Medusas web, p.26
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       Medusa's Web, p.26

           Tim Powers
 

  His heart was almost clanking in his chest, and he shifted his weight to his back foot, ready to run down the hall to his own room, no, to Madeline’s room—

  Madeline, who needs to somehow be saved from Aunt Amity. When is a door not adore? When it’s a way in, Scott.

  Scott nodded several times, then made himself take the long step forward across the threshold; into a small living room with a long violet couch, a black enameled desk by a window on the right, and a potted orchid curling its green leaves and lobed yellow flowers across another window straight ahead. The room glowed with midday sunlight. When he closed the door behind him, he noticed a framed fire evacuation notice screwed to the wood; evidently this was a hotel. He was still squinting and blinking in the bright light.

  The woman raised her chin. “This is that old black geometry, isn’t it?” she said. “We try to avoid having anything to do with that stuff.”

  “I, uh, suppose it is, more or less.” Scott was panting. “Sorry.”

  She cocked her head, smiling quizzically now. Her eyes were vivid blue behind the glasses, and her gray hair was done in a pageboy cut. “I do believe you’re more startled by this . . . impossible intrusion! . . . than I am!” She spoke with an accent, pronouncing “r”s as soft “d”s. Scott caught a whiff of lemon verbena perfume.

  “Yes, ma’am,” said Scott. “Very likely, I mean.” He hoped he had zipped his fly and buttoned his shirt correctly, and wished he’d shaved; at random he said, “Doody?”

  “My secretary,” said the woman. “She’s gone across the street to Schwab’s to fill a prescription—do sit down—look at you, not even any shoes!”

  With a shaky hand she waved him toward the couch and sat down in an armchair on the other side of a low coffee table, by the near window. On the table was a copy of Life magazine with a black-and-white picture of teenaged Shirley Temple on the cover, and the woman reached out to pick nervously at the glued-on address label.

  “It’s not her real name, of course,” she went on distractedly. “In a movie we saw, a man referred to his wife as his sacred duty, and he pronounced it doody—not that—” She clenched her fists and let out what was left of her breath, and then looked straight at him. “Where were you a moment ago?”

  Scott slowly sat down on the couch and peered around at the books and framed black-and-white photographs on several shelves. A mandolin hung on one wall. “Uh, Hollywood,” he said.

  “Hmph.” From the coffee table she picked up a flat black box and a matchbook, and when she opened the box, Scott saw a row of black cigarettes with gold filters. She took one out and lit it with a steadier hand, blew smoke toward Scott, and leaned back in her chair.

  She waved the cigarette toward her closed front door. “Nighttime?”

  “Hm? Oh.” Scott rubbed his forehead. “It was, yes.”

  “So you’re not a local, by at least a few hours. Very well. Why did you knock at my door, since”—she glanced at his bare feet and no doubt disheveled hair—“you clearly didn’t expect a response?”

  My door. With a sudden cold hollowness in his chest, Scott belatedly realized that this woman must be Alla Nazimova, and that this place was surely the Garden of Allah, some time before it was torn down in 1959. He looked more closely at the woman sitting across from him, and he was able to recognize the actress who had played Salomé—older, but still almost boyishly slim.

  “Your door . . .” Scott began; he hesitated, then went on, “. . . is one of a row of doors salvaged from old demolished hotels, lining a hallway in a house, in 2015.”

  Nazimova stood up lithely, strode to the door, and pushed it open on a view of green tree branches in sunlight. A warm breeze ruffled her gray hair, and Scott could smell roses and chlorine.

  “Seventy-three years from now,” she said, barely loud enough for him to hear. “Is it a transfigured world?”

  “I—guess not.”

  “The Allies do win the war, I trust?”

  “Yes. In 1945.”

  “That long.” She shivered. “Do you know who I am?”

  “Yes, ma’am. I knew whose door it was. I watched Salomé only last night.” He reached for the box of cigarettes, then caught himself. “My aunt used to knock on the door every time she went by it.”

  She had turned around and now waved impatiently at the cigarettes. “Please be my guest. Your aunt wasn’t—isn’t?—Natacha Rambova . . . ?”

  “No.”

