette smoke on the breeze that found its way to the space behind the van.

    Ragotskie imagined Taitz standing out there in the middle of the floor, or leaning against the balcony rail with his back to the street, the olive-green windbreaker tight across his shoulders, his narrow eyes watching the ramps and the stairs and the elevator doors. His right hand might be in his pocket, holding the pistol-grip of the taser.

    Ragotskie shivered as he recalled breaking the window of Harlowe’s SUV and stealing the wooden box with the bloody sock in it. Taitz must certainly be angry.

    By his estimation ten minutes passed before Taitz moved to the stairs; and the scuff of his footsteps was diminishing downward.

    When Ragotskie judged that Taitz had reached the bottom of the stairs and was looking around at the cars and the ramp on that level, he quickly pulled out both of his phones, and he tapped the number of the TracFone burner phone into his Samsung; sweat made rainbow sparkles on the screen. When the burner phone jingled, he hastily swiped the screen to open the connection, then stepped out from behind the van and hurried across the floor to Agnes’ car.

    It was locked, but he scuttled around and crouched by the front bumper, and he held both phones in one hand while he groped under the bumper — whispering curses — until he found the magnetic box that contained a spare key.

    His breath was rushing in and out through his open mouth as he scrambled to his feet, and he had to stab the key at the door lock twice before it rattled in; and as he turned it, the sound of the lock post snapping up was immediately followed by the tap of footsteps on the stairs.

    Ragotskie levered open the car door and dropped the TracFone burner into the map pocket, then eased the door shut and darted back to his refuge in the shadows behind the van. Sweat ran into his eyes, and the effort of keeping his breath slow and shallow made his throat ache. Planting the phone had been a risky move, but, with a call in progress, it was a good microphone — Agnes always used the Waze app on an iPad to know what route to take when she was going anywhere, and he hoped to overhear the Waze voice’s directions as it guided her to wherever she was living now.

    The soft tap of shoes had reached this level, and moved out across the floor.

    A sudden thought made Ragotskie’s ears ring — in his haste a few moments ago, he had left the empty magnetic box on the cement floor by the right from tire of Agnes’ car.

    But the cool breeze again carried the smell of cigarette smoke. Ragotskie let his muscles relax, very slowly.

    And he jumped when he heard Taitz’s voice say, loudly, “What?” For several seconds Ragotskie just held his breath, and even closed his eyes; then Taitz said, “He probably saw you guys.” Evidently Taitz’ phone had been set to vibrate, so there had been no ringtone for Ragotskie to hear. “He would have called her if he was just delayedâ¦yeah, ten more minutes.”

 



 

    With his teeth clenched and his eyes still closed, Ragotskie began mentally counting seconds; and he had counted off fifteen minutes’ worth before the elevator doors audibly slid open and the footsteps of several people advanced across the cement floor. The rap of Harlowe’s boot heels raised echoes.

    Ragotskie winced to hear Agnes’s voice, but he couldn’t make out the words, and he hoped fervently that she would walk straight to the driver’s side door of her car and not notice the empty magnetic box on the cement floor on the other side.

    But he heard her car door slam, loudly in the air and more muffled from the speaker of his Samsung phone. He hastily covered the speaker slot with his thumb. Both cars started up, and tires squeaked as the drivers backed and filled to turn toward the descending ramp.

    When the sounds of the car engines had diminished away below, Ragotskie slid the phone into his shirt pocket and stood up. There was no one to be seen on this level now. He thought about crossing to the balcony and peeking over the rail to see the cars exit onto Broadway, but the idea of Harlowe glancing up and seeing him made him shudder and discard the idea.

    He stretched, rotating his head on his stiff neck, then finally wheeled his bicycle out from behind the van — but before he could start toward the elevator a cheerful voice spoke from the phone in his shirt pocket.

    “Are you going home?” it asked. Ragotskie recognized it as the automated voice of the Waze app, and he hastily fumbled the phone to his ear. “Turn right on Broadway,” the voice said. “In one hundred feet, turn right on 8th Street.”

    Two seconds later he heard the chime of Agnes’ phone.

    “Yo, Simon,” said her voice then. The burner TracFone in the map pocket of her passenger side door was picking her up clearly.

    The calm voice of the Waze app interjected, “Turn right on Eighth Street.”

    “That’s just Waze,” said Agnes’ voice. Ragotskie could clearly hear the ticking of her turn signal. “Listen, I could text him. Even if he did see Foster, he’ll still agree to meet me. I’ll make up some explanation, and he’ll believe it. He’s in love with me.” Her tone was only amused.

