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Forced Perspectives: Chapter Nine

       Last updated: Wednesday, March 4, 2020 18:19 EST

 


 

A Splendid and Effective Insanity

Vickery parked Ragotskie’s green Audi on Normandie, right under a TOW AWAY — NO PARKING ANY TIME sign, hoping it would be towed soon, and then he and Castine walked quickly down an alley and through a parking lot to Irolo Street, where his Saturn was parked. The only consequence of having left all the windows down was that a half-full bag of french fries had been tossed into the back seat.

Vickery opened the trunk and laid Ragotskie’s envelope beside the jack, and Castine tossed in the old bloodstained sock; and though they rolled up the front windows, they still had to talk loudly when Vickery had got onto the westbound 10 freeway, because of the headwind buffeting in through the two glassless back windows.

When he had found his way to Sepulveda and Venice, the building Ragotskie had told them about was on the northwest corner of the intersection — a one-story stucco structure with a cement ramp up to the front doors, and the ChakraSys logo in bold sans-serif letters between two windows above the doors.

The parking lot behind the place was empty except for a couple of abandoned-looking sedans and an old Volkswagen van with eyes painted all over it. Vickery parked away from the other vehicles, and when Castine climbed out she tried to comb her disordered hair with her fingers.

“You’ve got to get some plastic to cover those windows,” she said, speaking for the first time in several minutes.

“Top of my list,” said Vickery shortly. A green Dumpster stood beside a pile of cardboard file boxes at the back of the building, and he made a mental note to look through it all if the building were indeed unoccupied.

They walked around to the front, and through the glass doors they saw a wide bare floor and a split drywall partition and wires hanging out of a couple of holes in the walls. Vickery rattled the door, which was, unsurprisingly, locked.

“Let’s look in the trash,” he said, leading the way back to the parking lot side of the building.

He flipped a couple of file boxes aside when he saw they were empty and unlabeled — but he jumped backward and sat down hard on the pavement when a white-bearded man suddenly stood up in the Dumpster. Castine had only dropped a box and stepped back.

The old man in the Dumpster towered over Vickery, his shaggy, bearded head silhouetted against the blue sky. Blinking and scuttling back, Vickery was able to make out that the man was tall, even allowing for the elevation of the Dumpster floor, and his face was sun-darkened under a blowing fringe of white hair. A threadbare gray sportcoat was bunched over his shoulders, and Vickery could see that he wore another coat under that. The collars of both coats, and a blue shirt under them, were all turned up under his beard.

Vickery got to his feet, and carefully stepped around to the far side of the Dumpster and leaned forward to peer into it. Aside from the old man himself, whose eccentric outfit was completed by bulky corduroy trousers and worn sneakers, the rusty container was empty. The smell from it was like burnt plastic and rotten strawberries.

The old man had shifted around, his sneakers grating on the metal floor, and he said “I don’t know you,” then looked across at Castine. “Or you either.”

“No,” agreed Vickery, slapping dust off the seat of his jeans. “We’re not from around here. Do you know where they went?” He waved at the building. “The people who ran ChakraSys?”

“They went thataway,” said the old man without moving at all. “You losers. Are your chakras out of order? Grip your heads with your Kegel muscles.”

“Were you,” Vickery persisted, “around when they were in business?”

“If they had a business,” said the old man, “they didn’t build that. They were munchkins standing on the shoulders of giant ants.”

Vickery tried once more. “What did their business do?”

The old man stood up straight and squared his shoulders as he glared at Vickery, who took a step back from the Dumpster.

Do?” the man rumbled. “What does it look like they did? They ran. Have you made a deal with those people? Do you think I can’t fly away? Hah!” He gripped the rim of the Dumpster and began scuffing the inner wall of it with a shoe, apparently intending to climb out.

Vickery caught Castine’s eye and nodded toward the car. “Uh, thanks anyway!” he called to the struggling old man as he and Castine began walking across the asphalt toward the Saturn.

Behind them the old man was singing now: “We left behind the old gray shore, climbed to the sky⦔

Back in the car, Vickery started the engine as Castine pulled her door closed. He steered around the colorful old van to a driveway, and made a left turn onto Sepulveda; a few blocks ahead was an onramp onto the 405 freeway, which would take them north to connect to the eastbound 10. Neither of them spoke as he drove past a Subway and a Carl’s Jr.

Finally, feeling that he ought to say it before Castine did, Vickery said, sheepishly, “Former LAPD officer and Secret Service agent flees from unarmed old lunatic in trash bin.”

Castine smiled. “He wasn’t a ghost, was he?” she asked.

Vickery was startled. “Uh — no, his sneakers grated on the Dumpster floor. He was solid. Good thought, though — when he does become a ghost, he won’t have to change much.”

“I’m glad some of my thoughts are good.”

Vickery made a right turn and sped up as the short lane curved to join the freeway. “I’m sorry, I’ve beenâ¦testy, haven’t I? I just feel like this thing is rolling over us. And I don’t even know what it is! Black holes, egregores, imps.”

