Medusas web, p.11
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       Medusa's Web, p.11

           Tim Powers
 
At last Scott had tugged it up far enough so that he could reach in with his other hand and take a firm hold of it; and he dragged out of the gap another manila envelope and slapped dust off it against his thigh. It felt empty.

  “More spiders, do you think?” asked Madeline breathlessly. “Another copy of the Oneida Inc one?”

  Scott wondered if she hoped to see her young man again. “Does the hallway door lock?” When she stepped to it and twisted the deadbolt knob, she nodded. “It’s high time we locked it,” he said.

  As she snapped the bolt home, he unwound from around the pair of attached cardboard disks the string that held the envelope closed, lifted the flap, and pulled out six sheets of black-and-white photocopy.

  The top sheet was a copy of a page of closely written notes—Scott’s face went cold when he recognized his mother’s handwriting, and he saw Madeline flinch. He slid it behind the other five sheets without reading it.

  The next sheet had two birth certificates copied on it—apparently someone had laid them both on the glass of a photocopy machine; or, judging by the spotty lines, laid a previous photocopy of them on the glass. The certificate at the top of the page had been issued by the State of New York, and formal slanted handwriting filled in all the blanks—he had to turn the page sideways to read the name and the date of the report: Charlene Claimayne Cooper and March 15, 1899. Someone had scrawled across the document in gray lines, possibly pencil on the original, Mother. The second birth certificate reproduced on the page was titled “Certified Copy of Birth Record,” and the entries in the blanks were typewritten: Amity Imogene Speas had been born to Charlene Claimayne Speas in Los Angeles on August 20, 1944.

  “Aunt Amity’s mom was forty-five when she had her,” observed Madeline. “‘Charlene’ is who Cyclone Severiss is talking to, in that ghost writing Aunt Amity is doing through her keyboard. Could she be talking about her mother?”

  Scott shrugged and slid the page to the back.

  The third sheet was a copy of a California marriage license, authorizing various sorts of justices, judges, priests, or ministers of the gospel to solemnize the marriage of Paul David Speas and Charlene Claimayne Cooper; it was dated February 28, 1921.

  On the fourth sheet was just a still-familiar gray rectangle with Oneida Inc hand-printed on it. Scott vividly recalled that the original printing on the envelope had been in red ink.

  Scott looked up, remembering that he and Madeline had destroyed the spider that had been in that envelope. “Oops,” he said.

  Madeline giggled nervously.

  The last two sheets were copies of photographs, held together with a paper clip.

  Scott raised his eyebrows.

  The top photograph was of a slim young woman facing the camera nude, both arms raised to push the long dark hair back from her face. She stood on a Turkish-looking carpet beside a long, crumpled silk bolster, and behind her was a theatrically ornate settee with embroidered pillows scattered on it.

  And he recognized her. Aunt Amity had been older when he and his sister had known her, but he had seen the dust-jacket author photos on her novels from the late 1960s, and this was clearly her, right down to the mole on her throat.

  Madeline looked away, blushing, and said, “Put it down, Scott!”

  “I will.” But he looked at the second paper-clipped photocopy. It was of a photograph with the same setting, the couch and carpet and long bolster, but in this one the young Amity Speas was passionately embracing and kissing another naked young woman. A Post-it note on the second photograph read “IS following 244.”

  “How old do you think she was, then?” asked Madeline, still looking away.

  “What would you say, mid-twenties? She was born in ’44, so this would be like 1970?”

  “She was married to Uncle Edward then, and he didn’t die till I was in kindergarten, 1990!”

  “I guess Aunt Amity was a wild girl, back in the free-love days of the ’60s.”

  Finally he turned to the sheet that had been on top, the copy of handwritten notes their mother had made. She had written:

  Single-spaced, business-style, letter-quality printer. Look serious! 100k from AM, poss. double? Yes. For return + “protection” from big wheelbugs. 10% finder’s fee to “Ostriker”? If he sqawks. & point out he shd be grateful no expose of him, i.e. wheelbugs.

  & WDT murder?

  Madeline, standing beside him, read it too.

  “Even little wheelbugs would probably be pretty bad,” she said solemnly.

  “What are they?”

  “I don’t know. Some kind of bugs, I guess.”

