Medusas web, p.12
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       Medusa's Web, p.12

           Tim Powers
 

  The first stack of papers he had assembled was of the currently outstanding bills, going back two months. On top of that stack he had laid Aunt Amity’s checkbook, and he intended to write checks for the bills and take them to Claimayne or Ariel.

  The next, bigger stack consisted of canceled checks. Most of these were to local businesses like Gelson’s market, or to the gas company and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, but in a White Owl cigar box in the big file drawer he had found some more. Every month for at least the last ten years, which was apparently as far back as she had kept old checks, Aunt Amity had written a thousand-dollar check to one Genod Speas—and Speas was Aunt Amity’s maiden name. Could this Genod be a brother of hers?

  The current bills were all he arguably had any business with here. Everything else was his aunt’s private stuff, and it all rightfully belonged to Claimayne now. Scott knew he had had no right even to look through it, much less take some of it away with him—as he meant to do—but Aunt Amity, or Caveat itself, had a hold on his sister, and he felt nervously justified in investigating anything that might have a bearing on that.

  He turned to the address book. Entries in pencil and fountain pen ink filled the age-yellowed pages, and he saw the names Genod Speas and Adrian Ostriker, but his parents’ names didn’t appear in it, and most of the telephone numbers were only four digits long. He tossed it on top of Aunt Amity’s checkbook.

  The file drawer was mainly packed with green cardboard hanging files, and each file was tabbed with a year—they extended back to 1965, and he now began hoisting them out one at a time and leafing through their contents, which all appeared to have to do with her novels. There were contracts and royalty statements and letters from agents and editors, and proofs of cover pictures, but no personal items. He skipped ahead to 1991, the year his parents had disappeared, but it held only correspondence between Amity and her editor at Putnam’s—they were offering her less money for her then-newest book, The Shores of Hollywood, than they had paid for the previous one. Scott recalled that they would simply reject her next one, and every one thereafter, and the 1992 folder provided only early indications of that eventual ongoing misfortune. The following folders were even sparser.

  He had hoped to find some correspondence with his parents, but as far as the contents of this desk were concerned, they might never have existed.

  Scott fitted the latest folder back onto the rails and slid the big drawer shut, and then he sat back and stared at the cloisonné box that had been hidden on the back side of the shortened top drawer. At last he pulled out his wallet and retrieved the spark-plug feeler gauge, and he worked the blade into the seam between the box and the lid, but when he tried twisting it, the box came apart in his hands.

  “Shit,” he whispered, automatically looking around the empty office.

  He lifted the lid away, and lying on top of the separated panels of the box were four folded pieces of paper—and he knew what they must be. He was aware that his heartbeat seemed to be . . . not so much faster as harder.

  “Were these special, Auntie?” he whispered.

  He noticed now that each of them had faint writing in pencil on the bottom edge of the folded flap: Il Dottore, Innamorati, Scaramuccia, and Il Capitano, which he recognized as the names of characters from the Italian Commedia dell’arte.

  Why had Aunt Amity hidden them behind the drawer?

  When Scott noticed that one of his fingers was lightly flipping an edge of the Il Dottore paper, he hastily put them all down and got to his feet. A dusty raincoat hung in an alcove next to the bathtub, and he folded it carefully around all the papers and the books and the broken cloisonné box and its contents, tying the belt securely around the bundle so that it wouldn’t come open while it was strapped to the sissy bar on his motorcycle.

  He remembered to fit the drawers back into the desk before he left the office.

  CLAIMAYNE HAD WHEELED HIMSELF out through the kitchen door into the sunlight, and then had Ariel hold a cushion-layered wheelbarrow steady while he got up and shifted himself into it; then Ariel, with a picnic lunch in a blue nylon backpack, had trundled the heavy wheelbarrow out along the gravel path to a cleared spot in front of the Medusa mosaic wall. She was sweating and cross when she finally lowered the back end of the wheelbarrow and flexed her hands off the handles. Her new bull’s-eye lens sunglasses had slipped down on her nose, and she impatiently pushed them back into place, though it meant that she couldn’t clearly see whatever she was looking at directly.

