Three days to never a no.., p.31
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       Three Days to Never: A Novel, p.31

           Tim Powers
 

  “And you can’t rely on sevirut,” the old man interrupted. Sevirut meant “probability,” and after Israel’s general staff had used the term to dismiss the likelihood of a surprise attack from Egypt and Syria in 1973—a surprise attack that had occurred twenty-four hours later—Golda Meir had said she shuddered every time she heard the word.

  Lepidopt thought of old Sam Glatzer, and Ernie Bozzaris, and Bozzaris’s sayan detective in San Diego. There had been no evident probability that any of them would die. “True,” he said, exhaling.

  “You through here?” the old man asked, and when Lepidopt nodded, he said, “Let’s look at the situation.”

  Lepidopt got into the backseat, and the katsa walked around to open the passenger-side door. “I understand you’ve got Einstein’s machine,” the katsa said as he folded himself into the seat and pulled the door closed, “but you don’t know how to work it. I’m Aryeh Mishal, in case you don’t remember the name from that day in the desert.”

  “Get us out of here, Bert,” said Lepidopt, “the Bradleys can find their own way home.”

  He stretched his legs to the side and leaned his head back on the seat, heedless of disarranging his yarmulke-toupee. “And head for the Pico Kosher Deli, I’m starving.” To the white-haired head in the front seat, he said, “That’s right. The only living person who has worked the machine is now with the other team, whoever they are, and they’ve captured a source of mine. Two of our sayanim and one of our agents are dead. Altogether it has not been a—a textbook operation.” He hefted Marrity’s briefcase and set it down on the seat beside him. “We do have some letters Einstein wrote to his daughter. They might be helpful.”

  “I’ll salvage what can be salvaged,” said Mishal in a contented tone. “First I want you to—”

  He was interrupted by the electronic buzz of the cellular phone. Only one person had the number to that phone, and Lepidopt straightened up and reached between the front seats to lift it out of its case.

  He took a deep breath and then switched the telephone on. “Yes.”

  “You guys were too slow,” came Frank Marrity’s voice from the earpiece. “They’ve got my daughter now.”

  “Where are you now?”

  “At the Roosevelt Hotel, in the lobby. They—”

  “How did they find the two of you?” Lepidopt asked.

  “I’m not sure—apparently my father—who isn’t the—”

  Lepidopt tensed when he heard fumbling at the other end of the line, but relaxed a little when a woman’s voice came on.

  “They’ve got his father’s mummified head in a box,” the woman said. “It’s not quite dead, and it can point to Frank here via an electric Ouija board. We shouldn’t stay here.”

  Marrity’s voice came from farther away: “What the hell are you talking about?”

  “Put him back on,” said Lepidopt. A moment later he could hear heavy breathing. “Frank, who is she, the woman with you?”

  “Her name’s Charlotte something. She’s the woman who tried to shoot me this morning, sunglasses, apparently she’s changed sides. Listen, it’s crazy to say my father’s head is—‘not quite dead’!—in a box, tracking me.”

  A defector from the other side! thought Lepidopt. He covered the mouthpiece with his palm and whispered to Malk, “The Roosevelt Hotel, now.” Lifting his hand away, he said, “Listen, Frank, we can save your daughter. We need to meet. We’re only—”

  “But that’s crazy, isn’t it? Daphne’s kidnapped and I’m standing here with a crazy woman.”

  Lepidopt spoke carefully. “Have you experienced supernatural or paranormal events, in the last three days?”

  “You know I have. You were there when that thing showed up on the TV last night.”

  “And you know something about Einstein, and your grandmother’s shed. Has this Charlotte woman been involved in this stuff longer than you have?”

  “Yes, obviously.”

  “Then just maybe she’s not crazy. Reserve judgment. Will Charlotte talk with us?”

  “She wants to, yes.”

  “Good. We’re only ten minutes away—stay there in the lobby. It’s public. Okay? Your daughter’s life is at stake.”

  “Okay.”

  Lepidopt turned off the phone and leaned forward to put it back in its case. “That was the agent I thought had been captured. He’s in the lobby at the Roosevelt with a woman who was on the opposing team. Apparently she’s switched sides and wants to talk to us.”

