Forced Perspectives – Snippet 35

CHAPTER EIGHT: 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 should…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.