Alternate routes, p.1
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       Alternate Routes, p.1

           Tim Powers
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Alternate Routes

  Table of Contents
























  Books by Tim Powers

  The Skies Discrowned An Epitaph in Rust The Drawing of the Dark The Anubis Gates Dinner at Deviant’s Palace On Stranger Tides The Stress of Her Regard

  Fault Lines series

  Last Call

  Expiration Date

  Earthquake Weather


  Three Days to Never Hide Me Among the Graves Medusa’s Web Alternate Routes

  Short story collections

  Night Moves and Other Stories • Strange Itineraries The Bible Repairman and Other Stories Down and Out in Purgatory: The Collected Stories of Tim Powers


  This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

  © 2018 by Tim Powers

  All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

  A Baen Books Original

  Baen Publishing Enterprises P.O. Box 1403

  Riverdale, NY10471

  ISBN: 978-1-481483407

  eISBN: 978-1-62579-653-0

  Cover art by Todd Lockwood

  First Baen printing August 2018

  A signed limited edition of this book has been privately printed by Charnel House.

  Distributed by Simon & Schuster

  1230 Avenue of the Americas

  New York, NY 10020

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Names: Powers, Tim, 1952-author.

  Title: Alternate routes / by Tim Powers.

  Description: Riverdale, NY : Baen Books, [2018]

  Identifiers: LCCN 2018015167 | ISBN 9781481483407 (hardcover) Subjects: | BISAC: FICTION / Fantasy Contemporary. | FICTION Fantasy /

  Paranormal. | GSAFD: Fantasy fiction. | Adventure fiction.

  Classification: LCC PS3566.O95 A79 2018 | DDC 813/.54--dc23

  LC record available at

  Printed in the United States of America

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  Electronic Version by Baen Books

  Alternate Routes

  Tim Powers

  Something weird is happening to the Los Angeles freeways—phantom cars, lanes from nowhere, and sometimes unmarked offramps that give glimpses of a desolate desert highway—and Sebastian Vickery, disgraced ex-Secret Service agent, is a driver for a covert supernatural-evasion car service. But another government agency is using and perhaps causing the freeway anomalies, and their chief is determined to have Vickery killed because of something he learned years ago at a halted Presidential motorcade.

  Reluctantly aided by Ingrid Castine, a member of that agency, and a homeless Mexican boy, and a woman who makes her living costumed as Supergirl on the sidewalk in front of the Chinese Theater, Vickery learns what legendary hell it is that the desert highway leads to—and when Castine deliberately drives into it to save him from capture, he must enter it himself to get her out.

  Alternate Routes is a fast-paced supernatural adventure story that sweeps from the sun-blinded streets and labyrinthine freeways of Los Angeles to a horrifying other world out of Greek mythology, and Vickery and Castine must learn to abandon old loyalties and learn loyalty to each other in order to survive as the world goes mad around them.

  To Russell Galen

  —and with thanks to Jennifer Brehl,

  Rebecca Erickson, Ken Estes, Steve Malk, Serena Powers,

  Mike Rottiers, and Michael and Laura Yanovich

  . . . and on that day

  When highways curve both east and west at once,

  And fugitives must blindly find their way

  Between two worlds . . .

  —Guillaume Cendre-Benir


  When a car slows down on a freeway, a spreading wave of brake lights flickers on behind it; cars further back slow in response, and then cars behind them, and even when the original car has sped up again, the wave of deceleration continues to move backward. Sometimes the wave seems to take on a life of its own, and moves backward for miles.

  Even on this Sunday afternoon, traffic on the 405 freeway curling down the California coast past Los Angeles International Airport was stop-and-go, and inland the northwest slant of the 5 had sluggish patches through Downey and Commerce; on “Old Man 10,” as the freeway-side gypsies called the Santa Monica Freeway, traffic had just resumed its normal sixty-mile-an-hour, twenty-five-cars-per-minute pace after one of the retro-waves had moved away down the lanes to the east, where it might reach Alameda or even cross the LA River before it would disperse.

  The freeway-side oleander bushes on the shoulder shook now in the intermittent wind from fast-passing trucks, and a plastic water bottle flew away from the jaws of the hand-held pickup tool wielded by one of three men in white hard-hats and orange vinyl vests. Through protective dark glasses he squinted after the bottle as it skittered away along the dirt shoulder until it bounced off the post supporting a sign that read adopt a highway—this mile maintained by lady galvan taco wagons and was swept away in the once again rushing traffic.

  The man sighed, hefted his white plastic bag and stepped back into the shade under the boughs of a pine tree, and took off his gloves and hard-hat. Three nylon-web beach chairs had been set up in a little clearing at the top of the embankment away from the freeway, and he sat down and used the pickup tool to grab a can of Coors beer from the ice chest in the center of the clearing; the jaws slid off the wet can, so he dropped the tool and leaned out of the chair to fish up the beer with his hand.

