Medusas web, p.23
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       Medusa's Web, p.23

           Tim Powers
 

  Scott had got the rhythm of riding over the tracks now, and he was able to guide the bike over three more pairs of rails with only moderate use of the throttle, standing on the footpegs and leaning forward and backward as the bike pitched like a boat in a heavy sea.

  He paused to catch his breath after the third set of tracks, and Ariel said, “Did you hear him? No? He shouted at us—says he can shoot to wound us.”

  Scott nodded and gripped the clutch. “Run ahead of me.”

  Then Ariel’s torn skirt and short brown hair were fluttering ahead of him as he crossed the three remaining tracks quickly enough to make her visibly pick up her pace. He didn’t hear any shots from behind.

  The rear wheel skidded around as he put his weight on the back brake pedal just short of the river fence, and he didn’t have to tell Ariel to get back on. With her arms clamped around his ribs he rode fast south along the fence, under the arch of the Sixth Street bridge and out the other side; when he glanced to the right, he saw the white SUV and one of the pickup trucks keeping up with him on the far side of the tracks and the fence.

  A hundred feet farther there was a long gap in the fence to Scott’s left, so he steered the bike through, and then they were riding straight down the twenty-five-degree concrete slope toward the fifty-yard expanse of churning green water. Scott was leaning back against Ariel, gripping the front brake lever and standing on the back brake pedal. The back brake squealed.

  He leaned to the right and managed to keep the bike upright as it swooped around and then straightened out a few yards above the water, and the rumble of the engine echoed back from the slope on the far side of the river as the motorcycle wobbled along the slanted concrete surface, parallel to the river. Slowly he increased the speed.

  After a few tense seconds, “This is a good trick!” said Ariel behind him.

  “Don’t lean,” he called back. “Sit straight up against the bar.”

  They passed through the shadow under the Seventh Street bridge, and Scott could see the multiple bridges of a big freeway interchange a quarter of a mile ahead. He realized with a chill that although he could maintain this straight-line progress forever, he wasn’t sure how he would steer back up the slope. A long, very shallow slant, he decided. But when and if I get to the top, will I see those damned vehicles still pacing us?

  “Eighth Street is right under that freeway ahead of us,” called Ariel, “and there’s an on-ramp pretty quick.”

  Time to try that slant, he thought, and he leaned his shoulders to the right—he was sweating with the thought of the wheels losing traction on the incline and spilling them down the slope into the river—but the motorcycle gradually angled up the concrete slope, and in a minute the chain-link fence was rippling past only a few yards to his right.

  When a gap in the fence appeared—a wheeled gate was pulled back as if to ramp a boat down to the water—he had passed it by the time he was able to gingerly brake the bike to a halt; Ariel got off and stood in the gap while he carefully walked the bike back and then turned it and gunned it up onto level pavement.

  “I don’t see our guys,” she said. “I bet there’s no underpass at Seventh Street, and they had to shift a block west. But you’ve got tracks to cross again.”

  Scott took a deep breath and let it out. “I’m pretty good at it now.”

  Several of the tracks had merged, this far south, and he only had to go seesawing over seven pairs of rails, while his arms shook in their sockets and Ariel paced alongside.

  When he halted on a wide patch of asphalt under the high shoulder of the freeway bridge, he saw that they were in a long parking lot. A sign between the lot and the street indicated that they were on private property—an AMTRAK maintenance yard—but the street-side gate was open, and when Ariel had climbed back on, he sped through without raising any alarm.

  Then it was more low anonymous warehouses with bricked-over windows and Dumpsters on the sidewalks and barred gates across rolled-down segmented metal doors. When they bobbed across Santa Fe Avenue, Ariel glanced north.

  Her arms tightened around his ribs. “Here they come,” she said loudly in his ear. “Freeway on-ramp should be soon on your left.”

  Scott downshifted and twisted the throttle, and the motorcycle howled and leaped forward; in the right-side mirror he saw a pickup truck and then the white SUV come leaning into view in the lanes behind them, but looking ahead he could see the green freeway sign, and he leaned left onto the on-ramp, then quickly leaned right as the ramp curved to join the westbound lanes of the 101 Freeway.