“One thing at a time. Right now, Boardner’s, to meet Supergirl.” She looked at her forty-dollar Target watch. “We’ll be early for our appointment with her — we can sit in a back booth and look at the papers Ragotskie says he stole.”

The wind had started fluttering through the back windows again, and Vickery spoke more loudly. “But then we’ve got to go to that freeway nest –“

Castine raised her voice too. “After we see what’s in the papers, and after we hear whatever Supergirl might be able to tell us.”

“Okay, yeah.” He sighed. “You’re right, one thing at a time.” A distantly-remembered tune was playing in his mind, and he whistled a few bars of it.

Then he sang, softly, “We left behind the old gray shore, climbed to the sky, until we all one burden bore, never to die.” He looked at Castine. “Do you remember that song?”

“What song?”

He sang it again, louder.

She shook her head.

“It was from the ’60s or ’70s,” he said, “a group called Fogwillow. They were like, I don’t know, Iron Butterfly or Deep Purple. The song was called⦒Elegy in a Seaside Meadow.'”

“Before my time!”

“Hey, mine too. I grew up on Guns n’ Roses and Radiohead. But I listened to the old stuff too.”

“One burden bore,” she said, leaning back. “That’s a line in Poe’s ‘The Raven.’ Gimme a minute.” She moved her lips silently, one finger tapping out meter in the air. “Caught from some unhappy master whose unmerciful disaster followed fast and followed faster, till his songs one burden boreâ¦something something, nevermore.”

“We recited that in the Labyrinth, last year,” said Vickery; he shook his head at the memory, and went on, “to save our sanity.”

“In that place,” said Castine, “it was a step in the direction of sanity.”

 



 

“Under the bridge last night,” Vickery went on thoughtfully, “one of the ghosts said, ‘Quoth the raven.'”

Castine inhaled audibly. “Good Lord, you’re right. I forgot that.”

“I thought the next word was nevermore, like in the poem, but it might have been –“

“Egregore,” said Castine. “Maybe we should have talked to that old guy in the Dumpster.”

“I tried to, remember? And anyway, it was a popular song back then — that old guy probably rotates it with ‘Eve of Destruction’ and ‘Like A Rolling Stone.'”

Castine shrugged and shook her head.

“Songs of the time,” explained Vickery. “I think I’ll stay on freeways here, 10 to the 110 to the 101.”

“Very binary sort of freeways,” Castine observed.

Vickery laughed. “I wish. Ones and zeroes. But they’re generally fractional, if not downright fractal. Sometimes there’s a lot of free wills moving along them, fast, sometimes a few, sometimes a lot but slow. It’s a bunch of unbalanced forces, fluctuating interderminism, never in equilibrium. Even without the Labyrinth to fall into anymore, they’re dicey.”

Castine was gripping the seat belt that crossed her from shoulder to hip. “You figure you’re okay driving? Fast?”

Vickery opened his mouth, then closed it. “I’d let you drive, but the old-house vision hits you too. We have to travel — if I start to sense two girls on a boat, I’ll swerve straight to the median or the shoulder.”

“That’s — not a very good plan.”

“What else is there? We’ve got to get around, and a taxi driver wouldn’t do things we might need to do.”

Castine was still holding onto the seat belt. “I wish I’d gone to Confession before we got into all this.”

 


 

Vickery got off the 101 at Highland and drove down to make a left turn on Hollywood Boulevard, and he parked in a lot off Las Palmas. Boardner’s was on Cherokee, on the other side of the parking lot. He and Castine rolled the front windows down to match the rear ones, San Francisco style, and he opened the trunk and lifted out Ragotskie’s envelope.

He handed it to Castine and tucked the car keys between the envelope and her right hand.

“Wait here by the car,” he said. “I don’t trust Supergirl absolutely. I’m going to go in and order a beer. If I don’t see any bad guys and nothing happens, I’ll come out and salute. If I’m not out in three minutes, or if I step out and make any other gesture, or if anybody seems to pay attention to me and follow me in, toss that in the car and drive away. You know how to drive evasive if you have to, and the bloody sock is in the trunk, so they can’t track you that way anymore. You remember how to get to my place outside Barstow?”

She nodded, tight-lipped.

“Go there — evasive! — and I’ll catch up when I can. The trailer key’s on the ring.”

“I’ve got a gun and I’m trained,” she said, “and we’re allies. Friends, even.”

She spread the fingers of her right hand, and the keys fell onto the asphalt.

Vickery stared at her expressionlessly for several seconds, then bent to pick up the keys.

“Okay,” he said, straightening. “Both or none it is. Allies — friends.” He gave her a grudging smile. “I won’t forget again.”

“Good.”

He took the envelope from her and led the way across the parking lot. “Three-sixty,” he said over his shoulder.

