Medusas web, p.29
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       Medusa's Web, p.29

           Tim Powers
 

  “Wait till I get back in,” Scott said then, opening the door and swinging his legs out. When he straightened up, wincing, he saw that Ariel had got out too. The two of them walked across the damp grass to the log, and with one of them at each end of it, it rolled easily back from the garage-road pavement, and then they both pushed at one end until it had rolled aside.

  “Thanks,” said Scott quietly, wiping his hands on his shirt as they walked back to the car.

  “I know how it is.”

  When they had got back in, Madeline drove over the groove in the dirt where the log had been and steered right, up the hill.

  “The bald guy is the only one I met,” said Louise, “and I’ve only met him three times. Each time he gave me money. He wanted—”

  “How much?” asked Madeline.

  “I don’t think that’s relevant.”

  “Back down the hill, Madeline,” said Ariel. “All the way to the street.”

  “A thousand dollars each time,” Louise said quickly.

  Madeline had taken her foot off the accelerator, but now pressed it again, and the old Datsun surged on up the hill. Scott turned his head to see Louise.

  She went on, “He wanted me to . . . renew my relationship with Scott, but I told him I wouldn’t do that, I’m not—” She sighed shakily. “He wanted me to find spiders. There’s one he’s very interested in, that belonged to your aunt, and he was going to give me a ten-thousand-dollar bonus if I could lead him to that.” She glared at Scott. “But after you told him don’t send old girlfriends around, he told me he’s got a better informant and doesn’t need me, and now he won’t answer his phone when I call, and I think—I think they don’t like it that I know so much about what they want.”

  Ariel turned away and smiled out the window. “Do they strike you as the sort of people who would commit murder to keep their secrets?”

  “I’m not sure they’re not, and I can’t risk—”

  “But you’d help such people get at our family.”

  Madeline had crested the rise; the treetops up here were bending in the breeze. The row of garages where Scott had found Louise yesterday morning was on the right as Madeline angled left and kept driving, downhill now.

  “I was protecting Scott, and all of you,” Louise said flatly. “I was going to tell you all about it. His new informant won’t.”

  “Would you like us to drop you off somewhere?” asked Scott as Madeline carefully nosed the car down the narrow, curving strip of asphalt between walls overhung with bougainvillea and glossy banana leaves.

  “Where are you all going?”

  “On an errand,” Scott said.

  “Can I come along?” When Scott gave her a puzzled frown, Louise went on, “I might be able to help. I heard Ariel ask you how long you’ll be able to sense where the thing is. That’s what led you to that parking lot on Alvarado on Thursday, isn’t it? Where Taylor was killed in 1922?”

  “You’re still hoping for that ten-thousand-dollar bonus,” said Ariel.

  “No! But I do know about the man with the beard, and what his group wants, how they work.” She was speaking rapidly. “He told me a lot of things, like about the other group, the guy in the Chevy Blazer. This thing goes way back in L.A. history—for instance, did you know your aunt’s office on Sunset is right where an old actress named Nazimova lived? Upstairs and everything, the exact same spot.”

  “We know about Nazimova,” said Scott. “And other people too.”

  “Did you know that this spider they’re after killed a famous movie director on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, in 1924? A whole lot of famous people were on the yacht when it happened, Charlie Chaplin and everybody, but afterward none of them even admitted they’d been aboard.”

  “The director’s name was Thomas Ince,” said Scott. “Yes.”

  Louise exhaled through clenched teeth. “Do you know how to avoid drawing the attention of wheelbugs?”

  “The beardy guy told you how to avoid that?” asked Madeline, her eyes on the pavement ahead.

  “Yes, he . . .” Her voice trailed off.

  The engine roared steadily along in low gear, the mutter of the exhaust sounding loud between the close walls. Low-hanging branches bumped along the roof of the car.

  “You said he first approached you on Tuesday,” he said, without turning around. “Was that the first time you looked at a spider?”

  Madeline steered around one last curve and turned left on the scarcely wider pavement of Gower Street.

  “Yes,” said Louise dully. “He showed me one, out in his car. I didn’t know what it was. It was a clean one, and he tore it up afterward, but—”

  “How many have you done since?” asked Ariel.

