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Forced Perspectives: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Wednesday, February 19, 2020 06:45 EST

 


 

Last Bus to Oblivion

Ragotskie was blinking around in evident confusion.

Vickery rubbed one hand over his face.

“You okay?” asked Castine anxiously. “This is twice in less than twenty-four hours for you.”

“Sure.” There was a taste like pennies and sour milk in his mouth, and he turned and spat into the gutter. “Excuse me. Sure. Yes.” He noticed that his shirt was damp, and clinging to him. “We can talk in the alley,” he added, and he was careful to walk steadily as he led the way. His heart was thudding rapidly and he concentrated on breathing in and out.

“It looked like you, for a second!” said Castine, who was walking close beside him, evidently prepared to catch him if he should stumble.

“I know,” said Vickery shortly, “I was there.”

When all three of them were in the narrow, shaded passage between high brick walls, Vickery looked down the length of it and saw that after about a hundred and fifty feet it opened out at the far end onto a paved lot. He sighed deeply, then turned to Ragotskie. “You didn’t see that thing?”

“No. Was there a ghost? I’ve never –“

“We’re miles from any freeway current, and I don’t know why it should have appeared here, now. Have you got some kind of mobile hotspot on you?”

“I — oh! — I guess I do. Heh. I had it hooked over my rear-view mirror.”

He reached around toward his back pocket, and Vickery caught his arm. “Very slowly.”

“I don’t have a gun. You took my gun yesterday.” Ragotskie fumbled at the back of his black jeans, then held out a dirty white sock.

“What the hell is that?” demanded Vickery.

“Oh my God, Sebastian,” said Castine wonderingly, “I think it’s the sock I wiped the blood off my face with, last year, right after we came out of the Labyrinth!”

Ragotskie nodded jerkily. “Right, I stole it out of Harlowe’s Chevy Tahoe yesterday, at MacArthur Park. It tilts toward you,” he said, nodding to Castine. “It’s how I’ve followed you.”

She took it out of his hand and stuffed it into her left coat pocket. Ragotskie just bobbed his head, obviously anxious to please.

“I recognized the ghost,” said Vickery, feeling sick. “It was that kid I hit in Canter’s.”

“Pratt?” said Ragotskie. “I heard they had to open his skull. He was nineteen.”

Nineteen, Vickery thought. I made that shambling travesty out of him, and I can’t apologize, explain.

“I shouldâ¦check the street,” he muttered; and with a vague wave he stumbled to the mouth of the alley and just blinked up and down the sunlit street, breathing deeply. I’ve now certainly killed four men, in the course of my life, he thought. Three men and a boy, rather.

He made himself pay attention to the moving cars — and saw a gray SUV turn onto the street from Eighth. It might have been a Chevy Tahoe.

Over his shoulder, he said, “Ragotskie, does Harlowe have a way to track you?”

Immediately Ragotskie was standing beside him, staring south; then he stepped back quickly, pulling Vickery with him. “They must have had a tracker on my car all along! Agnes can’t have known about it. She’d have told me.”

The SUV was moving slowly up the street. Within seconds it would be in sight of Ragotskie’s parked Audi and in line with the alley.

Vickery waved toward the far end of the alley and said, “Walk casually, and don’t look back. He won’t be looking for three people together.”

“He might be,” said Ragotskie miserably. “He might have held off on grabbing me in hopes I’d lead him to you two.”

“Swell,” said Vickery. “Walk casually anyway.”

Vickery took Castine’s elbow, and as they walked he scanned the doors and windows that faced the alley. The windows were all set in behind iron bars, and the doors were either padlocked or had two keyholes, indicating deadbolts. There was not even a trash can to hide behind.

“You got g-guns?” whispered Ragotskie. “If he sees us, shoot the lock off a door.”

“A handgun won’t do it,” said Vickery. “It’d just lock it worse.”

“You’d need a slug out of a shotgun,” said Castine, stepping carefully and watching the parking lot ahead.

Vickery heard a car engine in the alley behind him, and then the sound stopped and he heard car doors clunk open.

“Don’t speed up,” he said. He reached into his jacket pocket and closed his hand on the narrow grip of the Glock. To Ragotskie he said, “Do they have guns?”