  “Those photos,” mused Scott, “especially the second one, would have been a big scandal in 1970, and Uncle Edward might have divorced her over them. Wheelbugs might be old slang for, you know, tabloid reporters.”

  “It sounds like they traveled on unicycles.”

  “AM must be Amity Madden. A hundred thousand dollars, or twice that—were our parents blackmailing her?”

  Madeline sat down on the mattress. “Don’t hate me—but—I could believe it.”

  Scott remembered their father’s constant talk about big pending movie deals, and how each of the big deals eventually just stopped being a topic of conversation, and he remembered his mother and father both hanging up the phone if the caller took more than three seconds to reply to “Hello?” because there was always a four-second delay before bill collectors came on the line, and he remembered his father’s chronic defensiveness at having been adopted into the Madden family. And as a child Scott had picked up the impression that Uncle Edward had sometimes loaned money to his adopted brother, but that after Edward’s death, Aunt Amity had refused to lend him any more.

  “I could believe it too, Maddy.”

  “Mom and Dad never liked her, did they? Remember how upset Dad got about that board she gave him for Christmas?”

  Scott nodded. Aunt Amity had hired somebody to rip the carpeting off the stairs, and a week or so later, on Christmas of 1991, she had given their father a two-by-four with a section of the old carpet glued around one end. Scott recalled that their father had turned pale and left the room.

  Madeline shook her head. “I guess Mom and Dad got the big blackmail payoff and decided to leave us with Aunt Amity, while they ran off to the Riviera or somewhere.”

  Scott wondered how far that amount of money went in 1991. Further than it would in 2015, certainly. “Claimayne gave me the key to Aunt Amity’s office, on Sunset,” he said. “I’ll snoop around in there tomorrow, see if there’s any correspondence with them. Child-support payments, at least, you’d think.”

  “I wonder who Ostriker was, and why he killed this WDT person.”

  Scott didn’t mention his suspicion that the murder of “WDT” looked like something else with which his parents had considered blackmailing Aunt Amity.

  Madeline stood up and unbolted the door. “Do you think Ariel and Claimayne are still downstairs? I should go see what Aunt Amity is typing now.”

  “I heard Claimayne’s elevator coming up awhile ago. Sounded like somebody was bulldozing the house.”

  “That’s right. Ariel’s probably upstairs too.” She stepped into the hall and closed the door behind her.

  Scott brushed some more dust off the manila envelope and saw that his mother had written on it, in ink, Backup copies.

  He peered inside and saw that the envelope contained still one more item—a little folded slip of white paper. He pulled it out carefully, and when he peered into the fold, he glimpsed the expected limbs of another spider pattern. He closed it quickly. On the outside of the paper their mother had written, Before and After. Before was crossed out, and After therefore seemed more prominent.

  He walked back through Madeline’s room to his own.

  He had brought a Michael Connelly paperback along in his bundle two days ago, and it was now a bit warped but no longer damp, and he tucked the little Before and After paper into the book and set it on the shelf beside the row o
f mottled cigarettes.

  Then he tucked the papers back into the manila envelope and shoved it under his mattress.

  CHAPTER 9

  CAVEAT WAS SILENT THE next morning as Scott descended the stairs to the hall by the dining room and pulled open the front door. Madeline was in the shower upstairs, preparing to visit her apartment office; he hadn’t seen Ariel and didn’t hear her in the kitchen, and he had not heard the grinding and clanking of Claimayne’s elevator.

  Scott crossed the porch and the unmowed patch of grass and started down the long flight of cement steps on the slope, putting on his goggles and helmet and cinching the strap as he watched the view of the Hollywood skyline disappear behind closer apartment-building walls.

  His old Honda started up the third time he tromped on the kick-starter—the electric starter motor had died long ago—and his foot was clicking the bike into gear as his fingers released the clutch; the bike surged forward and he leaned it out of the Caveat parking lot and south onto the narrow lanes of Vista Del Mar Avenue. Rooftops and overhanging eucalyptus trees threw blue shadows across the damp asphalt ahead of him, and the cool air whipping at his collar was fragrant with spicy clay and thyme.