  “All right,” said Malk, hunched over the wheel.

  “The opposing team,” Lepidopt went on, “has—according to the woman—has my man’s father’s head in a box, and it can lead them to him.”

  “I can hide him from that,” said Mishal, facing forward again. “You’re going to have to buy a couple of bottles of whisky, Oren.”

  Lepidopt pressed his lips together. He remembered how whisky had been used in some of the demonstrations in his training.

  “This agent,” Mishal went on, “how did you recruit him?”

  “I false-flagged him, told him I’m with the NSA. It was a hasty recruitment, but his daughter was about to invite a dybbuk into herself.”

  “A dybbuk.” Lepidopt saw the white head nodding. “How would you guess you’ll rate this agent in your eventual Tsiach report? Hardly blue and white, I imagine,” the old man added with a chuckle.

  Blue and white, the colors of Israel’s flag, indicated an agent who was totally committed to the Israeli cause.

  “I think he’ll work out as a B,” Lepidopt said. “Maybe a B minus. He initially lied to us about where he had stashed the Einstein letters, but all agents lie about something.”

  “And ideally they never find out they were agents,” said Mishal. “But at least he imagines he’s working for the NSA, albeit an NSA that foils dybbuks. Right?”

  “That’s right.”

  In the rearview mirror, Malk gave Lepidopt a sympathetic glance.

  “I hope you remember,” said Mishal mildly, “that you’re—we’re—operating outside normal channels here. We have no diplomatic immunity; if we’re caught, we go to prison as spies.”

  “I’d like to know who they’d say we’re spying on,” said Lepidopt.

  Mishal laughed. “I imagine impersonating an NSA officer would suffice to get you arrested. And then they’d look at your American passport. You’ve played very fast and loose here so far. I’m here to rein you in and save your mutinous hide.”

  Lepidopt nodded tiredly, though the old man couldn’t see it, and he wondered what he might find suitable to eat in the Roosevelt bar. There wouldn’t be any glat kosher sandwiches, for sure. Maybe celery and carrot sticks. A lot of them.

  He’s actually Mossad,” said Charlotte quietly, “not NSA.” She held out her hand, and Marrity glanced at the glass-topped table so that she could see where her martini glass was. “Thanks,” she said, reaching down and curling her fingers around the stem of it.

  The Roosevelt Hotel lobby was enormous, with a second-floor balcony on all four sides and an ornate ceiling high overhead, and it echoed with talk and laughter and the rumble of wheeled luggage. Marrity and Charlotte were seated next to each other on a small tan couch that faced away from the Hollywood Boulevard entrance, not far from where a black stone statue of Charlie Chaplin sat on a bench for tourists to have their pictures taken with. Charlotte had said that with all these eyes moving around, she didn’t need to put Marrity in a good vantage point.

  “He said you’re not crazy,” Marrity ventured.

  “Good to hear.” A brass ashtray lay on the table next to her purse, and she leaned forward and pulled a pack of Marlboros and a lighter out of her purse.

  “My father’s…mummified head?” Marrity cleared his throat. “They’ve got?”

  “They say they killed him in 1955. I don’t know why.”

  “That’s when he disappeared. That’s why he never came back to us. That would be why, if it’s true.” He sat back on t
he couch, not believing it but considering it. “I’ve hated him all these years.”

  How can I let go of that? he thought in bewilderment. Hating him has been the basis of my resolve to be the opposite sort of father to Daphne.

  After a moment Charlotte asked, “You on the wagon?”

  “Hmm? Oh, no, sorry.” Marrity picked up his third beer and took a deep sip. When he put it down again he said, “‘Drink, for you know not whence you came nor why—drink, for you know not why you go nor where.’”

  Charlotte laughed and lifted her free arm and draped it over his shoulders. “‘A flask of wine, a book of verse, and thou,’” she said. He looked into her face—he could see himself mirrored in the sunglasses—and she quickly leaned forward and kissed him on the lips.

  He reached up and touched her cheek, and suddenly he was kissing her in earnest, and she had opened her mouth and her hand was gripping his shoulder. He tasted gin on her tongue. There were hoots from nearbly tables, but he didn’t care.

