Medusas web, p.18
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       Medusa's Web, p.18

           Tim Powers
 

  “There were many gorges, ravines, near our town,” he went on, “and caves, some with old frescoes on the walls, and crazy men living in them. Hermits, filosofos naturales. Priests and my mother said not to go into those caves, but—I was a wild boy with no care for my life. When my mother told me the meek would inherit the earth, I told her all I wanted of it was the shovelful that would cover my cold face. My friends and I went into the caves, and in one I saw the very old fresco, in the deep tunnels.” He smiled and raised the film can. “It was this one, the mother of them all, the Medusa. The government dynamited that tunnel, later. People said the Vatican ordered it.”

  Scott hastily bit the foil again, suppressing a whimper and blinking tears out of his left eye. “The dance?” he said. “Saved you?”

  “It’s not the dance, it’s the music.” He shook his head. “It’s not the music, in fact, it’s the time. Eighteen eight! Nine beats in a four-four measure; it’s too many for you to keep track of the rhythm; you can’t tap your foot to it, and dancing to it needs a lot more than just footwork. One of my friends was able to sing and beat out the rhythm with rocks while another ran home to get a drum. I was . . . insane, with the too many visions all at once, but my friends saved my life. It was dark outside by the time the chattering noise drove the spider out of my head, and even so I had nightmares for a year, other people’s nightmares, people long dead . . .”

  Valentino had the cigarette pack out again and shook one onto his lower lip. As he bent over the flame of the lighter he was squinting at Scott, and Scott suddenly hoped the man wasn’t thinking about the body he was wearing.

  “It’s decidedly odd,” Valentino said, “to talk about Natacha with what seems to be Natacha herself!”

  “It’s not, though,” said Scott hastily.

  “No. But I still want to say ‘you.’ But she found a—an incarnation? Should we spell it with a K, like ink?—of the Medusa spider in a portfolio of abstract drawings by an English artist, this Beardsley fellow. You could look at it safely in a mirror, and she believes that Beardsley drew it in a mirror too.”

  Scott remembered the tilted mirror that had stood over Taylor’s film-editing machine.

  “Beardsley,” Valentino went on, “got it, figured out how it should look, from studying a portfolio of lesser spider drawings his father brought back from India. The studying was bad for Beardsley, I gather—his health was destroyed, and he died very young.” He looked at Natacha’s eyes. “What do you hope to do”—he waved the film can—“with this? If you find it where you come from?”

  Scott hesitated. Natacha had wanted a frame from the film—presumably to use its power somehow. She would not have wanted anything like an exorcism.

  “Tell me the truth,” said Valentino.

  He apparently experienced the Medusa spider in that cave, Scott thought, and directly, not secondhand through somebody else’s eyes, the way Madeline and I did. And it came close to killing him.

  “I mean to use it to exorcise the Medusa spider. And I hope it will kill all the lesser spiders too.”

  Valentino laughed softly. “It would do that, yes. The lesser ones are reflections of the Medusa herself. But someone—the way that poor Taylor fellow meant it to work—someone has to watch the film, and I think it would kill that person. I think Taylor meant to do it himself, because a woman he loved was addicted to the spiders.”

  “My sister—is caught in the web.” And imagines that she met you there, he thought, and that she might meet you there again.

  “Of course you want to save her. Does your sister, too, intrude in our visions?”

  Scott remembered Madeline’s story about Kosloff shooting Natacha, and the taxi ride to the hospital. “She has.”

  “Is her name Madeline?”

  Startled, Scott nodded Natacha’s head. “Yes.”

  “Natacha was grateful for Madeline’s company and comfort, when she was wounded.” Valentino took a long draw on the cigarette, dropped it to the gravel and stepped on it, then tapped the film can. “I was going to burn this tonight. Natacha would have hated me for it, but—but instead I believe I will take the . . . easy way out and leave it under the chair in the dining room for now. And I’ll hide the film in this house, for you to find, in your day. In the attic, behind a board I will paint red, yes?”

  Scott spat out the bit of chewed foil. He was still holding the stick of Black Jack gum, and he slid it into the pocket of Natacha’s blouse, wondering what she would think when she found it . . . very soon.

