Medusas web, p.21
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       Medusa's Web, p.21

           Tim Powers
 

  Madeline looked bewildered. “Me?” she asked. “Particularly?”

  Ostriker obviously considered saying something and then thought better of it; finally he just muttered, “Both of you, probably.”

  The interview, such as it was, seemed to be ending. Scott asked quickly, “Do you know what information they were blackmailing her with?”

  Ostriker clanked the bottle down. “I don’t think you two know anything at all.”

  “We know about Natacha!” burst out Madeline.

  Ostriker cocked his head. “I really don’t think you do. I think you found some old notes and stuff in that crazy house, and my name, and figured you could try to stick somebody up for money. How did that work out for your folks?”

  “You tell us,” said Scott.

  “How about I tell you this instead—if you come around here again, I’ll kill you both for trespassers.” He was grinning broadly. “That sound equitable? That work for you? Now—ankle your sorry little asses out of my house.”

  Scott started toward the living room, then paused. This had accomplished nothing. Desperately, he asked, “Do you know where William Desmond Taylor’s exorcism film went, after Paul and Charlene took it from Natacha Rambova?”

  Ostriker stood perfectly still for several heartbeats, staring at the spot by the window where Scott and Madeline had been standing. Then he said, quietly, “Maybe you’re the ones who should be worrying about wheelbugs.”

  He appeared to have nothing more to say. Scott took Madeline’s elbow again and led her through the cavernous white living room to the front door. Ostriker was still standing in the kitchen, facing the window, so Scott unlatched the door and pulled it open.

  They hurried across the pavement to the car, and when they had slammed the doors and Madeline had started the engine, she said, “What did we learn there?”

  “Everybody knows more than we do, that’s what.” Scott rubbed his face and exhaled shakily as Madeline reversed on the broad expanse of cement, and he whispered, “I hate people pointing guns at me!”

  Madeline shook her head. “He had something Aunt Amity wanted, and he hid from her under this fake Ostriker name—Mom had the name in quotes, right?—but after a while it didn’t matter anymore because she found something better.”

  “I thought he meant she found something better like a boyfriend . . . or a girlfriend.”

  “No. Some thing.”

  He turned to look at his sister. “Have you met him before? Like, was he ever an astrological client of yours? It sure looked like he recognized you.”

  “It did look like that,” she agreed, “and what was that business about me and a zoo? But no, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him before. He didn’t look as old as we thought he would, did he?”

  Her purse was in the backseat, and Scott hiked around to get his hand in it. Madeline had got the car in drive and begun guiding it down the long driveway when he sat back down in his seat, holding their aunt’s old phone book.

  “Let’s see if Genod Speas still lives at the address she’s got here,” he said.

  CHAPTER 17

  THE ADDRESS IN THEIR aunt’s phone book for Genod Speas, east of Fairfax Avenue and just north of the 101 Freeway, proved to be a small pistachio-green stuccoed house with bars over the windows and front door, and a short, patchy front lawn. An adult-sized tricycle was locked with a cable to the post of a mailbox by the front step.

  “Her brother,” said Madeline as she spun the steering wheel to drive up the two cracked concrete strips that served as a driveway.

  “According to Claymation.”

  They climbed out of the car and trudged up the walkway to the cement steps below the door; Scott stood on the lower one and rapped on the perforated black metal door between the bars.

  “It’s not my dog!” came a quavering voice from beyond the door, and Scott realized that the solid inner door was open. He tried without success to peer through the rows of tiny holes in the metal sheet.

  “I’m not here about a dog,” said Scott loudly. He looked back at Madeline and spread his hands.

  “Message from Amity,” she prompted in a whisper.

  “It’s about Amity Speas,” called Scott. “Or Madden.”

  He heard creaking and squeaking from inside, and after several seconds the metal door was pulled open, and between the bars Scott saw a sagging, wrinkled face below wispy white hair appear out of the interior shadows.

  “You brought my check?” said the old man, blinking up at Scott. “It’s more than a week late. They think it’s my dog, but it’s not. I don’t have a dog.”