“Taitz does.”

“Is he any good with it?”

“He’s killed people.” Ragotskie was walking with his head tilted back, as if wading through chin-deep water.

“Excuse me,” came a call from behind them, “you three? Police. We’d like to speak to you.”

“Keep walking,” said Vickery.

More quietly, in a voice just loud enough to carry down the alley, the voice at their backs said, “Stop or we’ll shoot.”

Castine had thrust her hands into her coat pockets, but what she pulled out wasn’t the revolver. She was holding the dirty white sock.

“I think we stop,” said Vickery.

Castine raised the somewhat white sock over her head and waved it back and forth; and to Vickery she said, “Call Pratt.”

Vickery winced, but had to concede that it was as good an idea as any. He took a breath and opened his mouth.

“I’ll do it,” said Ragotskie, though he didn’t look happy with the idea either. “I knew him.” He turned toward the street with his hands raised and said, “Hey, Pratt, come here, dude.”

A sourceless groaning cough, echoing between the close brick walls, might have been a reply.

“Let’s see everybody’s hands,” called the voice from the street.

“Pratt,” said Ragotskie again, hoarsely. “We forgot to tell you something.”

Vickery was about to turn around, but a shiver in the air made him pause. Again the stressful cough sounded in his ears.

“Pratt?” came Ragotskie’s oddly muffled voice. “Are you — lonely?”

“Pratt,” Vickery said, “it’s me.”

The air was suddenly cold, and Ragotskie stepped back and gave Vickery an uncertain look.

Vickery and Castine both turned around then, and Vickery’s incredulous gasp was simultaneous with Castine’s.

A human head was bobbing in mid-air only a couple of yards in front of them, the eyes rolling in the sockets and the beard-fringed mouth rattling open and shut more rapidly than Vickery would have believed possible; then with a sound like somebody vigorously flapping broken glass out of a blanket, there was a body below the head. A blur on the front of the black T-shirt resolved itself into the image of Bob Marley.

The mouth jiggled to steadiness, then pronounced, “Sick, so sick, call 911⦔

Beyond the suffering figure, two men stood in front of the SUV at the mouth of the alley, and Vickery saw them step back into the sunlight. One of them was gray haired and wearing an olive-green windbreaker.

“Stay — where you are!” that one called; the other, a younger man in a leather jacket, stood in the one-foot-forward Weaver stance with a pistol at eye level, clearly ready to shoot.

“Tell it,” grated Vickery, “to go after them.”

Ragotskie blinked at him. “He’s here? Okay. Those guys, Pratt,” he said more loudly, pointing at the two men, “Taitz and Foster, they left you to die on the street. Look — can you see them?”

“I want to go,” said the ghost. Its mouth wasn’t moving in synch with the sound of its words. “It’s too bright here, crowded. Where is no people?”

The man in the leather jacket called, “On the ground, face down! Now!”

Vickery spoke urgently toward Pratt’s ghost. “Behind you. Get in that van. Quick, they’re going to leave!”

“Yeah,” said Ragotskie, wincing as he looked toward the man with the pistol, “Pratt, you gotta catch the van! Last bus to oblivion!”

With a whimper, the ghost of young Pratt twisted toward the street, and a moment later it was crouching — and then it was loping on all fours, awkwardly but quickly, toward the SUV.

“Jesus God,” whispered Castine.

 



 

The man in the dark windbreaker, at least, could obviously see the thing — he grabbed his companion and they scrambled back into the SUV and slammed the doors. When Vickery heard the starter whine, he drew his gun.

The bottom curves of the front tires were visible against the sunlit pavement beyond, and he quickly fired twice. The gunshots echoed between the close walls like powerful hammer blows on a metal door, and dust blew out to the sides of the SUV and the front end sagged. The windshield wipers were working rapidly.

Forward or back? thought Vickery. “Crowd up, fast,” he said.

He and Castine sprinted toward the street, their guns raised and the sock flapping in Castine’s left hand. The ghost, perhaps frustrated at being locked out of the vehicle, had extruded a filament of glassy tongue that was now stuck to the driver’s window of the SUV, and the window was opaque white; but the driver had got the vehicle into reverse, and the vehicle rumbled backward in a sharp turn on its two flat front tires.