  Maybe Aunt Amity was wrong, he thought; maybe Paul and Charlene steal a different film can, by mistake, or a decoy—it doesn’t seem they ever actually looked at it—and maybe the exorcism film stays in this house.

  “Thank you,” Scott said. “And if you move, leave it there—”

  And then he jerked spasmodically, for he had fallen facedown in cold mud; he rolled over, gasping and spitting. Had Valentino knocked him down? All he could see was darkness stippled with meaningless spots of light. His arms and legs and teeth ached, and he wondered dazedly if he had somehow tumbled down the slope in Valentino’s front yard. His bare legs shivered in a chilly wind and his heart was thudding rapidly in his chest.

  Scott sat up and raised a hand to his face, then flinched at a branching pale shape that suddenly filled his vision; but when he spasmodically thrust his hand toward it, the thing shrank, and he knew the shape was only his own hand.

  He had fallen out of the vision. He still couldn’t see clearly, but he slapped at his chest and legs and realized that he was wearing only what he’d worn to bed, a T-shirt and jockey shorts; and when he tried to stand up, his bare toes slid through mud and cold, wet grass.

  Gasping with panic, nearly sobbing, Scott rubbed his eyes fiercely. I need to see, he thought. Where in hell am I? The cold wind seemed to burn his bare arms and legs.

  He opened his eyes and forced himself to identify the depthless shapes. A patch of light wiggled as he shook his head; too low to be a streetlight, he thought, it’s probably a light on a house. He tilted his head back and saw a glowing half disk—the moon, surely. And when he leaned farther back, the edge of blackness cut off more of the disk. I’m next to a fence or low wall, he thought, and it’s partly blocking my view of the moon.

  He reached out toward the obstruction, and even as his fingers felt the small flat pieces of stone, he was able to make out the curling dark patterns on the Medusa wall.

  I’m still at Caveat—thank God, he thought.

  He struggled to his feet, shivering in the wind and wincing at the pains in his legs and back, and he stumbled toward the light that he now recognized as the light over the back door. The knob turned—the door was blessedly unlocked. He hurried inside and exhaled in relief at the slightly warmer, still air of the laundry room.

  Scott limped into the dark hall and then painfully made his way up the stairs, stepping on the edges of each tread to keep it from squeaking. He wondered if Natacha, in his body, had bothered to be quiet when she descended these stairs a few minutes ago; at least there was no sound now of anyone awake.

  Back in his unlit room at last, and without waking Madeline, he slid his legs under the covers and slowly leaned back, inhaling through clenched teeth at the pain in his back and shoulders. He glanced at the open window and was glad that Natacha had apparently not felt suicidal. Of course the fall probably wouldn’t have been fatal—he would simply have come back to find himself sitting in the planter below, freezing in his underwear, probably with a compound fracture or two.

  As he lowered his head to the pillow, Scott let his arms relax—and then he was shivering and had to clench his teeth to keep them from chattering. He knew he was in his bed, but the stark, insistent memory of having only moments ago awakened cold and nearly naked in the mud, in the middle of the night, seemed too likely not to be a memory at all—what if he was still out there, and had only shut his eyes and imagined returning to his bed?

  He gripped the sheet
under him tightly enough to make his abused elbows and shoulders throb. I am in my bed, he thought. His forehead was chilly with relief. But I cannot do that again. I will not. There’s some way to free Madeline without using the exorcism film, even if it still exists—there must be. Natacha said it’s full of images of the big spider. Someone has to watch the film, Valentino had said, and I think it would kill that person.

  I can’t possibly sleep, Scott thought.

  The bottle under the mattress, which had held no attraction for him a few minutes ago, now seemed to radiate a warm oblivion; and he subjected his knees and shoulders to more agony as he hunched out of bed and slid a hand under the mattress. He pulled out the bottle, and he was compensated for the pain in his wrist, as he unscrewed the cap, by the first aromatic, warming mouthful.