  “I’ll tell them. Can we come in? I’m Scott Madden, and this is my sister, Madeline. Amity Speas was our aunt. You’re Genod Speas?”

  “Yes, I—” Speas clenched his eyes shut, then said hollowly, “Was?”

  “I’m sorry,” said Madeline. “She . . . passed on, last Wednesday.”

  The face contorted in a hundred new wrinkles, but the old man lifted one spotted hand from the grip of a walker and turned the interior knob on the barred gate. Scott pulled it open.

  Speas, in worn purple flannel pajamas and barefoot, tugged his walker back across scattered newspapers that rattled under its wheels. The walker had a seat attached to it, and he sagged down onto it and laid his head on the crossbar between the grips. His scalp was clearly visible under his scanty white hair.

  Madeline gave Scott an anxious look.

  “You’re her older brother?” she said.

  Speas raised his head. “I have no older brother,” he said brokenly. “How could she die? I’m not—but I need my check.”

  Scott looked around the room. Age-darkened curtains hung over two windows flanking the door, and the outside bars cast vertical shadows on the fabric. Folded brown paper shopping bags were stacked on a blue vinyl couch against one wall, and an old television set with rabbit-ear antennas stood on a painted table against the opposite wall. It wasn’t turned on, and Scott was pretty sure it couldn’t work. The air was warm and stale, with a whiff of corn tortillas.

  “She’s dead?” said Speas. “You’re certain?”

  Madeline nodded at him, wide-eyed. “I’m sorry,” she said.

  The old man stared at her and then swiveled his head to peer at Scott. “You live at Caveat?”

  “For the moment,” said Scott.

  “She would never let me live there. She paid me to stay here. I don’t even have a dog!”

  “She was your sister?” asked Madeline.

  “No,” said the old man, suddenly angry. “Is that the story? She was my mother.”

  Scott looked up and met Madeline’s glance and shook his head slightly.

  But Speas saw the look. “I’ve got a birth certificate,” he said querulously, “a real one, if you don’t believe me.” He blinked around the narrow room as if hoping to see it.

  “When were you born?” asked Scott.

  “Nineteen twenty-three,” said Speas, apparently proud of remembering it, “and she was twenty-four years old.”

  “We saw a picture of her that was taken before 1926,” said Madeline.

  “She was an actress,” said Speas, his voice catching. “She got work in every scene—because she was too smart to ever let the camera see her face close up! You can’t have a, a French peasant girl in a crowd recognizably show up later as a lady in King Louis’s court!” He glared at Scott and Madeline as if they had suggested that one could. “Pro—professional. She always wore yellow, because that looked white on film. You know what actual white would do?”

  Scott shook his head.

  “It would flare so bright on the screen that people’s faces looked like mud. But she lost her career, changed her name, lost it all, the year before I was born.”

  “What happened?” asked Madeline.

  “Somebody shot her, in the foot. With a gun. It never healed straight. I worked in the movie business myself, later.” He peered around again at the shabby living room as if wonder
ing what his original topic had been. “Ava Gardner and I . . . meant something to each other, at one time.” He looked up at Madeline. “You’ll get me my check, won’t you?”

  “I’ll see that they get it to you,” she said. “Quick.”

  “Who was your father?” asked Scott.

  Speas covered his face in his wrinkled hands. “She would never say his name. I think he was the devil.”

  “What was her name,” Scott went on, “before she changed it?”

  “She made me promise never to tell. I never have.”

  “But now that she’s—” began Scott, but Madeline interrupted him with a wave.

  “When did you last see her?” she asked.

  “I haven’t seen her since . . . right after Night of the Iguana came out. She never let me go to Caveat. I think she married again and had another son. I never could read her books.”

  Over the old man’s head, Scott mouthed at Madeline, We need to know her name.

  Madeline shook her head impatiently, and her lips clearly formed the words, We know it.

  “Ava Gardner was in Night of the Iguana,” said Speas softly, perhaps talking to himself now. “She and I . . .” He nodded. “I’m sure she remembers.”

