Three days to never a no.., p.2
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       Three Days to Never: A Novel, p.2

           Tim Powers
 

  With the side of her shoe, she scuffed mud off the bottom of the slab, and then stepped back. Jan 12—1928, she read. The writing seemed to have been done with a stick.

  “Bunch of old letters,” her father said behind her. “New Jersey postmarks, 1933, ’39, ’55…”

  “To her?”

  Daphne pried off some more mud with her fingers. There was a long, smooth groove next to the shoe prints, as if a rod too had been pressed into the wet cement. She noticed that the shoe prints were awfully long and narrow, and set at a duck-foot angle.

  “Lisa Marrity, yup,” said her father.

  Above the rod indentation was a crude caricature of a man with a bowler hat and a Hitler mustache.

  “The letters are all in German,” her father said. She could hear him rifling through the stack. “Well, no, some in English. Ugh, they’re sticky, the envelopes! Was she licking them?”

  Daphne could puzzle out the words at the top of the block, since the grooves of the writing were neatly filled in with black mud. To Sid—Best of Luck. And the last clump of dirt fell off all at once when she tugged at it. Exposed now was the carefully incised name, Charlie Chaplin.

  Daphne looked over her shoulder at her father, who was holding the metal box and peering into it. “Hey,” she said.

  “Hmm?”

  “Check this out.”

  Marrity looked at her, then past her at the cement slab; his face went blank. He put the box down on the shelf. “Is that real?” he said softly.

  She tried to think of a funny answer, then just shrugged. “I don’t know.”

  He was staring at the slab. “I mean, isn’t the real one at the Chinese Theater?”

  “I don’t know.”

  He glanced at her and smiled. “Sorry. But this might be real. Maybe they made two. She says she knew Chaplin. She flew to Switzerland after he died.”

  “Where did he die?”

  “In Switzerland, goof. I wonder if these letters—” He paused, for Daphne had got down on her hands and knees and begun prying up the bricks along the edge of the exposed patch of wet dirt. “What?” he said. “Gold?”

  “She almost burned up the shed,” Daphne said without looking up. “Got the cap off the gas can, at least.”

  “Well—true.” Her father knelt beside her, on the bricks instead of the mud—which Daphne was pleased to see, as she didn’t want to wash a fresh pair of pants for him to wear to work tomorrow—and pulled up a couple of bricks himself. His dark hair was falling into his eyes, and he streaked a big smudge of grime onto his forehead when he pushed it back. Great, Daphne thought; he looks—probably we both look—as if we just tunneled out of a jail.

  Daphne saw a glint of brightness in the flat mud where one brick had been, and she rubbed at it; it was a piece of wire about as thick as a pencil. It was looped, and she hooked a finger through it to pull it up, but the rest of the loop was stuck fast under the other bricks.

  “Is this gold?” she asked her father.

  He grunted and rubbed more dirt off the wire. “I can’t say it’s not,” he said. “Right color, at least, and it’s pliable.”

  “She said you should get the gold up from under the bricks, right? So let’s—”

  From outside, on the street, a car horn honked three times, and then a man’s voice called, “Frank?”

  “It’s your uncle Bennett,” said her father, quickly slamming back into place the bricks he had moved. Daphne fit hers back in too, suppressing a giggle at the idea of hiding the treasure from her dumb uncle.

  The bricks replaced, her father leaped up and grabbed all the papers in the ammunition box into one fist and shoved them deep into an inside pocket of his jacket on the shelf. He wiped his hand on his shirt, and Daphne remembered that he had said the envelopes were sticky.

  “Stand back,” he said, and Daphne stepped back beside the television set.

  Then he cautiously put one foot on the square of black dirt and gripped the cement slab by the top edges and pulled it toward himself. It swayed forward, and then he hopped backward out of the way as it overbalanced and thudded heavily to the floor, breaking one row of bricks. The whole shed shook, and black dust sifted down onto the two of them from the rotted ceiling.

  The block’s near edge was visibly canted up, resting on the row of broken bricks.

