Medusas web, p.14
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       Medusa's Web, p.14

           Tim Powers

  He clicked the gearshift pedal into neutral and then let the engine idle as he stared down at the shapes that were his hands, moving one in front of the other, and after a few seconds he was able to see that they moved in cubic space, and he could see that the gas tank was below them, and his shoe on the curb was below that. He looked up, along Alvarado Street, and the building and cars clearly receded from near to far.

  The view kept on appearing to have depth, so after several deep breaths, Scott squeezed the clutch, stepped on the gearshift, and carefully angled his way back into the northbound traffic.

  Focus, he told himself uneasily as he clicked up through the gears and the headwind chilled his damp face.

  And Natacha claimed that Taylor got hold of a photograph of the Medusa spider, he thought, and incorporated multiple copies of the image into a film: an exorcism film, setting the image in tarantella frequencies to nullify it.

  And Natacha had walked out with the film.

  An exorcism, to nullify the Medusa spider. And—wasn’t tarantella the name of a dance?

  Just past Temple Street he leaned the bike to the left onto the oak-lined on-ramp for the northbound 101 Freeway, heading back toward Caveat. A white Chevy Blazer and a white Saturn steered into the on-ramp close behind him.

  ARIEL FOUND TO HER surprise that she was relieved to hear Scott’s old Honda roaring up the garage road. She and Claimayne had been talking to Jules Ferdalisi for ten minutes in the dining room, and she still wasn’t sure what the man really wanted.

  Claimayne now gestured toward the stack of notebooks and papers Ariel had laid on the table. She had set a corkscrew on top of them to keep the pages from blowing to the floor in the breeze through the open windows. “But that’s all the . . . peripheral writing that she left,” Claimayne said, a note of impatience beginning to flatten his voice. “What sort of thing are you after?” He seemed to have a specific answer in mind, coaxing Ferdalisi to give it. “Do say.”

  “I’m envisioning multimedia,” said Ferdalisi. His ear-to-ear beard with no accompanying mustache, and his bald head, made his face appear to Ariel to be upside-down. “Music, and film, and reading. Dance. I want to convey the whole woman.” He frowned and pouted his lips. “I don’t mean to be offensively personal.”

  Claimayne blinked. “Uh . . . oh?”

  “But,” Ferdalisi went on, “her suicide—I know only the fact of it, not the means or place, from the newspaper accounts. But—was the moment captured by some security camera?”

  “No,” said Claimayne, clearly surprised at the question.

  Ferdalisi frowned and pursed his lips. “Did she—I beg your pardon—herself make a video recording of the event? So many people do think to make such a record of significant . . . milestones, these days. The end of a, a noteworthy life—”

  Ariel clenched her throat against a reflexive giggle and managed to cough instead.

  Claimayne leaned back in his wheelchair and stared at the high ceiling beams, and Ariel thought he looked baffled and disappointed. “No,” he drawled, “but an animated sequence might suffice. The old Warner Brothers cartoons—”

  “Or Itchy and Scratchy,” ventured Ariel in a choked voice.

  “What do you mean?” Ferdalisi snapped at her, and she was sure he knew what she had referred to and was trying to make her feel frivolous.

  “In the TV show The Simpsons,” she said slowly, “Bart and Lisa—those are two characters, it’s a cartoon—they often watch a cartoon show called Itchy and Scratchy.” She smiled at him. “A cartoon within a cartoon, you see? And it’s very violent—”

  “I think they’ve even used grenades on each other,” offered Claimayne. “I know someone who knows Matt Groening.”

  “That’s the writer of the show,” said Ariel. “You might approach him.”

  The kitchen door squeaked, and then Scott’s shoes were clumping on the linoleum floor in there, and a moment later he pushed through the swinging door and walked into the dining room.

  “Oh,” he said, halting when he saw the three sitting at the table. “Excuse me.”

  “No, sit down,” said Ariel. “We were talking with this gentleman about making an animated cartoon of Claimayne’s mother blowing herself up on the roof.”

  Scott nodded. “You know,” he said, “I used to live in the normal world. I still remember it.”