  A flash of sudden astonishment made him close his lips and lean back.

  Her face was still very close. She raised one eyebrow.

  “It’s Daphne,” he said hoarsely.

  Charlotte actually blushed as she pulled her arm back and folded her hands in her lap. “Oops! She doesn’t need this.”

  Marrity closed his eyes to concentrate, and he projected an image of himself hugging Daphne; and in return he got a clear impression of…cautious amusement, like a wink through tears.

  “It’s okay,” he told Charlotte. “She didn’t mind. We’ve got to get her back.”

  “We will. These people aren’t stupid.” She sighed deeply and gulped her martini. “I didn’t mind either.”

  Marrity could still taste her gin. He was shaky. It had been two years since he had kissed a woman, and a whole lot longer than that since he had kissed a woman he didn’t know well. “I didn’t either,” he said quickly. Then he took a deep breath and changed the subject: “Mossad, you said—that’s Israel’s secret service?”

  “Shoot at you in the morning, kiss you in the afternoon. What’s left?” She sighed and he watched her light a cigarette. “Yes, Israel. They’ve apparently kept close track of all things Einsteinian. Did you know that after the first president of Israel died, in 1952, they asked Einstein if he’d be president? It wasn’t just a gesture—the Mossad knew that Einstein had made some unpublished discoveries.”

  “Like a time machine.” Marrity shook his head. “I think you said—Jesus—that that’s me, that old guy, that old drunk guy! Who claimed he was my dad? Like, me from the future?”

  “One future, not the future. There isn’t any the future. He used this machine in your grandmother’s shed to come back here to 1987 from 2006. His life—”

  “2006? Then he’s only…if he’s me…fifty-four. He looks older.”

  Marrity tried to summon skepticism, and found he didn’t have any. He believed it, believed that the pouchy-faced old man was in fact himself, and he hated the thought of that querulous old fool walking around and talking to people. Marrity had never been drunk enough to have done and said things he couldn’t remember later, but he felt as if it was happening now. What might he be saying, Marrity wondered helplessly, what personal secrets of mine might he be blabbing to these people?

  Marrity could feel his face getting hot. “Is Daphne talking to him?”

  “I don’t imagine he’s eager to talk to her,” said Charlotte quietly. “He’s experienced two lifelines already—one broke somehow, and spilled him into the other. In the original happy one, Daphne died yesterday, in that Italian restaurant. He wants to make sure that in this time line she doesn’t grow up—doesn’t go on living.”

  Marrity was dizzy, and couldn’t make himself look at Charlotte. “He’s not me, I could never want that. What could Daphne ever do—”

  He was staring down at his clenched fists, and Charlotte took hold of one of them. “There is no the future,” she repeated. “When you get free of this, you and Daphne can do anything you choose to do.” She squeezed his hand. “But he told Golze that in his second lifeline, you—he, that is, he and Daphne were both alcoholics, living in a trailer somewhere, and they hated each other. Daphne tried to take his car at one point, and he tried to block her, and she backed it over him.”

  “Those weren’t us. Those weren’t us.”

  “Make them not be.”

  She was facing him, so he couldn’t see her eyes. “What do you—” he began, then halted uncertainly. When she cocked her head, he went on: “It’s none of my business, but what do you want to use the time machine for?”

  She took a deep drag on her cigarette and exhaled a long sigh of smoke. “True,” she said, almost absently, “it’s none of your business. But none of your life is my business—I am not Daphne’s keeper—but somehow I’m knee deep in it anyway.” She stubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray. “You’ve got an advance warning to go easy on the booze, haven’t you?”

  “Yes, I guess I have.”

  “Did you plan to start going easy today?”

  “No, not today.”

  She picked up her empty glass and half stood up—then sat back down again. “I want to go back,” she said quietly but quickly, “and prevent my younger self from being blinded in 1978. All I’ve worked for is to save her. I don’t even think of that little girl as me anymore, I think of her more as my lost daughter who needs rescuing. If I can save her I can disappear, and she’ll be a new person, born out of me like—” She waved her empty glass.

  “Like parthenogenesis,” said Marrity.