She was already glancing behind them and to the sides, and didn’t reply. No cars slowed or sped up as they crossed the two lanes of Cherokee, and Vickery didn’t see anybody sitting in the visible parked cars, and when he pulled open the door of Boardner’s nobody at the bar showed any special alertness as they stepped into the dim interior and made their way down the row of booths to one at the far end. Scents of gin and leather floated on the cool air.

Vickery laid the envelope on the table between them, and looked up at the waitress who had walked to the booth. He recognized her from their visit the day before.

“Today I’ll have a Kahlua and milk, please,” Castine told her. “Caffeine,” she explained to Vickery.

“Could I have the two Coorses together this time,” Vickery said. “It’s been that kind of day.”

When the waitress had smiled sympathetically and moved away, Vickery slid the contents of the envelope out on the table. He picked up a booklet that was on top and riffled through it. It was old, the staples separating from the tanned pages.

“It’s a coloring book,” he said quietly after he had flipped half of the pages, “like Ragotskie told us. Caricatures, very ’60s — Dylan, Ginsberg, Lenny Bruce.”

“He said Harlow printed one last year, and distributed it,” said Castine, peering past Vickery’s elbow at the thing. “With some picture from this old one reprinted in it.”

“They’re dumb pictures.” He flipped to the back page.

“What’s that supposed to be?” She touched the page. Printed on it was an intricate pattern of tightly curved lines.

“I don’t know,” said Vickery. “A maze?”

“No, look, there’s a figure in the middle of it. It’s a bird, like a hawk, with a human head. And it’s got a little beard like a goat.”

Vickery felt a chill along his forearms. “It looks kind of like⦔ he began.

And Castine finished the thought: “An Egyptian hieroglyph.” She slapped the coloring book closed, sending bits of brown paper flying. “Ragotskie said don’t stare at it!”

Vickery sat back. “Does a picture in a coloring book count as an artifact?”

Castine slid a newer-looking pamphlet out of the sheaf of papers. “This must be the one Harlowe printed up.” She opened several pages at random; it did appear to be a coloring book. “It’s published by ChakraSys,” she said, “all pictures of smiling people doing exercises or sitting on the floor eating bananas. Ah — but check out the back page.”

On the back page was the same convoluted pattern they had seen in the old coloring book, with the same human-headed hawk figure at the center of it. As soon as Vickery nodded in recognition, she closed the book.

A sheet of paper was paper-clipped to the back of the coloring book, and Castine pulled it free and laid it on the table. Several curving lines had been drawn on it, with an X close to one line.

“A map,” said Castine.

“With no orientation at all, not even an arrow to point north.”

“Well, that’s a street or highway,” said Castine, touching a double line. “The single lines are smaller streets, probably.”

Vickery shrugged and laid it aside. “It’s no use unless you already know where it is.”

The waitress walked up to their booth with a tray, and set the Kahlua-and-milk and the beers on their table.

When he had thanked her and she had walked back to the bar, Vickery said, “Ragotskie says we should figure out what went wrong with that egregore in ’68, and make it happen again now.”

“Probably Harlowe knows what went wrong then,” said Castine. She paused to take a sip of her drink, and pointed at the printout pages.

Vickery picked up the sheaf of typescript that had been under the coloring books and looked at the top page.

“‘When DeMille learned what the set technician had done,'” he read quietly, “‘he excavated a long trench and had the entire City of the Pharaoh set — walls, gates, sphinxes and all — pulled down and buried. His explanation was that he didn’t want low-budget movie companies to come in later and use his costly sets in their own films — and in fact that probably was a factor in his decision. But his main purpose in obliterating the set was to be sure of burying the perilous image.'”

 



 

Vickery looked up. “It seems to start in media res.”

“‘Perilous image’ is suggestive,” said Castine. “We’ll have to –” She stopped talking, for a woman had walked up to their booth and stopped. Vickery laid the printout pages on top of the coloring books.

The woman had short-cropped dark hair, and wore a white blouse untucked over faded blue jeans. It occurred to Vickery that she could very believably dress as a short, wiry cowgirl, too, if a movie character like that should become popular.

“Hi, Rachel,” he said. “In civvies today?”

“I’m not gonna sit,” she said. “I phoned around and got hold of a guy. He used to live up in Laurel Canyon — he stayed at Frank Zappa’s log cabin for a while, and Peter Tork’s house — and I met him and showed him your picture. It scared him.”

Rachel picked up Castine’s glass. “What’s this,” she said, “chocolate milk?”

“Kahlua and milk,” said Castine.

“Okay then.” Rachel tilted it up to her mouth and swallowed till it was empty.  “He said it looked like an old house that used to be down in Topanga Canyon,” she went on. “Somebody filmed an indie movie there in the ’60s, called What’s the Hex? And a lot of famous people used to go to parties there, but it was all witchcraft rituals and drugs. Charles Manson stayed there for a few weeks, but it freaked him out and he left. It got wrecked in a flood and torn down in ’69, but in ’68 there was some kind of bad night there, and several people got shot. An L.A. biker gang was involved, he thinks they were called the Gardena Legion, and it may have been them that started the trouble, like the Hell’s Angels did at Altamont.”

