Three days to never a no.., p.34
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       Three Days to Never: A Novel, p.34

           Tim Powers
 

  “How soon is dawn?” he asked.

  “Hours yet,” said Malk. “We won’t even leave here for hours yet.”

  “We should go there,” said Marrity desperately, clenching his fists. “I should go there.”

  “Go where?” asked Malk, not unkindly. “They won’t be at that hospital until dawn, and they might be anywhere now. They could be holding your daughter in Cathedral City, Indio, Palm Desert—not to mention all the mountains around there. We’ve got to wait till dawn.”

  “What do we do in the meantime?” asked Charlotte. Her sunglasses were incongruous in this dimly lit little room, but nobody had commented on them. She was chewing her fingernails—Mishal had said they couldn’t smoke tonight because it would repel ghosts.

  “We need to know more than we know,” said Mishal. “And so we will mine some old science.”

  Marrity saw Lepidopt frown for a moment.

  “Nobody,” Mishal said, “saw any use in Richard Hamilton’s matrix arrays until Heisenberg used them to work out his uncertainty principle seventy years later, right? And Fitzgerald’s crazy guess that an ether headwind compressed objects in the direction they’re traveling turned out to be an accurate description of what happened, though his explanation was wrong. The Riemann-Christoffel curvature tensor was considered a useless fantasy until Einstein needed it for General Relativity. In fact,” he went on, looking at Marrity, “your great-grandfather renounced the cosmological constant he had originally put into his General Relativity equations—he said including it had been the biggest blunder of his life—but according to Charlotte here, it wasn’t nonsense after all. Well, I think he knew that himself, all along. He was simply—justifiably—afraid of it.

  “I’m a physicist,” Mishal went on, “but I have to say that most physicists aren’t comfortable with the reality they’re supposed to be mapping. Most of them still start by setting up their problems in terms of Newtonian mechanics, and then only as they proceed do they shove in the quantum-mechanical concepts—like those old ‘color’ postcards that were black-and-white photographs painted over with watercolors. They should start with the quantum eye, that wider perspective. It’s the same with the supernatural factor: We learned not to add it in after the problems were defined, but to have those crayons already in our box from the start, alongside the quantum crayons.”

  In a whisper Lepidopt asked, “Shouldn’t we have been talking in whispers, all this time? And fasting?”

  “You were a good student, Oren! But this time,” said Mishal, standing up and nodding toward the slab and the boxes on the far side of the bed, “I think we’re close enough already.”

  Charlotte was frowning. “Who’ll come to us?”

  “Ghosts,” said Mishal. “We’re going to have a séance. Oren, open the whisky, if you would, and pour each of us a full glass.”

  “First sensible remark all night,” said Charlotte. “Why do we want ghosts to come to us? I’ve met them, they’re pretty useless creatures.”

  “There’s only four cups in the bathroom,” said Malk. “Plastic.”

  “Frank and I can share,” said Charlotte.

  “I expect the ghosts you’ve met are the ones that were leaning in from their side,” said Mishal, taking a freshly opened bottle of Canadian Club whisky from Lepidopt. “Talking backward and all. They make more sense if we visit them on their side.”

  Malk had got up to fetch the plastic cups from the bathroom, and now he peeled cellophane off one and handed it to Mishal.

  “Thank you.” Mishal poured amber whiskey into it and held the filled cup out to Charlotte, and Marrity watched it carefully so that she’d be able to take it without a fumble.

  And why am I helping her deceive these people? he asked himself.

  The old man filled Lepidopt’s and Malk’s plastic cups, then filled one for himself and clanked the bottle onto the table. “And,” he said, “talking to ghosts on their own turf is much easier if one is not excessively sober.” He raised his cup.

  Charlotte took a deep sip and handed the cup to Marrity. I guess I’ll start cutting back tomorrow, he told himself, and gulped a mouthful of the liquor; and when he had swallowed it and handed the cup back to her, he was grateful that Mishal’s procedure, whatever it might be, required this.

  Charlotte finished it and held the emptied cup out to Mishal.