  “Both of us,” said Daphne, sitting down on the bricks to set her heels against the raised edge. Her father knelt on the bricks and braced his hands on the slab.

  “On three,” he said. “One, two, three.”

  Daphne and her father both pushed, and then pushed harder, and at last the slab shifted, slid to its original position and thumped down flush with the bricks. Its top face was dry and blank.

  Daphne heard the click of the backyard gate, and she scrambled up and ran two steps to the VCR and hit the eject button. The machine whirred as her uncle’s footsteps thrashed through the weeds, and then the tape had popped out and Daphne snatched it and dropped it into her purse as her father hastily grabbed his jacket from the shelf, slid his arms into the sleeves and shrugged it onto his shoulders.

  “Frank!” came Bennett’s shout again, this time from just outside the open door. “I saw your car! Where are you?”

  “In here, Bennett!” Daphne’s father called.

  Her uncle’s red face peered in under the sagging door lintel, and for once his expression was simply wide-eyed dismay. His mustache was already spiky with sweat, though he would have had the air conditioner on in his car.

  “What the fuck’s going on?” he yelled shrilly. “Why the—bloody hell does it smell like gasoline in here?” Daphne guessed that he was embarrassed at having said fuck, and so hurried to cover it with his habitual bloody—though he wasn’t British. “You’ve got Daphne with you!”

  “Grammar left the top off a gas can,” her father said. “We were trying to get some ventilation in here.”

  “What was that almighty crash?”

  Her father jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “The window fell out when I tried to open it.”

  “Sash weights,” put in Daphne.

  “Why are you even here?” Bennett demanded. He ducked in under the lintel and stood up inside; the shed was very crowded with three people in it.

  “My grandmother called me this morning,” said Marrity evenly, “and asked me to come over and look at the shed. She said she was afraid it was going to burn down, and with that uncapped gasoline can in here, it might have.”

  Daphne noted the details of her father’s half lie; and she noted his emphasis on my grandmother—Bennett had only married into the family.

  “It’s a little academic at this point,” snapped Bennett, “and there’s nothing valuable out here.” He looked more closely at Daphne and her father, presumably only now noticing the dust in their hair and the mud on their hands, and suddenly his eyes widened. “Or is there?”

  His hand darted out and pulled the videocassette from Daphne’s purse. “What’s this?”

  Daphne could read the label on it: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. It was a movie she’d seen in a theater two years ago. “That’s mine,” she said. “It’s about bad people stealing Pee-wee’s bicycle.”

  “My daughter’s not a thief, Bennett,” her father said mildly. Daphne reflected that right now she was a thief, actually.

  “I know, sorry.” Bennett tossed the cassette, and Daphne caught it. “But you shouldn’t be here,” he said to her father as he bent down to step out of the shed, “now that she’s dead.” From outside he called, “Not unless Moira and I are here too.”

  Marrity followed him outside, and Daphne was right behind him.

  “Who’s dead?” asked her father.

  Bennett frowned. “Your grandmother. You don’t know this? She died an hour and a half ago, at Mount Shasta. The hospital just called me—Moira and I are to fly up this afternoon and take care of the funeral arrangements.” He peered at his brother-in-law. “You really didn’t know?”


  “Mount Shasta, at like”—Marrity glanced at his watch—“noon? That’s not possible. Why would she be at Mount Shasta?”

  “She was communing with angels or something—well, that turned out to be right. She was there for the Harmonic Convergence.”

  Behind the grime and the tangles of dark hair, Frank Marrity’s face was pale. “Where’s Moira?”

  “She’s at home, packing. Now if we want to avoid things like restraining orders, I think we should all agree—”

  “I’m going to call her.” He started toward the house, and Daphne trotted along behind him, clutching her Pee-wee videocassette.

  “It’ll be locked,” Bennett called after him.

  Daphne’s father didn’t answer, but pulled his key ring out of his pants pocket.

  “You’ve got a key? You shouldn’t have a key!”