  As he clicked up through the gears and merged out onto the freeway, he saw signs for exits at Spring Street and Alameda, and he could see the peak of the old city hall jutting above one of the new white government buildings half a mile ahead.

  He felt Ariel’s arms relax, though he had accelerated to sixty miles an hour and the headwind must have forced her to nearly close her eyes, and his own shoulders lost some of their tension—the lanes of the 101 between the interchange and the Cahuenga exit always felt like home.

  He opened the throttle and sped across the lanes to the fast lane. If the pickup trucks and the SUV had followed him onto the freeway it would do them no good—on this uninterrupted thoroughfare any motorcycle could outrun them, and if traffic jammed up he could ride between the lines of stopped cars or on the narrow median shoulder.

  But he knew he should get off the freeway before a Highway Patrol car pulled him over because he and Ariel were not wearing helmets.

  “Have you had lunch?” he called.

  She leaned forward to speak directly into his ear. “No.”

  “Miceli’s?”

  “Damn you. All right.”

  CHAPTER 20

  TO STALL FOR TIME, Claimayne spun his wheelchair away from his visitor to face the back of the old garage. Daylight shone on the wooden ladder and the stained cement floor back there, because the rooftop hatch had been left open. And the driveway-side door was broken right off and now lay flat on the pavement outside. This must be the way Scott descended from the roof on Wednesday, Claimayne thought. The three decrepit rubber space aliens beside the aluminum foil spacecraft seemed to peer at him, and he shuddered, remembering how they had frightened him when he was young, and peopled his nightmares recently. Their green arms seemed poised.

  Claimayne made himself think instead about the man standing impatiently behind him. Do I trust him? he wondered. Well, no. Do I trust him to see mutual benefit?

  He reversed the wheelchair to face the man again.

  “There’s Taylor’s film,” Claimayne said at last. “It contained many copies, maybe hundreds, of the Medusa spider, but it was stolen from my mother in 1922 and hasn’t been heard of since, and anyway the image was raw, it would kill you—you’d need to extend it through proxy retinas, get some poor devil to look at it in a before, and then use his posthumous after.”

  He wrinkled his nose at the smell of damp rot, which was hardly at all dispersed by the breeze through the open doorway. “Sorry about the accommodations,” he added, “but I couldn’t let you be seen in the house, and even wheeling myself around the outside of the house to here has been more tiring than I anticipated. I don’t know why I’ve never got a motorized wheelchair.”

  Jules Ferdalisi nodded rapidly, still fingering the rip in his trousers that he had apparently suffered in getting through the old ivy-tangled Vista Del Mar gate. His bald head gleamed with sweat, and the beard that ran weirdly around under his jaw had a couple of bougainvillea petals stuck in it.

  “This is concrete information,” he said, “but of little current use; and your mobility issues—” He raised a hand and let it drop, then peered into the dimness beyond Claimayne, presumably at the awful old aliens beside the spacecraft, and shook his head.

  “My mother,” Claimayne went on, “loved the two children of her stepbrother-in-law more than she did me. Instead of me, really. I’m getting to it, bear with me.”

  He clea
red his throat. Here we go, he thought. “They both looked at the Ince spider in 1992 and survived because of course it was at secondhand, through Ince’s eyes—their own retinas weren’t the ones called on to fully reciprocate. The actual Ince spider is apparently lost, but it’s available in their memories, you see. They’re not lost—they’re both staying right here in this house.”

  “Ah.” Ferdalisi nodded slowly as he visibly relaxed. “Yes. And they visited a couple of interesting people this morning.”

  “Really. I’ll want to hear about that. But you have the resources to take them, force spiders on them, get into their heads—and then reach sideways.”

  Ferdalisi’s brow knit in a fastidious frown. “By the imprecise analogy ‘reach sideways’ I assume you mean—”

  “I mean forcibly strip-mine their psyches, to give you another analogy. Plunder their memories, which include the Medusa, which is the link to a near infinity of hijacked experiences. A hundred years, at least, of retrograde world to live in and control.”

  “Oh. Yes. We—”

  “Listen. You’ll need my help. I can arrange for you to take them both at once, quietly, during the party we’re hosting here tomorrow afternoon.”

  “Very good. We can pay you—”

  “I’m afraid I have no further use for money.”

