Merry Christmas!

Forced Perspectives – Snippet 14

“Probably not. But it was a good idea to get rid of it anyway. It wouldn’t hurt to get you a whole fresh set of clothes, from the skin out, though that might not help either.”

“You really think they can still track us?” she said, rolling the window back up. “Or specifically me?”

“God knows. With luck their method isn’t very long-range, whatever it is. And Barstow’s separated from L.A. by a twelve-thousand-foot height of rock.” When she gave him a haggard, incredulous look, he explained, “The Cajon Pass is four-thousand foot elevation, and the plain-old curvature of the earth adds another eight or nine thousand feet to that. And the curvature is shallow at either end, obviously, but from here to Barstow it’s a hundred and fourteen miles wide.”

“Let’s go to Barstow. Fast.”

“Are you sure? The airport’s –”

“I said Barstow! I — dammit, my flight’s not till tomorrow, I told you.”

He just nodded. And in spite of his concern for her, he was glad she was staying. Last year, when she volunteered to accompany him in a terrible-odds dive into the Labyrinth afterworld, old Isaac Laquedem had told Vickery, You’ll need help. Respect her choice.

“Okay,” he said finally, shifting to the left lane to pass a slow-moving bus. “I’m glad.” Then he added, diffidently, “We do have to make a slight detour on the way. To, uh, Hollywood Boulevard.”

“What?” She slapped the dashboard. “Why, for God’s sake? Just drive straight out of here to Barstow, right now!”

“I think we need to find out about that old wrecked house that’s been pre-empting our usual echo vision. Why it’s closer, and later in that day, every time we see it. I can’t believe it’s a coincidence that it started happening right before these guys decided to grab us. There’s –”

“Grab you. With the baby carriage.”

He waved a hand impatiently. “I’m part of us. There’s somebody we need to consult.”

“Who, that Laquedem guy? You said you couldn’t find him.”

“No. Um — a superhero, actually.”

Castine had been craning her neck to look behind them, but now she flopped back in her seat again and closed her eyes. “You’re all I’ve got,” she said. “You’re not going crazy, are you? Superheroes, curvature of the earth?” Now she was giving him a worried look. “Say something sane.”

He smiled bleakly, his eyes on the cars ahead. “You and I are not normal people.”

“Huh.” She shook her head. “That’s not sane, that’s just true.”

“I’m going to catch the 110 north, up here. If you want to think sane thoughts, you should probably close your eyes again.”

It had been from a spot on the northbound 110 that Castine and Vickery had exited the real world last year, and found themselves in the nightmare Labyrinth afterworld.

She rubbed both hands over her face, and pushed her hair back and exhaled. “Oh, I remember,” she said. For a while she just swayed in her seat as Vickery swerved from lane to lane, passing slower vehicles, and she might have been thinking about their time in that savagely counter-rational world. “Do you still go to church?” she said finally. “Latin Mass?”

“They don’t have Latin Mass in Barstow, but yes, I still make it to Mass on Sundays. I went yesterday.” He spared her a sideways glance. “Last year, when it was all over, you told me you got a rosary. Do you still have it?”

“No. No, I moved to an apartment in Gaithersburg, and it must have got lost.”


She quickly went on, “Do you think that guy, your Omar Sharif, is really with the Egyptian Antiquities Patrol, or whatever it was? It’s weird he just told us to get out of town.”

“He’s really from Egypt, at least,” said Vickery, “that’s a Masri Arabic accent. What was it, ‘an artifact that was negligently curated’?”

“‘Long ago,'” agreed Castine. “I got the idea he means to destroy it. Do you suppose he was following us too?”

“My impression was that he was monitoring the other crowd, and stepped in quick to stop Red Suspenders from shooting you. You’ve still got his gun, I trust.”

“You were pretty quick there yourself, especially just coming out of a vision. Yes.” She pulled the little gun out of her jacket pocket and held it in her lap. “How soon till we’re on the 110?”

