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The keep of ages, p.7
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       The Keep of Ages, p.7

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  A distant flushing noise comes from above.

  In the kitchen, the cat sits expectantly by a couple of tin bowls. I slide my backpack to the floor. Then I fill one bowl with water and, feeling a bit intrusive, I open cabinets and heavy wooden drawers until I find a smelly bag of dry cat food. I scoop some into the dish, and Tiny digs in with a light tinking noise.

  I check for camera lenses and find none. It’s a Spartan kitchen, with one blue plate, one soup bowl, and one set of silverware. A pot. A pan. Just enough for a solitary old soul. Plastic measuring cups nest inside a mixing bowl. I fill the metal teakettle, turn on the gas flame with a whoosh, and set the water to boil.

  No toaster. No coffee machine. No microwave. Everything’s clean and tidy, including a pile of letters under a glass paperweight on the windowsill. It’s not at all what I would expect from a woman who was such an innovator in her day. An oval rag rug rests before the sink. The ceiling is the shiny blue of a battleship. Another landline phone with a long, coiling cord is attached to the wall. It could be that she’s just into simplicity, Thoreau-like, but it feels more like she’s living in another time.

  I glance at the pile of letters and notice they’re all the size of greeting cards. Since I’ve been nosy already, I sort through the pile. The faded envelopes are all addressed in the same small handwriting to Lavinia, all from the same S. Schur in Downers Grove, Illinois, all unopened. The postmarks date back over ten years. I set them back carefully under the paperweight, puzzled.

  It isn’t just that the apartment has the feel of another time, I realize. It’s more like I’ve entered an apartment that’s under a spell, where everything’s dormant, including the aging princess I now hear coming down the stairs. Yet there has to be a good reason why Dubbs left me this address. Out the window, a breeze stirs the item on the clothesline, and I realize it’s a child’s faded smock, the plastic kind often worn while finger painting.

  Lavinia moves gracefully into the kitchen and heads for a dish of lemon drops. She’s dressed in gray slacks, black ballet flats, and a tailored beige shirt that fits neatly on her spare figure. Her braid is coiled at the back of her head, and she’s put on coral earrings and a dash of lipstick. She pops a lemon drop in her mouth, pursing her lips while she clicks it around her teeth.

  “Now,” she says as she eases herself into a chair. She gestures me toward the chair opposite hers. “It’s time to decipher this enigma. Where is your sister now?”

  A dose of caution makes me modify the truth. “I don’t know. She and my parents are missing.”

  “Missing,” Lavinia repeats flatly. She lifts an eyebrow. “Well, that’s a start. Does Berg know you’re here?” she asks.

  “I hope not.”

  “The man’s a fiend. An absolute fiend,” she says. “Smart as can be and rotten to the core.”

  I agree with her there.

  “Who else knows you’re here?” she asks.

  “No one,” I say. Thea doesn’t really count. “Do you still watch The Forge Show?” I ask.

  She grimaces briefly. She reaches for a teacup and a short glass, and then fishes tea bags out of a tin. “It pains me. It’s a travesty of what I first imagined,” she says. “You students never get to see the night and the stars. That alone is downright treachery of the high seas. Still, if you take any school and give it the top talent in the country, it’ll be a success. It’s the students who make the school, not the other way around.”

  “So you do still watch it,” I say.

  She shrugs. “Strictly speaking, I don’t watch it. I’m still tapped directly into the cameras at Forge. I can watch the students directly, without the obnoxious interference of idiots like Bones. You recall Bones.”

  “My techie,” I say, startled.

  “Yes. I can watch through all the cameras of the show, all the time,” she says. She reaches down to stroke Tiny’s ears. “Like a techie, but I don’t have to log out at night and go home. As you can imagine, it gives me a different perspective.”

  Amazed, I stare at her. “But you don’t even have a TV,” I say.

  “My dear Rosie. Don’t be obtuse. Clearly, I do,” she says. “I suppose you’re asking for proof. Let’s see. You climbed out on the roof in the rain the night before fifty cuts. You got soaked, but you looked happy for once. That’s the first time I paid any attention to you.”

