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Forced Perspectives: Chapter Seven

       Last updated: Monday, February 10, 2020 06:45 EST

 


 

Two and Two is Four

During a one-minute-interval update on his iPad, Don Foster tapped back to the All Events page.

John Taitz was driving Harlowe’s Chevy Tahoe slowly north on Normandie, past more of the apartment buildings which, it seemed to him, made up most of Los Angeles.

They had just received Harlowe’s order that Vickery and Castine, as well as Ragotskie, were to be killed. Taitz briefly wished he’d had a drink or two before setting out.

“Where’s Ragotskie now?” he asked.

“As of thirty seconds ago, he was a block east of us,” said Foster, “on Mariposa. But check this out — at nine-thirty last night he was parked in the Holiday Marina lot for ten minutes! I thought he wasn’t supposed to know where the Black Sheep is berthed now, since he went rogue yesterday?”

“That’s right,” said Taitz, “he’s not.” I’ll have to tell Harlowe he has to move it again, he thought. He’ll love that.

“You think he followed the Castine woman there, with the bloody sock? How would she have found out about it?”

“I don’t think — no, he must have actually been at that weird restaurant on Seventh last night, and we just didn’t see him. He probably followed Loria to the marina. He’s obsessed with her.”

Foster settled back in the seat and tapped the iPad screen to get back to the one-minute-interval updates. “He’s only moved up half a block. I bet he’s parked.”

“Consulting the sock, probably. It’s a good sign that he’s driving around L.A. — Harlowe was afraid Castine and Vickery just ran straight east, like to Vegas.” Taitz steered the SUV to a strip of empty curb and shifted to park.

“I wonder if they’re still in that blue sedan,” said Foster. “What was that, some kind of foreign thing?”

“It looked like an old East German Trabant. Maybe Vickery drove it back from Hell last year.”

“Maybe he drove it back there again. He sure disappeared yesterday.” Foster scratched his bald scalp. “I’d still like to get a hat. And not just some tacky fishing hat bag thing.” He shifted around to look up and down this street, then said, “You think they’llâ¦offer resistance?”

“We’ll have no problems.” Right after getting Harlowe’s newest order, Taitz had swung through a parking lot and taken a pair of license plates from a parked car and put them on the Tahoe, and the windshield and windows were fortunately tinted against the ubiquitous street cameras.

“Ragotskie’s nothing,” Taitz went on. “He’s got that little Beretta, but he couldn’t shoot anybody. And Ingrid Castine’s just an office clerk for some transportation agency back east. Vickery — he was a driver for that Galvan woman’s ghost-evasion car service, which didn’t look like a real carriage trade operation. He’s some kind of rootless loser. I don’t anticipate any problems.”

In killing three people, he thought. What kind of apotheosis is to be found at the end of this sort of road?

“Vickery’s good at evasive driving, for sure. And he got out of that deli pretty smooth. Bam! Bam!”

“Big deal,” said Taitz, “he sucker-punched poor Pratt and ran out.”

To Taitz’s annoyance, Foster drew his Glock 40 from the shoulder holster under his shiny new six-hundred-dollar black leather jacket, and pointed it at the floor. After he worked his hand on the grip for a moment, a luminous green dot appeared on the carpeting between his sneakers.

“A three-bet before the flop!” said Foster. “And this flop’s gonna be dealt face-down, oh yeah.”

“Put it away,” said Taitz, restraining himself from adding, idiot, “and watch your iPad.”

Foster was always using poker slang, which Taitz believed he got exclusively from YouTube videos; and using it now, breezily, minutes after they had received the order to kill Vickery and Castine as well as Ragotskie, was — if nothing else — shallow.

Taitz glanced with concealed distaste at Foster, who had put the gun away and was again peering at the iPad.  And, Not just some tacky fishing hat bag thing. Oh, God forbid. And what is Foster going to contribute, Taitz wondered, to the egregore? Sophomoric self-satisfaction? I can’t blame him, though, for wanting to subsume his glib, shallow self in the godhead.

I’m counting on it too.

