Forced Perspectives – Snippet 22

“It was a man’s voice, that said that.” Vickery lifted his glass and swallowed a mouthful of the bourbon, and sighed as he felt it begin to relax him. “Did you recognize it? I think I did.”

After a pause, she said, “That old guy, Laquedem.” She sat back and stared at the stained ceiling. “So he obviously died, sometime in this last year. Well — God rest his soul.”

“Wherever it is,” agreed Vickery.

“So,” Castine went on, “you’ve found him in Barstow after all. You think he knew he was talking to us?”

Vickery shrugged, remembering the gruff old man they’d met last year. “Poor old Laquedem. Setting fires under a freeway bridge in the desert now.”

“His ghost isn’t him.”

“I know, it’s just a thing that thinks it’s him.” Vickery looked around at his modest living room and wondered if some freeway gypsy might one day summon his ghost — a half-wit revenant believing it was still Sebastian Vickery, trying in its imbecilic way to meet uncomprehend goals, straining uselessly to convey broken thoughts to actual, living people.

Castine might have been thinking along the same lines. “It’s a bad deal, for sure,” she said; and when Vickery raised his eyebrows, she added, “Death.”

In a fruity, affected voice, he said, “Death is a natural part of life.”

“It’s not, though,” she said. “According to Genesis, we weren’t originally meant to experience it…that sundering, cleaving…soul and body torn apart…ghost fragments spinning away from the wreckage. If Adam and Eve hadn’t screwed up, it wouldn’t happen to us.”

“At least we get to exist,” said Vickery, thinking of his never-conceived daughter.

Castine took a breath, then just let in out in a sigh.

For half a minute neither of them spoke, and the hum of the air conditioner was the only sound.

Vickery stirred and said, “My daughter is on a boat. Among a lot of other boats. That sounds like a marina.”

“Your nonexistent daughter. Fossilized now in a paperback book. Yes.” Castine set down her glass and looked around the room. “Do you even have a TV?”

“In the bedroom. No cable, though, I just watch DVDs.” He stretched, and said, “Your friend with the red suspenders was outside my apartment when that copy of The Secret Garden was taken. Why would they take that?”

She spread the fingers of one hand. “Ransom, I imagine — coercion — to get you to do something you wouldn’t want to do. But you evaded them and then disappeared, so they weren’t able to tell you their terms. And so you didn’t have to do something you didn’t want to do.”

Vickery nodded and took a deeper gulp of his drink. “I do wonder, though, if they wanted it for its own sake, somehow. I told you I made another stop before I left L.A. eight months ago and became Bill Ardmore.”

Castine set down her glass and laid back on the couch. “You went to see your old boss, Galvan.”

“Right. I was still occasionally driving for her then, taking such supernatural-evasion fares as still came along…and doing occasional retro-surveillance jobs…even working in her fleet of taco trucks, sometimes. Anyway, I asked her if she knew anything about my book being stolen, and she got all huffy and said she didn’t know my Secret Garden was any more a secret than it was a garden. And she told me –”

“Some guy who collected fossilized spirits asked if she knew of any for sale. And she told him about your book. I remember.”

Vickery idly moved his glass in a circle on the table. “And Galvan was the only one, besides you and me, who even knew about the book.”

“Along with some of her family, you recall.”

“Well, yeah…and Galvan was known to have dealings in supernatural stuff, so I guess it makes sense that a collector of such things would approach her. But the guy was clearly, or probably, with this group that was after us today. Galvan pointed them to my book.”

“Innocently –”

Castine had started to say the word as a statement, but the last syllable went up in pitch, making it a question.

“She kind of blew it off,” said Vickery, “when I asked her about it, like I’d lost a souvenir pen or something. I assumed she was embarrassed at having told a thief where to find it.” He laughed briefly. “Especially without her getting a cut.”

“Unless, I suppose, she did get a cut.”

Vickery drained his glass, and it clanked when he set it down on the table. “She gave me a description of this alleged collector. Now I think she was just describing Harry Dean Stanton. She was a big fan of Repo Man.”

Castine yawned. “Doesn’t matter either way, now. She told the guy, and they’ve got it. On a boat, maybe.”

She reached across for her glass and tipped it up to her mouth. The ice cubes rattled against her teeth as she finished it, and she caught one and began chewing it.

Vickery shivered. “I wish you wouldn’t do that. Chew your ice cubes,” he added when she gave him a blank look.

“I wasn’t,” she said. “Anyway, you do it yourself.”

“I never — ” he began, then remembered doing it right here, less than an hour ago, before they’d set out for the nest under the bridge. “Must be a nervous habit,” he finished lamely.

“Whatever.” She put the glass back and wiped her face with the sleeve of her jacket. “It seems to me,” she said, “that taking somebody’s blood pressure must be slang for killing them. And you remember that disoriented girl on the bicycle at the park? She said, ‘We can take her blood pressure any time.’ I think she was channeling one of those people who were at Canter’s, and I think that person was pretty clearly talking about me.”

Vickery pursed his lips and nodded.

“I wonder,” said Castine, “if Omar Khayyam would still give us those funds he mentioned.”

“Omar Sharif,” corrected Vickery with a tired smile. “We never did learn his actual name. But I know where the Egyptian Consulate is. I picked up a few fares there, when I was a driver for Galvan.”

Castine sat up. “Let’s just go. Away. Get on a plane tomorrow and fly to Maryland, and there’ll be a huge curvature of the earth between us and all this dreadful stuff. We were lucky today — guys were waving guns around! A ghost possessed you!”

“We’d still have the echo-visions. Or old-house visions, as they are these days.”

“Those are bound to stop, eventually, and it’s long ago stuff anyway.” She looked straight at him and spoke clearly. “Your daughter, the daughter you didn’t even have, is oblivious to everything, you know that. Even if they, I don’t know, burn the book, it won’t change her situation one bit.”

“That is true,” he conceded.

She looked down into her empty glass. “I could even put you up, till you found an apartment.”

No…girl? thought Vickery. “I might even be able to hold your hand without setting off hallucinations.”

“Worth a try. Then.” Hurriedly she went on, “Omar did say he had the situation well in hand, didn’t he?”

“Over in a few days, he said.” Vickery shrugged. “If we stay, we’d probably only get in his way, mess up his plans.”

Castine waved around at the furniture and the peel-and-stick faux wood paneling. “I hate to ask you to give up all this.”

“My space rent’s paid up through next month. I can come back after it’s all blown over, if I want to.” He yawned. “We can stop at Hesperia on the way to LAX, and pick up your clothes and billfold.”