She clanked Castine’s emptied glass down on the table. The ice rattled.

“Are you sure you won’t have a — another drink, Rachel?” said Vickery. “That all seems very long ago. Before any of us were born.”

Rachel wiped her mouth on her sleeve. “Well, this old guy I talked to, he’s a groundskeeper now at — at a place in L.A., and back in January a couple of guys came to him and said to call a number if he heard about anybody showing an interest in that place, or what happened there on that bad night in ’68. The guys gave him a card and said he’d get big money if he should hear anything and tell them about it. After they left he just tore up the card, but he told me that there is a guy going around asking questions about it, an Egyptian, and he’s got a gun. He’s only maybe forty years old, but in ’68 there was another Egyptian involved, a guy they called Booty, and he had some connection with the Gardena Legion. And myâ¦source says he heard from a pal of his from the bad old days, who said he got a visit from these two guys too, also around January. It looks like they were finding everybody from that scene who’s still alive, saying let us know if anybody’s asking about that night. Which you sort of are.”

Rachel picked up one of Vickery’s beers and drank most of it in four big swallows.

She put the glass down and exhaled. “That’s all I’ve got, and I’m not going to sell you out — I think it’d boomerang, for one thing. My source, who made me promise to forget his name, said I should forget about the house, too, and everything he told me. I only came here now because you paid me. That helps, because I’m going to stay off the boulevard for a while.” She gave Vickery a taut smile and said, “It’s been nice knowing you, on the whole.”

Then she turned away, and there was just her rapidly receding back as she strode down the length of the bar to the street door.

Castine slowly picked up her glass, looked at it, and put it down. “Booty,” she said.

“Omar Sharif’s predecessor,” said Vickery. “Also trying to retrieve — and destroy, I bet — that missing artifact.”

Castine lifted the printout pages and looked at the two coloring books. “A tall order, to confiscate and destroy every copy of these things.” She leaned back and sighed deeply. “What the heck?” When Vickery gave her a blank look, she added, “The title of the movie.”

“Oh. Hex. What’s the Hex? We should check it out. I wonder if it’s on YouTube.”

Castine shivered. “It would beâ¦unsettlingâ¦to see that terrible old house in a video. Even though I’ve seen it in person, sort of, too many times.”

“I’m just glad to hear it was torn down in ’69. We’ve got to get to the library, look some things up.”

“Too bad we can’t justâ¦stay off the boulevard for a while, like Supergirl.” She lifted her glass, then sighed and put it down again. “But you’re right,” she said, “We’ve got to chase this stuff more effectively than it chases us. So let’s read the rest of it. How doth the little crocodile improve his shining tail!”

“Uh.” Vickery blinked at her. “What?”

She seemed disconcerted. “I –” She cleared her throat and hummed for a moment. “I don’t know why I said that. It’s from one of the Alice in Wonderland books. I’m tired, my mind’s wandering!” She shook her head and waved at the papers. “Well?”

“Okay,” said Vickery slowly. “It’s kind of long — maybe you ought to have something to eat? They’ve got pretty good nachos here, chicken wings –“

“If I wanted a snack,” said Castine impatiently,” I’d have had those French fries in your car. You said Philippe’s.”

“Right. Would you like aâ¦whole drink, in the meantime? Or coffee?”

“I’m fine.” She got up and stepped around the table to slide into his side of the booth. “We can both read it.”

“Let me know if I read too fast for you.”

“As if.” She squinted down at the printout.

Vickery nodded, then after a moment he too began scanning the paper.

The account in the printout proved to be fragmentary. After the mention of Cecil B. DeMille burying the set of a movie — Castine was sure it must have been The Ten Commandments, which was made sometime before talking pictures — the narrative spoke of a “sigil” that had been buried in 1927 down in San Pedro by the Port of Los Angeles, specifically on a street called Paseo del Mar. Over the next two years, according to the printout, the buried sigil had “moved toward the sea,” and in 1929 it had pulled the whole clifftop neighborhood down to the sea with it, houses, streets, a hotel and all. The narrative jumped then to an account of an unnamed occult motorcycle gang in 1965 digging up the sigil from among those broken pavements and foundations on the San Pedro shore.

Castine tapped the page. “That’d be the — what did Supergirl say was the name of that biker club?”

“The Gardena Legion. Gardena’s down in the South Bay area. By San Pedro, in fact.”