  “You’re a good soldier,” the old man said, tilting the bottle over the cup as Marrity made sure to watch.

  Daphne was sleepy, but her ribs ached and the air being blown into the tent was colder now, and she wished she’d been wearing a sweater when she and her father had gone to lunch at Alfredo’s yesterday. She was as aware of her father as if he’d been standing behind her chair; she tasted every mouthful of whisky that he swallowed, and she even felt that the alcohol was warming her.

  The faint music from the speaker behind her seemed to have been lost in the airwaves for decades. It was some kind of brassy swing, but any liveliness in the melodies was dried out by the lifeless performance—she imagined a bandstand painted with glittery musical notes in a club out of an old Fred Astaire movie, with ancient, weary musicians in moth-eaten tuxedos swiveling their heavy saxophones this way and that.

  The view of Palm Springs held her attention by default. White car headlights seemed to be streetlights that had come unmoored from their places in the ranks along the boulevards, and after a while she was able to make out the cycling pinpoints of red and green that were traffic signals. Houses were dots of yellow light, tormenting in their hints of families at dinner so far away.

  A vocalist was accompanying the music now, and after a few moments Daphne was able to make out the nasally crooning words:

  Now my charms are all o’erthrown,

  And what strength I have’s my own,

  Which is most faint. Now ’tis true

  I must be here confined by you…

  Gentle breath of yours my sails

  Must fill, or else my project fails.

  Let your indulgence blot his sin—

  Daphne, speak! And let me in!

  Daphne knew it was the thing that had shown itself as a cartoon on her hospital TV set last night. The wind from the blower on her jeans felt like fluttering hands.

  “Daddy!” she yelled, but the audible yell was just an involuntary echo of her mental cry.

  In the cabin the upright pipe by the stove suddenly split, shooting a burst of steam across the room. Golze screamed weakly as the hot vapor whipped at the hair on the back of his head, and his right hand clawed the wheel to roll his wheelchair forward in a quarter circle across the floor.

  He blinked tears from his eyes as he squinted back at the pipe, which was just leaking a trickle of water now from the split section.

  “She’s doing this,” he snarled. “She’s a poltergeist, she can set things on fire. You have to trank her.”

  “Aw, she’s just grabbing hold of something, it’s a reflex,” said Canino, slouching forward to peer at the ruptured length of galvanized steel. “She was cuffed to that pipe, so vertigo made her grab it. It wasn’t malicious.”

  “My head is scalded,” Golze said. His right hand wavered up as if to feel the back of his head, then just fell to his lap. “She’s dangerous.”

  “You’ll be getting a brand-new head soon,” Canino told him.

  Marrity had choked and sprayed whisky across the carpet and the tan wall, and now, on his feet and coughing, he burst out, “Christ, that thing’s after her again, the triffid or whatever it is! You’ve got to—”

  “There’s nothing we can—do from here,” said Mishal solemnly. “She knows not to admit him.”

  Marrity closed his eyes and thought, Don’t let him in, don’t say anything. Don’t let him trick you.

  He was sweating, and he realized that a big part of his gnawing anxiety was the knowledge that his own older self was out there in Palm Springs, participating in this or at least not stopping it. Daphne’s own father was letti
ng this go on.

  “Charlotte,” he said, “you called them before—call them again. I need to talk to the, the old guy who’s me.” He focused his gaze on Mishal and made himself speak clearly. “Let her call them again.”

  Mishal just raised his eyebrows and stared at him owlishly.

  “If that triffid thing gets her,” Marrity went on, “she’ll be linked to it, as well as to me.” Or even instead of me, he thought with a shudder. “They don’t want that. If I tell them—”

  “But they’re not going to negate Daphne,” said Charlotte, “they agreed to negate me instead—”

  “They’ll still negate the girl, if they possibly can,” pronounced Mishal. “It was the girl who wrecked the movie component of Lieserl’s completed machine.” He raised a finger at Marrity. “It’s a dybbuk, not a tribb—not a triffid. And we need to be about summoning our ghosts.”