  The wind at noon was still cold enough to make her zip up her yellow nylon windbreaker before she shrugged out of the backpack. She unbuckled it and took out a towel and spread it over the weeds below the wall and sat down.

  “You’re sitting in Alla Nazimova’s bathtub,” remarked her cousin. His dressing gown was buttoned up to his neck, and a conical bamboo hat sat on his bald head.

  “Where it was,” said Ariel.

  “It’s still there, somewhere along the time-thread.”

  “Said the termite tetrarch. That Ferdalisi fellow is due when?”

  “One thirty. We’ve got more than an hour. Don’t wear your novelty glasses when he’s here.”

  “What does he want, exactly?”

  “I don’t know, exactly,” said Claimayne with a shrug, lifting his eyebrows; and it occurred to Ariel that he was probably lying. “He’s interested in my mother’s novels and notes, at any rate. New critical editions, a movie option?” He shrugged again. “Money, with luck.”

  Ariel considered telling him what the stranger had said to her out in front of the spiderbit shop yesterday—but she wasn’t sure he’d consider it good news that he might live many more years without spiders. And in any case, that weird little man had hardly been a reliable source of information.

  From the backpack she pulled a wrapped sandwich and a carton of macaroni salad with a plastic fork and a paper napkin rubber-banded to it, and she reached up to hand the carton to Claimayne. “It’s too late in the year for these picnics. I think the ground’s still damp from the rain.” Next she lifted out a half bottle of Storybook Mountain zinfandel with the cork already pulled and loosely replaced, and she passed that too to Claimayne; and finally she pulled free a thermos for herself.

  As she unscrewed it and carefully poured hot coffee into the plastic cap, Claimayne tugged the cork out of the bottle and flicked a splash of wine toward the mosaic wall.

  “I think she took the tub away so she could sit in it in the privacy of her office,” he said. He splashed some more wine toward the wall.

  “I should have opened a full-size bottle for you,” said Ariel, “if you’re going to give half of it to your beheaded Medusa.” She recalled Harry’s story about the nineteenth-century spider worshippers in Andalucia, and their Medusa symbol, and she looked away from the wall.

  “Not beheaded,” Claimayne corrected her. “You can see in the earliest mosaics that the old Greeks knew she was never anything but a little bitty head—with eight long, lovely, snaky tresses. It’s too bad this mosaic is only the artist’s imagining of her!”

  Ariel gripped her plastic cup more tightly but said with careful flippancy, “Sure, and if it was a real portrait, everybody who looked at it would turn to stone, right? We could go into the statuary business. I’m glad Perseus killed her.”

  “I told you it doesn’t literally change a person to stone. The Greek noun is really something more like ‘rigidity.’ And Perseus didn’t kill her, he just brought her to Sephiros, though he was careful only to look at her in a mirror.” Claimayne lifted the bottle to his lips and took a sip. “I wonder if poor young Madeline knows that the oldest Sumerian astrologers knew her too. And according to an old Hebrew midrash, when David was being pursued by King Saul, David hung a spider tapestry over the cave he was hiding in, and Saul’s soldiers were too disoriented to find him.” A gust of wind blew a dry leaf into his macaroni salad, and he picked it out with trembling fingers.

  “G
reeks, Babylonians, Hebrews!” Ariel shivered. “Are the things really that old?”

  “At least.”

  After a pause, Ariel said, “I think poor young Madeline is brain damaged.”

  “Actually, I think she is. No, not damaged, precisely—permanently concussed, say. Permanently distracted, at least. I told you I think she and her brother both looked at the one my mother was saving for special.”

  “Scott seems all right.”

  “On the surface,” agreed Claimayne, “but I’ll wager dementia sets in at an unusually young age.”

  Ariel frowned and opened her mouth to say something, but through the open kitchen and dining room came the rattling growl of an inadequately muffled motorcycle engine, which stopped after a few seconds.

  “Speak of the bedeviled,” said Claimayne. “And he parks his velocipede up here by the house now! Cheeky.”