  Ferdalisi raised his eyebrows. “What then?”

  “Surely it’s obvious? There are two of them, one for each of us. You take the man’s mind, and I’ll take the girl’s.”

  Ferdalisi glanced at Claimayne’s wheelchair. “Immortality in the past.”

  “A very wide and varied past,” agreed Claimayne, touching his gold DNA-coil pendant. “I have no interest in, or likelihood of, seeing 2016, but there are some fine years behind us to be experienced, in a multitude of lives.” He stretched, wincing. “I should tell you that my other cousin, my real, blood cousin, Ariel, has been in touch with the spiderbit people—” He paused when Ferdalisi nodded, then went on, “And I don’t know what she may have told them. I tried to take her out of the picture this afternoon, unsuccessfully.”

  Ferdalisi frowned. “Was she . . . aware of your efforts?”

  “I’m afraid I did rouse suspicion in her, yes. She drove away an hour ago—to tell you the truth, she’s probably seeing the spiderbit people right now.”

  “Not if she consulted their website today,” said Ferdalisi blandly. “She may be no problem.”

  “Huh.” Then I doubt that she did consult this spiderbit website, thought Claimayne, since she’ll apparently be alive and well this evening, to do the reciprocal second viewing of the spider she looked at on Tuesday night. ‘Come in out of the rain, Scott . . . there’s cookies in the kitchen’ . . . She seemed entirely cheery and untroubled in that flashback from a few hours in our future.

  I’ll certainly have to kill her. God knows what she may already have told her spiderbit comrades. But I probably blew my chance to do it through a spider—she’ll be alert for any more such tricks now. What a waste—all those secondhand experiences she contains that I could have had!

  “In any case,” he said, “I doubt she’ll survive tomorrow’s party.”

  SCOTT PARKED THE MOTORCYCLE in the lot behind Miceli’s, hidden between a couple of vans that he hoped would stay there for a while, and Ariel walked slowly to stay beside him as he limped to the sidewalk and past the green canvas awnings and potted plants to the restaurant’s polished wooden front door.

  Ariel pulled it open for him.

  “I’m not an invalid!” he protested.

  “Sorry—I guess I’m too used to Claimayne.”

  The air in the restaurant was welcomely warm after the breezy shirtsleeves ride up the freeway, and smelled of garlic and fennel, and Scott was abruptly very hungry. Hanging lamps over the tables illuminated the dark, carved wood of the booths, and clusters of hanging wine bottles in straw jackets almost hid the glossy beamed ceiling.

  A waiter in a white apron led them down past the row of tall booths to a table up three steps and behind a railing, under a big copy of the Mona Lisa.

  “We’ve sat here before,” said Ariel as Scott pulled out her chair. He couldn’t tell if the look she was giving him was reproachful or ironic. Possibly both.

  “I remember,” he said, sitting down on the seat opposite, against the brick wall. “It was raining outside, and the out-of-town newsstand across the street was lit up like Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night.”

  “I need help,” she said. “You hurt me, years ago, but that was years ago. I—”

  Scott shook his head in incomprehension. “Hurt you? How? Hurting you was the last thing I ever meant to do.”

  “You completed your list, then. These wheelbugs, and Claimayne—”

  “How?”

  “Could I have a glass, no, a bottle, of the Gnarly Head zinfandel, please,” she said, and Scott noticed that the waiter had returned.

  “Two glasses,” he said.

  After the waiter had nodded and walked back down the steps, Ariel looked at him with something like alarm. “You quit!”

  “I started again last night. I’ll quit again, probably. Hurt you how?”

  “Is it my fault, picking on you and Madeline—”

  “No. How?”

  She sighed, staring at him. “You’re not curious about those wheelbugs who tried to, I don’t know, kidnap me?”

  “Terribly curious, yes. But let’s get the important stuff out of the way first.”

  “Hah. Well, you don’t remember it. God, I need some wine in me first.” She sat back and gave him a falsely bright grin and pointed at the woodwork over his head. “Remember when you explained about the pigs?”

  He smiled reluctantly. “It was a . . . misunderstanding.”