The ghost was jerked off its feet; its head went down and its feet came up, and then it was spinning in mid-air like a pinwheel, wailing. Its tongue had disappeared. Vickery watched in sick horror as it spun faster, until it was a blur, and then with a wail and a windy implosion it was gone.

At the mouth of the alley Vickery had stepped aside to keep Ragotskie in his peripheral vision, and now that young man came puffing up to where he and Castine stood. He smelled sharply of sweat.

The SUV rocked to a thumping, uneven halt, and the passenger side door opened cautiously.

“Get in my car!” said Ragotskie, running toward his Audi.

But a gun muzzle appeared in the gap between the SUV’s opening door and the windshield frame, and Vickery’s own gun was instantly in line and he fired at it — the hard pop was less loud out here on the street — and over the ringing in his ears he heard a hoarse bark of pain, and the gun clanked to the pavement.

Vickery backed toward the Audi, keeping his gun leveled at the SUV’s windshield. “I’ll drive,” he said over his shoulder. “Ingrid can keep an eye on you in the back seat.”

Vickery fired one more shot, squarely through the center of the windshield, then turned and hurried to the car. Ragotskie tossed him the keys over the roof.

Vickery got in and started the car. “Get down,” he snapped as Castine and Ragotskie piled into the back seat, and then he shifted to reverse and stamped on the gas pedal. Castine and Ragotskie were both flung against the back of the front seat, and then they were tossed back when the Audi’s rear bumper struck the SUV’s front left corner with a resounding crash. Pieces of red plastic skittered across the pavement.

In the back seat, Ragotskie yelped, “My car!”

Vickery shifted to low gear and floored the accelerator again. The Audi tore away from the Tahoe with a rattling clatter, and then it was speeding north. Vickery was hunched over the wheel, his teeth clenched, but there were no gunshots from behind.

At Wilshire Boulevard he ran the stop sign and swerved between honking traffic to make a left turn. Glancing in the mirror, he didn’t see any vehicles following them.

“You can straighten up,” he said. “Are your tags up to date on this? On the license plate?”

“Of course,” said Ragotskie. He was sitting up now, blinking through his round glasses at the white high-rise apartment buildings rushing past. He turned to peer back toward the street they’d been on, then rubbed his eyes. “Are you guys some kind of pros? You shoot likeâ¦if you can see it, you can hit it.”

Vickery thought of the intensive and continuous training he’d got while he was a Secret Service agent, which had required that all Protection Detail agents be able to hit one subject, and no others, in a shifting crowd; and he reflected that his more recent hours of shooting practice in the desert had maintained at least some of his skill.

He didn’t answer Ragotskie. To Castine he said, “You still got that sock?”

“Yes. I should pitch the filthy thing.”

“Tuck it in your pocket.”

“You could have killed them both,” she said in an accusing tone.

Vickery slowed and made a right turn onto Western. “So could you,” he said. “I — killed a guy yesterday.” He glanced in the rear view mirror. “Ragotskie? That ghost back there said ‘I’m gonna be in your book, with your daughter.’ What did it mean?”

“I don’t know. We took that gardening book from your apartment in February, and we were going to grab you too, but you disappeared. Listen, you’ve got to –“

“And what do you mean — twins — imps — Ecuador?”

“You’ve got to help me get my girlfriend away from them, her name is Agnes Loria, okay?” When neither Vickery nor Castine said anything, he exhaled audibly and took a deep breath, and Vickery guessed that it was difficult for him to tell secrets that he had been committed to keeping until recently. Finally, “Egregore, it means a group-mind,” Ragotskie said rapidly, “people pour their identities into it likeâ¦I don’t know, like different kinds of liquor in a Long Island Iced Tea, and it becomes a way-bigger entity, orders of orders of magnitude, independent of the people in it, just made out of them like a body is made of cells. Shit. It can live forever — new identities get absorbed and old members fall away like sloughed-off skin. And Agnes is — dammit –“

Vickery caught a green arrow and turned left on Western, still watching the rear-view mirror.