  “I apologize if I—” began Ferdalisi.

  Ariel stared at the man curiously. “You came here to produce a snuff film?”

  “No.” Ferdalisi was blinking rapidly at Ariel. “I came here in good faith—”

  “I knew somebody would,” said Claimayne, “if we waited long enough.”

  “You didn’t come in good faith,” said Ariel to Scott. “You and your sister. Will you sit down?”

  “My purpose is scholarly!” Ferdalisi burst out. His face was red. “I am in a position,” he went on, and Ariel forced herself not to interrupt with a joke about his position, “for one thing, to pay you a great deal of money.” Ariel had been trying to place his accent, and now that he was speaking angrily it was recognizably Spanish.

  Scott pulled out a chair in front of the windows and sat down, setting his helmet on the floor.

  Ferdalisi peered at him and then quickly looked back at Claimayne—but Ariel was sure she had seen a twitch of recognition in the man’s eyebrows.

  Claimayne reached out and patted the cuff of Ferdalisi’s tweed jacket. “I do apologize. This is my mother we’re discussing. It’s a touchy subject, right?” He sat back. “Do please tell me what sort of material you are thinking of.”

  Ferdalisi scowled for several seconds as if to show that he was not easily mollified, then said earnestly, “Her involvement with old Los Angeles—she did extensive research—did she have no files?”

  Claimayne nodded at the papers on the table. Ariel thought he was almost teasing when he said, “I’ve printed out her computer files—”

  “No no, I mean paper, old paper.” Ferdalisi took a deep breath. “Did she have any . . . notes to herself, drawings, little doodles . . . symbols? I believe I read that she kept a lot of such things, folded up. I asked about a video because in that final moment she might have been holding—” He stopped short and looked at the ceiling. “Her suicide happened on the roof?”

  Ariel involuntarily glanced at Scott, and his eyes met hers for a moment before they both looked away. Little doodles, symbols . . . folded up, she thought, and she guessed that Scott was thinking of the same thing.

  “To be closer to God,” Claimayne told Ferdalisi. Ariel thought there was a note of satisfaction in his tone now, as if he’d finally got an answer he’d wanted. Still without looking at Ariel, he went on, “I’m the representative of the family in these legal affairs—why don’t you and I conduct this discussion in the music room, away from”—he nodded toward Scott—“the poor relations.”

  Ariel started to stand up, but Claimayne waved her back. “I can wheel myself,” he said. “You can stay here and play checkers or something with the boy.”

  WHEN THEY HEARD THE music room door down the hall squeak and snap closed, Ariel stared across the table at Scott.

  “Your old woman came by here this afternoon,” she said. “I went upstairs to fetch you, but you were asleep on your bed, so I told her you weren’t home.”

  Scott’s face was throbbing, but at the same time felt very cold; he was sure Ariel must mean Louise. He raised one spread hand.

  “That Louise character,” Ariel went on. “Do you remember her? I may have said you were passed out drunk.”

  Scott was somehow sure Ariel had not said that, but he thought of the bottle in his pocket and cleared his throat. “What did she, uh, want?”

  “I didn’t ask. She drove away.”

  Ellis must have told Louise this morning, Scott thought, that I’m staying at the old family estate this week.

  “Did she—” he began, then just shook his head.

  “What, leave a numb
er? No. Say she’d try again, or call? No.”

  Scott nodded. “Okay.”

  “Why did she break off the engagement, however many years ago it was?”

  Scott met Ariel’s gaze. He was suddenly very tired, and here in the old dining room again it was easy to see her as the smart, cheerful companion she had been in the old days.

  He smiled faintly. “She thought my ambitions were unrealistic.” He waved a hand. “Unsustainable.”

  “Drawing, painting, all that?”

  Scott nodded.

  “Well, ultimately she proved to be correct there, didn’t she?”

  Scott’s face was still cold. He took a deep breath. “Shrewd girl,” he agreed, exhaling.

  “I bet she heard you’re supposed to inherit this place, and that’s why she’s surfaced again.”

  “That’s likely.”

  Ariel was frowning. “You don’t hit back.”