  Grammar’s house was a white Spanish adobe with a red-tile roof, and the back patio had a trellis shading it, tangled with roses and grapevines. Over the back door was a wooden sign, with hand-carved letters: Everyone Who Dwells Here Is Safe. Daphne had wondered about it ever since she had been able to read, and only last summer she had found the sentence in a Grimm Brothers fairy tale, “The Maiden Without Hands.” The sentence had been on a sign in front of the house of a good fairy who had taken in a fugitive queen and her baby son.

  The air was cooler under the trellis, and Daphne could smell roses on the breeze. She wondered how her father was taking the news of his grandmother’s death. He and his sister had been toddlers when they lost their parents—their father ran away and their mother died in a car crash soon after—and they had been raised here, by Grammar.

  Her father stopped on the step up to the back door, and Daphne saw that one of the vertical windows beside the door was broken; and when her father walked to the door and twisted the knob, the door swung inward. None of the locks here are any good, she thought.

  “You’ve erased fingerprints!” panted Bennett, who was right behind Daphne now. “It was probably a burglar that broke the window.”

  “A burglar would have reached through and turned the knob inside,” Daphne told him. “My dad isn’t going to touch that one.”

  “Daph,” said her father. “Wait out here with Bennett.”

  Her father stepped into the kitchen, and her uncle at least waited with her.

  “Probably broke it herself,” muttered Bennett. “Marritys.”

  ”‘Divil a man can say a word agin them,’” said Daphne. She and her father had recently watched Yankee Doodle Dandy, and her head was full of George M. Cohan lyrics.

  Bennett glanced away from the door to give her an irritable look. “All that Shakespeare won’t help you get a job. Except—” He shook his head and resumed staring at the kitchen door.

  “It’ll help me get a job as a literature professor,” she said blandly, knowing that that was what his except had referred to. Her father was a literature professor at the University of Redlands. “Best job there is.” Her uncle Bennett was a location manager for TV commercials, and apparently made way more money than her father did.

  Her uncle opened his mouth and then after a second snapped it shut again, clearly not wanting to get into an argument with a girl. “You absolutely reek of gasoline,” he said instead.

  She heard footsteps on linoleum in the house, and then her father pulled the kitchen door wide open. “If there was a thief, he’s gone,” he said. “Let’s see if she has any beers in her ’frigerator.”

  “We shouldn’t touch anything,” said Bennett, but he stepped in ahead of Daphne. The house was cool, and the kitchen smelled faintly of bacon and onions and cigarettes, as usual.

  Daphne couldn’t see that anything in the room was different from the way it had looked at Easter—the spotless sink and counter, the garlic-and-dried-rosemary centerpiece on the kitchen table; the broom was upside down in the corner, but the old lady always kept it that way—to scare off nightmares, according to her father.

  Bennett picked up a business card from the kitchen counter. “See?” he said. “Bell Cabs. She must have taken a taxi to the airport.” He set it back down again.

  Her father had lifted the receiver from the yellow telephone on the wall and was using the forefinger of the same hand to spin the dial. With his other hand he pointed at the refrigerator. “Daph, could you see if there’s a beer in there?”

  Daphne pulled open the door of the big green refrigerator—it was older than her father, who had once said that it looked like a 1950 Buick stood on its nose—and found two cans of Budweiser among the jars of nasty black concoctions.

  She put one into her father’s hand and waved the other at her uncle.

  “Not Budweiser, thank you,” he said stiffly.

  Daphne put the other can on the counter by her father, and looked at the cork bulletin board on the wall. “Her keys are gone,” she noted.

  “Probably in her purse,” her father said. “Moira?” he said into the telephone. “Did Grammar die? What? This is a lousy connection. Bennett told me—we’re at her house. What? At her house, I said.” He popped open the beer one-handed. “I don’t know. Listen, are you sure?” He took a long sip of the beer. “I mean, could it have been a prank call?” For several seconds he just listened, and he put the beer can down on the tile counter to touch Grammar’s electric coffee grinder; he flipped the switch on it, and the little upright cylinder chattered as it ground up some beans that must still have been in it. He switched it off again. “When did the hospital call you? Talk slower. Uh-huh. And when you called them back, what was the number?”

