Forced Perspectives – Snippet 36

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 like…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 like…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 you…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 –“