At fifty-five, John Taitz had been the oldest employee of ChakraSys when Harlowe had bought the company in 2016. Until Harlowe’s arrival, the chakra therapy salon had occupied a space in a strip mall in San Jose, offering counseling on diet, and “workshops,” and exercises to keep the clients’ seven “chakras” functioning smoothly. Taitz had been privately skeptical of the whole affair — deep breathing and rainbow diets and forever tightening the Kegel muscles, which he gathered basically meant a person’s rear end — but Harlowe had brought a vastly bigger and more ambitious perspective to the whole business.

The egregore, the living cauldron into which they would all dump their unattractive selves.

John Taitz wondered what his own personality could contribute to the transcendent egregore. Before getting the job at ChakraSys, he had served time in Soledad State Prison for murdering a woman he had believed — still believed — he had loved.

They had been living together in an apartment in Santa Clara, and in the midst of a drunken argument in 1986 she had grabbed her car keys and stormed out; when she drove away in her car he followed her in his, and on the 101 freeway he had caught up with her at eighty miles per hour and swerved to force her off onto the shoulder. But his right front bumper had struck her car, which had skidded sideways and then gone tumbling right over the freeway embankment, into a parking lot below. Hannah had not been wearing her seatbelt. Two other drivers had witnessed the incident and pulled over, and their eventual testimony had led to his conviction for murder.

He lived each day now in stoic confidence that he would soon be able to cease being the person who carried the intolerable memory of yanking the steering wheel to the right, and the boom of the impact, and the glimpse of her car in the first of what must have been several rolls. And he had killed two other men since, for reasons that were incomprehensible to him now. Perhaps the egregore would need a capacity for weathering guilt.

“Flop’s gonna be dealt face-down,” said Foster again, nodding and grinning.

Taitz crossed his arms and looked at him. “I thought you liked Ragotskie.”

“Like?” said Foster. “I guess I don’t like anybody.”

“God help the subtle body,” muttered Taitz. More loudly, he said, “Just watch your damn app, and let me know when he moves.”

 


 

Vickery parked the Saturn in a lot on Irolo Street, around the corner from Galvan’s yard. He rolled down the front windows to match the empty back ones, remarking that it was common practice in San Francisco to leave all windows open on parked cars, so that thieves could ransack the interior without having to break any glass. He and Castine then walked up to Eighth Street, where they paused by a couple of barbed-wire-enclosed dumpsters behind a Jon’s Market. The noon sun was bright on the downstairs shops and upstairs apartment windows across the street, and the wind from the west smelled of the distant sea.

“I wish we’d brought Omar Khayyam along,” said Castine. “If those bad guys show up, he could rescue us again.” Since their stop in Hesperia this morning she was wearing a long suede coat over a white cotton blouse and blue jeans. She had not bought a purse, and Vickery’s .38 was in her right-hand coat pocket.

“We should be okay if we keep moving around,” said Vickery. He had bought a Dodgers baseball cap and a black nylon bomber jacket, and he had followed Castine’s example and carried the flat 9-millimeter Glock in the right jacket pocket. “And this business with Galvan shouldn’t take long. She probably owes me a few favors, and it’s been eight months since she –“

“Told a bad guy where to find your Secret Garden.”

“Yeah. And she’d probably like to have me around for the occasional echo-vision job. She doesn’t need to know that itâ¦generally doesn’t work right anymore.”

“Were there a lot of those? Echo-vision jobs?”

 



 

Vickery yawned widely. “Excuse me. I probably could have made a living at it, even with Galvan taking forty percent, as she did. It seemed almost natural at first — remember when it first started happening, you seemed to have a body, in the visions? That turned out to be just a projection, like a visible phantom limb, and it wore off, but it did make the visions less disorienting. Yeah, I got sent to offices to see documents that had been on a desk an hour earlier, and rushed into empty restaurant booths to try to read a number off the cell phone of some guy who’d just left — one time some guys with guns grabbed me off the street and took me to a corner in South Central, and just wanted to know if a certain car in a parking lot had been there for more than an hour. It had — I could tell by the shadows — and I said so. I wonder if I saved somebody or got ’em killed.”

“Good lord.” Castine shook her head. “I never let anybody know I could even do it. People just thought I had mini-strokes sometimes.” She was looking east down Eighth Street, and she shivered. “I should just wait for you here. She doesn’t like me.”

The crosswalk light had turned green, and they started forward.

