Forced Perspectives – Snippet 05

Castine stared into his face for a moment, then nodded and slid out of the booth, and together they ran to the entryway and past the cash register. Several people hurriedly stepped out of their way, and Vickery noticed a moustached man in a tan-and-orange plaid sportcoat, whose brown eyes seemed to widen in surprised recognition at the sight of them — and then they were out the door and on the sidewalk. Vickery pulled Castine to the left, toward his blue sedan.

“I’ve got a car across the street,” she said breathlessly, but a moment later he had pulled open the passenger-side door of his car and shoved her in.

As he got in on the driver’s side and started the engine, the man in the black turtleneck and red boots came slamming out of Canter’s, shouting into a cell phone; and a couple of men were now shoving past the pedestrians on the sidewalk to the north. Glancing that way, Vickery caught only a quick impression of gray hair and a dark windbreaker.

Castine had locked her door just as one of them grabbed the outside handle, and Vickery clicked the gear shift into reverse, backed into the car behind them with a jangling crash, and then shifted to drive and swerved out into traffic. From the corner of his eye he saw the young man in red suspenders burst out of the restaurant and stare after them for a moment before dodging his way across the street.

Vickery gritted his teeth at having to let him get away, and fervently hoped to see him again.

The traffic light at Oakwood was red, but Vickery leaned on the horn and edged through, glancing quickly left and right; then he was past it, and accelerating south on Fairfax.

Castine pulled her seatbelt across and clicked it into its slot.

“Who,” she said, and took a deep breath, “were they?”

“They weren’t yours?”

Vickery flexed his right hand on the wheel. The wrist ached — he had reflexively hit that teenager pretty hard.

“What,” said Castine, “the TUA? They don’t do this sort of stuff anymore.”

Vickery nodded. She had mentioned last August that the functions and personnel of the Transportation Utility Agency had been cut way back, and its days of unsupervised ruthlessness were long past. So who was this crowd, and what did they want?

Castine shifted in her seat now to look out the back window. “They must still be behind that red light. Where are we going?”

“Parking lot up here on the right,” he said. “We only need about a twenty-second window, if you help.”

“I think I see ’em behind us now, changing lanes. Two cars. Or three.” She looked at him. “Help with what?”

Halfway down the next block Vickery stomped on the brake and swung the wheel to the right, and the car bounced up a curb and he drove fast between two rows of parked cars to an alley at the far end of the lot. He steered left into the alley, but braked to a jolting halt in front of a big delivery truck that blocked the way.

“Shit!” yelled Castine, blinking at the obstacle, but Vickery was already out of the car and crouching by the front bumper.

“Out!” he yelled. “Help me!”

He had peeled up the edges of a blue plastic film from around the left headlight, and he was tugging it up off of the fender, where a wedge-shaped chunk of styrofoam came away with the thin, sticky film as he peeled it back toward the driver’s-side door. Castine quickly followed his example on the right side, and within seconds they had stripped the blue film from the sides and the roof of the car. Two children watched them wonderingly from behind a chain link fence.

“You get the hood and the doors!” Vickery yelled, standing on the trunk now and wrestling with the bundle of crumpled blue plastic and styrofoam blocks. He leaned back, and the rest of the thin sheet came free from around the taillights with a ripping sound, and then he was sitting on the pavement. The rear license plate frame was secured only by two snaps, and he pulled it open and snatched out the blue Santa Ana dealer’s plate, exposing a red Anaheim one, and snapped the frame back into place.

He rolled over to the right and shoved the sticky blue-and-white bundle under the car, just forward of the right rear tire, as Castine slid to a crouching halt beside him, a somewhat smaller bundle in her arms. She pushed it too under the car, rattling fragments of a broken beer bottle on the pavement.

The car blocked their view of the parking lot they had just driven through, and Vickery couldn’t see under the vehicle because of the masses of crumpled plastic and styrofoam. But he heard a car, and then another, come rocking into the parking lot from Fairfax.

“Move to the front,” he said hoarsely, “and slide around to the bumper when they pass this.”

The roar of car engines quickly grew louder, and Vickery waved at Castine and began crawling toward the front of the car; and they had both scrambled around to crouch by the front bumper when two cars turned right and gunned away up the alley away from them.

“Are there any more?” gasped Castine, sitting up on the cracked cement pavement. One bloody knee showed through a rip in her slacks and she pushed her tangled hair back from her face. “There’s broken glass all over the place.”

“Give ’em a minute.” The breeze on his scalp let him know that his hat was gone. “I think they were following you. One of them shook some kind of powder into you water glass, and it was another of them who knocked it over.”

Castine was getting to her feet, cautiously. “They couldn’t have followed me! You’re not the only one who’s been trained in this stuff, you know.”

Vickery stood up, wincing and rubbing his hip. “Then they knew when and where we were supposed to meet,” he said, looking north along the alley. He didn’t see any moving cars. “We’ve got to get clear of the area.”

Vickery’s sedan was now visibly a white 1990s Saturn, with dented fenders and a primer-red driver’s side door. He and Castine got in, and he backed it off of the tangled mess of blue plastic and then drove sedately out of the lot and turned right on Fairfax. The interior of the car was hot from sitting in direct sunlight, and he switched on the air conditioner. Dust and hot air blew out of the vents, then cooler air.

Vickery took off his sunglasses and waved them toward Castine. “Put these on,” he said, “and there’s a blanket in the back seat — pull it around yourself.”

The blanket was bright yellow, and Vickery hoped that the changes in their appearances would deflect the attention of any very attentive pursuers.

He caught a green light at Beverly Boulevard and sped through the intersection, watching his rear view mirror; but no cars seemed to be following them.

“This is a Saturn,” said Castine, gingerly tucking the old blanket around her shoulders. She peered out through the windshield. “White. It looked like some kind of…caricature sky-blue Mercedes a few minutes ago. And I never told anybody that we were to meet at Canter’s.”

Vickery pursed his lips. “I believe you. I –”

“Oh, thanks!” A box of Kleenex was wedged between the dashboard and the windshield, and she pulled a sheet free and dabbed at her cut knee.

“Well, I do,” said Vickery. “But there they were.” He glanced at her. “Did you recognize any of them?”

“Damn it — I thought we were through with this kind of stuff! Have you…done something?”

Vickery made himself keep the nervous irritation out of his voice: “I’ve been living very low profile in a trailer park outside Barstow, under a new name, since February.”

“Well — I haven’t done anything either. No, I didn’t recognize them. I hardly saw them. Something broke, and some guy knocked over my water glass, and then you threw him and some kid onto a table.”

“I,” Vickery said heavily, “recognized the one who put something in your glass.”

“So you do have some connection with this!”

“It was before I went dark. It was why I went dark. Eight months ago, in February, that guy and a couple of other people cornered me. Tried to.” He started to mention the stolen book, but said instead, “I’d had a new identity prepared and ready to assume since September of last year–”