Three days to never a no.., p.38
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       Three Days to Never: A Novel, p.38

           Tim Powers
 

  The Chaplin handprint slab was now bolted upright next to Einstein’s big, dusty glass cylinder, and wires were stapled across the carpeted floor to a yard-wide gold swastika laid flat. On a linoleum counter closer to the back doors were a bottle of brandy, an ashtray already crowded with cigarette butts, and, screwed firmly into the counter, the “pressure-firing device.”

  This looked vaguely like a small floor jack, but the disk sticking up from one end of it wouldn’t support anything—it was the pressure cap that would set off the bomb.

  A copper tube—a nonelectric blasting cap—had been crimped onto the nozzle-like opening at the other end of the device, and the blasting cap was connected to a red plastic adapter that was screwed into the threaded cap well of a long brick of tetrytol explosive wrapped in tarry black paper.

  A homely looking blue kitchen timer connected a dry-cell battery to a wire that ran into the tetrytol brick through a groove in the plastic adapter. If it came down to it, Lepidopt could either set the timer and run, or just smack the pressure cap.

  A four-inch cotter pin was stuck through the barrel of the pressure-firing device, and Lepidopt now carefully pulled it out and laid it on the counter beside the ashtray.

  “It’s armed,” he said.

  From the pavement outside the van, Mishal called, “Good. I’ll send over Malk and Marrity.”

  By the dim yellow glow of the overhead bulb, Lepidopt stared at the bomb and the time machine, and he tried to imagine what might go wrong. What if he and Malk and Marrity were captured, and the bomb didn’t work? There was no bowl of dry macaroni here, but a gun available in an unexpected place might be just as comforting a backup here as it had been in the safe-house apartment on La Brea.

  Still lying on the blanket-covered plywood floor of the other van with her arms loosely around Marrity, Charlotte had been alternately looking through the eyes of the three Mossad men; aside from Marrity’s here beside her in the darkness, there were no other viewpoints within several hundred feet.

  Malk was just sitting in the driver’s seat in front of them, peering into the shadows through the windshield and the rearview mirrors. Mishal and Lepidopt had been talking inside the other van, though of course she could not hear what they had said, and now Mishal had got out and was walking up toward this van. That other van was more interesting, though, with the Chaplin block and what looked like a bomb, so she kept on looking through Lepidopt’s eyes.

  She saw him open a black plastic box and pull a small-caliber automatic pistol out of the foam-rubber padding inside; his glance swept the narrow interior of the van, then focused on a plastic pan full of well-used cat litter in the corner. The cat box became larger in his perspective as he approached it, and then she saw his hands push the gun in under the gray sand. His gaze narrowed a little, as if he were wincing.

  Charlotte put her mouth to Marrity’s ear. “In the other van,” she whispered, “there’s a gun under the sand in the cat box in the corner.” She felt him nod.

  “You two awake?” asked Malk as he saw Mishal approaching in the rearview mirror.

  “Yes,” said Marrity, stretching beside Charlotte. Mishal was unlocking the back doors, and Marrity kissed Charlotte quickly in the moment before the doors swung open and the dawn breeze cooled her face and arms.

  Then Mishal was unsnapping the padlock that moored their ankles to the floor. “I’ll be driving this van,” he said, “and Charlotte, you’ll be sitting up front with me. Frank, you go with Malk to the other one.”

  Charlotte groped her way forward, found the passenger seat and slid into it. She heard Mishal get in beside her, but she was looking through Marrity’s eyes now as he was led to the back of the other van; he stepped up into the back of it, and as Mishal clanked the gearshift she saw Lepidopt handcuff Marrity’s left wrist to a spare-tire bracket against the van’s left wall, away from the machine and the bomb. She saw Lepidopt smile and say something, and Marrity’s vision moved up and down in a nod. And as she felt the van she was in move slowly forward in a tight curve, Marrity’s gaze fell on the cat box in the corner of that van.

  That’s it, she thought, and she let herself switch to Mishal’s viewpoint so she could see where they were going.

  The blue helicopter was visible in the south now, pursuing its endless rotating figure eight over the city.

  “Fourteen minutes till dawn,” said Golze.