  Scott was pretty sure Ava Gardner was dead.

  SCOTT WAS SMOKING ANOTHER cigarette, his right arm out the car window, as Madeline drove up Fairfax past watch-repair shops and vintage clothing stores, and finally Madeline spoke.

  “Aunt Amity was a hundred and sixteen years old when she died. Not seventy-one, like everybody thinks.”

  Scott blew smoke out the window. “Ostriker and Speas, both, made me think of a forged birth certificate.” He laughed. “It makes sense, sort of, but I really don’t actually believe it.”

  “I do,” said Madeline, keeping her eyes on the traffic ahead but nodding emphatically. “Her last-person novel is all Charlene talking to that detective from her books. Not Amity. Charlene stole the exorcism film from Natacha and got shot in the foot doing it.”

  “Aunt Amity always did limp,” Scott admitted.

  “I don’t,” said Madeline. “I wonder if that’s why she wants to possess me.”

  “I’m sure that’s it.”

  Madeline sighed. “You’re making fun of me.”

  “Sorry.”

  “The 1899 birth certificate was her real one; her real name is Charlene Cooper. Was. The 1944 one, and the Amity Speas name, were fakes. She got so old that she had to pretend that she was her own made-up daughter.”

  Scott took a long draw on the cigarette. “When you lay it all out that way, it sounds—insane.”

  “Think about it.”

  He caught himself thinking instead of how the sun had lit Louise’s hair this morning, and even of what brush he would use to capture it in paint on canvas, and he forced the unwelcome thought away. “We’ll want to look at those photocopies again,” he said.

  CHAPTER 18

  THE BOOM ON THE roof and the grinding crackle in Ariel’s bedroom wall were simultaneous, and her first panicky thought was that her aunt’s suicide reruns were going to knock the house down. But when she glanced at the wall, she quickly looked away, her heart pounding. She had peripherally glimpsed eight cracks radiating from a central point at about eye level, and for several seconds she just stood in the middle of the floor, trembling, breathlessly wondering if she had seen it clearly enough to be tipped into a spider vision.

  After twenty heartbeats, it was clear that she had not. She was simply looking out the window at the sunlit houses on the slope across Vista Del Mar.

  But I could look at it, she told herself, relaxing. It’s clean, it just happened, obviously nobody has looked at it before; and I can . . . afterward I can get a hammer and knock all the plaster off the wall with my eyes closed, so I won’t look at it again, it won’t have an after for me or anybody else. It’s not like I’m relapsing, I can’t help it, I didn’t go looking for it, the damn thing just appeared in the wall! And the spiders are going to stop working soon anyway!—at least according to that strange little man in front of the spiderbit shop.

  She half turned toward the cracked wall, then stopped. Scott is staying away from liquor, she thought. I have at least as much willpower as he has. And he’d be able to tell, if I look at it now—at dinner I’d be all stiff and bleary and spider lagged. He’d know.

  She stepped across the rag rug to her dresser and pulled open the top drawer, reaching for the bull’s-eye glasses she had left there; and so her hand partly blocked her view of the slip of paper that lay in the front of the drawer, but she saw the diverging ends of the ink lines.

  “Fuck!” She looked straight at the floor as she clutched and crumpled the paper, then groped blindly around in the drawer—but the glasses were gone.

  With her eyes nearly closed, so that she was peering blurrily through her eyelashes, she shuffled out of her room, then hurried wide-eyed down the hall to the next bedroom door. She turned the knob and yanked the door open.

  Claimayne was sitting up in his ornate bed, hunched over the bedside table, and his pale, surprised face was turned toward her. On the table were a dozen glittering strips of foil and a gun she hadn’t seen before—it was a revolver, but it looked bulkier than the one she’d taken from him yesterday and pitched into a bush by the driveway.

  She burst out, “On Tuesday night when I asked you for one, you told me not to do a spider, and now you leave one in my drawer? Did you hope to still have enough volition left to let you walk around in me?” She took a deep breath. “You miserable shit,” she added.

