Forced Perspectives – Snippet 18
“Did your boyfriend do something wrong?” asked the probable Lexi now.
“Is Uncle Simon mad at him now?” piped up the other girl.
“How cheerfully he seems to grin,” said Lexi, “how neatly spread his claws!”
That was a quote from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Loria wished the girls had never got hold of a copy of the book.
“Oh, shut up, shut up,” she breathed, “poor demented things.” More loudly, she went on, “Get in the car, we’re going to spend the night on the Black Sheep. It’s berthed somewhere down in Wilmington now.”
“It’s birthed!” said one of the girls. “Uncle Simon has to slap its ass, make it cry, or it won’t breathe.”
The two of them ran awkwardly ahead toward Loria’s yellow station wagon. I’ll have to tell Simon about it, she thought. He hates hearing alarming news about the twins, but I’ll have to tell him.
A hundred yards away, at the other end of the parking lot, Lateef Fakhouri stood beside his pearl-white Nissan, watching the woman and the two girls get into the station wagon. He shrugged out of his tan-and-orange plaid sportcoat and tossed it across the front seat, then hurriedly got in and started the engine. The station wagon drove to the parking lot entrance and turned right onto Pacific Coast Highway, and Fakhouri followed at a discreet distance.
For the past two weeks, Fakhouri had been exploring the occult subculture of Los Angeles. His knowledge of Khalid Boutros’ visit fifty years earlier — and Fakhouri’s own Egyptian name and Ministry of Antiquities credentials — had led to a few confidential, nervous referrals, and at last, a few days ago, he had managed to purchase the privilege of igniting some sticks of punkwood from an “eternal flame” that was maintained in a garage in San Pedro.
The flame’s caretaker was the self-described High Priestess of a local coven. She had told Fakhouri that the flame was a direct continuation of the Baba Gurgur fire that had been burning for thousands of years in Iraq, and that her grandmother, a previous High Priestess, had acquired the relayed combustion from it in 1928. The flame had been carefully kept burning ever since in an oil drum in the grandmother’s garage.
The grandmother had died in the ’40s; the man who had originally acquired the flame, one Claude Wystan, had gone blind from drinking bootleg gin and killed himself in the ’30s; and this current High Priestess had been in a hurry because she worked as a waitress in a nearby Denny’s, but she gave him an old coffee can to carry the smoldering punkwood in.
Fakhouri had driven quickly back to the Egyptian Embassy on Wilshire and used the smoldering sticks to light an oil lantern, and the junior staff had been strictly ordered to keep the oil replenished in the lantern so that the ancient combustion wouldn’t go out.
Then Fakhouri had found a bottle of Bic White-Out and drawn random white squiggles on Khalid Boutros’ old photograph of the Nu hieroglyph, and got a Staples store to make a four-foot-tall cardboard blow-up of it. He trusted that the random white lines would prevent the symbol from having any effect on the Staples employees, and he would be able to “erase” the lines later with a gray felt marker.
He had looked up ChakraSys Incorporated, the source of the new coloring books, and had then researched its CEO, Simon Harlowe: the man’s vagabond past, his troubled family, and, most of all, his current pursuits, associates, and activities; and it had become clear enough that Harlowe intended to consummate Conrad Chronic’s interrupted egregore of 1968, on the fiftieth anniversary of that aborted attempt.
And on Halloween night, when Simon Harlowe would try to complete the long-delayed birth of the Ba-enabled egregore, Fakhouri intended to be present, and to illuminate the potent Nu hieroglyph with the ancient flame. It was the method he believed Khalid Boutros had used to defeat the quickening 1968 egregore, and he was cautiously confident that it would do the same for Harlowe’s, two days from now. The Nu hieroglyph would surely negate the Ba one.
Streetlights had come on at some point. The yellow station wagon turned inland at Beach Boulevard, and Fakhouri let a couple of cars merge into his lane ahead of him as he made the same turn; the station wagon was still clearly visible, and not going fast.