Vickery glanced at her. “Who, Galvan? Well, no. I’m not sure she likes me. But we saved her nephew or cousin or something, a year ago, remember?”

Castine smiled in spite of herself, and nodded. “He was going to jump down into the Labyrinth, try to close the hole between the worlds, but lucky for him we’d already closed it.”  She actually laughed. “He had a parachute.”

They stopped, waiting to cross Irolo.

“And what,” said Vickery, “holy water grenades? And a gun with silver bullets.”

Castine shook her head pityingly. “Much too conventional for that place.”

Galvan’s yard had no sign, but Vickery could see the green netting over the chain link fence ahead, and as they drew closer he saw that the gate had been slid back from across the driveway.

“She’s still in business, at least,” he said. “Or somebody is, anyway.”

“Last time we were here,” said Castine nervously, “we stole one of her taco trucks. And left it in the Labyrinth.”

“And she only ever carried liability insurance on her vehicles. But we did save her damn nephew — and probably her and all of her family that lives in L.A.”

Castine nodded. “According to poor old Laquedem, anyway.”

They had reached the driveway, and Vickery let his gaze sweep from the rows of cars to the old Silver Airstream trailer at the far end of the lot on the left, and on to the long car-maintenance bay, and finally to the two-story office building with its windows painted over white. Galvan’s office was in there, and he led Castine across the asphalt in that direction.

The door of the trailer on the other side of the lot was open, and a heavy-set bald man in a sweatshirt leaned out. “Can I help you?” he yelled, not in a friendly tone.

“Tom! It’s me, Vickery!”

Tom was the yard manager, and his round face was puckered sternly now as he plodded down the steps to the pavement. He squinted at Vickery for five seconds, then burst out, “You got no pay coming, so forget it — you owe her heaps for taking that truck.” Then he visibly recognized Castine. “You brought her here? You better just get lost before the boss sees you.”

Several drivers and mechanics had stepped out from the shade of the maintenance bay and were watching curiously. Vickery could see one of Galvan’s super-stealth cars, guaranteed to keep passengers invisible to all supernatural attentions, parked in the bay.

“We want to talk to her,” said Vickery, with a wave toward the office building.

Tom hesitated, then stepped back toward the trailer. “I’ll call her. You wait right there, and when she tells me to throw you out, I’ll get the guys to do it.”

He climbed the steps again and disappeared into the trailer.

“Now we get beat up, I think,” said Castine quietly.

“She’ll see me. I’ve been as much profit as loss to her, over the years. Probably. You want to go over there in the shade and get some coffee?”

“No! He said stay here!”

“Suit yourself.” Vickery began walking toward the maintenance bay, and Castine hurried to catch up. A cart with a coffee urn and a stack of styrofoam cups on it stood by one of the big steel door frames, and Vickery nodded to one of the mechanics and filled two cups. Castine rolled her eyes, then took a cup and shook sugar into it from a greasy canister on the cart.

The familiar smells of gasoline and Mexican food, and the burnt taste of the coffee, made Vickery almost relax.

“This wasn’t a bad job, actually,” he remarked to Castine.

Castine, who had worked for Galvan one day last year, said, “I never cared for it.” She sipped the coffee and made a sour face.

“Vickery!” came a call from behind them; “and Betty Boop!”

Vickery recognized Galvan’s voice, and he remembered that Castine had used the name Betty Boop in their dealings with her last year. He turned around with a smile, and there was Anita Galvan, just as he remembered her — not tall, but stocky, with a broad brown face and short-cropped black hair. She was dressed, as usual, in cargo pants and a khaki jacket, and her protuberant and piercing brown eyes twinkled with unpredictable merriment.

“You come to steal another one of my vehicles?” she called as she strode across the asphalt to where Vickery and Castine stood.

Vickery waved toward the office building. “I wanted to ask you about something.”

“You can talk out here. I don’t like hallways sometimes.”

“Uh⦔ Vickery glanced around — none of the drivers or mechanics were nearby. “Okay. You remember that guy that came in here eight months or so ago, asking about objects with ghosts fossilized in them –“

“Oh, Vick,” said Galvan, with an almost pitying look in her big eyes. “For this you came here?”