  “Berg showed that same clip to the trustees,” I say. “You could have intercepted it then.”

  “Quite right,” she says, straightening. The cat pads away into the living room. “Okay, the night you went down the pit of the clock tower, you waited until the moment that Berg and Otis and Linus were all focused on Parker, Otis’s partner, before you ran across the quad. That’s how you made it to the rose garden and the clock tower without being seen. Am I right?”

  “You saw that,” I say, awed.

  “There’s a camera in the clock tower aimed down the pit. I saw your little penlight as you descended to the bottom. You had me on edge, I must say. I’d have been in a terrible spot if you’d fallen. Fortunately, you didn’t.”

  She could see, she still can see anything that happens at Forge. It blows my mind. She can watch any camera at any time, even at night. That’s what she’s telling me. This means she knows everything, every time I snuck out of my sleep shell.

  “Could you see the cameras down in the vault of dreamers under the dean’s tower?” I ask.

  “Now we come to it,” she says, and behind her thick lenses, her eyes go bright and sharp. “There was no vault of dreamers under the school, not that I ever could see. It wasn’t there when I worked at the school, and it never showed up on any camera.”

  “But I was in it myself,” I say. “And I know Berg had cameras down there. I saw them. He had my friend Thea on his phone when she was down in the operating room just this past Friday night. He showed her to me.”

  “Then those cameras must have been on an isolated system,” she says. “Think about it. If he did have dreamers hidden at the school, he couldn’t have a hundred techies knowing about them.”

  “Wait. Are you saying you believe me?” I ask, hopeful and uncertain.

  “I’m saying that cameras only go so far. The truth is still the truth.”

  The teakettle whistles, and steam gushes from its spout. Lavinia points to it, and I fetch it over to pour. Fragrant steam rises from the tea, and I automatically inhale, savoring the scent. Lavinia takes the clear glass and politely nudges the teacup toward me.

  “Have a lemon drop while your tea steeps,” she says.

  Obeying, I taste the dissolving coat of powdered sugar before the lemon kicks in, and my whole mouth salivates around the sweet sourness.

  Lavinia’s gaze slides past my shoulder, out the window, to some distance I can’t see. “It just so happens, I’m inclined to believe you about the dreamers,” she says. “Now tell me what’s really happened to your family. People don’t just go missing.”

  I trust her now with the truth. “Berg kidnapped my family yesterday,” I say. “I think they were in Las Vegas at the time. I have a voicemail from my sister from last night, but that’s the last I’ve heard from any of them. She said they were in a truck, but I have no idea where. She warned me not to tell anyone.”

  “You think Berg’s responsible, of course.”

  “I know he is,” I say. A pinch of anxiety tightens my gut. “He left me a message, too. He wanted me to call him back, but I didn’t. I came here instead because my sister told me my family was coming here.”

  “And we still don’t know why. Most curious.”

  It’s more than curious. Lavinia has to be an ally I can use somehow. “Do you know anything about a vault of dreamers here in Miehana?” I ask.

  Her gaze returns to me. “I have my suspicions,” she says. “What have you heard?”

  “Not much,” I say. “I’ve seen a picture of a big vault full of sleep shells, and I know a guy who said his father worked at a big vault of d
reamers here in Miehana. I don’t know where it is. It doesn’t come up on any searches.”

  “I see. Are you thinking Berg has your parents there?” Lavinia says.

  I hitch my chair closer to the table. “It is possible, isn’t it?” I ask. “I mean, he can’t be with them himself. He’s showing up on The Forge Show like usual, but he could have told his people to hide my family there.”

  She frowns and dips her tea bag experimentally. “I might have a way to see if a delivery was made this morning.”

  My heart lifts with hope. She must know where the vault is.

  “You have to help me,” I say. “You have to tell me what you know. I’ll do all the rest, I promise.”

  She smiles at me, amused. “I see. You’ll sneak in and carry your family all out in your pocket, I suppose. Assuming they’re there.”