  He was in the left lane when he recalled that Vista Del Mar would dead-end at the 101 Freeway wall by the elegant old Hollywood Tower apartment building, so he slanted the bike left through traffic onto Franklin and then turned right on Gower. Sunset Boulevard would be the next big street after Hollywood Boulevard, and he would follow Sunset all the way west to Aunt Amity’s office.

  Traffic on Sunset was light on this Thursday morning, and he seemed to catch nothing but green lights, gunning the bike through the cool headwind past the white Cinerama dome and the ringed glass tower of Amoeba Music. The Ravenna Apartments building, where he was the manager, was on Hayworth Avenue, arguably on the way to the west end of Sunset, so when he saw the big Rite Aid pharmacy on Fairfax he made a left turn. He might as well see how things were going in his absence.

  The apartment building was eleven upstairs units over garages, arranged in an open square facing Hayworth, and the office was on the ground floor under apartment eleven, on the right side of the central breezeway. Scott parked his bike on the cement apron out front, relieved to see that the office door was open and the lights were on inside.

  Behind the desk, shaved and in a clean white shirt and altogether looking reliable, Sam Ellis was tapping at the computer keyboard but looked up when Scott walked in.

  “No crises?” asked Scott with careful cheer, not putting his helmet down. Reassuringly, the office had only its usual smell of orange-oil furniture polish. “Yet?”

  Ellis, a retired engineer, was the longest-residing tenant, and in his sober periods had sometimes assisted Scott in the maintenance work around the place.

  Ellis shrugged. “A couple of people this morning complained that one of the washing machines wasn’t working, but they didn’t think to check if the thing was plugged in. What it was, Laroux in six had his electricity turned off ’cause he doesn’t pay bills, and he unplugged the washer so he could plug in his phone charger and run an extension upstairs to his place.”

  “And he’s late on the rent,” Scott said, “because he had to bail his girlfriend out of jail, he says.”

  “You got a loser there.”

  “Well, you have my e-mail and the phone number up at the Vista Del Mar place—hit me with anything you can’t settle.” Scott sighed. “I’m going to be up there for four more days—”

  “Oh, and half an hour ago a woman came by looking for you.” Ellis peered at a note on the desk and said, “Louise Odell. She didn’t leave a number.”

  Scott’s breath stopped in his throat, and a full second later the backs of his hands tingled.

  “What did she—say?”

  “Just were you here, tell you she came by.”

  “. . . Ah.”

  Scott nodded and walked back outside into the morning air, mechanically putting on his goggles and helmet again and straddling the bike to jump on the kick-starter.

  It’s been eleven years, he thought as he worked the throttle grip.

  Her last name is still Odell.

  Don’t think about it now, not right now. Maybe you even need to be . . . properly braced, before you think about it.

  He rode over to Fairfax and up to Sunset, and directly across the boulevard from the white, vaguely aerodynamic-looking Chase Bank building stood a bright red sign that read THE LIQUOR LOCKER. It stood out vividly against the whites and grays and greenery of the rest of the view.

  Oh . . . okay, he thought. Just to be on the safe side.

  He swerved the bike into the shop’s narrow parking lot, switched off the engine, flipped the kickstand down, and hurried inside; five minutes later, with a pint bottle of 101-proof Wild Turkey bourbon tucked securely in his jacket pocket, he was riding up the driveway into the parking lot behind the Chase Bank.

  There was a two-story strip mall at the south end of the parking lot, and Scott saw the tax accountant’s sign above the top row of windows. An elevator was visible behind glass doors on the ground floor, and Scott parked his bike and went inside.

  A WHITE CHEVY BLAZER circled the back parking lot and pulled into a space at the back of the bank. The driver’s face was lean and tanned, and his close-cropped hair was gray. He lifted a 7-Eleven Big Gulp cup from the console and took a sip, then put it back and lit a cigarette. He squinted through the smoke for a moment in the direction of the strip mall, then sighed and picked up from the passenger seat a notepad with a Bic pen clipped to it.

  Under the previous note on the top page—Ravenna Apartments, where he works—he now wrote—Liquor Locker—then his aunt’s office, already checked.

  He tossed the pad down and turned on the radio.

  THERE WAS A SHORT corridor on the second floor, with blue carpeting and two bright red doors, and one of the doors was the tax accountant’s and the other was not. Scott knocked on the second door, and there was no answer, so he pulled out his keys.

