Forced Perspectives – Snippet 09

“That’s how I’ve thought of it. A time-spike, a replay of the recent past, right?” He shrugged. “Echo. So I started checking on how long cars had been parked on my street. And early one morning I saw a Ford van parked for a while down the block with its engine running, and when I walked toward it, it drove off. But when I stepped back and focused into echo vision to look at the street as it had been an hour or so earlier, I saw the same van at dawn, parked right across from my apartment, so I walked across the street — ”

“Sebastian! In…in echo vision? You’re lucky you weren’t run over by a car in real time!”

“Well, I looked both ways first, and as it happened I only saw the past for a few seconds. Anyway, I was able to walk to where the car had been earlier. I couldn’t make out the license plate number in that monochrome echo light — couldn’t even crouch and try to feel the embossed numbers, since the van wasn’t actually there anymore! — but I could see the driver through the windshield. And it was that guy that put something in your water glass today. Different haircut, but it was him, I could see him clearly. You know the way people kind of glow, when you see ’em in the past?”

She nodded. “I remember. Something like brown, but bright.”

“Yeah. I think it’s infrared, and in echo vision we get it directly in the primary visual cortex, not through the narrow-band retinas at all.” Again he peered across the grass at the parked car, and then around at the people walking along the lakeside pavement, but saw nothing out of the ordinary.

“So as soon as I was back in real, common time, I got in my car and drove off,” he went on, “aiming to scout the surrounding streets in real time and then — parked, of course! — in echo time. But at the first intersection, a woman was pushing a baby carriage across the crosswalk, against the light, and I had to stop — and when I did, two cars behind me stopped too, and their doors opened and four guys got out and started sprinting toward me. One of them was the guy from the Ford van, having switched vehicles –”

“You sure it was the same guy? You only saw him in your echo light, and he’d have had to switch vehicles awful quick –”

“Well, they knew I’d spotted the van. Yes, I’m sure it was him. The woman kept her baby carriage right in front of my bumper, not moving, and she wasn’t looking at me.”

Castine’s eyes were wide. “Did you…run over her?”

“Hah. No. I reversed hard into the car behind me and did a sharp U-turn. The car whose radiator I hadn’t wrecked tried to follow me, but I got away from him with no trouble.”

“I’d be surprised if you didn’t.” She finished her tamarindo drink and looked around for a trash can. “And so you became Bill Ardmore.”

“Well — not that instant. After a couple of hours I snuck back into my apartment, through the bedroom window, from the next street over.”

“You did?” she asked in surprise. “Why?”

Vickery was staring past her. “There’s a gray Chevy Tahoe,” he said thoughtfully. “It just drove by my car without stopping…but it’s moving way slow.” He got to his feet. “Up. Face me, not the street.”

“Just a minute, let me gather up our trash. Probably a lot of cars drive slow.” She balled up the cups and waxed paper and stood up.

“Let’s move around the south side of the lake,” he said, “and keep facing east.”

“We should find a trash can. You don’t want to go back to the car?”

“No, I don’t want them connecting the car with us. If they show up, we’ll evade them and come back later for the car.”

“Evade them. Okay.” She was looking past him, evidently scanning the clusters of people nearby. “You said you went to Barstow partly to be close to L.A., in case I signalled for a meeting. Why else?”

Vickery hesitated, then said, “You remember that old guy, Isaac Laquedem. When we last heard of him, he was in Barstow, and I wanted to find him and ask him if he knew anything about that attempt to snatch me.”

Apparently having satisfied herself that nobody in their vicinity was a threat, Castine was unfolding the wax paper, peering at it. “Did you find him?”

“No. A couple of times I thought I had a kind of intuition about where he might be, but it didn’t lead to anything I was able to track down. He may be back in L.A., but I haven’t been, except for a couple of furtive sneaks. And I’ve had no luck with internet searches, and he wasn’t the sort to be traceable online anyway.”

“But you stayed on in Barstow.” She poked at the remains of his tamale. “Why him? He mostly knew about ghosts, and the — the Labyrinth.”

Vickery looked away, toward the ducks out on the water. “The Labyrinth,” he said, and forced a laugh. “The afterworld! By the time I left L.A., the story among the freeway gypsies was that you and I died, to get there, and were resurrected from the dead, when we came back.”

“Well, most people did have to die, to get there.” She had freed some fragments of Vickery’s tamale, and tossed them out over the water toward the ducks. “So why did you want to talk to Laquedem? Grouchy old guy, as I recall.”

“There’s signs that say don’t feed the ducks.”

“You’re not a cop anymore. So why?”

He stopped walking and turned to face her. “Oh hell. You’ll think I’m crazy. There’s a trash can over there, if you want to pitch that stuff.”

Castine waved her fistful of litter. “It can wait.”

He exhaled and shook his head. “Okay. When I snuck back to my apartment, about five hours after the attempted snatch with the baby carriage in the crosswalk, there was a guy waiting there, standing by the street-facing living room window. But I had climbed in through the bedroom window, silently, and I made sure he was alone and then came up behind him and got him in a blood chokehold — as opposed to an air one — and when he lost consciousness I tied and gagged him. These guys aren’t pros, whoever they are.”

“Oh, Sebastian,” said Castine with a look that was both pitying and exasperated, “I bet I know what you went back for.”

“I — well, damn it, I bet you do. That copy of The Secret Garden. And it was gone. It was the only thing missing, as far as I could tell. The only person besides you and me who knew about that book was my old boss –”

“Lady Galvan,” said Castine, nodding. “With her supernatural-evasion car service.”

“– And I went straight to her garage and braced her about it. It turned out she had told somebody about the book, some guy who claimed to collect such things and asked if she knew of any for sale. He left her a business card, but it was fake. So then I drove to Barstow and became Bill Ardmore.”

“And that’s the other reason — the main reason? — that you didn’t want to get too far away from L.A.”

He shrugged and nodded. “I want to get the book back. I don’t want them to have it — and maybe,” he added, “use it, somehow.”

“It’s not a real person,” said Castine, wearily. “You know that. She never existed! She’s imaginary.”

“Right,” said Vickery, his voice flat. “Imaginary. My daughter times the square root of minus one. But when the conduit to the Labyrinth was open, we were able to see her. Speak with her, even. She talked about the robin who showed Mary Lennox the key to the secret garden, in that story.”

After a moment, Castine nodded, making even that concession with evident reluctance. She walked to a nearby trash can and dumped the lunch remains, then walked back, wiping her hands on the blanket draped over her shoulders.

“So what have you been doing?” she asked, “in Barstow?”

“I’ve got a little nest alongside the 15 freeway, outside of town, and I’ve been — well, I’ve been calling up ghosts from the freeway current, and asking them if they can sense her. I think fresh ghosts can sometimes sense…fossilized spirits, the ones that are subsumed forever in some organic object. The ghosts seem to hear them as a subsonic note, if they can be persuaded to listen for it.” He smiled, not happily. “I go through a lot of M&Ms and cigarettes, bribing them.”