    Ragotskie carefully laid his thumb over the tiny microphone slot. Then he let himself take a hitching breath.

    “In one mile, turn left to the 110 freeway south,” advised the Waze voice.

    “I know,” said Agnes’ voice now, “the sock. I’ll get it back from him.” After a few seconds she said, “The twins? Instead of Vickery and Castine? Uh — hah! — are you sure?” She was silent for several seconds, then went on, “I know, but — well, okay, you’re our Pygmalion here. How’s young Pratt? I hear Vickery knocked him out, at Canter’s.” For several seconds she didn’t speak; then she said, “Good God. Open his skull?” Again she was silent, while Waze droned on about the freeway. “Okay,” Agnes said at last, “bye for now.”

    Ragotskie heard her phone thump on the passenger seat, and then the rasp of a cigarette lighter.

    The twins? he thought in dismay. No, he can’t — if he uses them as his IMPs, I have no hope of having accomplished anything. I’ve only made it worse — Agnes will still lose her identity in the egregore, but now its IMPs will be the delusional and capricious Amber and Lexi. Imps for real.

    He could see Harlowe’s reasoning. The twins did have the useful quality of diffraction — nobody, including the girls themselves, could tell which of them was which, or where one personality ended and the other began. Merged into the egregore, they should in theory find no difficulty in rapidly switching the group-mind’s theses and antitheses back and forth through their uniquely open-ended identity.

    But they weren’t sane.

    The Waze app spoke up, advising her to make a left turn onto the freeway. Ragotskie made a mental note of the route she was taking, though it would be the last couple of turns and street names that would be important. And when he had learned what street she lived on, he would again take the battery out of his Samsung.

    After more than a minute her voice said, “Move it, shithead!”

    Apparently she was addressing another driver. Waze continued to indicate directions, but it occurred to Ragotskie that Move it, shithead might be the last words he would ever hear Agnes Loria say.

 


 

    More than a hundred miles to the northeast, out in the desert beyond the Cajon Pass, Ingrid Castine finally fell asleep in Vickery’s single bed.

    For an hour she had lain awake in the darkness, listening to the faint buzz of the pinwheels on the trailer’s roof, and listening too, in her mind, to what she had said to Vickery this afternoon: Socrates said the unconsidered life is not worth living, but that’s what I want. Wanted.

    She wondered where the old house in their visions might be, and she tried to remember what echo vision had been like, before the views of the house had pre-empted it. Even then, she had resented the intrusion of the past.

    She didn’t like to consider the past at all. Nor the future, really.

    Last year her deceased fiance had knowingly directed her into a trap, because he’d been threated with disbarment and possible tax-fraud charges if he did not. He had reacted as her pursuers had known he would — he had thought to save himself a lot of bad trouble by betraying her — though they had killed him in spite of his contemptible cooperation.

    She fell asleep thinking of him, wondering if his ghost had been in the afterworld Labyrinth when she and Vickery had been there alive. The two of them had escaped in a makeshift hang-glider and closed the conduit between that insane world and the normal one — had they sealed his ghost in, on that side?

    Would she have wanted instead to subsume his ghost in some unliving organic object on this side, like the bits bone or wood in the hubs of the pinwheels, or the book in which Vickery’s nonexistent daughter was fossilized?

    In her dream she hovered over an enormous open book, and she could see that its pages were filled with columns of what she knew were names, though their letters were too blurred and overlapped to be readable. And she knew that she could relax and merge into the pages, and that her name, itself safely indecipherable there, would be all that remained of her. Not just the unexamined life, but the unconscious life; the unlife life, in fact.

    The book’s pages fluttered as if in a randomizing wind, and it rose upright and was a pinwheel, spinning in bright moonlight. She drifted toward its hub, knowing that she could dance unaware in it forever, but she glanced sideways — other pinwheels stood nearby, and though they were spinning, she was able to recognize faces in the hubs — Jack Hipple, yes,â¦but also the girl who had stopped her bicycle and spoken a cryptical phrase at MacArthur Park this afternoon, and Supergirlâ¦and the faces were all contorted in imbecilic grimaces.

    She recoiled into wakefulness, and after a few panicky moments remembered where she was. She thought of getting up and going to the living room and waking Vickery, but the memory of the dream had faded to a few meaningless images. She fluffed the pillow and rolled over and went back to sleep.


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