  As soon as Scott held up to the keyhole the key Claimayne had given him, he could see that it wouldn’t fit. He pushed it at the keyhole anyway a couple of times, then sighed and put his keys back in his pocket and pulled out his wallet.

  I hope this is the right door, he thought.

  From one of the wallet’s flap pockets he pulled a paper clip and a blade broken off a spark-plug feeler gauge, and he gave the feeler gauge blade a slight flex to flatten out the curve it always picked up in his wallet. Tenants at the Ravenna Apartments sometimes took it on themselves to change their door locks, and several times he’d had to pick a lock. The paper clip was already straightened, and the last quarter inch was bent at a ninety-degree angle.

  He fitted the blade into the keyhole and rotated it lightly back and forth; clockwise was the direction with perceptible give, so he kept slight pressure in that direction as with his other hand he fitted the paper clip into the top end of the keyhole. He raked the lock, dragging the paper clip out to loosen the pins, then set about levering up the five pins one by one with the bent end, starting at the back of the lock. Within thirty seconds he was able to twist the feeler gauge blade all the way to the right, and the door was unlocked.

  He turned the knob and pushed the door open against a pile of advertisements and business envelopes; the room was dark but he didn’t see anyone, so he stepped inside and closed the door behind him. He put his makeshift tools back in his wallet and tucked it into his pocket.

  The air was stale with a hint of old cigarette smoke. Wooden Venetian blinds blocked the view to the south, and in the dim glow of daylight around the edges of the blinds he could see a desk by the window and what appeared to be an old enameled iron bathtub against the hallway-side wall.

  He crouched to gather up the scattered mail from the carpet, then straightened and flicked a switch on the wall, and fluorescent lights behind pebbled panels in the ceiling glowed stark white. He was relieved
to see that the envelopes were addressed to Amity Madden—this was the right office.

  The big white object against the near wall was indeed an old claw-footed bathtub, its white enamel chipping away in many places to show rust underneath. The holes for faucets gaped empty, and the drain had no pipe attached to it.

  He shrugged and walked around the desk and sat down in the wooden chair behind it.

  The room, he reflected, would be more appropriately lit by incandescent bulbs behind nicotine-yellowed shades. A black Olympic manual typewriter sat on the desk beside a black Bakelite dial telephone, and the pens in the leather cup on the other side of the fuzzy green blotter were thick, probably fountain pens. A ceramic ashtray next to it had Chasen’s printed on it in script, and the half-dozen cigarette butts in it had no filters. The pictures on the wall all seemed to be photographs of Aunt Amity, young and vivacious, with various evident celebrities of the 1960s, of whom in a cursory glance Scott was able to identify only Johnny Carson and maybe onetime L.A. mayor Sam Yorty.

  His gaze drifted to the bars of sunlight between the slats of the Venetian blinds, and he forgot about the envelopes he was holding. He could feel the flat bulk of the pint bottle against his side. What could Louise have wanted to say? Can you find it in your heart to take me back, Scott, I . . . But the unlikelihood, no, the sheer impossibility of that, made him exhale so sharply that he nearly spat on the desk.

  Probably she figures it’s been so long that we’re amiable acquaintances now, he thought, and she wants some artwork done—or more likely some plumbing or electrical work.

  He shook his head. Right now, concentrate on the task at hand. It’s family history and Madeline’s weird entanglement that need your attention. The bottle is just a precaution against . . . eventualities. Forget about it for now. For now.

  He dropped the mail onto the desk. The desk drawers were locked, but with just the paper clip he was able to open every one of them. He pulled all of them except for the big file drawer right out of the desk and laid them on the carpet.

  HALF AN HOUR LATER, having added a couple of filtered cigarette butts to the ashtray, Scott had set a number of things from the desk drawers onto the blotter. There was a hardcover book inexplicably sealed in a plastic Bank of America CoinSafe bag—through the unprinted sections of the clear plastic he could see that it was something called Valentino, by Irving Schulman. On top of it he had set a battered leatherbound address book. Next to them were two stacks of papers and a locked cloisonné box that he had found inexplicably duct-taped to the back side of the truncated middle drawer. The keyhole of the cloisonné box was too small for the paper clip.

 
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