  He climbed back into bed, carefully so as not to spill any, and leaned back against the headboard for another profoundly comforting swallow. It was the taste of the golden past, of books on the shelves and his parents in the farther room, of a dimly heard Harry James and Kitty Kallen song playing on their stereo. He took another sip and, finally, relaxed.

  CHAPTER 15

  MIDMORNING SUNLIGHT REFLECTING OFF the bare floor shone on the plaster ceiling, and Scott was peering through watering eyes as he rolled out of bed, sure that he was about to vomit; but he paused, leaning against the wall beside the open window, and after a few seconds the chilly air blowing in on his sweaty face emphasized his headache instead. He looked back at the disordered bed and the bottle on the floor, and he felt old and exhausted and corrupt. He had only begun to try to dismiss the memories of last night as dreams, when he saw the dried mud stains on his bare feet.

  I will not go to that house where Valentino was, he told himself firmly; I can clearly sense what direction it’s in, but I will not go there. He glanced down again at his blackened feet, and shuddered. I am through with spiders.

  There must be another way to get Madeline out of the web, out of Aunt Amity’s posthumous domination. He sighed from the bottom of his lungs and began wearily pulling on his jeans and a flannel shirt.

  The orange couch and the heraldic wet bar, he thought. What did Aunt Amity do with all of Mom and Dad’s stuff? They had some specific fact-in-context to blackmail Aunt Amity with, and if I can find out what that was, then maybe it’s something I can use to banish her ghost, and nobody need ever look behind the red board in the attic of that house out there. To hell with Taylor and Valentino and that whole crowd. That whole dead and buried crowd.

  Scott squinted against the brightness at his black plastic bag on the shelf beside his remaining dried-out cigarettes, but dreaded the effort of digging through its contents to try to find clean socks, and he pulled on yesterday’s, then slid his feet into his shoes and clumsily tied them. Then he made the effort to pick up the bourbon bottle and shove it back under the mattress next to the manila envelope.

  He looked through the open connecting door, but Madeline’s bed was empty and neatly made up. God knew what time it was. He stepped softly into the hall and down the stairs.

  From the dining room he heard the tinkling of a spoon stirring coffee in a ceramic cup, and someone closed a cupboard in the kitchen beyond, so he stole to the right from the base of the stairs, through the laundry room—scuffing aside bits of dry mud that were too clearly footprints—and lifted a dusty key ring from a hook and sidled out the back door.

  He didn’t even glance toward the spot by the Medusa wall where he had awakened last night, but hurried past the kitchen windows to the driveway and the long west lawn. Nobody opened the kitchen door to call after him.

  The walk out to the road that led up to the old garages stretched his cramped thigh muscles, and the cold, soil-scented breeze in his nostrils made his headache recede.

  When he got to the top of the hill, where the narrow road curved to the right just short of the tall eucalyptus trees that marked the north end of the property, he was surprised to see a new white Saturn parked sideways in front of the first of the row of four neglected garages. Morning sunlight glinted on the bumper chrome.

  And as he paused, wondering if a neighbor from over on the Gower Street side was using this seldom-visited pavement for extra parking, a woman stood up from behind the Saturn, staring at the door of the garage in front of her. She was tall and slim, in faded jeans and an untucked brown flannel shirt, and a pair of sunglasses was pushed back on her short blond hair. She was holding a hacksaw.

  It wasn’t until she noticed him standing there and jumped in surprise that he recognized her.

  “Louise!” he said hoarsely. The breeze in his face suddenly seemed several degrees colder.

  After a stiff pause, “Doctor Scott!” she said. It chilled him further—her reply had turned this moment into a grotesque reenactment of a bit of dialogue from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a movie the two of them had seen together many times, fifteen years or more ago.

  Helplessly going along in mimicking the remembered exchange, he repeated, “Louise!”

  “Doctor Scott!” she said again, still following the movie’s script. It was clear that she was staving off the moment in which she would have to explain why she was evidently breaking into one of the garages.

  Suddenly very tired, and careless of his uncombed and unshaven appearance, Scott interjected, “You don’t need the saw. I’ve got a key.”