  Scott reached down and picked up his helmet, then pushed his chair back and got to his feet. “I’ve always liked you, Ariel,” he said. “I’m sorry we somehow—”

  “Liked me?” she interrupted. “Not always. Maybe you—”

  A door banged open down the hall, and Scott caught the whir of Claimayne’s approaching wheelchair. There were no accompanying footsteps.

  “What?” asked Scott quickly. “Why not always, maybe I what?”

  She waved it away and stood up.

  Claimayne’s wheelchair wobbled as he rolled into the dining room, and he gripped a wheel with his left hand to stop.

  For a moment he didn’t speak. Then, “There’s a . . . dip, in the floor here,” he said. He looked up at Scott and smiled. “A low spot, a concavity. It’s always been there. Do you remember, we all played with Hot Wheels cars here—we’d send them racing past this spot and they’d . . . curve.”

  Scott nodded.

  “It’s deeper now,” said Claimayne.

  “. . . Okay.”

  “So I’d like you to,” and suddenly Claimayne’s face was red and he was roaring, “crawl down there in the goddamn basement and fix it!” He fumbled in the pocket of his dressing gown and pulled out a heavy-looking stainless-steel revolver.

  Scott gasped and stepped away from Ariel in case Claimayne actually meant to shoot at him. “Claimayne—”

  “If,” yelled Claimayne, and then he went on in a calmer voice, “you can’t find it while you’re down there, look for a spot of light.” And he pointed the gun at the floor and pulled the trigger.

  The resounding pop of the gunshot set Scott’s ears ringing; splinters spun away from the new ragged hole in the hardwood floor.

  Ariel stepped forward to take the gun from Claimayne’s hand. His pale fingers released it with no struggle.

  She looked around at the walls and up at the ceiling. “We’re lucky that didn’t bring the whole house down,” she said, speaking more loudly than usual. She looked past Claimayne down the hall. “Is Mr. Fricassee using the dubious facilities?”

  “Ferdalisi.” Claimayne laughed shortly. “I wish he would try to use the toilet on this floor. No, he left by the back.” He coughed in the gunpowder smoke. “It seems we don’t have anything concrete enough to merit his . . . assistance in various matters.”

  “Hence your rage at the floor,” said Ariel. “I didn’t like him anyway.”

  “Quite right,” said Claimayne, dabbing at his eyes now with a handkerchief. “Shouldn’t like people.”

  Ariel shook her head and walked around the wheelchair toward the hall.

  “Salomé,” called Claimayne, “hand me back my gun, so that I might shoot our houseguest!”

  Over her shoulder she said, “Who’d fix your damn floor, Tetrarch?,” as she pulled open the front door.

  Scott started after her. “Ariel, wait—”

  Standing on the threshold with the breeze tossing her dark hair, she turned to face him. Her fingers held the gun loosely at her side. “Could you just not speak?” she said. “Could you please do me that one favor?” And then she had spun away and was hurrying down the path that led along the front of the house to the driveway.

  Scott hesitated, then stepped back inside and closed the door.

  “She doesn’t like you,” remarked Claimayne from the dining room.

  Scott sighed. “Quite right,” he said, then turned to the stairs.


  SHORTLY AFTER RETURNING TO his room, Scott heard Claimayne’s elevator knocking and banging in the walls; a minute later Madeline came trudging up the stairs, and Scott turned around when she appeared in the connecting doorway between their rooms. Her hands were shoved so deeply in the pockets of her old Members Only jacket that the thin green fabric was taut and her arms were almost straight.

  “Maddy,” Scott said, “did you take a paperback book out of my room?”

  “Yes,” she said, “it’s on the windowsill by my bed. I was reading it. Listen, I—”

  “Thank God.” Scott hurried past her and picked up the Michael Connelly book and flipped through it, but there was no folded slip of paper tucked into the pages now. He looked back at Madeline. “Tell me you took a piece of paper out of this.”