“I need to know more about him. I know he left you a business card that was a phony, but –” He paused, wanting to give the woman a plausible excuse for knowing more than she had told him in February. “I was thinking maybe he got in touch again, after I went away, and gave you some contact information for him.”

Galvan shook her head, then said, loudly, “Contrata.”

Vickery’s heart sank as he heard steps behind him, and Galvan went on, “Both of you put down the coffee. With your left hands you will take out any guns you carry, and lay them on the coffee cart. After that, Ramon will frisk you, and I’ll be angry if he finds a gun then.”

Vickery had twice seen this contrata move before, and participated himself in one of those times, and he knew that at least one of the men behind him was standing to the side and pointing a gun at him and Castine.

He set his coffee cup on the cart, then pulled the flat little Glock out of his jacket pocket and laid it down beside the cup. “What the hell, boss?”

Castine gave him a wide-eyed, accusatory look as she clanked the revolver next to it. A pair of hands from behind them quickly and expertly patted down Vickery, and then Castine.

“Guess,” said Galvan. “And step back behind that Honda.”

“You’re selling us to somebody again,” said Vickery.

“Yup,” she said.

Vickery recalled that, because Galvan’s drivers weren’t supposed to be armed, he had left a .45 semi-automatic on a shelf against the back wall last year, with his name on a tag tied around the trigger guard. It was a spare, with a dubious legal history, and he had never picked it up, and in any case other drivers sometimes carried guns and left them checked and tagged on that shelf while they drove fares.

When he walked into the bay and around the back end of the tan Honda, he took a few extra steps, and was now within reaching distance of the shelf. Castine seemed to guess that he had some sort of plan, and stepped wide.

He glanced over his shoulder to check Ramon’s position and balance — and saw that the shelf was empty.

Vickery’s mind raced. “You’re selling us to the guy who you told about the book, back in February, right? Maybe you sold him the information then, but that’s blood under the bridge. You know why he suddenly right now wants to get hold of me?” The story was taking shape in Vickery’s mind as he spoke. “Why I showed up here within, I bet, days of when he contacted you?”

 



 

“I just care that he’s paying me.”

Vickery let out a bitter laugh. “You called him as soon as Tom told you we were here, didn’t you? I bet he’s not paying you a million-four.”

“No,” said Galvan cheerfully, “he’s not. Neither are you.”

“No. But the reason I came here today, hoping you had a line on the guy who has the book, is because a collector in London just lately learned about the existence of it, and he wants it real bad.” Vickery was cautiously pleased with this story; it seemed fairly credible. “He got in touch with a number of people who deal in such stuff.”

Castine had caught on that he was up to something, and gave him a good imitation of a warning frown.

“Ruben is gonna gag you and tie you up,” said Galvan. “The buyer will be along in a minute, and right now neither of you has any broken bones.”

“Dammit, boss,” said Vickery, “listen to me! That book isn’t just another object with a ghost sunk in it, like Hipple’s corncob pipes — it’s an object with a never-born in it.  Remember? My daughter who I never had? You know how rare that is? Well, ‘rare’ doesn’t cover it — it’s absolutely unique. Ask your bruja pals what that’s worth.”

Galvan’s smile was skeptical. “And this London guy is willing to pay a million-four for it?”

“That’s right. I heard about him, and called him, and I was able to tell him enough to convince him I have it. And I worked him up to that figure.”

“So why does Harlowe need you? He can sell the book to the collector in London and leave you out of it.”

“Who’s Harlowe?”

Galvan pursed her lips. “The guy I just called.”

“And I bet the money he gets from selling the book to the guy in London will be just about pure profit,” said Vickery while he tried desperately to come up with a convincing answer to her question. “Is this Harlowe paying you a lot for me today?”

“Five thousand, same as he paid me for steering him to the book itself, in February.”

Vickery realized that Galvan didn’t know about the attempt then to grab him; she imagined that stealing the book had been this Harlowe person’s only goal.

“He’s getting off damn cheap,” he said.

“But why does he need you, now?” persisted Galvan.

Vickery hesitated, and Castine spoke up, in a tone of weary resignation.

“This buyer who just cropped up,” she said, “is what you might call a celebrity clergyman. You’d know the name — books, his own TV show. He can’t afford to have people find out he’s interested in witchy stuff, which would probably happen if Sebastian were to make a stink about the book being stolen from him. The London guy would deny ever having heard of the book — he wouldn’t buy it at any price, much less the million-four he’s willing to pay Sebastian right now.”