  He was blinking at her with his mouth open.

  “My God,” she said more quietly, “you did want to switch with me!”

  His mouth snapped shut. “There was—are you saying there was a spider in your drawer?” The lamplight glittered on tiny drops of sweat on his forehead.

  She looked at the stainless-steel revolver and shivered. “What were you going to do, in my body, if your trick worked? Or did you just want to rejuvenate your creepy old blood one more time, with mine? And why the gun?” She strode to the bedside table and picked up one of the glittering strips. “What are these, gum wrappers?”

  Claimayne visibly pulled himself together. “You found my spider,” he said with a fluttering smile. “I was wondering where I left it. I was carrying it around, and snooping, and I must have accidentally left it in your drawer.” He frowned and nodded. “I’m sorry—you know I don’t approve of you using them.”

  “Then what’s become of my bull’s-eye glasses?”

  After an expressionless pause, Claimayne said, “I wouldn’t know. But you can get more, can’t you?—from your . . . allies.”

  Ariel let go of the foil strip and gave him a puzzled frown. “Is it because I went there? To the spiderbit shop?”

  Claimayne pulled open the drawer in the bedside table and lifted the revolver and laid it in the drawer, then carefully swept the foil strips in after it.

  He slid the drawer shut and folded his hands. “I don’t have time to answer all your idiotic questions.”

  “Allies? Do you think the spiderbits asked me to spy on you? Damn it, tell me what you were going to—”

  “Please leave my room. Be grateful I don’t tell you to leave this house. I’m the owner now.”

  A line of bright blood abruptly ran down from one nostril to his lips. He licked it away, but made no attempt to block the flow, and a moment later the line ran down his chin and drops of blood were falling metronomically onto his embroidered dressing gown.

  “See what you’ve done,” he said.

  Ariel opened her mouth to say something further, then just turned and hurried out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

  SCOTT HEARD A DOOR slam, and then footsteps hurrying in the hall and knocking away down the stairs. Madeline was with him in their parents’ room, so he knew it must have been Ariel.

  “I don’t think we’ve brought peace to this house,” said Madelin
e, sitting on the water-stained mattress and holding the Valentino biography. Their parents’ telephone sat on a shelf beside the door, yards from the short wires that stuck out of the wall; Scott had said that if it worked at all, it would probably work better unconnected.

  “I don’t think Aunt Amity meant us to,” Scott said. “I’ll fetch those papers.”

  Scott walked through Madeline’s room to his own, and he stepped around the bed and lifted the mattress; then his face was suddenly cold and he lifted the mattress higher and peered around at the shadowed surface of the box springs.

  The manila envelope was not there, though he could see the pint bottle of Wild Turkey lying faceup, glittering even in the dimness. After a few more seconds of useless scrutiny, he dropped the mattress and got down on his hands and knees to look under the bed and around at the floor. But the envelope was nowhere to be seen.

  It had been under the mattress this morning when he had pushed the abused Wild Turkey bottle in beside it.

  He walked back through the two doorways to their parents’ bare room. “Let’s take a walk in the garden,” he said.

  “Didn’t you want to look—”

  “I can look for my cigarettes later,” he said, winking at her.

  “Oh.” She stood up uncertainly. “Okay.”

  The two of them hurried out of the room and down the hall past Ariel’s and Claimayne’s rooms, and as they passed the wall of doors, Scott was tempted to knock on the one from the Garden of Allah—when is a door not adore, he thought; and he remembered Madeline’s guess that the answer was, when it’s a way in, Scott—but Madeline was already clattering down the wooden stairs, and he lengthened his stride to catch up.

  On the ground floor they could hear banging from down the hall in the direction of their aunt’s library, but Scott shook his head and pointed at the shorter hall that led to the laundry room and a back door.

  When they had walked outside, the cold breeze blew the door shut behind them. Scott led his sister along one of the gravel paths up the slope, and he halted a dozen yards short of the Medusa wall.

 

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