“Take it easy,” said Castine to Ragotskie. “You wanted to break up the pair of us, you said. And yes, something about twins.”

“Okay,” said Ragotskie. “Okay. The egregore will need, damn quick, a pair of Interface Message Processors, that’s IMPs, see, to let the various minds all work together as one network, and you two would have been perfect because you — what, died? And came back? And so you’re not exactly stuck in the discrete increments of now, like the rest of us. Harlowe says you’re FM radios in a world of AM. And you’d have worked like superconductor IMPs. But I managed to screw that up, even without killing youâ¦uh, ma’am. So the egregore should have misfired, miscarried, and Agnes wouldn’t be able to sacrifice herself to the damned thing. She could come to her senses, see?”

“But,” prompted Castine.

“But he’s got these twin girls, his nieces, they’re schizophrenic or something,  they fall in and out of each other’s minds all the time, and Agnes says they can get into other people’s minds too, make ’em do things — anyway their identities are a kind of open-ended relay — and so I guess they’ll do, as his IMPs.”

He was silent for a moment, staring blindly at the buildings rushing past outside, then said, “Can I borrow some money? I went to a Versatel machine yesterday, and my accounts have been deleted. Harlowe’s a wizard with computer stuff, hacking and all that. I slept in this car last night, but I can’t do that again, now that they’ve obviously got some kind of tracker on the poor thing.”

“So far you’ve told us about twenty bucks’ worth,” said Vickery. “If they’ve got these twins now, and don’t need Ingrid and me anymore — and it sounds like they don’t need you anymore either — why did those guys threaten us? Why has Harlowe offered Galvan five thousand bucks to hand us over to him?”

“About you, I don’t know. Maybe he wants you on hand for backup in case the twins flip out. As for –“

Castine shook her head. “They acted like they were ready to kill us right there in the alley.”

“I think they would have,” agreed Vickery. The guy in the leather jacket, he thought, had seemed positively eager.

“Okay,” said Ragotskie, “that’s true, so Harlowe must have decided you’re toxic in some way –“

“Jeez,” muttered Castine, “I could make you a list.”

“– and he’s determined to use the twins. Me,” Ragotskie went on, “I’m initiated but renegade now, so I guess they want to — take my blood pressure, as they’d say. Hah. That means –“

 



 

“We know what it means,” said Castine.

“How do we stop him from trying to kill us,” asked Vickery, “and how do I get my book back?” He turned left again on Olympic, past the monolithic Koreatown Galleria.

“Your book! What the hell is it?” When Vickery didn’t reply, Ragotskie went on, “He — I don’t know, he keeps it locked away somewhere. But he wants to kill all three of us, now, see? We’re in this together!” He paused, and when he again got no response he went on, “If the egregore were to fail, then there wouldn’t be any point in killing any of usâ¦except you, about Pratt, I guess.” He laughed briefly, unhappily. “And Agnes won’t be able to lose her self. We can get her away from them, safe, even if she doesn’t love me anymore.”

“Get her away,” echoed Vickery, not looking away from the traffic ahead and keeping his voice level. “So how do we kill this egregore thing?”

“Would we be okay if we just left town?” interjected Castine. “Fly to the east coast?” Vickery tilted his head and flicked a glance at the rear view mirror, but she avoided meeting his eye.

Ragotskie’s answer was nearly a monotone: “When the egregore does come online, it’d find you. Strangers who were part of it would kill you.” Vickery heard him blow his nose, and hoped the young man had a handkerchief or Kleenex or something. Good thing Castine had taken the sock.  “And,” Ragotskie went on, “it’s already started spontaneously gathering people into itself — Agnes calls it the black hole effect, when random people suddenly fall into it and start speaking our thoughts.  I’ve seen it happen.”

“So have we,” said Vickery, thinking of the girl on the bicycle yesterday at MacArthur Park.

“It’s justa temporary possession now,” said Ragotskie, “like for a minute, and they’re just disoriented, after. But when the thing is actually born, it’ll be taking them permanently, like a world-full of dominoes falling, and when they’re down they won’t ever be getting up again — all their personalities and memories and skills will be dissolved, dispersed through the whole egregore thing. And God only knows what it’ll want to do. Harlowe says it’ll be God.” He laughed again, again not happily. “You should hear him talk about it. He’d convince you. He convinced meâ¦until he convinced Agnes.”