  Nazimova drew on her cigarette and sighed, exhaling smoke. “Good, I hope Natacha keeps her resolve . . . and dies, I hope—happy, I hope!—before the now you come from. Claim to come from.”

  “My aunt’s name was Amity Madden.” Nazimova shrugged and started to say something, but Scott remembered the conclusion he and Madeline had come to, and added, “Or Charlene Cooper.”

  Nazimova straightened up, and her face tightened. “Was?”

  “She died. A week ago. Killed herself.”

  “In 2015? That little vampire!” Nazimova seemed poised by the open door, as if considering running out. “You didn’t . . . work for her?”

  “No, ma’am. I haven’t seen her in thirteen years. Hadn’t.” Except in a mirror in a vision, he thought. Welcome home, Scott.

  Nazimova was watching him closely. “How old are you?”

  “Thirty-six.”

  She cocked her head. “That seems right. If anything, you look a bit older than that. You don’t have the characteristic puffy smoothness of the predators.” She scrutinized him for several more seconds, staring into his eyes, then nodded with apparent reluctance. “I believe what you say. How well did you know her?”

  Scott smiled bitterly. “Not very well at all, it seems. She raised my sister and me, after—” He shook his head and went on, “After, perhaps, killing our parents.” He waved away any interruption, though Nazimova had not moved. “We thought she was born in 1944, but in the last couple of days we’ve found evidence that she was actually born in 1899. She, uh, never looked her age.”

  “I imagine not.” Nazimova closed the door and resumed her seat by the window. She crushed out her cigarette in a glass ashtray on the table. “Are you sure she’s dead? Really gone, in every respect?”

  Scott met her gaze and said, “No. She’s trying to take possession of my sister.”

  “Your sister? Why? What has your sister got?”

  “She—and I—both looked at—do you know what spiders are?—the patterns on paper?”

  “Yes. Go on.”

  “We both looked at one, when we were children. ‘The big one,’ I’m told. The Medusa. It belonged to my aunt.”

  “That would have to be the Ince version of it, or another once-removed one, since it didn’t kill you.” Scott nodded, and she went on, “But if Charlene had that, why does she need your sister’s experience of it now?” She pursed her lips. “In 2015, I mean?”

  “We tore it up, after we looked at it. And I drew a squiggly asterisk and put it in the envelope the real one was in. I was thirteen years old. She never found out.”

  “Oh, she found out, or she wouldn’t be trying to mine your sister’s experience. Seventy-three years from now! Wait a moment.” She stood up and hurried into the little adjoining kitchen; Scott heard her open a drawer and rattle around in its contents, and then she had hurried back into the living room and dropped a handful of rubber bands onto the table.

  “Stretch a tight one around your wrist,” she said. “Both wrists. And your head, like a circlet. Uncomfortably tight.” When he hesitated, she reached down and pinched his cheek, hard. “Hurry!”

  Scott had flinched, but now he quickly pulled a rubber band around each wrist, and another around his head over his eyebrows.

  “Every few seconds,” said Nazimova, “you must pull one out and let it snap back. It must hurt, or you’re liable to disappear from here.”

  “I get it.” Better than chewing on foil, Scott thought, or poking a thumbtack into my toe.

  He pulled the rub
ber band a couple of inches away from his forehead and let it snap back; it stung enough to make his eyes water.

  The doorknob rattled then, and Scott looked over in alarm as it swung open, but it was still sunlight and blue sky that shone out there, behind a short flaxen-haired woman who stood now at the threshold staring at him in surprise. She was holding a white paper bag.

  “Doody,” said Nazimova, standing up, “this is—well, actually I don’t know his name.” She turned to Scott with raised eyebrows.

  Scott belatedly stood up too. “Scott Madden, ma’am.” He snapped his forehead rubber band as if tipping a hat.

  “He’s leaving, I assume,” said the woman in the doorway. She looked to be in her thirties, wearing high-waisted tan slacks and a long-sleeved white blouse.

  “Mr. Madden,” said Nazimova, “this is Glesca Marshall, my secretary.” To Glesca, she added, “No, let’s hope he’s not leaving.”

