Three days to never a no.., p.14
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       Three Days to Never: A Novel, p.14

           Tim Powers

  ”‘ You’ve reached the Marritys,’” quoted Moira’s voice, “‘and we’re not able to come to the phone right now.’”

  “You should have left a message,” grumbled Bennett. “‘ We’re onto your filthy tricks.’”

  Bennett’s frowning face swung back into Charlotte’s sight, and Moira laughed. “Or, ‘You’re not fooling anyone.’”

  Bennett laughed too, though he was still frowning. “Do it in a disguised voice,” he said. Then, growling in a Bronx accent, “‘I know what you been doin’, an’ you better stop it.’”

  “He’d lock the gate,” said Moira, “and never answer the phone again.”

  “Right, and then we’d find out this was a joke call, and your crazy grandmother didn’t own anything but old Creedence records. But—he’d never dare go to another X-rated movie.”

  “Frank doesn’t go to X-rated movies. You go to X-rated movies.”

  “I have to, sometimes, it’s business. Anyway, that’s why he’s jealous of me.”

  “Drive on,” said Rascasse to the young man in the driver’s seat. “No use having the bus get noticed for this.”

  Moira was saying something back, but Golze said, “He mentioned lost Charlie Chaplin films.”

  The bus surged forward with no more noise than a car would have made; the Vespers had replaced its diesel engine with a Chevrolet 454 V-8, and put disk brakes on instead of noisy air brakes.

  “He was just choosing random examples,” said Rascasse. “It was an obvious thing to say, after I mentioned films in my call to him. He doesn’t know anything about it. Neither does she, probably.”

  Bennett Bradley’s voice was coming out of the speaker now, talking about the Subaru deal that Rascasse had managed to get taken away from him, but already the bus was too far away from the house for Charlotte to see any more. She shifted her attention to Rascasse, who was still standing and looking down at her and Golze. Charlotte took the opportunity to check her lipstick, but it was still fine.

  “The artifact moved east, yesterday,” Rascasse went on, “and Francis Marrity and his daughter are in a, a crisis. It’s got to be Marrity who took it. We should have been at that hospital, not wasting our time here.”

  But I’ve soured the appoach to Francis Marrity, Charlotte thought, bracing herself for reminders of it; but then the soft gong sounded from the cabinet behind the driver’s seat, and in sudden fright Charlotte’s vision bounced several times between the driver and Golze and Rascasse, so that in rapid succession she was seeing the empty curbside cars and pools of streetlight ahead of them and two views of her own face—lips pinched and brown eyes wide—one in profile and one head-on.

  “See—what it wants,” said Rascasse to Golze.

  Charlotte thought she could already hear the filigreed-silver jaw hinges snapping inside the cabinet.

  “Right,” said Golze.

  He stood up from beside Charlotte and swayed forward toward the cabinet, and Rascasse stared after him, so Charlotte fixed her attention on the driver, a humorless physics student from UC Berkeley, and watched the cars ahead of the bus through his eyes. They had left the housing tract and were on East Orange Grove Boulevard, passing a Pizza Hut and a Shell station.

  She heard the cabinet lock snap, and then she really could hear the Baphomet’s jaws clicking; and though she was staring at the dashboard and the taillights beyond the windshield, she could smell the head now, the spicy shellac reek.

  She heard several voices whispering—and she had never heard the thing form words before. Reluctantly she let herself share Rascasse’s perspective.

  The cabinet doors were swung open and the shiny head inside was gleaming in the yellow overhead light; its black jaw, with the chin capped in silver like the toe of a cowboy boot, was wagging up and down rapidly, but it was not synchronized with the whispering.

  Golze had switched on the Ouija-board monitor over the cabinet: The cursor on the screen was motionless, but there were several breathy voices huffing out between the Baphomet head’s crooked ivory teeth.

  “Call me flies in summer,” hissed one.

  “Eighty cents,” whispered another. “Can I bum one of your smokes, at least?”

  Charlotte swallowed. “What—who the hell are they?” she managed to ask in a level voice.