  “I’ll figure out something,” I say. “Berg doesn’t know I’m here. If I act fast, I might be able to catch him off guard.” I push my hands into my hair and squeeze my head. “You have to understand. He’s always been the one in control. Ever since I went to Forge, he’s just been playing one long, twisted game with me. Even when I’m living out in the world, it’s part of his game. He told me once that real life is better for me, like this very moment could be adding value to my dreams.”

  Lavinia lightly touches her glasses. “That does sound like him. He was very much into control when I knew him at Forge,” she says.

  “But me being here with you, this is out of his control,” I say. “I need to make the most of it.”

  Lavinia nods thoughtfully. “Supposing you do get into the vault of dreamers out here. You’d be delivering yourself right into Berg’s clutches again, regardless of whether your parents are there or not. That hardly seems wise.”

  “That’s why I need your help,” I say. “You must know a way I can get in there without being seen.”

  She laughs. “I don’t.”

  “But you know something that can help me. You at least know where it is.”

  Lavinia regards me inscrutably for a long moment. “Go on. Try your tea.”

  When I take a sip of the tea, my taste buds go wild with the lemony tanginess, and I have to smile.

  Lavinia nods at me. “What did I tell you?”

  “It’s good,” I say.

  She sips, too. “It’s the small things that count,” she says.

  Inside, I’m all impatience. It feels like I’m being tested, like Lavinia can play a game or two herself. I force myself to relax for a moment and try to picture things from my hostess’s perspective. If only I had something to trade with her that she wanted.

  In the quiet, Lavinia props her chin in her palm, and her gaze goes inward and distant again. I turn to see what has her attention outside and notice the faded smock again. It’s a bit odd, considering the apartment is devoid of toys or games. I wonder if Lavinia is a mother or grandmother, and I try calculating years. Supposing Lavinia is eighty or so, a daughter of hers might be in her fifties, which would put a granddaughter in her twenties or thirties. Lavinia might even be a great-grandmother. I study the translucent plastic, noticing how sun-bleached the fabric edges are, as if the smock has been hanging out a whole summer or longer. Much longer.

  “Do you have a family?” I ask.

  Lavinia sighs, and her sad, magnified eyes shift toward the pile of envelopes on the windowsill. “Not anymore,” she says.

  I wait, wondering if she’ll go on, but she doesn’t, and I can’t bear to pry. I need her help so badly it hurts. She must know that.

  Lavinia nudges her teacup away, takes another lemon drop, and comes to her feet. “All right. I’ll help you,” she says. “It could be dangerous, mind you.”

  Hope lifts my heart. “I don’t care,” I say.

  She steps into the hallway, opens the door to a closet, and pulls a chain to turn on a light bulb inside. She gestures with her hand. “After you.”

  8

  THE PARK IN THE CLOSET

  THE CLOSET SMELLS of mothballs, but it has no clothes, only a couple of cardboard boxes on the floor. I sit on a narrow bench along the back wall and keep my feet out of the way as Lavinia comes in and pulls the little, ratchety chain on an overhead light bulb. She rummages in a box until she comes up with a small black puck. After she sticks a cord into it, plugs it into a socket, and pushes a button, a light shoots up and expands outward in a cone, just like I saw once before in Berg’s office. Lavinia smiles grimly, sets the puck on a box, closes the door, and pulls the chain to turn off the overhead light.

  “Move over,” she says, and sits beside me on the bench.

  A keyboard of light shines onto Lavinia’s lap, and she types in a command. A colorful, 3-D map of an amusement park appears in the puck’s projection cone, and I can easily read the sign over the main entrance: Grisly Valley. It’s about the last thing I expected.

  “Why do you have this?” I ask.

  “I designed the original layout for the cameras at Forge when I was there. When I came west in forty-seven, I was head of the team that designed the camera security for Grisly Valley,” she says. “Heard of it?”

  “No. Should I have?”

  Her voice is close in the closet. “It was a famous horror theme park back in the forties. The challenge for my cameras was much like what I had at Forge, just with a bigger stage and thousands more players.”

  “It wasn’t broadcast as a show, was it?”