  Scott nodded. “Pleased to meet you, Ms. Marshall.”

  “Miss,” she corrected, “not Mrs.” She was frowning. “I’m not married.”

  Scott didn’t try to explain Ms. “I’m sorry,” he said. “My hearing isn’t great.”

  Glesca turned to Nazimova. “He looks like a hobo!”

  “It wasn’t a planned visit,” said Nazimova. “He wants help saving his sister from the—webs?—of Charlene Cooper; and making Charlene stay dead.”

  “Well, that’s good.” Glesca took two steps inside and closed the door, keeping a wary eye on Scott. “He lives here at the Garden?”

  “No, child, I’m afraid this is black geometry. I’m sorry. He lives in the year 2015, seventy-three years in the future, by which time the Garden has apparently been torn down.” She glanced at Scott, who shrugged and nodded apologetically. “Charlene died only a week before,” Nazimova went on, waving toward Scott, “the evening he came from.” She shrugged. “You know this is possible—I believe it’s all true.”

  Glesca glanced at the rubber band stretched across Scott’s forehead and didn’t seem at all incredulous. “That serpent lives till 2015?” she exclaimed, tossing the paper bag onto the table. “Shouldn’t she . . . die much sooner?”

  “Spider rejuvenations,” said Nazimova, “dilutions with young blood and bone, you know the story. Snap!” she added to Scott.

  He hastily snapped his forehead rubber band and then the ones on his wrists. “I shouldn’t stay away long, though,” he said. “My sister is alone back there.”

  “Why do you imagine clocks here would have a connection with clocks there?” said Nazimova, sitting down again. “This isn’t an exchange, such as you get with a spider. You came in here through a crack in time, and you’ll go back through that crack.”

  Glesca stepped wide around the couch where Scott sat and leaned against the wall on the far side of the window. She was still staring mistrustfully at him—evidently this talk of stepping from one century into another didn’t strike her as unprecedented, but he was surprised that she didn’t seem curious about the future. Maybe she just didn’t want to know any of it.

  Nazimova leaned forward, her hands clasped, and looked piercingly into Scott’s eyes. “Tell me it all; there are no secrets between Doody and I. You want to save your sister? Of course you do. And I would like to help you banish Charlene.”

  Scott took a deep breath and began speaking, haltingly at first and then, after a few sentences, in a compulsive rush. His wrists and forehead were stinging like burns by the time he had told the women about the Usabo spider and his parents’ blackmail attempt, and the exorcism film and the murder of William Desmond Taylor, and his aunt’s possible murder of his parents, his peculiar cousins, and Madeline’s supposed relationship with Valentino.

  He sat back finally, and was surprised to realize that his face was wet with tears; he blotted them on his shirtsleeve.

  “It’s a painful story to tell, isn’t it?” said Nazimova. She waved at his hands and his face. “And not just because of the circumstances.”

  Her Russian accent became more pronounced as she went on, “When I was seventeen, a student of Vladimir Namirovich-Danchenko at the Philharmonic School in Moscow, he had a copy of the first version of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Do you know that play?”

  Scott shook his head. “Heard of it.”

  “Ibsen’s agent had made him rewrite the second and third acts, but in the original manuscript the heroine, Nora Helmer, intercepts a letter addressed to her husband from an enemy—it contains a ‘symbol,’ and after she has looked at it, she has to dance the tarantella, so fast that it alarms her ignorant husband; and when she has recovered, she leaves her husband and her children because she has no longer any sense of being the person she has been until then. The revised version of the play omits the symbol and her literally broken identity, but Ibsen insisted on retaining the frenzied tarantella dance.

  “When I came to Hollywood, I discovered that the symbol Ibsen referred to was real. I never looked at a spider—my own identity, shabby as it is, has always nevertheless been too precious to me—but I knew people who did.” She paused to light another of her black cigarettes.