  “Ghosts,” said Rascasse in disgust. “The Harmonic Convergence has brought them out like…flies in summer, and the head attracts them when it’s not properly occupied. I think it’s worse when we’re moving—the head is a psychic charge moving through the Harmonic Convergence field. If we weren’t smoking cigarettes right now, we’d draw hundreds of them—probably condensed enough for us to see them.”

  Charlotte shuddered and reached into her purse for the pack of Dunhills.

  The feathery-frail ghost voices were coming faster now, overlapping one another:

  “Why will you do it?”

  “One, nineteen, twenty-four, twenty-seven, thirty-eight, nineteen.”

  “Will you show me your tits if I can guess how much money you’ve got in your pocket?”

  “Two whole days.”

  “Why don’t you try a real man?”

  “Hello, pretty lady! I can tell you what lottery numbers are gonna win!”

  Charlotte cleared her throat. “Should I say hello back? It seems rude to snub a ghost.” She was still holding her unlit cigarette—neither Golze nor Rascasse had looked at her, and she didn’t want to light it just by touch with her shaking fingers.

  Golze answered, “You already snubbed him. They run backward in time. But you could say, ‘Hello, ghost!’ and then his remark would be a reply to that, not an unprompted salutation.”

  “Hello, ghost!” she said.

  Golze glanced at her, and Charlotte saw her nervous smile through his eyes. Quickly she used his perspective to snap her lighter below the tip of her cigarette. “Is he going to tell us the winning lottery numbers?” she said, exhaling smoke.

  “He did already,” said Golze. “And he guessed you’ve got eighty cents in your pocket. No use showing him your tits now, it would be before he asked. I don’t think they can actually see anyway.”

  “Nineteen…twenty-four,” said Charlotte quickly. “You should have written down the numbers!”

  “They’re lying,” Golze said. “They don’t know which lottery numbers are going to win.”

  “If they’re moving backward in time,” said Charlotte, “how come they talk forward? They don’t sound like records played backward.”

  “Very good!” said Golze. “They’re mostly on the freeway, just dabbling their toes in here for a few seconds at a time. While they’re down here with us, they’re carried along with the stream in the same direction we are. So each sentence is beginning-first, end-last, but the next remark for us is the previous remark to them.”

  “Lock it up,” Rascasse said to Golze. “But leave the monitor on.”

  “Two days,” whispered one last ghost, “I sat beside my body, staring at the holes in my chest.”

  Charlotte kept her attention on Golze, and watched his pudgy hands close the cabinet. The copper handles were miniature reproductions of the Vespers emblem: the Grail cup—two plain, smooth cones joined at the tips, one cone opening upward, the other downward, like a double-jigger measure in a Bauhaus bar.

  Charlotte used Golze’s brief glance to focus hungrily on the little copper chalices. Then he had straightened up and was looking at her.

  “How does the Harmonic Converence bring out ghosts?” she asked, and Golze helpfully looked toward Rascasse.

  “It’s like Gargamelle,” said Rascasse.

  “What, Gargantua’s mother?—in Rabelais?”

  “No—or maybe they named it after that, what you said—Gigantor’s mother—no, it’s the name of a big bubble chamber at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland. Ten tons of liquid is kept very near its boiling temperature, but under high pressure; then they suddenly release the pressure, and any invisible particles shoo
ting through the liquid form lines of bubbles. They become actual, manifest, rather than unseen potential.”

  Rascasse waved out at the night. “All these mystics on the mountaintops, emptying their minds all at once, have suddenly dropped the pressure in the common psychic water-table, and things are becoming actual that should only be low-probability potentials.”

  Charlotte dug coins out of the pocket of her jeans and held them out on her palm. Golze looked, and so she was able to see that it was three quarters and a nickel.

  “I do have eighty cents,” she said.

  “If it was five coins they’d have been stumped,” Golze said. “They’re like some primitive culture, with five numbers: one, two, three, four, and countless.”

  Rascasse was leaning on the folded-down desk to look outside through one of the starboard bus windows. Charlotte shifted to his perspective, and was able to see the dots of orange light on the mountains.