Castine too may have been thinking of the girl on the bicycle. “What,” she asked hesitantly, “becomes of the people who get taken by it?”

“They’ll be likeâ¦just the egregore’s fingers, or toes,” said Ragotskie. “Or eyes or ears, anything, fingernails. Bloodstream, really. They’ll probably wear out pretty quick — Harlowe says the big entity probably won’t waste a lot of attention on getting each of its seven billion members to eat or sleep. Though it will want them to reproduce a lot, so there’s new cells to replace the ones that drop out of it.”

“Drop out of it meaning die,” said Vickery. He slowed to a stop for a red light at Harvard. The signs on all the nearby buildings seemed to be in Korean.

“Or just, you know, wander around,” said Ragotskie, “too crazy and malnourished to be any further use to it. But yeah, die, probably, pretty quick.”

Castine’s voice shivered as she said, “So how do we kill it?”

“A guy tried to start an egregore in the ’60s,” said Ragotskie, swaying as the car started forward again. “Some kind of hippie rock musician, I think. Harlowe doesn’t like to talk about that, though he had Taitz and Foster question a bunch of old folks who were around then, and offer them money if they hear of anybody lately looking into it. He won’t say who the hippie was, but he’s using at least some of the guy’s methods.”

Vickery tensed as Ragotskie’s hand waved over the passenger seat, but he was just pointing at the floor. “Down there’s an envelope, some stuff I stole and printed out on Sunday, day before yesterday, at Harlowe’s office on Sepulveda. A coloring book the hippie had printed up in 1966, and a couple of copies of a coloring book Harlowe published and distributed last year, in Spanish and English, with a picture in it reprinted from the 1966 one. Uh — don’t stare at the picture for more than a few seconds, okay? Concentrating on it is the initiation, that’s why the picture’s so detailed — it takes a person at least a minute of focusing on it, to color it all in.” Ragotskie inhaled with an audible shudder. “And,” he went on, “I printed out a file of Harlowe’s, where he wrote some stuff about that old egregore, though he doesn’t give the hippie leader’s name or any traceable details.”

Vickery lifted one hand from the wheel and spread his fingers.

“Right, okay,” said Ragotskie, “the thing is, something went bad wrong for the hippie’s egregore. This was in 1968. When he tried to quicken it, launch it, cut the umbilical cord, some people reportedly got shot or went nuts, and the whole program crashed on him. It got hushed up, nobody called the cops and everybody who was there said afterward that they were someplace else, far away. So — you two seem pretty smart — figure out what went wrong in ’68, and make it happen again now.”

“Which will save your Agnes from emptying her mind into the worldwide soup,” said Vickery.

“Right, but you still need to help me get her away. You help me, I help you.”

“How do you help us?” asked Vickery. He had driven back past Irolo now, and was looking for a section of empty curb.

“Well, shit, man, I just told you a lot of stuff, and I’m giving you that file, and — there’s more I could tell you.”

After a few seconds, Vickery said, “Okay, we’ll try. Where’s this office of Harlowe’s on Sepulveda?”

“I don’t remember the street number, but it’s at Sepulveda and Venice, out by the Santa Monica airport, a little office building with a sign that says ChakraSys,sys with a y. And he’s, uh, got a boat at a local marina. I — ” Vickery saw him shake his head; ” — followed Agnes there last night, with Waze. I drove away before anybody could see me.”

“Waves?” said Castine.

Vickery noticed belatedly that he had lost his Dodgers cap at some poiint. “Waze,” he said impatiently, “it’s an app that navigates traffic.” To Ragotskie he said, “What’s the name of the boat, and where’s the marina?”

“Excuse me,” put in Castine.

“I don’t remember — right now,” said Ragotskie. His voice was flat with defiance. “And he’ll have cleaned out the office on Sepulveda, since I went rogue, but I can still establish contact with them. You help me, and I’ll help you. Agnes.”