“But if I’m verifiably out of the picture,” Vickery said, gratefully picking up Castine’s story, “like if it’s reported that I’ve killed myself, for instance, your man Harlowe will be free to sell it to this buyer with no risk of a counterclaimâ¦and probably for a whole lot less money that what I’ve got the guy to agree to.”

Galvan ran her tongue along the edges of her teeth. Then, “Get in the Honda, quick,” she said, nodding toward one of her ordinary cars. “Back seat, and get down on the floor. Ramon, give me your gun, and you drive.”

“Ramon,” added Vickery, “fetch our guns along.”

The man glanced at Galvan, who rolled her eyes and nodded. Ramon handed her his revolver and sprinted back toward the coffee cart.

Sixty seconds later, Ramon was steering the Honda out of the driveway onto Eighth Street, heading west. Vickery and Castine were crouched head-to-head on the floor in front of the rear seat, and Galvan sat in the front passenger seat, holding three guns in her lap.

As Ramon picked up speed, she reached out through the open window and twisted the mirror. “Stay down,” she said. “A gray SUV just turned in to my lot.” To Ramon, she added, “Around back of that 7-Eleven, and park it.”

As the Honda swung to the right and rocked up a driveway, the top of Vickery’s baseball cap bumped Castine’s head; he caught her eye and winked, and she gave him a brief, impatient nod.

When Ramon had stopped the car and put in in park with the engine still running, Galvan turned around in the front seat. She was holding Ramon’s revolver, but pointing it at the headliner for now.

“I get half,” she said to Vickery, “If we can get the book away from Harlowe and sell it to your London preacher. You get the other half.” She raised her eyebrows and whistled, miming appreciation of how much that would be.

“You get a third,” said Vickery, hoping that disagreement about the nonexistent payment would make the story more convincing. “Can we sit up now?”

Galvan looked around. “Yeah, just be ready to duck again. A third?”

“Four-hundred-sixty-six thousand,” said Castine, straightening up.

Galvan looked amiably baffled. “Why should Betty Boop get a share? It wasn’t her book.”

“Sheâ¦helped.” Vickery hiked himself up onto the back seat, where he was joined a moment later by Castine. Both of them peered cautiously around at the parking lot. “The guy said his name’s Harlowe?”

“No,” said Galvan, “he didn’t give me a name, so I ran his license plate. He’s from out of town. You don’t need to know any more than that. I can fix up a meeting with him, and then — I don’t know, we could bug his SUV, or frame him for a bad felony bust and blackmail him, or just get rid of his guys and grab him and torture him till he gives us the book — “

“I’m supposed to call my buyer every day before the British banks close,” said Vickery, “and in London it’s already –“

Castine gave him a quick, anxious look, then raised her arm and glanced at her new watch. “you’ve got half an hour,” she said tensely.

“So we gotta run,” said Vickery. “I’ll call you later, or tomorrow.”

“We’ll drive you back to your car,” said Galvan.

Castine shook her head. “We like to walk.”

“And I can call him while I’m walking,” said Vickery, who in fact was not carrying a phone.

Galvan was silent, then said, flatly, “Walk.”

“Sure,” said Vickery. “Pedestrians have right of way everywhere. Eventually I imagine we’ll get on a bus.” He slowly opened the door on his side, and Galvan didn’t object when he stepped out onto the parking lot pavement. Castine carefully did the same on her side.

“A bus,” said Galvan.

“I’m just visiting L.A.,” Castine explained. “I want to take one of those tours where you see the movie stars’ homes.”

Galvan laughed softly and shook her head. “Okay, go. Remember, I’m the one who knows who Harlowe is, and how to contact him!”

Vickery smiled at her. “That’s what I was hoping for when we came to see you. Oh,” he added, “our guns?”

Galvan squinted up at him. “Sure, Vick.” She gave the revolver back to Ramon, then lifted Vickery’s Glock and Castine’s .38 and held them up by the open window. Vickery handed the .38 to Castine and tucked the Glock into his jacket pocket.