  His wheelchair was stopped on flagstones by the entrance to the clinic building at the foot of the tower. Old Frank Marrity peered at him—the bearded man’s face was gray, and sweaty even in the dawn chill, and Marrity wondered if he was putting off taking another shot of morphine in order to stay alert.

  I’m in more pain, thought Marrity defiantly, and not just the considerable throbbing ache in my abused leg. After all, I’m going to disappear from here within half an hour, and I don’t know whether I’ll reappear as a childless married man whose only daughter died ninteteen years ago, or as a total stranger—a stranger who might even have other children! I’ve had enough of offspring, thank you.

  Marrity had to step back to make way for an elderly man in a three-piece suit pushing an aluminum walker like, Marrity thought, Sisyphus pushing his boulder. It took nearly a minute for the man to hobble past on his way to the hospital entrance, which was another hundred feet away. Luckily the hospital didn’t seem to be very busy yet at this hour.

  “You might still get shot, in this fresh time line,” Marrity told Golze.

  “Go have another drink, hero,” said Golze.

  Marrity hesitated for a moment, then limped across the grass and the pavement to the car Rascasse sat in.

  The driver’s-side door was still open, and Rascasse was listening to the radio, which was droning its endless list: “…city bus, green station wagon, motorcycle, white van, white van, red car…”

  “I’m just gonna get—” Marrity began.

  “Shut up, you idiot,” snapped the Rascasse woman as she lurched forward in the seat. “Prime,” she said; “was that two white vans or only one? Repeat it please.”

  “Tierce,” said the voice on the radio, “two white vans, the northern one looks newer. The southern one just turned east on Alejo, the other is continuing north on Indian Canyon, toward you.”

  “Curare,” said Rascasse. She adjusted something on the radio, and then went on, “Keep that eastbound van in sight.”

  “Got it.” The radio clicked into silence at last.

  Rascasse tapped the horn ring, and the man who had been pacing the street sidewalk came sprinting back to the brown-and-white Chrysler.

  “You’re looking for a white van,” Rascasse told him, “now it’s on Alejo, moving east. Take all three cars, and let the helicopter tell you where it is. And capture it and bring it here.”

  “—the bottle,” said Marrity, opening the back door. The rum bottle was still on the backseat, and he picked it up.

  “I don’t sense any second van,” said Rascasse, apparently to herself. “It must be them, and Einstein’s time machine as well.” She frowned back at him. “Don’t take the bottle with you. Drink some here.”

  Rascasse stepped out of the car and stood up, and apparently caught Golze’s eye, for she just raised a thumb and nodded. Marrity noticed that her feet seemed to slide slightly on the asphalt, like the bottom edge of a beaded curtain that just touches the floor.

  Nine minutes till dawn,” said Malk, rolling one hand on the steering wheel to glance at his watch. The ridgeline of the Santa Rosa Mountains to their right shone white with the imminent sun.

  The van’s windows were rolled down, and the breeze cooled Lepidopt’s sweaty face. The soles of his bare feet were picking up grit from the van floor.

  “Mishal will let us know when he’s ready to go,” he said. Assuming we can pick up his radio signal, he thought. And even if he does tell me to wait for some kind of report on the singularity, I doubt that’ll take long. I suppose Mishal isn’t too worried about getting killed here, s
ince this morning’s events are slated never to have happened. Probably within this next half hour I’ll be doing the astral projection trick, and then—as if that weren’t bad enough—jumping right out of 1987.

  He thought of his first parachute jump, in 1965, from an old two-engine British Dakota circling over a patch of the Negev desert south of Beersheba—stepping out of the plane into nothing. The rip cord had been pulled automatically; and this time the rip cord would be his own dried finger, which was now under his shirt, taped against his sweaty chest.

  He yawned, but not from tiredness.

  “You okay back there?” called Malk.

  “So far so good,” came Marrity’s voice from the back of the van.

  “Stay away from La Bamba.”

  “I can’t even reach it from here. Okay if I smoke?”

  “Sure, fire won’t hurt anything.”

  Malk had been keeping the van in the right lane, and now he said, “Fast boy coming up on the left.” He had made a dozen similar remarks on the surrounding traffic during the last twenty minutes. Lepidopt once again braced his bare feet.

  Then the white compact in front of them braked sharply and another car was braking right next to Malk’s head in the left lane. As Lepidopt levered himself to his feet, he heard a pair of loud pops and saw dust spray from two spots on the asphalt ahead.