  “Fires all the way up from here to Humboldt and Trinity and Siskiyou,” Rascasse said softly. “All started from lightning strikes at about noon yesterday.”

  “Well,” said Golze, “A .50-caliber bullet will rip up dust under it as it goes by. And Lieserl Marity was moving a whole hell of a lot faster.”

  A lot of rest you’ll be getting in here,” said Marrity.

  He had pushed the heavy door nearly closed, but the voices and squeaking wheeled carts outside the room were still just as audible. The hospital hallways had a scent like the chlorophyll wood shavings at the bottom of a hamster’s cage, but this room still smelled of lemon custard and beef gravy, even though a nurse had taken away Daphne’s tray of pureed brown and white and yellow stuff half an hour ago. On the wall behind Daphne’s bed was taped a page of typescript headed “Swallowing Instructions.” There seemed to be a dozen crucial points. Daphne couldn’t see it from where she lay.

  A gauze pad was taped across her throat. Two of her ribs had been cracked during the useless Heimlich maneuver, but they hadn’t required any tape or bandage.

  Daphne picked up the pencil on the wheeled table beside her bed and wrote sleep pill probly on the top page of the pocket notebook he had fetched from the truck. Ask fr you too. The clear plastic bag on the IV pole swayed when she wrote; fortunately the tube was taped to her arm above her wrist where the needle was inserted, so it wasn’t likely to be pulled out.

  Marrity glanced at the blue canvas cot the nurse had brought in for him to sleep on after he had turned down the offer of a “cardiac chair,” which had seemed to be a half-size hospital bed, complete with an electric motor bolted to the underside of it.

  “I’ll be fine,” he told Daphne. He was sitting in one of the two plain wooden chairs in this half of the room; the other chair had a cotton square like a diaper laid across its seat, and he hadn’t wanted to ask why.

  St. Bernardine’s Hospital had transferred Daphne here to the Arrowhead Pediatric Hospital after her emergency throat surgery, and Marrity was pleased that his frantic knife cut of this afternoon had only required four stitches in the skin of her throat. The surgeon had done “undermining,” put in a row of sutures under the skin, to leave a negligible scar while still keeping the wound securely closed.

  Marrity had called Cal State San Bernardino to cancel his Modern Novels class for tomorrow, and he was planning to sleep in his own bed as soon as Daphne was released in the morning. Sleep all day.

  There was another bed in this room, farther from the door, but it was empty at the moment and Marrity hoped it would stay that way. The emergency room at St. Bernardine’s had seemed to be full of hoboes who just wanted painkillers, and he didn’t want another stranger imposed on his daughter when she was so helpless—she looked very frail in this up-tilted hospital bed, with the thin sheets and threadbare blankets tumbled around her. He would have fetched Rumbold for her, if Rumbold had not been burned up and buried.

  She was idly drawing spirals on the pad, and his spirits fell further at the familiar sight of her bitten-down fingernails—then he saw that she had written more words.

  Yr father was at Alfredo’s?

  “Yes,” Marrity said. He didn’t want to make her write more, so he added, “I guess he probably followed us.”

  She drew two dots with a V between them: frowning eyes.

  “I agree.” Marrity shifted in his chair. “He did seem to be very upset by…it all.”

  Daphne wrote some more: You saved my life. She didn’t look up from the paper.

  “Um—yes. I was glad to be able to.” must have been hard to do—cut me

  He nodded, though her head was still lowered and her face was hidden behind her brown bangs.

  “Yes,” he said. “Yes, it was very hard to do.”

  A spot appeared on the paper; and then another. I love you

  “I love you too, Daph,” he said. He wanted to get up out of the chair and try to hug her, but he knew it would embarrass her; they never talked this way ordinarily. Marrity had always assumed that their avoidance of sentiment was an Irish thing, but today he had learned that they were not Irish. A Serbian thing, then.

  “I’m—proud of you,” she whispered, still looking down. “I hope it leaves a scar—excuse to brag about you.”

  “Don’t stretch your voice box. They say it won’t leave much of a scar at all. But—thanks.”