  Faintly they heard thumping on the interior stairs, and Ariel lowered her glasses to look up toward the open window of Scott’s room.

  “Scott?”

  Scott’s face appeared in the window, his dark hair tossing in the wind as he glanced around at the paths and shrubbery of the untended garden. Ariel waved, and he waved back and then ducked back inside.

  Claimayne raised an eyebrow. “You called to him why?”

  “I—don’t want him thinking nobody’s home, and snooping around.” She pushed the glasses back up on her nose.

  “I’m always home these days.” After a pause, Claimayne went on, “I’ve got microphones in their rooms. Your Scott has hired some people, on spec, to forge letters from my mother stating that it’s her intention to leave everything to him and Madeline. Back-dated a couple of years, to make it look as though it was her intention for an extended period, not just something she dreamed up on the day she killed herself.”

  Ariel stared in his direction, though she could see only shifting rings through the lenses. “You’re such a liar. Not that I don’t think he’d do it, if it occurred to him, but—when would you have put in these microphones? You didn’t know they’d be staying up here in the main house till I said they could, and they’ve been underfoot ever since.”

  Claimayne laughed and had another swig of wine. “It’s a good idea, though.” He smiled across the weeds at the little black-and-white Medusa head. “You know what those two are up to, don’t you, darling?” he said to it.

  Over the wind in the trees they could again hear shoes knocking on the interior stairs, and a moment later Scott stepped out through the kitchen door. Ariel hesitated, then took off the glasses and tucked them into her blouse pocket.

  Scott trudged up the gravel path and paused a few yards short of where Ariel sat on her towel and Claimayne in his wheelbarrow.

  “I’m, uh, home,” he said diffidently. “Back, I mean.”

  “We’d ask you to join us,” said Ariel coldly, “but I don’t want any more towels getting muddy.”

  “And I don’t think there’s another wheelbarrow,” put in Claimayne.

  Scott waved it off. “I’ve got stuff to do. Claimayne, I picked up your mother’s mail and checkbook, and I hope there’s a lot of money in the account, since you’re a couple of months in arrears on everything.” Claimayne was frowning and opening his mouth as Scott turned to go back toward the house, but before he could say anything, Scott stopped and looked back and added, “Who is Genod Speas? A brother of your mother’s?”

  Claimayne’s mouth snapped shut, then opened again as he exclaimed, “Fuck me!” He took a deep breath, then said loudly, “I told you not to go into my mother’s office unless Ariel or I were with you! What did you—”

  “You gave me the key,” said Scott.

  “I did not! Did you break in? I’ll see that you—”

  “You did give him the key,” interrupted Ariel.

  “I gave him the wrong key! He broke in!”

  “That was the wrong key?” Scott shook his head. “Actually I never even tried it. The door wasn’t locked.”

  “Bullshit it wasn’t locked! She never—”

  Ariel burst out, “Oh, who cares? I told Scott to deal with the bills, and he’s doing it. Probably your mother did forget to lock the door.”

  Claimayne visibly forced himself to calm down. “How do you know about Genod Speas?”

  “She was writing checks to him,” said Scott. “They were in the same drawer as the rest of the old checks.” He cocked his head and stared at Claimayne. “Why? Who is he?”

  “Yes, her brother, her older brother. You went through her desk? Did you find a little cloisonné box?”

  “The only drawer that was unlocked was the one with the old checks and the checkbook in it. There wasn’t any cloisonné box in that one.”

  Claimayne gave him a truly venomous stare. “Do not go back there. Ever.”

  “Jeez, Tetrarch,” said Ariel, a bit awed by her cousin’s uncharacteristic anger.

  Scott shrugged. “I’ve got no reason to go back. I brought all the bills here, and the checkbook.” He took his key ring out of his pocket. “I should give you that key back. It probably goes to something.” He worked the key off the ring.

  Claimayne held out his palm, and Scott dropped the key onto it. “Oh, and while I’ve got you,” Scott said, “do you know what became of our parents’ stuff? Furniture, books, junk? I’m sure your mother didn’t just throw it all out.”