  “I don’t know, half a dozen. He gave me a pad of them, but I only have a few left—obviously I can’t get any more, from him—I tried reusing one, and afterward I felt like I got beat up—”

  “Take a picture of one with your phone, and e-mail it to yourself,” said Ariel, “and then print it out. It’ll be clean; the continuity of the image is broken when it’s converted to digital. You can use the same spider forever, that way. Don’t try photocopiers, though; they don’t break the continuity.”

  Scott heard Louise shift around on the seat. “E-mail? Are you sure?”

  “Oh yeah,” said Ariel.

  Scott thought of the tremor in Louise’s hands, and the new lines in her face, and the broken vein in her eye, and he remembered her radiant health all those years ago, when they had hiked in the canyons and body-surfed at Laguna Beach and made love in his apartment, until she had left him in 2004. “So now you don’t need to come with us,” he said, more flatly than he had meant to.

  “He showed me the spider before we talked about anything,” said Louise, “okay? And I want to get my money out of the bank and get away from them, but—I do want to help you, too.”

  “So how do you avoid wheelbugs’ attention?” asked Ariel. “Hang a left there, sweetie,” she told Madeline.

  “I know,” said Madeline.

  “Well, for one thing,” said Louise, “you shouldn’t be wearing that gyroscope pendant, Ariel. The guy said spider users sometimes spontaneously lose their depth perception, their view goes flat, and then they like to have some very three-dimensional thing handy that they can feel the shape of while they look at it. It snaps them back to seeing volume quicker. Sometimes it’s a little ball in a cage, or a miniature Rubik’s Cube, or a chain bracelet. They’re all likely to catch the attention of wheelbugs.”

  Scott and his sister exchanged a brief glance. And Claimayne’s gold DNA coil, too, Scott thought. I could have used something like that myself, on Alvarado yesterday.

  After a pause, Louise went on, “Act like somebody who’s not afraid of losing depth perception at any moment—jaywalk in traffic, weave around any pillars or trees or parking meters, go up or down stairs fast. Go over and under things—step over curbs, duck under branches. As much of that stuff as you can manage. Wheelbugs pay attention to young-looking people who seem to move too carefully.

  “Another reason to act agile is because people who use dirty spiders get bad joints, bad backs, loose teeth, from their body being so often combined with other bodies. They get blue stains on their skin from overlapping with people who had tattoos. And they lose their hair—if that happens, wear a wig. Scott, it’s good you haven’t shaved in a couple of days.”

  Scott thought of the contents of the trunk he’d seen in the spider vision this morning. “Noted,” he said. “Is Ferdalisi’s beard real? He’s bald on top.”

  Louise shook her head. “How would I know.”

  “Was there anything else?” Scott asked her.

  Louise was sitting lower in the backseat now, peering out the side window at the tops of phone poles and palm trees. “Well, there’s websites,” she said, “and shops that sell stuff to keep you from accidentally seeing spiders, like crazy glasses with big ripples in the lenses. You don’t have anyth
ing to do with any of that stuff, of course.”

  “Of course,” said Ariel.

  “If you want glasses that disrupt an accidental view of a spider,” Louise said, “just make a cross on the inside surface of each lens with thin strips of Scotch tape, three or four layers. Just as good as the ripply glasses, and you can still see.”

  “Shit,” said Ariel.

  “Ferdalisi told you a lot,” said Scott.

  “He thought I’d be working for him for a while,” snapped Louise. “Nobody knew you were going to wreck it all.”

  Wreck it all, Scott thought. Well—ideally, I guess.

  Madeline had steered onto the southbound 101. “Straight on?” she asked Scott.

  Scott sat back and closed his eyes. “For now. But I think it’ll be south of the freeway.” He hiked around in the seat and looked at Louise.

  “So who’s the other group?” he asked. “The guy in the white Chevy Blazer?”