  “No,” she says. “The cameras were all internal, for security. But it was the same idea.”

  “What’s this have to do with the vault of dreamers?” I ask.

  “I’m getting to that. You’re not the most patient person, are you?”

  “Sorry.”

  In the 3-D map, intricate buildings, bridges, and waterways are portrayed with striking detail, filling out the lands of the theme park. Five different horror lands lie inside its borders, clockwise from the entrance: Vampyre Graveyard, Zombieville, Backwoods Forest, Bubbles’ Clown World, and Camp High. At the center is a massive stone tower with spired roofs and a moat.

  “What’s this?” I ask, pointing to the tower. A dark green dragon is poised on one spire with its wings folded back.

  “The Keep of Ages,” she says. “It was the centerpiece for all the parades and spectacles, like the dark twin of Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Disney. Or was that Cinderella’s? I forget. See the dragon? It was a wonderfully lifelike combination of puppetry and projections. The special effects at the park were legendary. The effects team was given carte blanche, and I remember when they’d simulate earthquakes and fires all over the park. Floods, too. People were scared witless, which was just what they wanted, of course.”

  My gaze is drawn to the signature rides that rise above the treetops, especially the Glue Factory roller coaster, the Fodder Mill wheel, and the End of Daze spiral. “I would have loved this place,” I say.

  “You and millions of others. It’s a ruin now,” Lavinia says. “It lasted only nine months. The state condemned it when the meltdown happened at Olbaid. Every acre of Grisly is in the OEZ, the Olbaid Exclusion Zone.”

  I’m stunned to think of all that work and creativity gone to waste after only nine months.

  “When was that meltdown?” I ask.

  She shakes her head. “In forty-eight. Nineteen years ago. Not exactly Chernobyl, but bad enough. The Olbaid Nuclear Power Plant was damaged in an earthquake and leaked high-level radiation for two weeks. Everyone was banned from the area for twenty miles around. Thousands of us had to be moved. Even now, the place is dangerous because it was too costly to clean it up properly.”

  “You had to move, yourself?” I ask, turning to see her profile. Her glasses reflect the lights of the projection.

  She nods, her gaze still toward the map. “That’s when I came here to this apartment. Me and my daughter’s family.”

  She skims her hands over the keyboard on her lap, and the top surface of the map lifts up and hangs in mi
dair. Beneath, the underground routes and service rooms are exposed to view, including a parking lot and a large assembly area. Smaller cells might have been offices or changing rooms. The cafeteria, the main office, the archives, and the tech rooms are all clearly marked. It looks like an entire underground city.

  “What was this space for?” I ask, pointing to the biggest room.

  “That’s where the parades assembled. It was big enough for full-sized floats. We called this level Negative One.” She points to another area. “This was the costume department. Here, the cafeteria. Special VIP routes for celebrities who visited the park are marked with the green dotted lines, so they could move easily between rides without getting gawked at on the surface. These big half circles here in blue? They’re the moat around the Keep of Ages. These red lines mark the doors up to the ground level. Stage level, we called it. Everything hidden from the public was backstage.”

  “Like at Forge,” I say.

  “Yes,” she says. “Same concept.”

  The green lines for the VIPs go everywhere, like their own web, and I can easily see how the red lines of the stage level match up with the hidden ramps and stairways in the level below.

  “And these—” Lavinia touches her keyboard and a galaxy of tiny blue lights comes on through the stage level of the park. “These are the cameras.”

  “Wow,” I say. Each one is a tiny fan shape, showing the angle of its viewing direction, and they cover every inch of Grisly Valley, in some places, many times over.

  Lavinia sets the 3-D image spinning slowly, and I stare, fascinated by the complexity of the system, the little buildings and rides. It looks so alive, so vibrant, that it’s hard to imagine the place dead and deserted.

  “It looks so fun. Did you ever go?” I ask Lavinia.

  “Many times before it opened. Once afterward,” she says. “It was truly delightful in a dark, twisted way, if you like bat wings and glow powder. The Grisly brothers who came up with it were very creative, obviously, but they also had a sense of humor.”

 
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