Forced Perspectives – Snippet 03
CHAPTER ONE: Some Kind of Hobo
The enigmatic ad in the Los Angeles Times classified section had read, in its entirety, “Skeet thrower for sale, October 29, 2018, 2 PM,” and at 1:30 PM Sebastian Vickery was sitting on a bus bench across the street from Canter’s Delicatessen.
There was a plexiglass roof on struts over the metal-screen bench, and he had taken off his faded tan bush hat and set it beside him. His hair and graying beard were clipped short these days, and aviator sunglasses hid his eyes. The breeze down Fairfax Avenue was cool on his damp forehead.
He had spent the previous fifteen minutes in the Council Thrift Store across Oakwood Avenue, to all appearances giving close scrutiny to a dining table and a china hutch and several chairs, all of which stood by the window that gave a good view of the parking lot and entrance of Canter’s. In another ten minutes he planned to cross Fairfax and take a while sorting through the various sizes of shipping cartons at the FedEx Print and Ship outlet, from the window of which he would be able to watch the Canter’s parking lot and sidewalk and the rooftops of the nearby buildings. At 1:50, if he still saw no signs of surveillance, he would go into Canter’s and take a seat at the far end of the counter, by the back wall.
Aside from a couple of brief, furtive visits to certain clearings beside the 710 and 405 freeways, Sebastian Vickery hadn’t been to Los Angeles in eight months, and he was glad Canter’s, at least, was still in business. The FedEx outlet was new, replacing a bar, as he recalled, and the thrift store had been called Out of the Closet when he had last been down here.
His car, an oddly angular bright blue sedan, was parked across the street, only a dozen yards from the Canter’s front door. While waiting for a curbside spot to open up, he had driven around several blocks, noting alleys and unevident parking lots.
No one was likely to bump into him on this bus bench in the next few minutes, so he decided to risk a look back in what he thought of as echo time.
Most of his echo time intervals were brief, and he could afford to lose nearly half an hour here in apparent catatonic oblivion. He would at least feel it if any Good Samaritan were to touch or shake him, and though he wouldn’t be able to see what was going on, he’d be able to say reassuring things to dissuade any unwanted help.
His attention, though, would be elsewhere. Elsewhen.
Last year he and a woman named Ingrid Castine had been driven to cross over, alive, from ordinary reality into a nightmarish afterlife, known as the Labyrinth, populated by deceased or never-born spirits. The two of them had managed to return, still alive, and close the leaky conduit between the two worlds — but, among other things, they had learned that the moment of “now” is not a distinct, uniform instant, as irreducible as a point on a line in geometry.
What normal people perceive as the instant of “now” is in fact just the blanket average of an infinity of time-spikes that spring up and disappear at the interface between the fluid future and the crystallized past. The spikes are quantum extensions of the past into the future, but they’re far too brief to have any effect on the world’s smooth continuity, except possibly in the dreams of poets and madmen.
But those traumatic experiences of last year had left him able to drop himself — his perceptions, at least — into whatever flickering time-spike he might at some moment be in contact with; and time tends to be especially spiky in populated areas, so in a crowded city like Los Angeles it was unlikely that any spot would be absolutely chronologically flat.
Leaning back on the bus bench, he looked at his watch: 1:35. He memorized the cars at the curbs and in the deli parking lot, then took off his sunglasses and sat back and let his eyes unfocus; and when the street and buildings in front of him seemed to be no more than a flat collage of shifting random colors, he made himself look past it, as if trying to see the image hidden in the confetti dots of a stereogram print.
Lately the echo view had been alarmingly unreliable, but today it worked as expected, and abruptly he was seeing parked and moving cars and pedestrians in three dimensions again, but in a sepia twilight; the faces and swinging hands of the human figures glowed with a color he never saw in real time, a sort of silvery bronze. The grumble of traffic was muted, almost inaudible.
What he was seeing now, dimly, was the recent local past.
He looked carefully at the cars parked along the street and in the lot. Colors were virtually indistinguishable in this echo view, but he noted that a pale Honda Accord was parked over there in front of Canter’s; a moment ago, in real time, he had seen an apparently identical white Honda on this side of the street, to his right.
All at once the buildings and cars and people sprang into color again, and the rattling tremolo of car engines resumed. His eyesight was back in alignment with real common time, and the cars and pedestrians he saw now were actually present.
He put on his sunglasses and looked to his right, at the white Honda parked three spaces up the street. Sun-glare on the windshield made it impossible to see any occupant or occupants, but by echo vision Vickery had seen that it, or a car very like it, had been parked on the other side of the street not long before. The extents of his echo visions were variable, but he had never been able to see his surroundings as they had been more than a couple of hours earlier.
The Honda might belong to somebody who had moved it to avoid a parking ticket; Vickery was asking for a ticket himself, leaving his car parked where it was. Or there might simply have been two light-colored Hondas parked on Fairfax Avenue this afternoon.
Or it might be that Ingrid Castine had been careless, and unwittingly led them to this meeting, and to himself.
Whoever them was, exactly. At least this wasn’t the Ford van he had seen parked in front of his apartment on a cold February morning eight months ago, triggering his flight from the city and the adoption of this new identity.
He had spent these eight months of exile covertly trying to find a way to retrieve a uniquely precious book that had been stolen from him on that morning — a worn paperback copy of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden that contained, fossilized in its unliving but organic pages, the spirit of a little girl. He and Castine had encountered her in the Labyrinth afterworld — ghosts’ memories often fell out of their insubstantial heads and were scavenged by other spirits, and this wraith had picked up a memory of the Burnett novel; and, lacking a name of her own, had taken to herself the name of the book’s heroine, Mary Lennox. The small spirit had told him at one point that a robin had shown Mary Lennox where to find the key to a secret walled garden, and it had seemed that the spirit, too, was hoping to find a key to some enduring refuge.
The girl-spirit had followed Vickery back from the turbulent afterworld last year, and even before being subsumed into that copy of the book, the spirit had been especially frail and evanescent — for it was not even the ghost of a deceased person, but just the unfulfilled likelihood of a little girl who had never actually been conceived, whose chance of existence had gone by, unrealized.
It was, in fact, the shade of a girl Vickery would have fathered, if he had not, long before, taken steps to ensure that he would never have children — it was, or was to have been, his daughter, whom circumstances had cheated of life.
She was inert in the pages, but, driven by guilt and a love whose object had tragically never existed, he had daily read aloud sections of the book, and imagined that his unconceived daughter might somehow be aware of his voice, her almost-father’s presence.
These days his main concern was trying to find a clue to where the book was now, and his researches didn’t depend on his location — but he had felt bound to come back to Los Angeles today.