“A few more miles yet. Say ten minutes.”

“I might shut my eyes when we drive by that spot.” She stretched and yawned, and Vickery knew it was a yawn of tension rather than fatigue. “So are we allies again? Like last year?”

“Looks like it.”

“Friends, even, as I recall.” She found the magazine release button on the gun and popped the magazine out, then pulled the slide back, ejecting a .380 round. “I didn’t really lose the rosary,” she said, staring down at the gun as she let the slide snap back. “I’ve even been to Mass, a couple of times.” She pulled the trigger, and with a tiny click some part of the gun flew out onto the floor.

She bent down and picked up a tiny metal rod, and held it out on her palm.

Vickery glanced at it. “The firing pin. I guess you weren’t supposed to dry-fire it. Never mind, I’ve got a couple of spare guns at home.”

She dropped the firing pin in the ashtray, and seemed relieved that the gun had changed the subject.


Vickery parked in a lot off Highland Avenue, a block south of Hollywood Boulevard, and he and Castine walked up to the crowded black sidewalk with its inset pink stars, and paused in the recessed entry of a store called Souvenirs of Hollywood. A cold wind was blowing straight down the boulevard from the west, and Castine pulled her jacket tighter and gripped her elbows.

“She’ll probably be out in front of the Chinese Theater, across the street,” Vickery said. Castine still hadn’t asked, so he explained, “The person we’re looking for is one of the costumed superheroes that tourists pay to have their picture taken with.”

Castine rolled her eyes but didn’t say anything.

The traffic light ahead of them switched from red to the green silhouette of a walking man, and masses of pedestrians in bright T-shirts or tank tops or grimy overcoats stepped out onto the pavement, moving simultaneously straight ahead across Hollywood Boulevard and to the right across Highland, and even diagonally to the far corner, since the crosswalks at this intersection formed a big square with an X in the middle, and all motor traffic faced red lights. Vickery and Castine moved with the northbound stream of the crowd, glancing cautiously around at the brightly dressed tourists and bearded street lunatics jostling them, and on the sunny north sidewalk Castine hurried out of the crowd to stand beside a wide window in the shade under an awning. Over the awning, Vickery had noticed tall letters on a higher row of windows spelling out LIVE YOUR LIFE.

Castine had seen it too. “I’d like to live my life,” she said crossly. “We should have picked a different city to meet up in. Does everywhere in L.A. smell like marijuana?” She glanced left and right at the bobbing heads of the people moving in conflicting eddies in both directions on the sidewalk in front of them.

More quietly, she asked, “Do you think any of these are ghosts?”

“Among all these — sure, a few, though not as many as there would have been last year, before you and I closed the afterworld conduit.” He looked away from the rocking parade of now-questionable profiles to look at her. “I imagine there’s one or two who’ll soon spin away to nothing, which will startle any tourists who’re able see them. But the ones who attached themselves to us then are gone.”

She tugged the cuffs of her jacket and pulled the bill of her Hollywood baseball cap further down. “I’d like to get home without picking up any new ones.”

“Right. We shouldn’t hold still anyway, in case everybody’s following our trail of breadcrumbs or whatever. Let’s see if we can find Supergirl.”

“Supergirl.” Castine’s voice was flat.

Vickery just nodded and took her arm. Rejoining the pedestrian stream, he led the way west along the broad, glittering black sidewalk, past curbside evangelists and pirated-CD sellers and plain beggars, choosing paths where the crowd ahead opened up for a moment, and soon they stepped out of the flux into the more static crowd in the Chinese Theater forecourt. Here the stiller air smelled of car exhaust and sunblock and chocolate from the Ghirardelli’s ice cream parlor on the other side of the boulevard.

A Captain Jack Sparrow, in full pirate costume and beaded beard, was standing between a couple of girls while an older woman took their picture with a phone, and when the tourists had hurried off toward a towering yellow Transformer figure, Vickery caught the Sparrow’s eye and held up a palm with a twenty-dollar bill crimped in it.