Forced Perspectives – Snippet 06

“I should have cooked up an escape identity myself!”

Vickery rocked his head judiciously. “– And I stopped being Sebastian Vickery altogether.”

“And you only ran as far as Barstow? What’s that, a hundred miles?”

“A hundred and fourteen.” Vickery made a left turn and drove east on Third Street, past the old Farmer’s Market clock tower. “Why did you place the ad?”

“Oh. I guess I got you into this, didn’t I, with that ad? Back into it, anyway. Sorry, I guess. Why did I put the ad in the paper?” She was silent for a moment, then shrugged. “Because I was scared.”

“Well, yeah, I’ve been scared too,” Vickery admitted, alternately watching the traffic ahead and glancing at the rear view mirror. The sun was bright on chrome and windshields, and he wished he hadn’t given Castine his sunglasses. “Before I went into the restaurant just now, I tried the look-in-the-past trick to see the street a little while earlier — and for once the trick still worked, I did see that.”

“You were lucky.” She shivered. “I never even try it anymore, and I drink gallons of coffee to stop it happening spontaneously. All I see now, when it happens, is –”

He nodded grimly. “That solitary wrecked house.”

“Ooh, I’m glad you see it too, Sebastian! Right, a two-story Victorian house, all dilapidated, in some kind of little valley, right? And you can’t move, not voluntarily, anyway. In the — hah! — ordinary visions of the past, I could at least decide whether I walked in some direction, or held still.”

“True. These intrusive new ones are like watching a video.”

“And,” she went on, “have you noticed that each time you see that terrible house, it’s always later in the day? A month ago I’d see it with shadows, but lately they’re gone, like it’s noon, there.” She was hugging herself now, gripping her elbows. “I don’t want to see it when the sun’s down. If I even could see it much, in that murky light.”

Vickery decided not to ask her yet if she’d noticed the man’s face that he had sometimes seen peering out from an upstairs window of the hallucinated old house.

“Yeah,” he said, “I’ve noticed that it’s later in the day, in some day, when I’ve seen it.”

“Do you think that has something to do with –” She waved behind them.

Vickery briefly spread his fingers on the steering wheel, then gripped it again.

Castine hitched around to peer out the back window, then relaxed back into her seat again. “Where are we going?”

“For now, just — away.”

She nodded. “Away is good. Do you think it was arsenic or something? In my water glass?”

“Whatever it was, the guy in the turtleneck didn’t want you to drink it.”

After a moment of silence, she said, “I’m glad you were there. It’s sort of good to see you again, Sebastian. Though I’m not sure I like the beard.”

“My name’s Bill Ardmore now.” She raised her eyebrows, and he went on, “The real Bill Ardmore was a grocery clerk in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and he died last May, single and childless.”

“You…liked the sound of the name?”

“It’ll do. Are you watching traffic?”

“The only car that’s been steady in view for the last thirty seconds is that old Chevvy with kids in it that you just passed. Ah — and they just turned into the Ralph’s parking lot anyway.” Her knee had apparently stopped bleeding, and she rolled down the window and threw the blood-spotted Kleenex out.

“I got the name from an obituary,” said Vickery. “All the states cross-index death and birth certificates these days, but Wisconsin didn’t start doing it till ’79, and Bill Ardmore was born in ’78; so I’m officially forty now, instead of thirty-seven.”

“Oh.” She rolled the window back up. “I hope I don’t have to do that myself. I’d be adding nine years. Did he have a beard?”

“Probably not. But I grew it because Sebastian Vickery didn’t have one.” He squinted at the traffic ahead. “I’m going to circle some blocks, so keep watching traffic. Then we can stop at MacArthur Park and catch up on — everything.”

“I never did get lunch.”

“We can probably get a couple of hot dogs or something there.”

“Of course.” Her smile was faint, but he felt at last that this was the same woman he’d known last year. “I forgot about your dining style,” she said.


Back at the Canter’s parking lot, two men stood on the sidewalk, blinking in the sun.

“Where’s the cars?” one asked. He appeared to be in his early forties, and was dressed a bit too young in black skinny jeans and a faded blue denim shirt buttoned to the top. His head was entirely shaved and gleaming with sweat, and he wore sunglasses with a little leather wedge snapped over the bridge. “I’m going to go to that thrift store and see if they have any decent hats.”

“When Harlowe shows up,” said his companion, “he’s not going to be happy. Pratt got knocked out back there, with his jaw dislocated, and now the Castine woman knows somebody’s after her. You best not be off hat shopping.” His brush-cut hair was gray, his tanned face was deeply lined, and his olive-green windbreaker and blue jeans were calculatedly unmemorable.

“Damn it, Taitz, what were we supposed to do? The car didn’t even have a license plate, just a dealer’s plate!”

“Harlowe didn’t say you should try anything like opening her door. This whole thing was supposed to be just…let her meet Vickery and then follow them, and grab them somewhere less crowded. But I guess it was Elisha that really screwed it up.”

The other man nodded. “What, he broke some dishes?”

An old woman who had just finished laboriously pushing a shopping cart to this end of the Oakwood crosswalk paused and said, as if talking to herself, “Harlowe says he tried to poison her.”

The younger man stared at her in alarm, and as she hobbled past them he took a step after her.

Taitz caught his arm. “Steady, Foster. You think she knows anything? It’s just the black hole effect. We’re lucky somebody across the street didn’t say it.”

“For all we know somebody did! Maybe half a dozen people did.” Foster shook his head and wiped his bald scalp. “Shouldn’t our guys have caught up with them by now? Shit. That didn’t look like any powerhouse car Castine drove away in.”

“It was Vickery driving, if that guy was Vickery.”

“And he’s what, some kind of hobo?”

Taitz shrugged, scanning the cars east and west for some sign of Harlowe’s gray Chevrolet Tahoe SUV. “He showed up in L.A. about five years ago, and nobody seems to know where he came from. Eight months ago Elisha and Agnes tried to snatch him, and blew it, though they did get that book Harlowe wanted. Then Vickery totally dropped out of sight — until today, maybe — but before that he was working for a Mexican woman in East L.A., driving some kind of tricked-out santeria stealth car for people scared of ghosts.”

“And, uh, he and the Castine woman both died last year, I understand, and came back from the dead.”

“That’s the story.” John Taitz waved toward the old woman with the shopping cart, who was still visible making her way up the Fairfax sidewalk. “That’s why we need them, both of them.”

“There’s Harlowe.” Foster stepped to the curb and waved at the westbound lanes of Oakwood Avenue, and a few moments later a gray SUV surged across the Fairfax intersection and swerved to a stop beside them. Taitz hurried to the curb and opened the left rear door and got in, with Foster right behind him.

The middle pair of seats had been reversed, facing the third row, where Simon Harlowe sat. The sleeves of his turtleneck sweater were rolled back, and his probably-dyed burgundy red hair was disarranged, but he looked a good deal more alert and purposeful than he had this morning, when they had lost track of Castine. He crossed his left red boot over his right knee and waved Foster and Taitz to the facing seats as the vehicle moved forward.

“Elisha has gone rogue,” he said, and added in a businesslike tone, “one of you is going to have to take his blood pressure.” Taitz repressed a wince; he had got along well enough with Ragotskie, and he hoped it would be Foster’s task to kill the young man. “The Black Sheep is being moved to a different marina,” Harlowe went on, “and I’ve told Biloxi to vacate the office on Sepulveda — put everything in a couple of U-Haul trucks and park it somewhere till we can move it to another property I’ve got.”