  She nodded and sat back against the sloping mattress and smiled at him, and when she closed her eyes she didn’t open them again; and after a few moments Marrity took from his coat pocket a beat-up paperback copy of Tristram Shandy that he always kept in the truck. His briefcase was in the truck too, but he wasn’t in the mood to read student papers and he didn’t want to look at Grammar’s old Peccavit letters in here.

  He stood up to switch off the fluorescent tube over her bed, noting the spotty horizontal line of chips in the wall plaster at the height of the bed frame—what did they do, play bumper cars with the things?—and then he pulled the bed curtain closed on the hall side and resumed his seat, reading by the light from the hallway.

  The book’s chapters were short, and when he came to the black page at the end of Chapter Seven he found himself staring into the blackness, and exhaustion gave the page a faint green border. Vaguely he wondered if there might be words hidden in the black field.

  He only realized that he had gone to sleep in the chair when he began to drift back into wakefulness. He could hear voices from a television—he knew it was television because he recognized the show that was playing. It was…some cartoon that used to come on very late at night when he and Moira had been in early grade school; irritatingly 1950s-style animation, blocky characters with huge square heads and barrel bodies and tiny pointed feet. Both eyes on the same side of their nose, like in dumb old Picasso pictures.

  One character was named Matt, and was always coming home drunk, with his hair spiky and his shirt untucked, and he’d bang on his own locked front door and yell, “Can I come in? Say I can come in!”

  Grammar had caught them watching it one night, long after bedtime, and told them that they couldn’t watch it anymore. Marrity had assumed it was the late hour, rather than the show iself, that had prompted the ban.

  Matt was saying it now: “Can I come in? Say I can come in, Daphne!”

  That made Marrity open his eyes. Had Matt’s wife been named Daphne?

  Daphne was awake in her hospital bed; Marrity could see the gleam of her eyes staring at the far end of the dark room, where the glowing television was mounted high on the wall. Marrity blinked at it himself—it was showing the same program he remembered, the sketchy black-and-white figures who moved only in precisely repetitive gestures. Probably to save animation work.

  Marrity noticed that the curtain around Daphne’s bed had been pulled all the way open, though he hadn’t heard the rollers move in the track on the ceiling.

  Then, “Daphne, don’t say it!” came a man’s voice from behind him, and Marrity came fully awake with a start.

  A man was silh
ouetted against the now open door, with one hand gripping the door frame and the other hand pulling something out of his ear.

  Marrity scrambled to his feet, and the paperback book smacked on the linoleum floor.

  “Why not?” said Daphne in a hoarse voice, and Marrity realized that she was only half awake. He couldn’t see her expression in the dim light from the TV.

  “Say I can come in, Daphne!” repeated the cartoon voice from the television. “The mountains are burning!”

  “Why shouldn’t she let him in?” Daphne asked the figure in the doorway. She turned back to the television, and by the gleam of her teeth Marrity knew that she had opened her mouth.

  “No, Daph,” said Marrity loudly. He was suddenly sure that it had not been the late hour that had made Grammar forbid them to watch this show; and, irrationally, he suspected now that it had not appeared on any TV set except for Grammar’s. “Don’t say anything. Don’t—strain your voice box.”

  Daphne stared at her father, and didn’t speak.

  “Daphne!” called the voice from the television. “Just nod, if I can come in! When the fires are out it will be too late.”

  “Daph, don’t move,” said Marrity, stepping toward the television set. He wasn’t at all sure he believed that this animated cartoon was actually talking to his daughter, but he could feel the hairs standing up on his forearms.

  “You can’t turn it off,” said the man in the doorway, speaking quickly, “it’s not turned on. Tell Matt to go away.”

  Marrity swayed with sudden vertigo, but he clung to the urgency in the stranger’s disorienting words.

  “Go away—Matt,” he said hoarsely to the blunt outlines of the face on the screen.

  For a moment the eyes that were just black circles on the featureless white face seemed to stare at him from the screen, and Marrity felt sweat chilling his forehead as he helplessly stared back. Then the pen slash of a mouth began opening and closing, and the unsynchronized voice said, “When thou cam’st first, thou strok’st me and made much of me.”

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