 



 

The text began now to deal with a person, evidently a man, identified only as “the guru.” The guru was a rock guitarist who, according to the printed pages, “was one of the Laurel Canyon hangers-on in 1965, and had the dubious distinction of being banned from Cass Elliot’s house on Woodrow Wilson Drive, apparently for having stolen some cash from her. the guru was already aware of the sigil that was in the possession of the biker club, and was making plans to steal it from their Topanga Canyon clubhouse. They were using it only to sustain the group identity of their club, including members who (with some frequency) died in highway accidents or clashes with the other violent, occult-inclined motorcycle clubs of the time from Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. the guru had grander, in fact world-spanning plans. He stole the sigil from the biker club’s clubhouse, and soon printed the sigil in his coloring books, copies of which I was able to acquire in 2016⦔

Vickery looked around, and lowered his voice. “Okay, the sigil is that complicated figure in the coloring books.”

Castine nodded. “Obviously. And obviously this guy who the Elliot person didn’t like is the hippie rock musician Ragotskie mentioned, who tried to start an egregore in the ’60s.”

“Obviously,” echoed Vickery. He looked across at her. “Cass Elliot was in the Mamas and Papas.” When she gave him a blank look, he added, “Jeez, Ingrid — California dreamin’, on such a winter’s day –“

“Whatever.” She touched two words on the page. “That’s twice he forgot to capitalize ‘the’ at the beginning of a sentence.”

“Guy’s careless,” observed Vickery, pausing to take a sip of his remaining beer before leaning over they page again.

“The biker club, the printout went on, fully the eponymous swine, attacked the guru’s group when they were in the midst of consummating the birth of the guru’s egregore, further down the canyon. Several people, including the guru’s wife/woman/girlfriend, were apparently killed. The biker club suffered casualties as well, and subsequently disappears from the roster of Los Angeles cult groups.”

Vickery felt Castine shiver beside him. “That’s how you kill an emerging egregore?” she said. “Kill the members? I don’t see us doing that.”

“There’ll be another way. Omar Sharif didn’t look like he’d do that. What do you bet,” he added, flipping to the next page, “that we know the place where this attack happened?”

“What, that old house? Ugh — I do not want to see the rest of that day.”

The next few pages of the printout dealt with Harlowe’s acquisition of the CharkraSys business and the organization of his egregore-to-be, which he referred to as: “the Singularity project — e pluribus unum. It was synthe guruity that I found ChakraSys just as I was ready to initiate the Singularity.”

Castine frowned. “Synthe guruity? What’s that mean, synthetic guruhood?”

“I guess so,” said Vickery. “So what’s he trying to say, that it was through being a fake guru that he found ChakraSys?”

Castine was silent, and when Vickery started to speak, she quickly raised her hand to stop him. He sat back and let his right hand slide into his jacket pocket, wondering if she had seen some sign of surveillance or imminent attack. He looked down at one of his beer glasses, trying to scrutinize the bar peripherally.

“Sorry,” said Castine. “I think I — look.” She tapped the page in front of them. “The word he wanted there was pretty clearly synchronicity. It was synchronicity that he found ChakraSys just when he had a use for it, right? Notâ¦synthetic guruity. And on the other pages, the T isn’t capitalized when ‘the guru’ is the beginning of a sentence.”

“Okay,” said Vickery, relaxing and looking at the words she was pointing at.

“So after his first draft of this file, before he printed it out, he did a quick find-and-replace on the whole file, see? In the first draft he must have used the actual name of this rock guitarist, but afterward he replaced the name with ‘the guru.’ And in the places where the guy’s name was at the beginning of a sentence, find-and-replace substituted the replacement words — ‘the guru’ — which of course started with a lower-case T!”

Vickery leaned forward excitedly. “So if the word should have been synchronicity but got changed to synthe guruity, then the replaced word was –“

“Chronic,” said Castine.

“What kind of name is Chronic?”

She shrugged. “It was the ’60s.”

Vickery picked up his second glass of beer and took a gulp. “He did it before, too — ” Putting the glass down, he pulled out a few of the pages they’d already read, and riffled through them.  “Look. He says, ‘The biker club, fully the eponymous swine, attacked the guru’s group.’ According to Supergirl’s friend, the club’s name was the Gardena Legion. But what’s swinish about Gardena? Her friend remembered it close, but wrong.”

“Well, I’ve never been to Gardena.”

“What does the name ‘Legion’ suggest? Along with ‘swine’?”

Castine picked up her glass, noticed once again that it was empty, and put it down. She cocked her head. “Of course. ‘My name is Legion, for we are many.’ That’s what the demons in the possessed guy told Jesus, in the gospels. And when Jesus cast the demons out of the guy, they went into a herd of pigs — swine — and they all ran off a cliff. The famous Gadarene Swine. Poor old pigs.” She tapped the page. “Yes, Harlowe did another find-and-replace here, didn’t he? The name of the biker club must have been the Gadarene Legion.”

“Sure. Supergirl’s friend apparently never heard the gospel story, and remembered it as Gardena. Like I said, close.”

On the last page of the printout was what appeared to be a poem, but Vickery pointed out that it was the lyrics of the Fogwillow song, “Elegy in a Seaside Meadow.”