But Boutros’ use of the Nu hieroglyph in 1968 might not be effective now. Fakhouri suspected that this launching of the egregore had more power than it had had then — people on the streets, who had no connection to it, had in the last few days begun helplessly speaking the thoughts of Harlowe and his cultists. Fakhouri had heard nothing about such an effect occurring in Los Angeles in 1968. The victims recovered their own consciousnesses within seconds, with only momentary disorientation afterward — but might that possession soon become irreversible?
What if Harlowe’s revitalized, Ba-quickened egregore could simply roll over the Nu sigil, now, even when that sigil was illuminated by the primordial Iraqi flame?
And what if it had been some other factor, unrecorded or completely unsuspected by old Boutros, that had stymied the egregore in 1968?
As a precaution, Fakhouri should really have some other tactic in readiness too, to prevent the egregore from attaining coherence, agency, mentation — irresistible dominance.
According to a neurologist to whom he had described the matter as a theoretical hypothesis, such an entity would need the equivalent of a switchboard or computer router, a communication nexus, analogous to the two cooperating halves of the thalamus in the human brain. And since the egregore was to be made of human minds instead of physical neurons, it would probably require a reciprocating pair of minds that suffered from something like what psychiatrists called dissociation. This idea seemed to be borne out by Harlowe’s pursuit of Vickery and Castine, who were said to have fallen into the afterworld and come back with a compromised connection to normal sequential time; but Vickery and Castine were in the wind now. Perhaps they had taken Fakhouri’s advice after all, and got on a flight to a distant city; in any case, Harlowe had not caught them and didn’t seem likely to.
The yellow station wagon had sped up, and Fakhouri passed a slower-moving Volkswagen to keep it in sight.
But Harlowe had adopted his brother’s two pre-teen daughters, after their parents’ puzzling suicide, and it was a matter of public record that the girls had been treated for psychological ailments. Depending on what sorts of ailmentâ€¦could Harlowe be planning to use those girls as replacements for Vickery and Castine? They seemed to be part of his inner circle, in spite of their age, so they must certainly have been initiated by now with the Ba figure in the coloring books.
Today he had watched the two girls through binoculars, and he had been bothered by an old memory. For no discernible reason, Lexi and Amber had reminded him of two Coptic girls he had seen many years ago in Manshiyat Naser, the Garbage City of Cairo, east of the El-Nasr Road at the base of the Mukatam Hills. He had been there on official business, tracing Pharaonic artifacts believed to be smuggled out of Egypt by way of that trash collecting district; and the two Coptic girls, perched on top of a load of malodorous bags in the back of a battered old Chevrolet pickup truck, had appeared to be in no more peril than any other of the Zabaleen, the “garbage people,” the untouchables whose lives were spent sorting through Cairo’s refuse. Undoubtedly the girls had had a family, which had probably specialized for generations in salvaging some particular category of stuff from the collected trash of Cairo — broken glass, or plastic bottles, or old discarded food for the ubiquitous pigs of the district. Undoubtedly they were Christians, with the blue cross tattooed on their wrists. But after he had returned to his office in Lazhogli Square, three miles to the west, he had been troubled by the thought that he should somehow have saved them from their inherited predicament, and to this day his sleep was sometimes disrupted by a nightmare in which those two Zabaleen girls figured.
The yellow station wagon slowed for a moment by a Starbuck’s, then sped up and caught the last seconds of a green traffic light at the intersection, and Fakhouri had to step on the accelerator to cross after them before the yellow light turned red.
Within the last few hours Harlowe’s ChakraSys team had vacated their office on Sepulveda, and Harlowe’s boat, the Black Sheep, had been moved from its berth at a Santa Monica marina. Fakhouri told himself — firmly! — that he was following the Loria woman this evening only to discover Harlowe’s new center of operations.
He would not even consider making any plan to abduct the twins.
He quailed at the thought of committing a perilous felony, in a foreign country. He reminded himself that Harlowe’s nieces were entirely unlike those two Coptic girls, who in fact were probably mothers of children of their own by now.