  “They’re local, L.A. area,” Louise said, “maybe covertly funded by something bigger, like the government or even the Vatican. I think your Ferdalisi guy is Spanish. Ferdalisi’s group is real panicked that spiders will stop working sometime soon, and they want to prevent that, or at least get maximum use out of them now. They’ve been recruiting newcomers to look at spiders and go read future newspapers, and then report back on stuff like stock and gold prices, though I gather they’ve been drawing duds—lately if somebody looks at a spider, meaning to look at it again in a week, it’s clean, there’s no after at all.”

  Scott thought she sounded wistful.

  She waved her hands. “Anyway, the other crowd, the L.A. crowd—Ferdalisi says they’re vandals, vigilantes. What they want is to just banish all the spiders from our reality, not let anybody have a chance to study them properly.”

  For several minutes they drove south in the slow lane without speaking. Scott looked out at ivied slopes and brown cinder-block walls like the one he and Ariel had stopped on the other side of, yesterday; and he wondered what other long-gone houses had occupied space in the air the Datsun was rushing through.

  Louise spoke up, “Right now I’m pretty sure you’re not being followed—but don’t go anywhere you’ve been to during the last week. You’ve been followed every time, and ever since Scott stopped at Alvarado and Maryland they’ll be watching whatever places you went to.”

  Three big green freeway signs loomed over the lanes ahead, and Madeline asked, “South on the 110?”

  “Uh,” said Scott, “no, stay on the 101 but get off, going south, as soon as you can.”

  When they had driven over the 110 overpass, she said, “Off on Temple?”

  “Uh, yeah. Damn, it feels like it’s close, but there’s no hills like I saw, around here. Maybe it’s not as close as it seems, maybe it’s all the way down by San Pedro or somewhere.”

  Madeline followed the Temple Street exit off the freeway, between low, tire-marked cement walls, and then they had crossed the lanes of Temple and were driving past the high, pillared white portico of the Ahmanson Theatre on the left.

  “Whoa,” said Scott, “it’s shifting—”

  The Ahmanson’s high roof extended south of the theater building, and now they were passing the big white hatbox of the Mark Taper Forum, with the winged glass front of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion coming up fast.

  “Now it’s over there,” he said, pointing out at the black statue that stood on the broad square between the Mark Taper and the Chandler. “Maddy, pull over and let me out here, then go around the block and pick me up.”

  Madeline swung the car to the curb by the stacked protruding floors of the Water and Power building, and Scott hastily climbed out; and a rear door opened and Louise got out onto the sidewalk too, frowning as if daring him to object.

  He shrugged. “Okay,” he said, and they both closed their doors and Madeline drove on, signaling for a left turn.

  “Here’s our chance to deflect wheelbugs,” said Scott, glancing up and down the street.

  The wind out of the gray sky seemed damp with imminent rain, and Louise’s hair was blowing around her pinched face.

  “What?” she said, looking around in alarm.

  “We jaywalk,” Scott said, and he had to resist the impulse to take her hand as he sprinted across the lanes to the far sidewalk.

  They walked out across the open square, both of them peering mistrustfully at the few tourists hurrying from one end of the square to the other. In the center of the square the tall black statue, which looked to Scott like a couple of muscular people holding up a giant split fig, stood at the center of a cross pattern in the pavement, and now fountains shot up from nozzles set flush in the cross, and Scott stepped back to stay out of the drifting spray.

  He turned in a slow circle, eyeing the monolithic modern architecture at each end of the square.

  “It was here?” gasped Louise, who had been slow to move away from the pavement cross. Locks of wet hair now clung to her forehead. “Damn it, is this the place where you saw . . . it?”

  “Where I sensed it,” said Scott, peering up past the top of the statue. He laughed helplessly and pointed. “It was up there, a couple of hundred feet in the air.”

  “Shit,” she said. “Is this all you can come up with? The Ross parking lot and . . . the moon?”

  Scott finally lowered his head and stared at her. “You care?”

  She shook her head. “We drove all the way down here, for nothing. And now I’m all wet.”

  The fountains subsided, then sprang up again. “Let’s jaywalk back,” Scott said tiredly, “and see if we can catch Madeline on her first trip around the block.”

  THE OLD GREEN DATSUN pulled to the curb just as Scott and Louise had ducked their way through traffic to that side of the street, but when Scott pulled open the passenger-side door, he saw that Ariel was behind the wheel now, and Madeline was sitting in the backseat, looking embarrassed.