  It must have been in about 2000, when he’d have been twenty-one and Ariel would have been eighteen—he had told her that the woodwork here had once been in the Pig and Whistle restaurant around the corner, and had been bought by Miceli’s when the Pig and Whistle closed after World War II. While showing her the dancing pig figure that could be seen in many carved panels around the restaurant, he had gestured at one booth and said, And the pig is here, too—only to belatedly notice a surprised woman sitting in the booth, across from a burly and suddenly angry male companion. Scott had managed to stammer out a hasty apology and explanation before the man had got all the way to his feet.

  “And the pig is here, too,” said Ariel now, reminiscently. “I bet my hair is a mess. And what am I going to do about my car?”

  Scott shook his head. “Thank you,” he said to the waiter, who filled two glasses and set the bottle down on the red-and-white-checkered tablecloth. “We could go back for it,” he said when the man had again retreated.

  “Too likely that they’d wait there for me.”

  “For us. I’m pretty sure that white SUV was there because of me.”

  “For us.” Ariel took a deep sip of the wine, then sang, “We’re little black sheep who have gone astray,” from The Whiffenpoof Song. “I wrote you a note,” she went on, staring into her glass. “When you were packing up, leaving Caveat to marry that Louise woman. I was twenty, I was a kid—it was a love note, damn it. And you—” She paused to take another sip of the wine; then, still looking down, she went on, “You wrote idiot teenager over my signature, and you threw it in the trash.” She held up her hand. “It shouldn’t have affected me the way it did, the way it has . . .”

  Scott leaned forward. “I—did—not. I never saw any such note. I’d have—I might have left Louise, if I’d seen it. I always—”

  She looked up at him in apparent dismay. “Don’t say that! Yes you did, you just don’t remember it. I don’t blame you—I mean, I do, I always have—oh, my car is going to be stolen, I know it—”

  “I could never have forgotten it.”

  “But obviously you have, and I—no offense, but I hate you for that too.”

  “Listen to me,” he said urgently, though h
e wasn’t sure how he would continue. After a moment’s thought, he went on, “I thought our parents abandoned us, Madeline and me—I was sure of it—and I’ve hated them all these years for it, but this morning I found evidence that they didn’t.” He took a deep breath. “I almost can’t let go of it, can’t stop hating them, it’s been my main . . . but . . . I may have misunderstood the circumstances, like the guy here who thought I called his girlfriend a pig.”

  After several long seconds, Ariel nodded. “When I was ten, I found their driver’s licenses and credit cards in the compost barrel, and I put them in a box and stuck it in the garage where Claimayne had stored all their furniture.” She blotted her eyes with her napkin. “You really didn’t see my note? Not at all?”

  “I really did not. I wish I had.”

  “Of course you’d say that.”

  “Ariel, if I—”

  “Oh hell, I believe you, God help me.” She gave a shuddering sigh. “I don’t know what to do. I almost don’t know who I am if you didn’t throw me away. I wish you weren’t drinking.”

  “We’re two black sheep who have gone astray,” said Scott.

  Ariel ran a fingertip around the rim of her glass, but it produced no audible note. “Could I have the chicken Marsala, please,” she said, for the waiter had come up the steps again.

  “Uh, the lasagna, please,” said Scott absently. In his head he was rehearing what Ariel had said a few moments ago—I found their driver’s licenses and credit cards in the compost barrel, and I put them in a box and stuck it in the garage . . .

  “What—are wheelbugs?” he asked.

  “I think I’ll report the car as stolen. Then I’ll just have to pick it up at an impound yard . . . It was Claimayne. Claimayne must have found the note I left for you, and he wrote on it and threw it in the trash. He was always a mean little shit—why does that only seem obvious now? Did I want . . . ?”

  Scott spread his hands helplessly.

  She leaned back in her chair and stretched. “You used to give me rides on your bike. It didn’t cramp me up so much in those days.” She paused, then said, “Wheelbugs are spider addicts who prey on other spider addicts. It seems you can tap into, access, another person’s spider experiences, if you get him to look at one and then later look at it yourself. Not just occupy him for that brief interval, see, like you’d expect, but—you can learn to sort of dig in, and stay, and occupy all the spider visions he’s ever had; even his plain old life experiences, if you’re strong enough. It breaks his mind, the victim’s mind.” She refilled her glass. “The guy in the car that rear-ended me, he tried to show me a spider.”

 
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