“What the Dumpster man was singing,” said Castine. “We should have talked to him.”

Vickery remembered falling down in surprise when the old man had appeared in the Dumpster, and then scurrying away backward. “Oh well,” he said shortly. He finished his second beer. “You sure you don’t want a drink?”

“I’m fine. What’s next?”

He slid the papers and booklets back into the envelope. “We should look up a bunch of this stuff on a computer in the library,” he said. “I’ve got a San Bernardino County library card, but it won’t work here. Without a card, you only get fifteen minutes on the computers, so let’s –“

Castine slid out of the booth. “I’ve got an L.A. County one that’s still valid,” she said; “well, not on me, but I remember my card number and PIN number. I’m sure I can get us on for a full hour.” She waited till he had stood up, then said, “Are we going back to Barstow tonight, after we meet with Ragotskie?”

“And pours the waters of the Nile,” said Vickery flatly, “on every golden scale.” Then he gave her a look that must have expressed his sudden alarm, for she took a step back and her eyes were wide.

“You didn’t mean to say that,” she whispered, “did you?”

He shook his head, then cleared his throat and hummed briefly, confirming control of his own voice; just as, he recalled with a chill, Castine had done a few minutes earlier. “Was that,” he said carefully, “from the Alice books too?” When she nodded, still wide-eyed, he went on, “Yes, Barstow tonight.”

Castine took his black-nylon-clad elbow, careful not to touch his hand with hers, as they hurried toward the door.

 



 

 


 

“Pull over here,” said Harlowe. “There she stands.”

“And welcomes little fishes in,” piped one of the twins in the back seat of the station wagon, “with gently smiling jaws!”

Agnes Loria spoke over them. “It’s a church,” she said flatly as she eyed the building at the corner of Fedora and Pico; indecipherable graffiti made black squiggles across the white wall facing the street, and two shopping carts stood on the over-long grass inside the fence. The next building to the west was a discount center with ATM and EBT signs in the window. The neon light over its doors was on already.

“It’s my only other property in L.A.,” said Harlowe, sounding nettled, “and it’s vacant. Our stuff is mostly moved in already, the computers and furniture.”

The twins were now peering out at the four-story Romanesque bell tower and the red-painted steps leading up to the wide, arched doors. Loria was already thinking about the trouble she would no doubt have in keeping them out of the tower.

“I don’t go much for churches,” she said. She had pulled to the curb, but had still not turned off the engine.

“It’s what we have,” said Harlowe.  “Your damned rogue boyfriend made the Sepulveda place impossible.”

The twins giggled in the back seat. Loria switched off the engine and opened her door. “You know he’s not my boyfriend,” sie said tiredly. “Okay, just so it’s not Catholic.” The breeze from the west carried the smells of barbecue and cooling sidewalks. Loria looked across the street at a row of narrow, brightly lit shops behind luxuriant old curbside trees, then back, disapprovingly, at the church.

“No no,” Harlowe assured her, getting out on his side and opening the back door for the twins, “some kind of Protestant sect.” His burgundy-red hair fluttered in the breeze as he pulled a set of keys from his pocket and unlocked the gate. “You need to put your bourgeois childhood behind you, kid.”

“Or sink it.” Loria herded the twins ahead of her as Harlowe relocked the gate behind them and led the way up the walk to the steps and the tall, iron-bound wooden doors. The doors were unlocked, and he tugged one open and stood aside.

Inside the vast nave; fading daylight through the stained glass windows high up on the west wall was dimmed by a couple of standing lamps on the broad dais at the far end, on which several of the Singularity crew were busy stacking boxes on a wide table, no doubt the one-time altar. A pulpit off to the left was crowded with half a dozen more lamps. The still air smelled of mildew and damp plaster.

The twins scampered ahead down the central aisle between rows of wooden pews arranged in a herringbone pattern.

“There’s a dozen or so cots set up downstairs,” said Harlowe, stepping up beside Loria and waving vaguely. “though there’s only two bathrooms down there — there’s another up here, in the sacristy, for us senior staff — and there’s a kitchen in a kind of meeting hall out back. And I had them set up a TV downstairs — DVDs in a box, get the girls set up down there, and then you’ve got to help me try to deal with Pratt.”

“What, funeral arrangements? Couldn’t one of the others⦔ The twins were in one of the pews now, kneeling, and Loria wondered where they could have picked that up.

“No,” said Harlowe, “I’ve got to get his ghost into that copy of The Secret Garden that has Vickery’s daughter in it! Together in there, contrarily paired, they should function asâ¦ghost flypaper, able to catch and absorb any ghosts that are attracted to our vibrant, emerging egregore.”

Loria had been listening with decreasingly concealed impatience, and now she burst out, “Oh for God’s sake, Simon! There’s no ghost in that book, and Pratt’s dead and gone! You might as well try to — catch leprechauns with a box of Lucky Charms cereal!”

