Forced Perspectives – Snippet 34

“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.