  “It might actually help,” said Malk. When the others looked at him, he shrugged. “If we shake up the ghosts first, get their attention, by letting young Marrity call old Marrity, that’s likely to help draw them when we do the actual séance. It’ll be a curspic—a conspicuous violation of normal reality.”

  “This Vespers crowd couldn’t trace it,” Lepidopt said. “The phone line is routed through half a dozen cutouts; and they can’t psychically fix on us, especially here.” He waved vaguely at the conical room.

  After a pause, “B’seder,” said Mishal, “let’s do it, we can begin the séance with that. We’re all drunk enough. Here.” He stepped back to the desk and turned the top Einstein letter upside down, and an envelope fell out of the plastic sleeve. Clumsily he shook out four more envelopes and handed them to Lepidopt, who passed one to each of the others. The envelopes were all tan with age, and each had Lisa Marrity’s name and address on the front in Einstein’s handwriting.

  “Oren,” said Mishal, “break open your…holograph amulet. And everybody’s got to crowd over to the other side of the bed, by the cement block.”

  Charlotte and Marrity turned around on the bed while the three Mossad men shuffled around the foot of the bed and edged between the mattress and the block.

  “One at a time, now,” said Mishal, “everybody press your right hand into the handprint in the cement.”

  “It’s cracked,” said Charlotte as she leaned forward to spread her fingers in the indentations.

  “Your old friends shot at it this afternoon,” said Mishal.

  Marrity was the last to do it, shifting across the bed to reach it, and he assumed that the warm dampness of the handprint had been imparted by the people who had touched it only moments before. When he lifted his hand away, a quarter-size flake of gray cement clung to his palm, and he closed his hand on it and shoved it into his pocket.

  “Now,” said Mishal, “everybody lick the glue strip on the Einstein envelope you’ve got.”

  “Ugh,” said Charlotte after she had licked hers. “It’s like French-kissing a guy who’s been dead thirty years.”

  “Yes,” said Mishal, grimacing over his own envelope. “It’s likely to catch his attention, though.”

  “The envelopes were sticky,” said Marrity, “when I picked them up, Sunday afternoon. My grandmother must have been licking them too.”

  “That’s kind of touching, really,” said Mishal. “I guess she wanted to have a last chat with her father.”

  Charlotte grimaced. “I French-kissed your grandmother too? This is getting revolting.” Marrity could hear tension as well as drunkenness in her voice.

  “Stop being disgusting, my dear,” said Mishal. “Now if you would call your, ah, erstwhile employers again. I think Bert’s right, a conversation between Marrity and his older self might also help catch the old fellow’s attention.”

  Charlotte rolled back over the bed and stood up unsteadily. Marrity followed her and stared at the portable telephone case on the little table by the Einstein letters, and she picked it up smoothly. Then he leaned over her shoulder and stared at the keypad so she could punch in the number.

  She handed him the phone, and only at that moment did he realize that he was very drunk, and that he had no idea what he wanted to say to his older self.

  Mishal stepped up and pushed a button on the side of the telephone, and then the background hiss was clearly audible to everyone in the room.

  “I’ll let you talk to him,” Mishal said, “but not privately.”

  Marrity nodded and set the phone down on the bedspread.

  A moment later a strained voice from the speaker said clearly, “Yes? I’m told that this is Frank Marrity the Lesser.”

  “Could I talk to myself, please,” said Marrity distinctly.

  “You don’t have to lean over it,” said Mishal. “Just stand and talk normally.”

  The person on the other end of the line laughed weakly and then said, “Why not?” and added, away from the microphone, “It’s for you.”

  Marrity heard some furious whispering, and then heard again the voice of the old man who had spoken to him and Daphne in their kitchen yesterday morning.

  “Hello?” the old man said belligerently.

  “That dybbuk thing is bothering Daphne,” said Marrity. “Go to wherever you’ve got her and say, ‘Go away, Matt.’ Don’t let her talk at all. It might quote some lines from The Tempest at you—just respond with Prospero’s lines. I assume you still remember them.”

  “I don’t have any idea what the hell you’re talking about. I’ve tried very hard to help you—”

  “By eliminating my daughter from the universe! Your daughter! You should be putting your life on the line to protect her. How can you have got so…so depraved in twenty years?”

