Forced Perspectives – Snippet 19
But the twins would be better off away from their obsessed and dangerous uncle, probably. Arguably. Secondarily.
Fakhouri groaned out loud, and for a moment he glanced at the side mirror, intending to pull to the curb and let the station wagon go; then he remembered the figure in the new and old coloring books, and he sighed and stayed in his lane.
It was foolish to imaging that abducting the twins — even though it would be saving their souls, really — would relieve him of the troubling memory of two girls sitting on top of trash bags in the back of a pickup truck in Manshiyat Naser.
But he might get a smaller, more easily portable facsimile of the Nu hieroglyph.
The dirt road that curled away to the northeast from Vickery’s trailer park was just a flattened track across the desert, paralleling the 15 freeway and a line of power poles to the left. The sun had set, and their path was only discernible as a consistent gap between sparse weeds, but Castine didn’t suggest that he turn on the headlights. The dry wind from the south was still warm, blowing sand against the passenger side window until she rolled it up.
“So what do you, you know, do,” she asked, “in Barstow?” Her voice was resolutely light. “Besides talk to ghosts?”
“Oh,” he said, not looking away from the dim path, “under-the-table handyman work and car repair. And I, uh, manage events for the St. Joseph Catholic Church. Retreats, carnivals. Picnics, mostly. And I read a lot.”
“Oh.” The question had taken him by surprise, and he didn’t look away from the path. “It wouldn’t — well, no, nothing serious. I don’t think it’d be fair to get a girl involved withâ€¦”
“Somebody like us.”
“Well — right, exactly.” He went on quickly, “And I hit the library pretty often, use their computers. I’ve got the TOR browser on a flash drive, so I can check the deep and dark webs to watch traffic in ghost-inhabited objects — which there’s a lot of, actually, and myâ€¦my copy of The Secret Garden might show up on one of those.” He smiled uncomfortably. “It’s been eight months since I’ve been able to read to her.” He took a deep breath and let it out. “And I’m always careful to delete any traces afterward, and then click through a lot of general news or UFO websites, in case somebody should get curious and look at the computer’s history. But I keep searching.”
He saw Castine shake her head.
“And,” he went on stolidly, “yes, I do ask the ghosts about it. I told you they can sometimes sense subsumed entities, personalities — even ones that never –”
“Never actually existed,” said Castine.
Vickery nodded. “Pencil notes that never got inked in, on God’s ledger. I have to get the ghosts to look past the pinwheels on my trailer roof, but when I’ve done that they’ve told me several times that they sense one near the ocean. I’ve tried to track that one more closely by setting up impromptu nests down south beside the 405 and the 710, but the ghosts there haven’t come up with anything more precise — just ‘by the sea,’ with no details.”
He shifted his hands on the wheel — the path slanted away from the freeway here, and a branching path ahead would take them straight to the south side of the overpass.
“Almost there,” he said, watching in the dimness for the path. “And now I know a bit more about the people who stole the book. I can ask different questions.”
Castine huffed air through her nose. “Sure, you know how a couple of them dress.” After a moment she went on, grudgingly, “And, okay, you know it may involve some sort of Egyptian artifact.”
“And a wrecked old house in a canyon, with a panhead Harley Davidson parked out front, and a long-haired lean-faced guy who stands on the porch.”
Castine shifted on the seat to face him. “I never saw that! Was that what you saw when you blanked out in the park this afternoon?”
“Yes. And I was closer to the house than I’ve been in past visions.”
“Oh shit. That means I will be too, next time I see it.”
She was silent as he carefully steered to the left onto the side path, toward the freeway, and braked the car to a stop between the weeds, far enough from the bridge so that it wouldn’t show in any headlights circling around the off-ramp.
He picked up a pack of cigarettes from the seat beside him and tucked it into his shirt pocket, then opened his door and stepped out onto the shadowed dirt. The dry wind that stirred his hair smelled faintly of sage.
Castine had got out on her side and plodded around to stand beside him. “Lead the way,” she sighed.
Back at the trailer, Vickery had left the little Glock and tucked a Colt Government Model .45 semi-automatic into the pocket of his old corduroy jacket, and had given Castine a .38 Special revolver; and when he pulled his gun out now, she did the same.
“You threaten ghosts with guns?” she whispered as they began walking toward the freeway bridge.
“Sometimes,” replied Vickery quietly. “They still know what guns are. But it’s always possible that some living person has crawled up onto my shelf, and any such are likely to be as crazy as the ghosts.”
The sweep of the curved freeway off-ramp was up an embankment, and when no oncoming cars were visible, Vickery led Castine around it to the underside of the bridge. They stepped carefully up the dark dirt slope, and Vickery caught Castine’s denim-sleeved arm to stop her when they were still a couple of yards short of the shelf at the top. With his free hand he dug a little LED flashlight out of his pocket, and, after glancing back to be sure no cars were in view on the freeway, played its bright beam along the length of the shelf. The only thing visible was a wooden frame halfway along the length of it.
“That’s my chicken wire barrier,” he said, switching off the flashlight and putting it back in his pocket. All that could be seen now was the dimly starlit pavement out on either side of the bridge. “You can put the gun away,” he added, pushing his own .45 into his belt and leaning forward to feel the slope as he climbed. “If you’re still hungry,” he added, “I’ve got an old peanut can full of M&Ms up there.”
“I’m good,” said Castine, following him up to crouch on the narrow strip of flat dirt in almost complete darkness. Their heads brushed the cement underside of the freeway bridge until they sat down.
An eighteen-foot-wide load-bearing wall stood down there at the edge of the freeway, blocking their view of any car that might stop directly below them, but the occasional cars that flashed past were only momentarily eclipsed by it. Vickery dug the cigarette pack out of his pocket.
The close cement slab overhead and the dry dirt they were sitting on were suddenly visible when he snapped a Bic lighter and lit a cigaretteâ€¦and then lit another, and another. The flame went out, and by feel he pushed the cigarettes through the hexagonal gaps in the chicken-wire barrier; they fell to the dirt on that side and made three glowing red dots in the darkness. He handed Castine the lighter, then groped to the side until he found a can propped against the wall. He popped the plastic lid off it, shook some M&Ms into his hand and tossed them through the wire.
“We could do with a few more cars before we start singing,” he said quietly. “A sustained current.”
He heard Castine shift around, and then she said, “Singing?” Her voice echoed under the bridge, and she went on more softly, “Are you kidding? Singing what?”
A pair of headlights appeared in the west, and shortly another pair was visible behind it.
“The song that works best is ‘What a Wonderful World.’ You must know it, everybody does.”
“Sure, Louis Armstrong, but — what, ghosts like it?”
“Come on, before the cigarettes go out.”
Vickery began to sing the wistful, half-melancholy song, and after a few syllables Castine joined in. Vickery couldn’t see her face, but her contralto voice blended smoothly with his tenor, and she was evidently enjoying it in spite of herself. Vickery found himself wishing that no conjuring would happen, that they could sing the old song uninterrupted, just the two of them out here in the lonely Mojave Desert.
The cars flashed past under the bridge, briefly hidden behind the wall, and as they reappeared on the other side and receded to the east, something bumped into the chicken wire barrier from the other side.
Their song stopped abruptly, and Vickery heard Castine scramble back away from the barrier.
“I thought you said they weren’t substantial now!” she hissed.
“I said less!” whispered Vickery.
And from the other side of the barrier a woman’s hoarse voice said, “Don’t look at me! I’m dead!”