Harlowe leaned toward her until his face was just inches from hers, and she could feel the mental buzz as their auras overlapped. “Pratt’s ghost,” he hissed, “broke the window of my SUV a couple of hours ago, a mile north of here! And it’s not a ghost in the book, it’s a distinct person who paradoxically never existed, never got born! The juxtaposition, the incongruous overlap, the impossibility of the pairing must certainly distract any ghosts thatâ¦come fluttering around our flame.”

Loria stepped back. “Get Pratt’s ghost into the book,” she said, nodding. “So I should scout up a funnel and a mallet, maybe?”

“I’ve got his toothbrush, it was back at the Sepulveda office. We can summon him with that. His spit, his DNA will be all over it. I think one of us should lick it to catch his attention –“

“Yuck! That’s you, that does that.”

“Fine! And the other, you, hold open the book when I toss his ghost onto it, and you slap the book shut.”

Loria stared at him. “You really think this is possible? Actually? Ghosts?”

“And never-born persons. Yes. It’s implicit in the math, just as antimatter was implicit in Dirac’s relativistic wave equation. Ours is a weirder sort of math, admittedly, but — eppur si muove. Listen, we may have to talk Pratt into cooperating. You always got along with him.”

Loria knew that the Italian phrase meant something like, Nevetheless, it moves. She believed Galileo had said it about the solar system.

“Who?” she said. “Oh, Pratt. He was a puppy dog. And — like all of us — he wanted to be in the egregore. Doesn’t this book business kind of exclude him from that?”

“He’s excluded already, Agnes, because he died! He’s a ghost! Think! I’ve got the book here now, in the sacristy — get the girls downstairs.”

“This is –” Loria realized that she didn’t want to finish the sentence. She turned away and began striding up the aisle toward where the twins knelt as if in prayer.

Ten minutes later she was standing beside Harlowe at a counter beside a stainless steel sink, looking down at a blue plastic toothbrush and an open trade paperback book. The sacristy was narrow, with a high, cobwebbed ceiling and a print of the Last Supper hung on the far wall; the only window was above the sink, and fogged with dirt. After clicking a light switch up and down for several seconds, Harlowe had struck a match to a couple of candles, and the smell of burning wicks dispelled the old reek of incense.

“Oh,” he said, his hand now extended halfway to the toothbrush, “have you ever — excuse me — been intimate with somebody who died on, or very close to, a freeway?”

“Whatâ¦theâ¦hell?”

“If you haven’t, then you probably won’t be able to see Pratt’s ghost. In that case, you’ll have to –“

“Have you? I always got the idea you were seriously celibate. Now that we’re getting personal.”

Harlowe’s eyes dulled and his face sagged, and the wrinkles around his mouth were more evident — the expression was vacuity, as if he had lost consciousness, but his voice was level: “No, but I, I killed a man once. A burglar, in my trailer in Salinas, in ’83. It was only a hundred feet from the 101 freeway.”

“Were you intimate with him before or after you killed him?”

Harlowe’s face resumed animation, and he pressed his lips together in evident annoyance. “Sex,” he said, picking up the toothbrush, “is not the only intimacy. Killing somebody unites the two of you even more indissolubly. When I nod to you, that will mean Pratt’s ghost is here — tell him –“

 



 

“So this is going to be an invisible ghost.” Loria had tried to sound sarcastic, but her voice had quavered; What would become of her if Harlowe were simply insane? Had she wasted nearly two years on a heartbreakingly attractive fantasy? — and driven away a man who loved her, and whom she might have loved?

Harlowe seemed to sense her misgivings. “You’ve experienced a bit of what the twins can do,” he said quietly. “You’ve seen some edges of humanity begin to fall partway into our egregore already, the events you call black hole phenomena. But the idea of a ghost is inconceivable?”

“Oh, shit, whatever.” More than anything else, she felt all at once very depressed. “Let’s do your trick.”

Harlowe lifted the toothbrush. “When I nod to you, tell him why he should get into the book. Keep your eyes on the floor then, and try to break up your sentences. Apparently it’s not a good idea to speak to ghosts in recognizably complete sentences.”

“Why he should? What reasons do I give him?”

Harlowe waved the toothbrush impatiently. “Improvise. Here goes.” And he licked the toothbrush and said, loudly, “Pratt! Come over here!”

Loria kept her eyes on Harlowe, waiting for his nod. Why don’t you just jump into that book there? she thought. There’s a nice nonexistent girl in it, waiting for you. She hoped nobody would come in while this crazy exercise was going on.

“Pratt!” called Harlowe again, and again he licked the toothbrush. Loria managed not to gag. “Pratt!” Harlowe repeated.

And then Loria jumped back, convinced for a moment that two birds had got into the sacristy and were swooping around her head; but when she focused on one of the flapping things, she numbly comprehended that it was bodiless human hand. The other one, also now visibly a hand, bounced off a cabinet, dropped several feet and hovered a yard above the linoleum floor.