“It would be purely dumb,” said Galvan as Ramon clicked the Honda into gear and stepped on the brake, “if you were lying to me about this London buyer.” When Vickery shook his head, she went on, “I thought you liked having your phantom daughter around.”

“I did. But she is fossilized, inert. Not even as present as a picture. And she never actually existed anyway.” He shrugged. “I like four-hundred grand better.”

Galvan gave him an unreadable look. “You used to be more sentimental.”

Ramon lifted his foot from the brake and steered the car toward the street on the other side of the parking lot.

Vickery took Castine’s suede-sleeved elbow and followed, and then led her quickly north along the sidewalk, away from where he had parked his Saturn. Old brick apartment buildings with fire escapes lined both sides of the street, and the bushy curbside trees were easily a dozen feet tall.

“We’ll turn left on Seventh,” he told Castine quietly, “go through a few stores, take a taxi or two. Make sure we’re not being followed.”

He was breathing deeply, still shaky from the tightrope they had just walked with Galvan.

“That story about a London buyer saved us,” said Castine. “Oh — and it was nice of you to put me down for a third.”

 



 

“I had to sound serious.” He flexed his hands and stretched. “Your celebrity clergyman was a good touch too.”

“But England is eight hours ahead! All the banks closed hours ago.”

Vickery was looking up and down the street, noting cars and alleys; there were no unbarred ground-floor windows, and all doors were presumably locked, but a U-Haul truck was parked at the curb a few yards ahead, and near it an apartment gate stood open, braced by an upended couch. “She doesn’t know that.”

“You better hope she doesn’t check it out. She seems thorough.” Castine was looking around too. “God help us when she eventually learns you made the whole thing up.” She glanced at Vickery. “You figure you can get a taxi?”

“If I can find a pay phone. A taxi’ll come if we call and say we want a long trip, like to Universal Studios. And if we ask nice, the driver’ll do some checking and evasion moves.”

“I’ve never been to Universal Studios. I hear it’s fun, lots of cool rides.”

“Well, we won’t be doing any of that today. We’ll just get out of one taxi, duck around a couple of corners, and then get in another.”

“Oh well.” Castine glanced up and down the street. “If you do get your book back,” she said, “and if there were a buyer.” She looked up at him. “Would you sell it?”

“What, for a million-four?”

“Let’s say.”

“You’ll think I’m crazy, but⦔ His voice trailed off.

A bright green Audi with a bicycle in a rack at the back bumper had passed them slowly, and now its brake lights came on. “You watch around and behind,” he told Castine.

The Audi was stopped in the middle of the street, and two empty hands appeared over the roof. “Let me talk!” came a yell from the car. “I can help you!”

Vickery caught Castine’s eye and jerked his head toward the open apartment gate, and they hurried forward to stand by the upended couch. Vickery’s hand was in his jacket pocket, and both of Castine’s hands were in the pockets of her suede coat.

“Step out of the car,” called Vickery.

“Let me park it.” The driver’s hands withdrew, and the car swerved forward and stopped at a red curb a few yards ahead. The hands waved out of the window again, and then the driver’s side door opened and a young man stepped out, his arms raised.

He wasn’t wearing the red suspenders, but Vickery recognized him by the round glasses and the eccentric shaved-on-the-sides haircut. After a moment, Vickery beckoned him over with his free hand.

A goateed teenaged boy in a black T-shirt had stepped out of the apartment doorway, and his narrowed eyes switched from Vickery to the young man in the street and back.

“My brother,” Vickery told him. “He’s going through a bad divorce.”

Castine nodded sadly.

The young man from the Audi was close enough to hear Vickery’s explanation, and visibly wilted — a touch Vickery admired.

The teenage boy nodded and stepped to the back of the U-Haul truck and rattled the latch on the roll-up door.

Vickery motioned the young man to follow as he and Castine walked a few yards down the sidewalk.

“My name’s Elisha Ragotskie,” said the young man quietly when Vickery halted. He looked left and right nervously. His white shirt was wrinkled, as if he’d slept in it, and he hadn’t shaved recently — but that might have been just a fashion statement. “I can tell you what’s going on, if –“

“Tell us first,” said Vickery. “What does Harlowe want with us?”