  Ariel accelerated out into the lane as soon as the front and back doors had closed.

  “Madeline had a,” she said, looking ahead at traffic, “an episode.”

  “I blacked out,” said Madeline meekly.

  “She was—” began Ariel; then she looked at Louise in the rearview mirror and snapped, “Where’s your goddamn bank?”

  “I don’t know where the nearest Wells Fargo is,” said Louise, “and I don’t have my phone. Scott could google it.”

  “I left my phone at the Ravenna Apartments,” Scott said, and he added defensively, “It’s the one the tenants call, with problems.”

  “I turned into Aunt Amity again!” burst out Madeline. Her face was pale.

  Ariel sighed and nodded. “Our aunt apparently just figured out that Claimayne not only killed her, but did it by taking her up on the roof with the grenade. She said it tore up her aura.”

  “Stands to reason,” said Madeline, who had taken her phone out of her purse and was tapping at the screen.

  “She can’t drive,” Ariel went on. “Aunt Amity, I mean, not Madeline. I had to grab the wheel and put my foot across and stand on the brake, and pull over . . . well, up the curb. Lucky we didn’t blow a tire. Lucky a cop didn’t come by. And in a minute it was Madeline again, but—”

  “Like people who have seizures,” Madeline said. “I shouldn’t drive.”

  “And I probably shouldn’t get rid of my gyroscope yet,” said Ariel. She looked sideways at Scott. “Obviously you didn’t find a street that looked like San Francisco.”

  “No,” said Scott, turned around in his seat to peer worriedly at his sister. “And now I’m wondering if my . . . tracking sense has broken down. The impression I got was that the room in the vision was there, had been there, but it was like a couple of hundred feet straight overhead!”

  “Ah,” said Ariel, “and you said the cars outside looked like 1940s models? It was on Bunker Hill.”

  Scott knew that Bunker Hill had been a neighborhood in Los Angeles full of big old Victorian houses that
had been torn down to make way for anonymous office towers. “I knew they got rid of the houses,” he said uncertainly.

  “They got rid of the whole hill,” said Ariel, “in the ’60s. Dumped all the dirt and rocks in the ocean off Long Beach or somewhere.”

  “Well,” said Madeline, “once again, maybe the film was destroyed.” Her tone was wistful.

  “What film?” asked Louise.

  “A lost Bugs Bunny cartoon,” said Ariel.

  “Uh-huh.” Louise leaned forward from the backseat and said to Scott, “Yesterday morning you said something about a woman who stole a reel of film from William Desmond Taylor. And Monalisa told me Taylor at one time had a copy of the big spider. Was the copy on this film?”

  “Ferdalisi,” said Scott. “Not Monalisa.”

  “There’s a Wells Fargo bank just a couple of blocks from here,” said Madeline, peering down at her phone. “Loop back up to First Street. It’s open till four on Saturdays.”

  “But when do they open?” asked Louise. “It’s not ten o’clock yet.” Clearly she didn’t want to be put out of the car.

  “This is about when the clock was stopped,” said Scott absently, watching his sister for any signs of their aunt reasserting herself, “in the room I saw on Bunker Hill.”

  Madeline looked up from her phone. “The bank opens at nine.” To Scott she said, “I’d like to have a clock that would stay stopped.”

  “You’d have liked this one,” Scott told her, “it was made out of a hubcap, with little wire numbers.”

  “Wire numbers,” said Madeline slowly. “Like twisted wire?”

  Scott drew a 2 in the air with his finger. “Right. Like—”

  His face was suddenly cold, his gaze locked on Madeline’s.

  For several seconds neither of them spoke.

  “It wasn’t a working clock,” said Madeline. “Maybe it had no machinery inside it at all.” She took a deep breath and exhaled, shuddering, still staring into Scott’s eyes. “Was it the same size?”

  Scott compared his memories of the two wall-hung disks.

  “Yes.”

  Ariel was able to make a left turn on Fourth Street, after having cursed at two previous streets for being the wrong one-way.

 

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