  The van was shuddering to a halt. In the back of it, Lepidopt placed his bare feet on the gold swastika and leaned forward to press his hands into the handprints in the Chaplin slab.

  Marrity was staring at him wide-eyed.

  Two car doors slammed outside, and then a man’s voice called, “Step out of the van, everybody.”

  Malk whispered, “Jump, goddammit!” and then said loudly, “We have a bomb aboard that will wreck your cars too. Dead-man switch. Nobody’s getting out.”

  Lepidopt’s heart was pounding in his chest. Almost more clearly than he could see the scrawls in the cement slab in front of his eyes, he could see Louis’s face, and the boy seemed to be staring at him earnestly, as he had so often in the past.

  “One of us will ride with you,” said the voice outside.

  “Nope,” said Malk. “Bomb.”

  “Then we escort you, two of us behind and one leading. If this isn’t acceptable, I advise you to detonate your bomb.”

  “We’ll go with you,” said Malk. The car doors slammed again, and then the van was moving forward. After a moment Lepidopt could hear the turn-signal indicator clicking.

  “Are you still there?” asked Malk furiously. “Marrity, is he still there?”

  “I’m here,” said Lepidopt, blinking sweat out of his eyes.

  “Doesn’t it work? If it—”

  “I don’t know if it works or not,” said Lepidopt. The Chaplin handprints felt as slick as the oiled glass had last night. “I haven’t stepped out of my body yet.”

  “Well step out, man! We’re captured!”

  “I need to,” began Lepidopt. Speaking words was like pushing broken teeth out of his mouth. “Think about it—a little more.”

  The van sped up, swinging the lightbulb overhead. “Then don’t jump,” said Malk hoarsely, “listen, scratch that altogether. Just hit the bomb.” The van slowed, and again Lepidopt heard the turn signal. “Blow us up, Oren! We can’t let these people get hold of Einstein’s machine!”

  “I’ll jump!” shouted Lepidopt angrily. “Or I’ll blow us up. But—not this second.”

  Sunlight gleamed on the white weather vane and the zigzag patterns of blue and yellow tiles on the pyramid roof of the tower.

  Aryeh Mishal stepped out of the van that he had parked in the hospital lot, walked around to the other side and took Charlotte’s elbow as she slid down from the seat to the pavement. Momentarily covered by Charlotte and the van, Mishal reached into his shirt pocket and switched on the transmitter.

  “I guess the time machine didn’t work?” she said. Her expression was blank, her eyes hidden behind her constant sunglasses.

  “He’s waiting in case I have a report about the thing in the tower,” said Mishal with a smile. “In the meantime, we might as well walk through this exchange.” He let go of her elbow. “Let’s keep our hands spread and empty.” They stepped out from behind the van.

  But we shouldn’t still be here! thought Mishal tensely as he and Charlotte began walking toward the tower with their hands open and held slightly away from their sides. God knows what I’d be doing right now if Lepidopt had delivered his message to Harel in 1967 and got the inscription from the Rephidim stone—but I wouldn’t be doing this.

  It didn’t work, he thought as he stepped slowly across the painted white lines on the asphalt. Or this Vespers crowd caught them—no, I’d have heard the explosion in this quiet morning air, even a mile or two away.

  Squinting ahead, he could see figures in the shade under a trellis by the entryway of the building below the tower—a bearded man in a wheelchair, and a white-haired man holding a little girl’s limp body in his arms, and another man or two in the shadows behind them. They were about fifty feet away, with a curb and a couple of olive trees on a strip of lawn in between. None of them looked particularly out of place in this hospital setting; as he and Charlotte slowly walked closer, Mishal saw two white-clad nurses walk unconcerned right past the group.

  Mishal smiled sideways at Charlotte so that his mouth was over the microphone in his shirt collar. “Jump,” he said, “or run back to L.A.”

  She nodded. “You said it.”

  The man carrying the limp girl stepped forward out of the trellis shadow into the gathering daylight, and then paused.

  Mishal and Charlotte stopped. “I think I go on from here alone,” said Charlotte.

  “I guess you do,” Mishal said. “Uh—good luck.”

  “You too.” She smiled bleakly at him, then turned toward the tower and resumed the careful pace.