“How do you know his name?” When Vickery impatiently waved the question aside, Ragotskie went on, “You know about the twins? He’s going to use them as imps for his egregore now, since you two didn’t work out. I — I’m sorry, I was stressed! — I tried to — yesterday –“

“Kill this woman,” said Vickery quietly. “Go on.” He remembered one of the ghosts under the bridge last night saying something like Quoth the raven nevermore. Had that last word been this egregore?

“Well, either of you, really,” said Ragotskie, “to break the pair. I’m sorry, Ms. Castine! I just wanted to stop the egregore, and it looked like you two were going to be the necessary imps. I never imagined he’d go with the twins!”

The boy in the T-shirt was still yanking at the latch on the back of the U-Haul truck, and Ragotskie peered in that direction. Turning back to Vickery, he asked, “Is somebody stuck in that truck?”

“He’s just trying to open it,” said Vickery. “You were there in February, when Harlowe’s people stole a book from me. Do you –“

“But he must be stuck inside! We should –“

Vickery just frowned at him in baffled annoyance, but Castine grabbed Ragotskie’s arm. “Do you,” she asked urgently, “see the boy in the black T-shirt standing by the back of the truck? Dark hair, got a little beard?”

Ragotskie blinked at her, then looked again at the truck with the rattling latch. “Uh,” he said, “no?”

Castine turned a frightened look on Vickery. “You spoke to it in a complete sentence, with not even any Faraday cage chicken-wire in between.”

Vickery’s face was suddenly cold. “Don’t look at it. There’s an alley back this way — come on, both of you.”

The skinny figure in the black T-shirt, still idiotically yanking on the truck’s door handle, was evidently a ghost — a spontaneous, unsummoned one.

Ragotskie opened his mouth but shut it when Castine glared at him, and he followed her and Vickery further down the sidewalk toward the opening of a narrow alley.

Vickery was looking back over his shoulder, and he muttered, “Shit,” for the ghost was now lurching after them. Its shadow on the sunlit sidewalk was just a churning blur.

A picture of Bob Marley was visible printed on its T-shirt; Vickery abruptly realized whose ghost it must be, and his steps faltered — and he felt bound to look at it. I made it, he thought.

The thing was only a couple of yards away now; it opened its mouth and said, “You think you’re so big. I don’t need a stun-gun — I can take you.”

Its mouth opened wider then, and its features began to curdle — and its chameleon tongue, hardly visible in the direct sunlight, looped out of its mouth-hole and struck Vickery in the chest. And then for a prolonged moment Vickery was staring into his own gray-bearded face, six feet away and getting closer, or bigger.

“I can take you.” Either it spoke those words again or they replayed forcefully in Vickery’s mind.

There was no breeze, but he was suddenly cold all the way through his flesh to his bones, and though the lines of buildings in his peripheral vision remained vertical, he felt himself tipping into a fall that would not end when he hit the pavement —

As if from a distance, he heard Castine’s voice call, “Two and two is four, and nothing else!”

The elongated tongue fell away, or evaporated. Vickery was able to hop back, regaining his balance, and glance at her. Just as she had done last night, she was holding up four fingers. She’s right, he thought dazedly. It is four.

Vickery shook himself and didn’t look again at the ghost’s face. “Six and six is twelve,” he said hoarsely, “and squared is –” He paused, for at the moment he had no idea what twelve squared was.

“A hundred and forty four!” said Castine. To Vickery, she muttered, “Give it stuff we can do on our fingers! It’s got to see it.”

The ghost had halted; its mouth was closed, and it was swaying back and forth. It seemed less tall than it had been a moment ago. “I’m as good as you,” it muttered angrily. “And I’m gonna be in your book, mixing it up with your daughter, what do you think of that?”

“Five and five!” said Castine loudly, holding up the spread fingers of both hands.

“Is ten!” called Vickery, pointing at Castine’s hands.

“Isn’t either,” grumbled the ghost.

Vickery held up his own hands, with his fingers stretched out — it must look as if he and Castine were surrendering — and said, “And ten is twenty, see? Look! There’s no place for you here.”

For a moment the very air seemed bent, stressed.

Then the ghost turned around, turned again to face them, and then began spinning rapidly, so rapidly that in seconds it was just a blur; and then it disappeared with a whump that stirred dust on the sidewalk.

“Terminal z-axis spin,” whispered Castine.


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