  He could hear the older man breathing heavily. “You may very well find out. Don’t stand in back of any cars she’s behind the wheel of.”

  Marrity realized that the other man was drunk. Well, so was Marrity. The parallel frightened him. In what sense was the older man the “other” man?

  He was aware of puzzlement from Daphne, and tried to project a reassurance he couldn’t quite feel.

  He said, “I could never decide to get rid of—”

  “I couldn’t either, at your age, with just the experiences you’ve had! Who do you think I am? The Harmonic Convergence cracked the continuity of our life, and in the true version of our life there was some, some variant stimulus and so you didn’t do a tracheotomy! She died! She was supposed to die! When you get to where I am—”

  “I’ll never get to where you are. I’ll make better choices.”

  “Choices! You don’t get choices, you get…situations that you react to—the actual cumulative you reacts, with whatever half-ass wiring you’ve got at the time, not some hovering ‘soul.’ You’re a mercury switch—if the spring tilts you to the right degree, you complete a circuit, and if it’s got metal fatigue, it tilts you less, and you don’t. You don’t have free will, sonny.”

  “Of course I do, of course you do, what kind of excuse—”

  “Bullshit. If—” The older Marrity was panting. “If a scientist could know every last detail of your physiology and life experiences, he could predict with absolute accuracy every ‘choice’ you’d make in any moral quandary.”

  Quandary! To Marrity the sentence sounded as if it had been prepared ahead of time. Not for talking to me, he thought, this old wretch couldn’t have anticipated talking to me—he must have cooked it up for his own solace.

  “Laplace’s determinist manifesto,” came another man’s languid voice from the background. “It overlooks Heisenberg’s uncertainty.”

  “Okay,” said the older Marrity furiously, “then it’s probability and statistics that dictate what we’ll do! But it’s not—”

  “It’s a sin,” said Marrity, breathing deeply himself. To Daphne he projected a vague cluster of images—hugging her, holding her hand—and he was able to have more confidence in his reassurance now.

  “Said the fourth domino to the twenty-first!” ex
claimed the older Marrity, laughing angrily. “‘Ah, wilt Thou with predestination round / Enmesh me and impute my fall to sin?’” The older man audibly took a deep breath. “But listen, you and I need to talk—there are things I’ve got to tell you—you’ll be rich—”

  “I wouldn’t take them,” said Marrity, “from you. What you can do for me is right now go to Daphne and say ‘Go away, Matt.’”

  “Ahh—go buy crutches now while they’re cheap.”

  The phone clicked, and then there was just a buzz.

  Marrity stared at the inert telephone on the bed. He couldn’t bring himself to look at any of the others, especially Charlotte, who had volunteered to take oblivion in Dahpne’s place. The horrible old man on the phone had been himself.

  As if she’d read his mind, Charlotte said, “He’s not you. He never was.” She smiled, her eyes unreadable behind the sunglasses. “He never met me, for one thing.”

  Marrity tried to smile back. “He never kissed you, anyway, I’m pretty sure,” he said gruffly.

  “Tilt the block over onto the bed,” said Mishal, “carefully, and then we all stand around it and hold hands.”

  Marrity shoved the Einstein envelope into his pocket so that he’d have both hands free.

  Twenty-five

  When the slab was lying across the bed with its anonymous back face upward, Marrity and Charlotte sat cross-legged on the pillows while Lepidopt hunched between the wall and the edge of the block, Malk stood on the door side, and Mishal crouched on the foot of the bed.

  Mishal caught Lepidopt’s eye and nodded toward the cement surface, and Lepidopt reached into his shirt and pulled a little piece of folded paper from a broken locket. He unfolded the yellowed paper and set it carefully on the cement.

  “This is a piece from a letter Einstein wrote in 1948, which was auctioned off to support the Haganah—precursor to the Israel Defense Forces,” he added to Marrity and Charlotte. He pulled Marrity’s matchbook from his pocket and struck a match.

  He held the match to the paper, and a ring of blue flame quickly circled the crabbed words on it.

 

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