Vickery looked at him in the rear view mirror. Ragotskie’s weak mouth was set firmly for once. Vickery found himself reluctantly admiring the young man.

“Okay,” said Vickery finally. “You got a phone?”

“Yes, but I took the battery out of it. They could GPS me if it was working.” He exhaled through clenched teeth. “And I gotta ditch this car. Well, you already bashed it up, didn’t you?”

Vickery glanced at Ragotskie in the mirror. “I’m going to drop you off here, pretty quick.” Ragotskie began to protest in a panicky tone, but Vickery talked over him: “I’ll give you five hundred bucks. Take the bike off the back of this, and get yourself a burner phone and meet us tonight at⦔ Vickery paused to think about it. “Okay, go to where Estes Street dead ends against the north side of the 10 freeway, right? There’s a thrift store and a closed bowling alley there, and behind them is a dirt slope that leads up to the freeway shoulder. Go up the slope, and there’s a clearing among the shoulder trees — probably a couple of chairs, cigarette butts, beer cans. If there are a few guys there, just tell them that you’re supposed to meet a kid named Santiago, can you remember all that?”

Ragotskie repeated the instructions haltingly. “Is that a freeway gypsy nest? Harlowe said they’re dangerous.”

 



 

“If Santiago is still around, they won’t mess with you. They’ll assume you’re connected. And if they say he isn’t around anymore, just — wing it. It’d be a good idea to bring a lot of sandwiches and beer, too, share ’em around. Good sandwiches, not the little triangles in plastic boxes.”

“Out of my five hundred?” Getting no reply, Ragotskie went on, “Meet you there when?”

“I can’t be sure. Be there by sundown, and wait for us.”

“What if this Santiago kid is there? Who is he?”

“Oh hell, tell him you’re both to wait there for us. He’s a sort of freelance courier and watcher.”

“And thief,” added Castine.

“Sometimes. Anyway, he knows us.” Vickery swung the car to a vacant curb space and put it in park. He hiked up to reach into his pocket, and peeled off five hundred dollars bills and passed them to Ragotskie. “Now get out.”

Ragotskie’s eyes were big behind the round lenses. “You’ll be there for sure?”

“Unless we run into trouble.”

Ragotskie opened his door and with visible reluctance stepped out onto the sidewalk. He shuffled backward, looking left and right along the street, and Vickery was puzzled by the certainty that Ragotskie was ready to start running. Was this some elaborate trap?

He clicked the car into gear, looked quickly in the side mirror, and gripped the wheel.

But Ragotskie waved and yelled, “I do know where your book is! Trade! Agnes for the book! Be there!” And then he turned away and was running back the way they’d come. In the side mirror, Vickery saw Ragotskie disappear around the corner of some office building.

He relaxed and waited for a gap in traffic, then swung the car into the right lane.

“You just let him go,” observed Castine.

“Sure. We’ve got to get away from this car, and I don’t want him knowing about our Saturn. At that freeway nest we can sneak up from the shoulder side, make sure he’s alone.”

Castine nodded. “He might try to re-establish himself with Harlowe — or his Agnes! — by turning us over to Harlowe.”

“He doesn’t know which way he’s facing,” agreed Vickery. “He may work with us, but he’s no ally.”

“He mentioned twin girls,” said Castine, “and a boat.”

“And two girls holding hands on a boat seemed to send that old-house vision to us this morning, and ran us off the road. What do you bet it was the same two girls?”

“A lot,” said Castine. “And it connects this Harlowe person’s group with that awful house.”

“Maybe. Probably.” He glanced at the manila envelope on the floor by her feet. “We might as well drive by Harlowe’s office on Sepulveda, once we’re back in the Saturn. We’ve got time before we meet Supergirl.”

“Then dinner, I hope. And not some hot dog stand.”

“I think we’ll be going to the Central Library on Fifth, and Philipe’s is right by there. Great French dip sandwiches.”

“I’m ready for that. Don’t crash us before we get there.”