  “Exactly. Identical body, but not this person.” She took hold of his empty glass in her free hand and straightened gracefully to her feet. “Same again?”

  “Same again.”

  The Roosevelt Hotel was right across the street from the banners and green copper roofs of the Chinese Theater forecourt, and Lepidopt shifted to stare at the ornate old structure as Malk turned off Hollywood Boulevard at Orange and found a parking place at the curb, avoiding the Roosevelt’s valet parking.

  Do they wonder what’s become of their Charlie Chaplin slab? Lepidopt thought, rocking in the abruptly stopped car. Who’d imagine it’s in the Wigwam Motel in San Bernardino now?

  “APAM, gentlemen,” said Mishal as they got out of the car and blinked in the heat and late afternoon sun glare of the summer Hollywood sidewalk.

  Lepidopt had had enough. APAM, short for Avtahat Paylut Modienit, meant securing operational activity, and it was the first thing a Mossad katsa was required to learn.

  “We’re katsas,” he said shortly.

  “Of course you are,” said Mishal with a smile.

  Mishal had paused in the shadow of a shaggy magnolia that draped its branches over the wall of the Roosevelt Hotel parking lot, and Malk and Lepidopt scuffed to a halt beside him.

  “Remember that all we want is information about this opposing group, and any information either of these people might have about Einstein’s machine. We will appear to care about this man’s daughter, and whatever terms this woman may want, but in fact we will not care about them. Everyone is either target or enemy.”

  “We’re katsas,” Lepidopt repeated. “We know this.”

  “Oh?” Mishal squinted at him. “Wouldn’t that dybbuk, articulate in the girl’s body, have been more useful than the girl inviolate?” He held up one thin hand. “Well no, since you let the opposing group capture the girl. Point withdrawn.”

  Malk glanced at Lepidopt and rolled his eyes for a moment before sauntering ahead to do a route of the hotel lobby, identify Marrity and the woman and make sure no one else was watching them.

  At a more leisurely pace, Lepidopt and Mishal tapped up the hotel’s back steps.

  “No offense,” said Mishal.

  “Of course not,” said Lepidopt. In fact he was wondering if the elder katsa’s criticism had been valid. Did I, he wondered, jump in to recruit Marrity too quickly, just because t
he little girl was in danger of being inhabited by that thing?

  And he remembered again being in her bedroom, and wondering if she would like his son Louis.

  I’m too old for this, he realized; but one way or another I’ll be out of it soon.

  Malk was on the second-floor balcony on the far side of the lobby when Lepidopt and Mishal walked in; he was holding a newspaper in his right hand, which meant there was no sign that Marrity and the woman were being watched, and then he leaned against the railing and opened the paper, pointing the fold of it downward and slightly to his right. Lepidopt followed the implied line and saw Frank Marrity sitting on a couch with an attractive dark-haired woman on the Hollywood Boulevard side of the lobby.

  In any meeting, he recalled, the agent must be there and sitting down before you enter; you never wait for him at a meeting place.

  Lepidopt stepped forward across the tile floor while Mishal hung back, and he walked the long way around the fountain to approach Marrity from in front.

  Marrity saw him and stood up. “Mr. Jackson,” he said. “This is Charlotte, uh…”

  “Charlotte S. Webb,” said Charlotte, smiling quizzically and not getting up.

  Lepidopt grinned, and noticed that Marrity did too. Anybody with a book-loving child, he thought, would recognize that title. He wished he could remember the name of the pig in Charlotte’s Web, to be able to make a clever reply.

  “Do you have any children?” he asked her.

  “With luck a little girl,” she said. “Parthenogenesis.”

  Lepidopt stared at her for a moment, then pulled a metal chair across the tile to the opposite side of their table and sat down, slightly in profile to Charlotte and with the tail of his jacket hanging away from his belt.

  “I’m Eugene Jackson,” he said. “Shortly we’ll be joined by another man, possibly two. We want to get the pair of you away from here to a safe place.”

  “I want some terms agreed on before I go anywhere with you,” said Charlotte. “I’ve proposed a deal to my former employers, and I’m going to go through with it unless I can make a different deal with you people.”

 

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