  Claimayne gave him a blank stare. “You miss the orange couch? The heraldic wet bar?”

  Ariel snorted and giggled.

  Claimayne closed his eyes. “I have no idea.”

  Scott frowned and started to say something, but then he jumped and spun to face the house, for a very loud, close boom had shaken the air.

  Ariel looked past him at the roof, but there was nothing to see.

  “It’s just Claimayne’s mother blowing herself up,” she explained. “We get reruns.”

  “I heard it yesterday too,” said Scott, still staring at the house.

  “Like I said, reruns.”

  Scott nodded slowly, and half turned as if again about to say something, then just walked away toward the house, still nodding.

  Ariel turned to Claimayne, and she forced a breezy smile. “Will that stop, before the party on Saturday, do you suppose?”

  Claimayne seemed distracted. “What? Oh—well, that’s rather up to her, isn’t it?”

  CHAPTER 10

  BACK UPSTAIRS IN HIS room, Scott locked the door and leaned against it, staring at the bundled raincoat on his bed and trying to think of the other things in it, not just the spiders. At last he took a deep breath and let it out, pushing away from the door and crossing to the bed.

  Reruns! Like Madeline’s brief walk to old Hollywood yesterday?

  He unbuckled the raincoat and flipped it open. To start with, he picked up the book in the plastic bank bag and tugged at the plastic until it tore and he was able to pull the book free and get a good look at it. The picture on the dust jacket was of the old silent-movie star Rudolph Valentino in some sort of Eastern headdress, carrying a young woman in his arms. Opening the book, Scott saw that it had been published in 1967, with deckle-edged pages and a section of black-and-white photographs, all of which seemed at a first hasty glance to be of Valentino in elaborate costumes. He saw no underlining or laid-in papers, but there was writing in ballpoint ink on the front flyleaf—and it was in his mother’s well-remembered handwriting: Keep it, I’ve got more copies. The ink had spread and faded a little, over the years. His breath caught in his throat, and he put the book aside for now.

  Why are we back here? he thought. She’s gone, they’re both gone.

  He could feel the hard angularity of the bottle in his pocket, but when he sat down on the bed, his attention was on the four pieces of folded paper that had been in the cloisonné box. A moment later the Il Capitano one was in his hand, and he was tapping a tooth with it.

  He told himself that he shouldn’t, he shouldn’t give in to this and throw a
way all of . . . all of what, precisely? His relationships, his accomplishments?

  He wished he had arrived at the Ravenna Apartments earlier this morning, when Louise had been there. What could she have wanted to see him about? She had left him eleven years ago because he had seemed to have no prospects, and now, having found and lost a moderately successful career, he was back in that same position again.

  He remembered her as she had been in 2002—a sophomore at USC majoring in education, tall and young and clear-eyed, her blond hair generally pulled back in a ponytail, athletic shoulders and legs fairly radiating health—idealistic—and he wondered what she was like now. Successful at something, certainly. She’d be thirty-three now, the same age as Ariel.

  What could she see in . . . the man who had been hunching about on the roof and in the cellars of Caveat yesterday, hungover from having looked at a spider; who was in fact holding a spider in his hand right now . . .

  “Fuck it,” he said and flipped open the piece of paper and stared at the eight-limbed pattern on it.

  And for an indefinite period the world stopped, and he was bodiless in a space so different from reality that familiar things like personal identity couldn’t follow. Later, when his consciousness had coalesced enough to be aware again, he was among the featureless vertical entities that seemed to extend away to infinity above and below him, and his abandoned body in the bare Caveat bedroom clenched its teeth against whatever might be coming next.

  And then he was standing in a small lamplit dining room that was separated by an arch from a living room; under his too-tight shoes was a carpet that covered the middle of the polished hardwood floor, and a crown molding soffit overhead ran around three sides of the room, with decorative mugs and mismatched ceramic figures arranged in rows. He could hear music, turned down low, piano and orchestra.

 
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