Forced Perspectives – Snippet 10

Vickery took a look back the way they’d come, but he couldn’t see the street from here. He turned to Castine.

She was staring at him wide-eyed. “I thought the ghosts were all gone now! Since we closed the conduit to the Labyrinth!”

“People still die, Ingrid, and as long as particles of indeterminism — that is, free wills, which is to say, people — move rapidly past non-moving particles, like on freeways, the current is going to be generated, and ghosts can…manifest themselves! They do still crop up.”

“And you a Catholic! Consulting the dead!”

Vickery spread his hands. “I don’t consult dead people! They’re in Heaven or Hell or someplace. I consult their ghosts, which aren’t them.”

Castine gave him a disapproving look. “They’re pretty dead, though.”

“Lively sometimes, you gotta admit.”

“But — you don’t talk to them in complete sentences, do you? They’ll get a fix on you, try to switch places with you!”

Vickery shook his head. “They’re not as substantial, not as powerful, as they were last year, when they were plugged into the crazy dynamo of the Labyrinth. It’s like dropping a radio into your bathtub — if it’s just working on its own batteries, not plugged into 120 volts, you’re okay.”

Castine shook her head. “Well remember your math anyway. Jeez.”

Vickery smiled and nodded. “Two plus two is four and nothing else. I remember.” The field in which ghosts could appear was one of gross indeterminism, irrationally expanded possibility, and the hard, unyielding logic of mathematics could drive ghosts away — if they paid attention.

“And don’t let them stick their tongues out at you,” she added, for the ghosts they’d encountered last year had been able to quickly extrude their tongues, which were freezingly, incapacitatingly cold.

“I’ve got a chicken-wire screen there, to keep them away from me.” Like the screen in a confessional, he thought — except in this case the figures on both sides of the screen are looking for absolution. “And what have you been doing, back east? Are you still…with the TUA?”

“Oh.” The question seemed to have startled her. “It’s not the same TUA now, it’s been merged into Naval Intelligence — it’s not the agency that killed Eliot, anymore.” Vickery recalled that Eliot had been the name of her fiance, murdered last year by the TUA when it had still been a rogue, antonymous agency. “I do clerical work there. I — after last year, I just want the rest of my life to be…humdrum. Boring, even.” She laughed without smiling. “Socrates said the unconsidered life is not worth living, but that’s what I want. Wanted.”

She walked slowly to the trash can and dropped the crumpled wax paper into it, then looked around at the lake and the grass as if to reassure herself that she was still in the blessedly ordinary world. “But then,” she went on in a harsh whisper, “the visions of that terrible old house started intruding, and I — I can’t — I hardly dare sleep anymore, thinking that it’s leading up to something — that I might one day soon see it for real, be standing in front of it!” She turned to him, her eyes frightened. “Do we die there?”

“I –” Vickery paused, looking past her.

On the other side of the lake, two men were walking swiftly along the shore-side pavement, and to Vickery they seemed to be looking closely at the people they passed. The dark windbreaker one of them wore reminded him of the two men who had rushed at their car in front of Canter’s.

He took Castine’s elbow and turned her south, away from the lake. “Don’t look back,” he said, “and don’t visibly hurry — but hurry.”

She nodded and took long steps off the pavement and across the grass to keep up with his stride. “Bad guys?”

“I’m pretty sure.”

“No — how?”

“Dunno. We’ll try to get on a bus or something before they see us.”

Past a cluster of acacia trees and a couple of tall palms, he could see traffic moving from left to right on Seventh Street, which lay at right angles to the street on which they had left the car. He tried to remember if there was a bus stop on Seventh along this block. A free taxi, or any taxi at all, would be very unlikely.

Then his view of the street and cars seemed to flatten. He clutched her arm and whispered, “Oh no!”

He heard her say, “What –” and then the light dimmed and all sounds faded away to silence.

He could still feel the grass brushing past under his shoes, and Castine’s arm in his gripping hand, but what he saw was a dilapidated two-story Victorian house fifty yards in front of him, with an eroded dirt slope rising behind it. In the coppery echo light he couldn’t make out the color of the house, and it seemed to crouch out there in front of him like a huge, ragged spider. Several of the downstairs windows were broken, and the broad porch slanted down sharply to the right, its farthest extent partly buried in the sand. A motorcycle, an old Harley Davidson panhead, leaned on its kickstand close to the porch railing.

Castine was palpably leading him now. They were stepping more slowly but with evident deliberateness, and he hoped she understood that he was — briefly, God willing! — experiencing an involuntary time-spike echo vision.

From his point of view he was striding quickly toward the old house, and the difference between his real, felt pace and his visually perceived one brought back memories of treading moving walkways at airports. He reminded himself that he was in no sense physically present in the scene he was seeing, and that he couldn’t be sensed by any people who might appear in it.

And in fact he saw a man step out of the front door, onto the porch. Vickery knew that Castine must have felt his shudder when he recognized the lean face — it was the same face he had seen in an upstairs window, in previous episodes like this.

Vickery’s view of the house stopped expanding, as if he had halted, though he could feel that he and Castine were still trudging forward; the sensory confusion almost made him stumble, but he concentrated on the texture of the real MacArthur Park grass under his pacing feet.

He knew that in real time he and Castine must be approaching the edge of the park and the lanes of Seventh Street, but what filled his vision was the porch and the man standing on it. The man’s face was framed by tangles of long dark hair that hung down to the shoulders of his open Nehru jacket, and when the man moved to the porch rail and gripped it, Vickery glimpsed the curved grip of a revolver in the man’s belt. The man looked left and right, and then stared with clear recognition directly into Vickery’s point of view.

Then the sounds and sunlight of present-day MacArthur park washed over Vickery and he could peripherally see Castine in the yellow blanket to his right — and he found himself looking straight at another face, also alarmingly familiar.

The eyes behind the round black-framed glasses met Vickery’s for a moment and then swept past him, toward the crowded lawns of the park. Sweat was now trickling down the shaved areas over the young man’s ears, and the white shirt under the red suspenders was darkened across the chest.

Vickery pushed Castine past him, blocking the man’s view of her and wishing he had bought her a garish head-scarf in addition to the baseball cap.

Ahead of them, a pearl-white Nissan sedan pulled in to the red curb at the same moment that a voice from behind called, “Hold it, you two.”

Vickery’s hand was on the grip of his Glock as he spun toward the speaker; it was the young man in red suspenders who had spoken, and he was now facing them and holding a pocket-sized semi-automatic pistol.

“Turn around, lady.” The young man’s voice was tight with evident tension. “And take off the shades.”

Vickery’s gun was out and pointed at the man’s chest, but before he could speak, a voice from the street behind him said, loudly, “I will shoot you –” and then went on more quietly, “through the heart, if you do not drop your gun.”

Several pedestrians had exclaimed and stepped back, and a woman screamed — not loudly, but as if the situation seemed to call for it.

Gritting his teeth, and relying on the fact that the voice had said “through the heart” rather than “in the back,” Vickery held his own gun steady.