  At the east side of the clearing, in the center of a ring of glass jars, a two-foot tall wooden metronome pole rocked rapidly back and forth on its wide metal base. A crudely whittled wooden head had been stuck onto the top of the metronome’s pendulum, and its glass-chip eyes glittered as it moved.

  He looked past the thing, out over the receding rooftops and towers of central Los Angeles, and popped open the beer can. An intermittent breeze from below pushed the scent of citrus blossoms against the exhaust reek of the freeway behind him.

  A man followed him into the clearing and dropped into another chair. He shed his gloves, took off his dark glasses and hard-hat and pushed back locks of damp white hair, then peered with raised eyebrows at the first man. “Gonna drive with beer on your breath?” he asked.

  “You think she’ll have us driving today? We also serve who only pick up trash.”

  The other man nodded past him at the wooden head on the jerking pendulum.

  “That’s a heavy current, Vick. Any driving she wants done is gonna have to be by experts.”

  “Spectral warming,” Vickery agreed reluctantly. He frowned toward the swinging metronome and then set the beer down in the dirt beside his chair. He reached under his orange vest and pulled out a cell phone and squinted at it. “Nothing yet,” he said; then sighed and waved behind him, toward the muted roar of the freeway lanes. “But yeah, Ramon, t
ell ’Turo we might as well clear out. Let’s sign off the log for the day and pack up the metronome and the trash bags—we’ll all probably be chauffeuring—”

  The oleander branches on the west side of the clearing thrashed, and then a black-haired boy in jeans and a white T-shirt emerged from the greenery and stepped up beside Vickery’s chair. He was panting, and the leather bands he wore on his wrists were dark with sweat. Vickery knew him—the boy’s name was Santiago, and he was rumored to be a freelance watcher and courier.

  The boy nodded down the slope. “Woman looking for you,” he said cheerfully, “gave me ten dollars to find you. Dressed nice, business woman, and she got a gun under her coat in the back, I can tell.” He brushed long green leaves out of his hair. “You give me ten dollars and I’ll tell her you’re nowhere around.”

  Vickery’s fingertips were tingling as he quickly took off the dark glasses. “Is she a, a cop?” he asked, afraid that she might not be. “Did she know my name?”

  “Cop or close enough, I think. No, she just say the guy who drove up in the taco wagon. She—ah, she comes up now, even with good shoes!”

  Vickery stood up and tucked the glasses in his shirt pocket. He could hear someone scuffling up the embankment west of the clearing, behind the boy. “Is she alone?”

  “I guess. Got out of a Chevy Caprice down on 20th.”

  Ramon had got up too. He nodded toward Vickery and muttered, “This sounds personal. I’ll be out with ’Turo in the current.” Snatching up his hard-hat and gloves, he turned and hurried back out to the freeway shoulder in the daylight. Vickery heard him call to the other man, “Down the east side here—andele!”

  “Loop around above,” Vickery told the boy quietly, “where you can see her, and whistle if she drops the gun. Ten bucks for you.” The boy nodded and followed Ramon out of the clearing, and Vickery turned toward the slope and called, “You’re covered from two directions, lady—take out the gun and drop it.”

  The sound of clumsy shuffling in the dirt stopped, but there was no other sound.

  “Counting down,” Vickery called harshly.

  Three seconds later Vickery heard the boy’s whistle and then a muttered curse from the shrubbery ahead.

  “Okay,” Vickery went on, “come forward.”

  His eyes narrowed and his face was suddenly cold when the woman pushed her way through the oleander branches into the clearing—she was paler now than when he had last seen her four years ago, and there were new lines in her cheeks; it occurred to him that she must be at least thirty by now. She wore a navy blue jacket and gray trousers and low-heeled gray pumps, and her short auburn hair was in disarray from her passage through the freeway-side bushes.

  Vickery was tense, and ready to jump in any direction, but he nodded. “Miss . . . Castine,” he said, remembering.

  “Mr. Woods,” she replied, a bit breathlessly. Her forehead was misted with sweat. “I don’t think you really had me covered.”

  “Santiago, fetch the gun,” Vickery called; then said to her, “I will in a moment.” It was an effort to keep his voice level. “Do you have back-up, are you . . . arresting me?”

  “You idiot.” She shook her head and went on, clearly angry, “They may very well arrest me. Early this morning we got a—” She paused for a moment, pursing her lips—and, Vickery thought, blushing—then went on, “—a sort of lead on you, and they checked it out, and a couple of hours ago they found your fingerprints in that apartment on Carson in Culver City. I had to find you and stop you from going back there.”

  “Four years ago you helped arrest me.”

  She inhaled impatiently through clenched teeth. “Oh, it’s different now. Or I know more now. This isn’t a safe place either—you need to get out of here.”