 


 

Taitz and Foster had found their way to a Lavanderia, and in the steamy, fluorescent-lit interior, over the noise of the washers and dryers and the Spanish-language chat of the customers, Taitz had got Harlowe on his cell phone. He was holding it in his left hand; his right was wrapped in a now-blood-blotted towel he had bought for five dollars from a woman at one of the dryers. The place was fragrant with laundry detergent and bleach.

“And you’re going to have to report your Tahoe as stolen,” Taitz was saying into the phone. “Vickery shot out both front tires and put a round through the windshield — in addition to shooting my hand. No way Foster and I were going to hang around and talk to cops. No, listen, we’re at some kind of Mexican laundromat at Eighth and Mariposa, you gotta send a car here to take me to an emergency room.” He listened for a few moments, then said, “What? I don’t care, I want real doctors! Yes, Ragotskie led us to both of them, he sure did, and a lot of good it did us. He’s with them now, somehow — they all three drove off together in his car.”

He took a deep breath and let it out shudderingly. “Who is this Vickery guy? He could have killed both of us, but he justâ¦disabled us. Oh, and he sicced a ghost on us! Yes! I think it was Pratt, the damn thing froze my window with its tongue, broke the glass. I don’t know, when we cornered Ragotskie and Castine and him, he just conjured the thing out of thin air! It came at us like some kind of mad dog! And then he started shooting!” Taitz listened for a few seconds, then said, “Yes, it did seem to be Pratt. What? It didn’t go anywhere, it just spun around in the air and disappeared!” Taitz moved his injured hand from his chest to his knee. “Shit, this hurts. Get somebody here quick. Oh, another thing — you better move the Black Sheep again, Ragotskie was at that marina last night, according to Foster’s tracking app. I guess he followed Loria.” Taitz barked one strained syllable of a laugh and said, “Yeah, you too.”

He touched the screen with his thumb, then switched the phone off and slid it into the pocket of his windbreaker.

“A ghost did that to your window?” said Foster, wide-eyed. Sweat was running down his bald scalp. “I thought Vickery shot it. Pratt’s ghost? Jesus, I didn’t actually think ghosts were real.”

Taitz leaned back and wiped his sweating face with his right sleeve. “You were no help. After he shot me, he turned around to go to Ragotskie’s car. You had a clear field of fire. You could have –” He hissed as he moved his wounded hand. “You could have got all three of them.”

“He shot the windshield! I couldn’t see out.”

“Shit. You told me — bragged to me! — that last year you killed a guy who tried to steal your winnings, in the parking lot of the Commerce Casino. That’s right by the 5 Freeway, definitely inside the current. But — you didn’t see Pratt’s ghost just now.”

“Oh. Yeah, well — everything happened so fast — and Vickery was in the way –“

“You’ve never killed anybody, and I bet you’ve never even been to that casino.”

“The freeway was closed down that day — yeah, remember, a big semi jacknifed –“

Taitz was about to give a scornful reply, but paused when the woman who had sold him the towel came shuffling to the chairs he and Foster were sitting in.

“For a ghost that follows you,” she said diffidently, “you need to change how you look, to it. You are right-handed? Good, the bandages will make you do everything different from usual. Get shoes that belonged to someone else — “

“Get lost, chiquita,” snapped Foster, but Taitz raised his good hand.

“Shut up,” he said to Foster; and to the woman he said, “Go on.”

“Shoes from a thrift store,” the woman said, “so the ghost won’t know your footsteps. Wear your shirts facing backward. You wear no rings — get a ring, two rings, from the thrift store — the ghost will maybe see only the shadows of who had them before.”

She said nothing more, and after a few seconds Taitz said, “Thank you.”

She nodded, and cocked her head as if to see him better. “You saw it?” It wasn’t really a question.

“Yes.”

“Because of the death of someone?”

Taitz thought of Hannah’s car tumbling over the 101 freeway embankment in 1986.

“Yes.”

“May God have mercy on you.”

Taitz sighed. He and Foster knew, as this woman apparently did too, that people who had committed homicide in the freeway current acquired a certain expanded perspective: the generally unwelcome ability to see ghosts. There were other ways to fall into that ability, but the woman had clearly guessed that murder had been the cause of it in his case; what she had said had clearly been a prayer.

“Thank you,” he said again, quietly.


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