  He lifted a pencil from a vase full of pens and pencils and wrote the number on the back of the Bell Cabs card.

  “What were the last two numbers? Okay, got it.” He put the card in his shirt pocket. “Yeah, me too kid. Okay, thanks.” He held the receiver out to Bennett. “She wants to talk to you. Bad connection—it keeps getting screechy or silent.”

  Bennett nodded impatiently and took the phone, and he was saying, “I just wanted to see if—are you there?—if there was anything here we’d need to bring along, birth certificate…” as Frank Marrity led Daphne into the dark living room.

  Grammar’s violin and bow were hanging in their usual place between two framed parchments with Jewish writing on them, and in spite of having been scared of the old woman, Daphne suddenly felt like crying at the thought that Grammar would never play it anymore. Daphne remembered her bow skating over the strings in the first four notes of one of her favorite Mozart violin concertos.

  A moment later her father softly whistled the next six notes.

  Daphne blinked. “And!” she whispered, “you’re sad about Grammar, and mad at her too—and you’re very freaked about her coffee grinder! I…can’t see why.”

  After a pause, he nodded. “That’s right.” He looked at her with one eyebrow raised. “This is the first time you and I have both had it at the same time.”

  “Like turn blinkers on a couple of cars,” she said quietly. “It was bound to match up eventually.” She looked up at him. “What’s so weird about her coffee grinder?”

  “I’ll tell you later.” In a normal tone he said, over her shoulder, “I don’t think my grandmother ever had a birth certificate.”

  Daphne turned and saw that Bennett had entered the living room and was frowning at the drawn curtains.

  “I suppose they don’t give birth certificates in Oz,” he said. “We should fix that window.”

  “I can use her Makita to screw a piece of plywood over it from the inside. You think we should call the police?” Her father waved at the violin on the wall. “If there was a thief, he didn’t take her Stradivarius.”

  Bennett blinked and started forward. “Is that a Stradivarius?”

  “I was kidding. No. I don’t think anything’s been taken.”

  “Very funny. I don’t think we need to call the police. But fix the window now—we should all leave together, and only come here all toget
her.” He rubbed his mustache. “I wonder if she left a will.”

  “Moira and I are on the deed already. I can’t imagine there’s much besides the house.”

  “Her car, her books. Some of this…artwork might be valuable to some people.”

  To some weirdos, you mean, thought Daphne. She was suddenly defensive about the old woman’s crystals and copper bells and paintings of unicorns and eyes in pyramids and sleepy-looking bearded guys wearing robes.

  “We’ll want to inventory it all, get an appraiser,” Bennett went on. “She was a collector, and she might have happened to pick up some valuable items, amid all the crap. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.”

  Daphne could feel that the mention of broken clocks, in this house, jarred her father. There were a lot of things she wanted to remember to ask him about, once they were in their truck again.

  Two

  Outside the vibrating windowpane, the narrow trunks of palm trees swayed in the hard sun glare over the glittering traffic on La Brea Avenue. This was south of Olympic, south of the dressy stores around Melrose with black or green awnings out front, and way south of Charlie Chaplin’s old studio up at Sunset where you could see the individual houses on the green Hollywood hills; down here it was car washes and Chinese fast food and one-hour photo booths and old apartment buildings, like this one, with fenced-in front lawns. The apartment was stuffy, and reeked of coffee and cigarette smoke.

  Oren Lepidopt had crushed out his latest cigarette in the coffee cup on the blocky living room table, and he held the telephone receiver tight to his ear. Answer the page, he thought. It’s a land line, obviously it’s something I don’t want broadcast.

  The only sound in the apartment aside from the faint music at the window was the soft rattle of keystrokes on an electronic keyboard in the kitchen.

  At last Malk’s voice came on the line—“Hello?”—and Lepidopt leaned back against the couch cushions.

  “Bert,” he said. “It’s daylight here.”

 

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