Loria’s shoulders thumped against the wall beside the nave door, for she had reflexively backed away fast from the spectacle; her face was stiff and the breath was stopped in her throat. Now, with a sound like cloth tearing, the churning gray silhouette of a man flipped into view between her and Harlowe, and when the darting hands fluttered to the smoky wrist stumps and clung there, the silhouette assumed color and three dimensions.

The figure was recognizably young David Pratt, though it rippled like a projection on an unmoored bedsheet. It appeared to be in pain — its chest was heaving as if it were panting, though it made no sounds, and at each spasmodic constriction a red vapor jetted from its gaping mouth.

“Look at the floor!” snapped Harlowe. “And talk to it!”

“Send it away!” said Loria hoarsely. “This isn’t –“

“Tell it to get into the goddamn book! And look at the floor!”

Loria stared down at her shoes. “David,” she said, emptying her lungs. She inhaled, and managed to croak, “get — in that book, you can — relax, forget everything. Good God.”

“There’s,” whispered the thing that stood between her and Harlowe, “a nobody in the book.”

“Wouldn’t you,” she faltered, “like to be with — a nobody? Instead of — somebodies?”

Still staring at the floor, in her peripheral vision she saw the Pratt ghost expand to enormous size and then shrink to a buzzing dot; and the dot wavered out of her sight toward the counter.

She heard Harlowe slam the book shut. A momentary wave of hot air swept past her.

“Got it myself,” he said.

She looked up and saw the book, closed now, on the counter. It was distinctly shivering.

Harlowe lift it in both hands. “You saw it,” he said. “I doubt you’ve ever killed anyone, so some lover of yours must have died on or near a freeway in the last year or so. I hope it wasn’t Elisha. He’s still our Judas goat.”

She had had only had two others. Dazedly she hoped it was Brad, who had moved away and stopped answering her texts when she had believed she was pregnant during her senior year at UCLA.

She looked at the book in Harlowe’s hands, and realized that she was smiling. Pratt’s ghost had been real after all, and Harlowe had trapped it in that battered paperback book, just as he had said he would. He wasn’t insane, or if he was, it was a splendid and effective insanity. The egregore was not a delusion, and she would finally be able to dissolve her ignoble identity into the transcendent entity that would be God, or as good an approximation of the fabled Deity as there would ever be.

She looked at Harlowe, noting the habitual black turtleneck sweater, and the blatantly artificial dark-red color of the hair that curled around below his ears, and the high shine on his ridiculous red cowboy boots.

“Are you resolutely celibate?” she breathed, not sure what answer she hoped for.

Harlowe looked away from her, then took a step toward the door to the nave, clutching the paperback book. “People like us have better things to do than to form adhesions,” he said, and then he was striding away toward the door.

The familiar six notes from Strauss’ Death and Trasfiguration sounded from her pocket, and she called, “Wait” to Harlowe as she pulled out her phone. She glanced at the screen and said, “It’s Elisha.”

Harlowe had stopped, and now he hurried back, gripping the book in both hands. “Find out where he is,” he said.

Loria swiped the screen. “Elisha!” she said, “Where are you?”

“The St. James Infirmary,” came Ragotskie’s voice from the phone; and he went on to sing some old-sounding bluesy lyrics about a guy visiting his dead girlfriend in a hospital, and then how she’d never find another man like him.

“Well no, not if she’s dead, honey,” said Loria. She covered the microphone slot with her thumb and whispered to Harlowe, “I can hear people chatting, and surf in the background.” Lifting her thumb, she said, “I didn’t know they meant to kill you, Elisha! I’m so sorry! Where are you? I need to see you.”

She heard the distinctive clink of a bottle on a glass, and then Ragotskie said, “I hope you mean that, Agnes, for your own sake. I don’t think your egregore is going to happen, and if not, it’d be nice if you walked away from the failure with a functioning conscience.”

Now she heard a dog barking, not far from Ragotskie’s phone.

Again she covered the microphone slot, and whispered, “I’m sure he’s at the On the Waterfront Café, in Venice. We used to go there.” She uncovered the slot.

Harlowe nodded and ran to the nave door, the heels of his cowboy boots knocking on the linoleum floor.

As he yanked it open and hurried out into the nave, Loria said into the phone, “Why do you think it’s not going to happen, Elisha?”

“Well if I told you,” he said, and his voice was constricted with bitterness and satisfaction, “you might be able to save it, and lose your — your poisonously lovely self. That was Harlowe’s boots I heard, wasn’t it? This is a burner phone, but I’m going to hang up now just in case your murdering Messiah can track it. Goodbye, Agnes. I really think some of these daysâ¦well, you never heard of Sophie Tucker, but,” and then he sang, “you’re gonna miss me.”

The connection ended with a click, and Loria dropped the phone back into her pocket. That’s okay, sweetie, she thought as she walked toward the sacristy door herself, just take your time over that beer.

Probably it was Brad who had died on a freeway. And good enough for him.


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