  She sat back in her chair, glancing up and to the side at Glesca. “Charlene Cooper was an extra,” she told Scott, “a girl in a café crowd scene in the film Eye for Eye, when I met her in 1918. She was quite a pretty little thing, and I took a fancy to her. I told her I believed I could get her a more visible part in my next picture, Out of the Fog. But she was soon involved in the spiders, through the man who married her in 1921, Paul Speas. She wanted the experience of being a famous actress, but not directly—she wanted it through me. She loved me, worshipped me—so much that she wanted to be me. She wanted to move past mere adoration and find a way into my actual identity. I had to wear distorting glasses everywhere until I had her banned from the studio.”

  “Serpent!” whispered Glesca.

  Scott snapped his wrist rubber bands.

  Nazimova puffed on her cigarette and went on. “The spiders are apparently two-dimensional creatures who have no conception of time or spatial volume. Sometimes they are summoned into our continuum, and they experience every event here as the same event—and they impose that discontinuous experience on anyone foolish enough to participate in their perspective! I gather,” she said with evident distaste, “it’s exciting to occasionally lose one’s identity through them. They were like a new drug in Hollywood, thirty years ago; and they were supposed to prolong one’s youth, and everyone wanted that. You said you watched Salomé last night—Natacha did the set designs for that picture, and, unknown to me, she even inserted an image that spider users would recognize, as a sort of wink to the cognoscenti.”

  “More like a punch in the nose,” murmured Scott.

  Nazimova drew deeply on her black cigarette, frowning. “But,” she went on, exhaling smoke, “predators soon sprang up who enjoyed planting dirty spiders where they’d be seen by someone, and then doing terrible things in that other person’s body, even committing suicide, so that they could experience death without quite dying themselves. Your cousin seems to be one of these.”

  “Yes,” Scott agreed grimly. “He is.”

  “Bill Taylor wanted to find a way to eliminate all the spiders,” Nazimova went on, “because a woman he loved had begun experimenting with them, and it was ruining her health. I suggested to him how he might use the extreme tarantella rhythms to banish the big spider. Spiders spin—” She smiled. “Well, everybody knows that, don’t they? But in their own universe they’re evidently spinning like tops, and I told Bill that if he could make a film in which the image of the Medusa spider was kept on the screen, interspersed with black frames timed to the period of the spin, it might in effect make the spin appear to—definitively appear to—stop. Like a phonograph record spinning on a turntable in a dark room, illuminated by a light flashing seventy-eight times a minute; the record would appear to be stationary. And the spider, this is the master spider, remember, would effec
tively lose its spin—become stationary. It would thus find here an impossibility of itself, and be excluded in future from this universe. The patterns on paper would still exist, but they would no longer have a connection to that other universe or anything in it.”

  She ground out her cigarette and lit another.

  “And so Bill made his banishing film, but before he could use it, Natacha, with poor Rudolph along, unknowingly led some monster to his bungalow down there on Alvarado, and you saw what happened. And then, yes, Charlene and Paul Speas stole Taylor’s exorcism film from Natacha, and disappeared. Natacha and Rudolph have been doing penance ever since.”

  “Penance?” asked Scott.

  “In Purgatory, for Rudolph. Did you know it took two priests to hear his last confession and administer the sacrament of Extreme Unction? Too many lives in one body, too many conflicting sins! And after he died, he was evidently there to pull your sister out of the psychic maelstrom when you were children; because she was a child, and afraid, and helpless in Medusa.” She fixed Scott with something like a glare. “And before he died, he told you how to kill the spiders.”

  “Yes, but I have to find another way—”

  “There is no other way.”

  “But damn it, I tried to find the film!” Scott protested, reaching up to stretch the rubber band and sting his damp forehead. “Even though my identity, shabby though it is, is . . . ! But Paul Speas took it away while my aunt was in a hospital, and I haven’t found any trace of him. He’s probably dead by now, by 2015. It’s an ice-cold trail.”

  “Ah, but you have a terrible gift,” said Nazimova, speaking almost gently now, “don’t you? You know how to see places where it is in time. If you look at enough places, you might find where it is, in your 2015. And then, I think you know, you must use it—as Taylor intended to use it himself, to save someone he loved.”

  “Charlene will destroy your sister,” said Glesca.

  Scott recalled what Ariel had said: It breaks the victim’s mind.

  Nazimova reached across the table and touched his hand. “What is your sister’s name?” she asked, though he had mentioned it in his account.

 

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