  Her shoulders slumped. “Oh. Good. The saw was only polishing the bar of your damn padlock.” She gave him a crooked grin. “They said you all never come up here. And anyway I figured I’d hear a car. I didn’t expect somebody to walk up.”

  “It’s hardened steel.” He stepped forward across the cracked asphalt, wincing at a reviving pain in his knee. “Who said?”

  “I bet you don’t look as bad as this all the time, right?”

  “Debatable.” He lowered himself carefully onto one knee and lifted the padlock. One side of the U-bar was indeed shinier where the hacksaw teeth had skated impotently back and forth over it. He fitted the key into the lock and the bar sprang open.

  Still on one knee, he peered up at her. “Who said?”

  Her smile was glassy. “Oh—people paying me.”

  He stood up. “People who pay you want something out of our garages?” His shoulders were nearly twitching with the reflex to take her into his arms, but it certainly didn’t sound as if she had come back into his life to reestablish their relationship. He wished he’d brought a pack of cigarettes—and possibly the Wild Turkey bottle too.

  “I tried to tell you about it yesterday, Scott. I went to the Ravenna Apartments, and the gentleman there said you were staying here for a week, and when I came here, a woman said you weren’t home. But I waited on the street, and after a while I saw you taking off on your bike. That’s the same bike as before, isn’t it? So I followed you. You went to the Ross for Less on Alvarado. Did you know there was a man in a white Chevy Blazer following you?”

  Her hair was shorter than it had been fifteen years ago, backlit now by the sun. He squinted at her, trying to read her expression; all he could conclude was that she was very embarrassed . . . and, behind that, it occurred to him, scared.

  “No,” he said, “I didn’t know about the Chevy Blazer.” He wondered if it was true.

  “I was—” he paused, then went on, “yesterday I was glad to hear that you were trying to get in touch with me.” He bent down and gripped the handle at the bottom of the wooden door and hauled upward; he felt as if he was dislocating his shoulder, but the door rocked up, squeaking, to its overhead horizontal position.

  Inside, standing lamps and ornate tables and chairs were stacked to the low ceiling and nearly to the edge of the cement floor. It was furniture that had been stored in the apiary when he had lived at Caveat, stashed here sometime after he had moved out.

  He turned to Louise; she had stepped closer, and the sun was on her face. It was thinner now, and there were new lines under her pale blue eyes and in her cheeks, a
nd before she turned hastily away he noticed a spot of red beside the iris of her left eye.

  “I’m sorry,” she said. “I still wouldn’t lie to you. I was going to tell you about it all.” She frowned. “You really do look like hell. But so do we all, these days.”

  “There’s nothing in here for me,” Scott said, nodding at the furniture in the garage. “Were you after a lamp? A set of chairs?”

  “I don’t think so. Unlock another one.”

  He pulled the door back down and knelt to resecure the padlock. “That’s the plan.”

  “How’s Madeline?” she asked as they walked to the next garage.

  “Oh—same.”

  “Ah.”

  Louise had to get her hands under the edge of the door of the next garage and help him lift it; and he noticed an apparently constant tremor in her hands. The old wood groaned loudly, and dust sifted down from the door when they had worked it into the raised position.

  Cobwebs were draped in diaphanous gray sheets over a white-painted desk and half a dozen cardboard boxes and, sure enough, the orange couch and the high mirrored cabinet that was the wet bar. The confined air had the rancid-oil smell of mildew, and Scott wondered if this roof leaked too.

  He turned to Louise and raised his eyebrows in inquiry. He felt brittle and tense.

  She shrugged and gave him a defiant look. “Maybe.”

  “Me too.” He knelt on the asphalt and then just sat down and dragged one of the boxes closer. Louise leaned over him as he brushed dust off it.

  She put her hand on his shoulder. “Uh . . . open it slow, Scott.”

  Black widows? he thought. Rats? But he obediently took several seconds pulling the cardboard flaps up.

  The box was packed with old paperback romances, and he pushed it away and slid another box in front of him. “You said you were going to tell me about it all. So tell me.”

  “Ask me.”

  Scott sat back. “What are you looking for here?”

 

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