  But Vickery stepped to the north end of the clearing and glanced down the embankment to the service road that ran behind the back walls of a closed bowling alley and a thrift store. From this elevation he could see most of the cars parked on the two nearest north-south streets, and he didn’t see any obvious signs of occupants or idling engines. If this is a trap, he thought, it’s needlessly elaborate.

  He turned back to her; she was standing right behind him now, peering down past his shoulder at the streets as he had been doing. “How did you find me?” he asked.

  She stepped back, throwing a quick glance at the glass jars and the rocking metronome. “Are you hearing me? You’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to get out of here, I was sitting in my car down there for too long, working up nerve to climb up here and do this—will you tell your, your Santiago to give me back my gun? They’re looking for you at the Carson Street apartment, but our chief routinely has two-man teams checking out these . . . freeway nests, looking for spots with particularly good depth of field.”

  She took a step back toward the shrubbery, then stopped; he hadn’t followed her. She stamped her foot. “What does it—oh hell, what it was, I remembered you said you went to Latin mass on Sundays, and I figured maybe you still do. I Googled it after they all drove off toward Culver City, and Archangel Gabriel Chapel is the Latin-mass-type Catholic church closest to your apartment, so I went there and saw you. I followed you to that kitchen place on Western, and then when you got in your truck I followed you here.”

  “What would you have done if I’d headed straight back from church to the apartment?”

  “I don’t know. Honked. Collided with you. You’re lucky—I’m not lucky, but you are—that I even recognized you—your hair’s longer now, and you’re a lot darker.” In spite of her evident anxiety, she almost smiled. “And you used to be kind of chubby for a Secret Service agent.”

  “I had a better appetite then.” He took a deep breath and let it out. “You go ahead, scoot. Thanks. I have to check out the local weather.”

  “I need my gun.”

  “Give me ten seconds.”

  He crossed to the ring of glass jars around the rocking metronome and crouched beside the one farthest from the freeway. It was half filled with water, and a popsicle stick with a string tied around its middle had been laid across the top of the jar; the string, visibly wet, hung down to within an inch of the water’s surface.

  Over his shoulder he told her, “Look at this.”

  “For God’s suffering sake!” Castine whispered, but she hurried over and crouched beside him. “What?”

  “Watch the water.”

  After a few seconds a bump appeared on the surface of the water, and then it formed a drop that fell upward and soaked into the string.

  Castine gave a huff of surprise.

  “It’s arcing,” explained Vickery. “Amplified possibility field. Stuff rides on that. I’d rather not drive on the freeways right now if I’m not getting paid for it.”

  “I,” she whispered, “hate all this shit.”

  They both stood up and crossed quickly to the other side of the clearing, and Vickery lifted a leafy branch out of her way. “Santiago,” he called, “bring the gun down here.”

  Castine stumbled ahead of him down the narrow winding path through the overgrown bushes, stepping over old beer cans and diapers. “I left my phone and my pager at the office,” she said, “I’ve got to get back there and hope they don’t look at the GPS record on my car. They don’t know about your taco wagon connection—get into it and disappear.” She paused to look back at Vickery, brushing damp hair back from her forehead. “Where’s that Santiago?”

  Vickery lifted his head. “Santiago! Ten more bucks!” After a few seconds he shrugged and waved ahead. “Gun’s worth more than ten bucks, I’m afraid.”

  Castine rolled her eyes, and Vickery thought she was near tears. “Damn you people! I’ve got three hundred, but if things go wrong I can’t get much more, even if I can get to a Versatel.”

  “Your call.”

  “Santiago!” she yelled at the clustered greenery uphill. “Three hundred, right now, cash—or I report it stolen! And it’s government issue!”

“Keep moving,” said Vickery. “He’ll be down there on the service road, or not.”

  Castine exhaled and resumed edging down the path. “Have you got a gun?”

  “Haven’t touched one in four years.”

  Below the tangled plantings on the freeway-side crest, the embankment was just littered dirt, and Santiago rode a bicycle down the slope to their left, kicking up dust in the sunlight.

  Vickery and Castine made their way down the last few yards at a clopping run, their arms out to the sides, and Santiago, on the cracked service road pavement now, swerved his bike in a half-circle to meet them. The boxy brown-and-gold food truck stood a dozen yards away, by the thrift store loading dock, and its perpetual aroma of spicy carne asada contended with the rotten-strawberries reek of a nearby Dumpster.

  “Lady wanna buy a pencil sharpener?” Santiago asked merrily.

  Castine didn’t answer, but pulled a leather billfold from an inside jacket pocket and quickly passed the boy a sheaf of bills. He counted them, then lifted his T-shirt and pulled a stainless steel semi-automatic handgun from the waistband of his jeans and held it out. Vickery recognized it as a SIG-Sauer P229, probably .40 caliber.

  She tucked the billfold away, then took the gun and reached around with both hands to hike up the back of her jacket—but a moment later she was staring past Vickery, and her eyes widened and she quickly swung both hands to the front, holding the gun pointed at him.

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