  “I dog-eared your place. A dog-ear’s better than a bookmark; it can’t fall out, unless the whole pages does. But—”

  “Damn it, where’s the, the bookmark?” She stared at him blankly, and he went on, “Maddy, it was a spider of Mom’s. She wrote Before and After on it, and she crossed out Before but not After. You see? It’s still unconsummated. And I had it in this book—”

  “It’s on the floor. Now will you—”

  Scott peered quickly around at the floor of her room. “Where?”

  “I don’t know, but it must be. Or maybe I threw it out. Did you want it? A spider?”

  “No, but I don’t want somebody finding it.”

  “You should have torn it up. But if it’s not on the floor, then I threw it out, obviously. And a good thing, too. Will you listen?”

  Scott moved around the bed, looking at the old floorboards, and finally got down on his hands and knees to look under the bed. There was no scrap of paper visible.

  He got to his feet and strode to the wastepaper basket, but it was empty, without a liner. He hurried into his room, and that wastepaper basket was empty too.

  “I took the trash out to the Dumpster when I left,” his sister said. “Save work for Rita.”

  “If you’re sure you—”

  “For crying out loud, Scott! I’m sure!”

  “Okay.” He put down the wastepaper basket and walked back into her room. “But I’ve got to tell you about your girl Natacha, who you saw get shot, experienced getting shot.”

  Madeline paused by her bed, holding her briefcase; then she shook her head and pulled a sheaf of papers out of the briefcase. “After you see this. I read a lot of Aunt Amity’s last-person novel last night—you were asleep by the time I came back up here—and listen, I know what Oneida Inc means.”

  Scott blinked at her. “What it means?”

  He stepped to the door and looked up and down the hall, then shut it and twisted the deadbolt knob. He sat down on her bed as she thumbed through the pages, and he saw that she had printed them on the back sides of blank astrological charts.

  “Let’s keep our voices down,” he said. “I heard Claimayne’s elevator a little while ago.”

  “Right. Just a sec, I’ll find it. Ah—here.” She handed him one of the sheets and pointed at an underlined section in the middle of the page. Scott peered at it—she had printed it out single-spaced and in a 10-point font—and she added, “I couldn’t find printing paper, and I didn’t have a lot of these sheets.”

  Scott nodded and began puzzling out the small type.

  aboard the oneida kosloff let ince see the damn thing and die of it hearst burned it only the taylor film left now we took it running away in adirondack woods natacha or him firing at us travellers now within that valley through the red-litten windows se
e paul ahead with the film can and me to catch a bullet in my foot and he took the can and left me in hospital rush out forever laugh but smile no more you must get it back charlene

  “I googled oneida kosloff ince,” said Madeline, “and I got a Wikipedia article about this guy Thomas Ince—he was a movie director in the silent days, and he went on a cruise on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, the Oneida, and Theodore Kosloff was on the yacht too, and during the cruise Ince got some kind of sick and died.”

  “Oneida Ince,” Scott said softly. He shivered. “He got sick because he looked at Usabo. We saw him do it. We did it with him, twenty-three years ago.”

  “We didn’t die of it,” observed Madeline, looking away. “Neither of us.”

  “It was still no fun. Anyway, we were already in a spider vision when we looked at it with him, so we looked at it through his eyes. He caught the worst of it.”

  He looked out the window at the late-afternoon sunlight on the tree branches. “I know about the film can,” he said. “Yesterday you saw the Kosloff guy get the big spider folder from Natacha after he shot her. Well, sometime after that she and a friend robbed a guy named Taylor, stole a reel of film with the big spider image—they called it the Medusa—on a lot of the frames. It was in a film can.”

  Madeline was staring at him, so he waved at the page and went on, “And then I guess after that, in the Adirondacks—that’s mountains, in New York State—”

  “I know.”

  “—this Charlene and Paul couple stole the film can from Natacha, and Paul ran off with it when Charlene was in a hospital with a bullet in her foot. The ‘red-litten windows’ business, and the ‘laugh but smile no more’ are from that same poem in the Poe story.”

  “Paul and Charlene are the names of Aunt Amity’s parents.”

  Scott nodded. “I remember.”

  “Natacha stole the film? Where do you get that part of it?”

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