Forced Perspectives – Snippet 20

Vickery made the sign of the cross and took a deep breath. “We can’t see you,” he said. “Have a cigarette — I lit it for you.”

In the darkness, one of the coals on the other side of the chicken wire rose into the air, and when it brightened for a second, Vickery glimpsed a high forehead and glittering eyes between locks of dark hair; then he felt smoky air brush his face and there was nothing to see but the bobbing coal.

Vickery frowned. This was the first time out here that one of them had been able to pick up a cigarette; much less actually draw smoke though it. Previously they had just rolled them around in the dirt.

“Thanks,” came the voice. “You could be dead too, if you’d just try.”

“Not today.” He could hear Castine breathing behind him, but aside from the puff of smoke a moment ago, there was no breath audible from the ghost. “Can you see,” he went on, “if there are any strings attached to either of us? Or any kind of flags, beepers, beacons? Can people see where we –”

“No, Steve,” said the ghost, in a new, breathy voice, “there are no strings tied to you. Not yet.”

Vickery recognized the line — Lauren Bacall, in To Have and Have Not. He had noticed before that ghosts often quoted bits of dialogue from old movies. Scraps of memory somehow retained.

“There’s people trying to find us, this woman and me,” he went on. “Can you see them?”

There was silence from the other side of the barrier for so long that Vickery believed the ghost had dissipated; and he jumped when its voice quavered, “Ba ba black sheep, have you any souls?”

The wood-frame barrier creaked, as if the ghost were leaning on it from the other side. Vickery hiked himself back, trying to remember how sturdily he had built it.

We should get out of here, he thought — but if this ghost is more present than the others have been, I do have to ask it more questions.

“They have –” Damn, he thought, this would be hard enough with a living person; “– some connection to an old house in a canyon, two stories, and the bottom story is full of sand –”

“Spiral staircase!” called Castine breathlessly.

“Right, it’s got a spiral staircase –”

“Spiral is right-twist rifling,” said the ghost, speaking more rapidly now. “They fired that once, you know, and they’re gonna fire it again. Shut up about it.”

“Do you know where it is –”

The scratchy ghost voice interrupted: “I said shut up! If you want to be dead, you better get busy quick.”

Again the frame creaked. Move on, Vickery thought.

“Okay,” he said as the breeze under the bridge chilled the sweat on his face, “listen, there’s a fossil spirit, in a book, The Secret Garden, somewhere in the L.A. area. Can you catch any sort of…vibration from it?”

“I always see the fossil spirits,” said the ghost, “dancing on the roof yonder. They only know one dance.”

The bottom of the frame slid forward an inch in the dirt, and Vickery braced his foot against it.

“Past them,” he said desperately, “by the sea. Can you make out where it is?”

For several second there was silence, except for the windy rush of a car, and a few moments later another, speeding past under the bridge.

Then, “The whole world is lit up,” said the ghost with something like a gasp, though the night beyond the bridge was as dark as ever. Then a man’s harsh voice, somehow familiar to Vickery, said, “It’s on a boat, among a lot of boats, and…a crowd of people falling into the black hole, a shape with a hawk body and the head of a man, a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun…”

Castine leaned forward and gripped Vickery’s shoulder. “Some people in Los Angeles,” she said quickly, “have an Egyptian artifact –”

A scream like a circular saw biting into sheet steel sent Vickery lurching back against Castine. The scream broke up into shrill, imbecilic laughter that echoed back from the close cement surfaces, and now there seemed to be a number of figures on the far side of the chicken-wire, all thrashing and grunting. The wooden frame fell right over onto Vickery, and he tried to shove it back in place as irregular impacts from the other side pushed it toward him.

“Math,” said Castine in the darkness; then in a louder voice, “Two and two is four!”

“Four subtracted from four,” shouted Vickery, “is nothing! Check it out!”

But the ghosts clearly weren’t listening.

“Ba, Ba!” another voice was yelling, and a woman’s voice, not the one that had been speaking a few moments ago, wailed, “Quoth the raven!” followed by a mumbled word that Vickery thought might have been Nevermore, and then wailed “Its hour come round again!”

Again the frame creaked.

Over the increasing tumult Vickery could hear wet things slapping against the chicken wire, and he knew it was the elongated, ice-cold ectoplasmic tongues of the maddened ghosts. He was still holding the chicken-wire barrier in place, and before he could pull his fingers free, one of the tongues touched the knuckles of his right hand; his hand was suddenly numbed and aching, and he lost his balance.

He thrashed convulsively, brushing long, tangled hair away from his somehow sunken face, and his right foot slipped off the ledge and bent like putty on the dirt slope — and the realization crashed in on him that he was now on the other side of the barrier, while his body was still over there beside Castine. Soft, grunting shapes crowded against his back and shoulders.

His breath was now rasping in an insubstantial throat that was not his own, but he managed to choke out the syllables, “Skeet shooting, help!”

Over the bestial cries of the ghosts around him, he heard Castine gasp. Then the lighter flame flared up, and he saw that she was holding up her free hand with two fingers extended.

Vickery quailed to see his own body over there with her on the other side of the chicken-wire; it was crawling clumsily past Castine, away from the light.

She didn’t glance at it. “Two,” she said loudly, then raised her other two fingers in the light, “plus two, is four, and nothing else! See?”

The flame wavered as her hand shook, but she closed her free hand in a fist and said, “Minus four — is nothing! Look! Nothing!”

And then, with a mental and physical jolt, Vickery was on his hands and knees behind her. He looked over his shoulder and saw Castine’s crouching silhouette against the glow of the lighter.

“I’m here,” he gasped, “it’s me, Vickery. Down the slope, back to the car. Fast.”

“Thank God.” The light went out, and when, above the groaning and weeping of the turbulent ghosts, he heard her sliding away below, he dove down after her as things snatched ineffectively at his heels.

As he slid head-first down the dirt incline, the wall and the underside of the bridge were suddenly lit with a yellow glow, and he guessed that at least one of the ghosts up on the ledge had burst into flame.

He hit the base of the wall with his outstretched hands and let his flexing elbows absorb the impact, and then he had rolled over and got his legs under himself and was running out from under the bridge, following Castine, who was sprinting away across the open dirt a few yards ahead of him. He was panting, and the cold air stung his throat.

When he caught up with her he grabbed her hand to lead her toward the car —

And all at once the world was bathed in coppery light, and Castine squeezed his hand tightly as they both slid to a halt.

The freeway bridge was no longer visible to Vickery’s left; and he could feel Castine’s hand, but he appeared to be standing by himself in a narrow valley, once again facing the crooked old two story house. Its porch steps were only a few yards away.

The motorcycle was now parked off to the left, and the shadow of it was longer. Three people were standing on the wide porch this time, and Vickery’s field of vision swiveled involuntarily from side to side to see each of them: at the left end stood a woman in a long robe, and at the other, two men. One of the men leaned against the slanted railing, his face hidden in the shadow of a cowboy hat, and the other, in the familiar Nehru jacket, was the man Vickery had seen here before. That man’s right arm was extended toward the woman, and he was holding a revolver.

Vickery yelled and started forward, dragging the invisible Castine by the hand, but the house didn’t draw closer, and of course none of the figures on the porch could hear or see him.