  Mishal heard several vehicles bouncing up the driveway into the lot a dozen yards behind him, and he slowly turned his head; and suddenly his chest was cold and empty, for the three compact cars turning into the lot were clearly escorting the familiar florist’s van. Mishal could see Malk’s stark face behind the windshield.

  A man in a sport coat and jeans got out of one of the escorting cars and pointed to an empty parking space directly in line with the lot entrance; and Malk drove the van ahead, into that space.

  Two of the escort cars pulled into the parking spaces on either side of the van, and a driver got out of each and simply stood by his car, watching the van. The third car carefully backed up to block the van from behind.

  Mishal stood still, isolated on the pavement between the cars and the people at the clinic entry. His hands were still empty, but he was intensely aware of the gun under his jacket.

  Though his left wrist was handcuffed to the spare-tire rack, Marrity could lean past the trembling, barefoot Lepidopt and see out through the front windshield, and the cigarette smoke caught in his throat at the sight of a white-haired man carrying Daphne’s limp body across a sidewalk toward Charlotte, who was slowly walking to meet him. Marrity could only see Charlotte’s back.

  “I don’t think I can move without getting shot from both sides,” said Malk tensely from the front seat. “Oren, will you jump?”

  Marrity stepped back, put his cigarette in his mouth, then knelt and thrust his right hand into the cat box. He got hold of the gun and lifted it out, shaking sand off it.

  He pointed it squarely at the big glass cylinder, then spoke around the cigarette. “Hey.”

  Lepidopt turned his haggard face to him, and his eyebrows went up. “What are you going to do?” he asked.

  “I’m going to wreck your time machine unless you uncuff me and let me go to Daphne.”

  “They’ll just shoot you if you step out,” said Malk. Marrity could see his narrowed eyes in the rearview mirror. “They want to shoot you, remember? But you’re safe in here, they don’t want to risk damaging the machine. Let M
ishal get your girl. As long as you’re in here, she’s safe.”

  Marrity was shaking, and he forced his hand to hold the gun steady. “How’s this trade supposed to work?” he demanded. “Look at them, there’s nobody to carry Daphne back here! Obviously she can’t walk!”

  Smoke stung his eyes, but he didn’t have a hand free to take the cigarette, and he didn’t really dare spit it out in a confined space with a bomb.

  “Mishal can—” began Malk.

  “I’ll shoot your damn machine, I swear. Uncuff me. They want the machine way more than they want Daphne. They won’t start shooting till they’re sure they can get it.”

  “Shit,” burst out Malk, “uncuff him, let him get out of here, take his chances—you’re going to have to hit the bomb, Oren. Or I will, even if they shoot me as I get up to do it. Marrity, you can leave by the passenger-side door.” Marrity saw Malk’s profile as he said out the driver’s-side window, “We’re letting our hostage go. He’s a civilian, and that’s his daughter over there, the little girl. If you kill him or take him out of our sight, we’ll blow up the machine. Are we clear?” Marrity met his eyes in the rearview mirror, and Malk said to him, “Yes. Go. Get well clear of this van, if you can.”

  Marrity kept the gun trained on the glass cylinder as Lepidopt stepped barefoot away from the Chaplin slab and dug in his pocket for the keys; then he crouched and opened the cuff from around Marrity’s left wrist.

  “Thanks,” said Marrity. He crushed his cigarette out in the ashtray on the counter, carefully avoiding touching the bomb mechanism, then hurried past the cylinder and the Chaplin slab to the front seats.

  “Leave the gun, for God’s sake!” whispered Malk. “And move slow!”

  Marrity hesitated, then pulled up his pants leg with his left hand and tucked the gun partway down inside his sock. With both hands he tugged the elastic sock all the way up over the bulk and pulled his pants cuff down over it.

  He grinned nervously up at Malk, who just shook his head.

  “Nobody survives this, I guess,” Malk said.

  Marrity levered open the door and slowly stepped down. Immediately two of the men who had captured the van were beside him, gripping his upper arms tightly. They marched him a few steps away from the van and toward the tower, then halted, clearly not having any idea what to do with him. What had been predawn dimness was now long streaks of blue shadow across the parking lot. The air was chilly on Marrity’s damp shirt.

 

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