Forced Perspectives – Snippet 39

CHAPTER NINE: 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 been…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 bore…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.”