Medusas web, p.5
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       Medusa's Web, p.5

           Tim Powers
 

  “The Hispaniola, sure.” When they’d been children, the long-abandoned poolhouse had been their make-believe pirate ship, named after the vessel in Treasure Island.

  Ariel looked around at her. “That’s right.” She turned away again and resumed writing. “And there’s apparently a lot of things called screw jacks under the floor joists of the house—under all the buildings—and they need to be tightened up or this whole place will collapse. I think I can find a map for him of where all the screw jacks are.”

  “I’ll tell him to fix the heater first.” The coffee bubbling up in the glass knob at the top of the percolator was brown, and Madeline turned down the heat and fetched two cups from the cabinet.

  “There’s,” said Ariel hesitantly, “trays up there too.”

  Madeline smiled. “Thanks.” She levered a wooden tray free of the pans around it and set it on the counter, set the cups on it, then poured coffee into them. Lifting the tray, she added, “I’m sorry about the monkey thing. It’s just that I read—”

  “Just shut up and take the poor boy his coffee.”

  As Madeline sidled out of the narrow kitchen into the dining room, Ariel called after her, “I’ve read that too—the monkeys can’t let go of it, the peanuts or whatever, and they get trapped.”

  With no hand free, Madeline nodded in acknowledgment.

  Her shoes knocked and scuffed on the uncarpeted stairs and then on the worn planks of the second-floor hallway, but she paused for a moment beside the door to what had been Aunt Amity’s bedroom, on the other side of the hall from the row of salvaged doors with nothing but wall behind them; and when she walked farther and kicked the door of Scott’s room and he pulled it open, she said, “There’s some kind of noise in her room.”

  Scott took the tray from Madeline and set it on the recessed shelf in the plaster wall, beside the row of cigarettes he had laid out last night. “We have to get furniture up here.” He picked up one of the steaming cups, then hastily set it down again. “What sort of noise?”

  “Very soft, like—a lot of mice running for their lives.” She touched the other cup and left it where it was. “I don’t want to go sit in my stupid office today. Astrology’s too sad.”

  “You’ve got an office now?”

  “Well, it’s still the living room in my apartment. The landlady thinks I run kind of a botanica.” Scott knew that meant a Hispanic witchcraft shop. Madeline sat down on his bed. “I’m not going.”

  “Do you have an appointment?” She nodded. “Is the person going to pay you?” She nodded again. “Then I’d say you better go.”

  “We’re going to inherit this house in a week.”

  “You know we’re not. Why is astrology sad?”

  Madeline made a face. “Because you can’t get there, to where it’s describing! The sun and the planets aren’t circling the earth anymore—I mean, nobody thinks that anymore, except maybe my clients—but astrology is based on that old business. And the calendar has moved on since our charts were written; the sun comes into the Taurus constellation in May now, for instance, but we do the calculations as if it still comes in in April, like it did a thousand years ago. We’re always describing the past, but we can’t get to the past!” She waved a hand. “But there I am anyway, calculating what the exact sidereal time of a native’s birth was, figuring what the ascendant was at that moment, then looking up where all the planets were—”

  “Native? What, you get work from a reservation or something?”

  “That’s what we call clients.” She waved a hand impatiently. “You know—natal, birth date.”

  “I thought you just went by what month they were born in, like they have in the newspapers.”

  “No, that’s no good—that would be like deciding what one guy’s blood alcohol level was by measuring everybody in the bar and figuring the average. And doing it a month late anyway!” She shook her head. “Ariel says you have to fix the heater on the roof. The pilot light won’t stay lit.” She laid the list on his bed.

  “I can probably do that.” Scott picked up one of the cigarettes; it was mottled brown, but apparently dry, and he lit it and blew a plume of smoke toward the opened window. “So all that horoscope fish-and-bull-and-scorpion stuff doesn’t really apply?”

  “I don’t think it ever did, much. The actual plain star charts don’t look at all like the constellations, the pictures you’re supposed to see in them.” She shivered and looked out the window at the green slope of the garden. “But—” She shook her head and stood up. “We should tell somebody—well, you’re the handyman here, now. For a week. You should do something about the mice. If it is mice.”

  “But what?” said Scott. When she gave him a blank look, he went on, “You said they don’t look like the pictures, but—”

  “I don’t like to talk about it.”

  Scott shrugged. “Okay.”

  “Well,” she began, then went on in a rush: “See, I don’t think it was ever about the stars—not originally, anyway. It was about a big, moving two-dimensional black surface with a lot of little white dots on it. I think the old astrologers connected some of the dots in those goofy ways, insisted on their made-up pictures of bulls and lions and crabs from mythology, to hide the way earlier guys had connected them. Bulls and fishes aren’t naturally two-dimensional, but . . . I think some things are.” She pushed her dark hair back with both hands. “One time I looked at a star chart and tried to connect the dots in different ways, to maybe get more believable pictures.”

  “So what did you—” he began, but stopped when he saw her woebegone expression. “Not . . . more spiders?”

  “It was in my head! It’s been in my head for twenty-three years. I burned the star chart after I saw I had traced a bunch of eight-legged patterns across the stars. None of them were . . . you know, hot, but I think if I’d kept trying, one of them would have been.”

  “Shit.” Scott drew deeply on his cigarette, and the end glowed. “It hasn’t been in my head, not till I got back to this damned old house, anyway. You think old Babylonians or somebody used star charts to trace your filthy spiders on? How old are these things?”

  Madeline blinked rapidly. “They’re not my filthy spiders, Scott! Who was it looked at one just last night?”

  He took a deep breath and made himself relax. “Well, Ariel, for one,” he said mildly, “if I had to guess, since she looked as racked up as I felt, at dinner.”

  Madeline shrugged. “Anyway, I don’t know how old the things are. Claimayne used to say the Vatican has been trying to suppress them ever since at least the Borgia popes.”

  “It’s weird nobody ever heard of them.”

  “Well, obviously a few people have. But they don’t want to call attention to themselves. It’s too likely to be bad attention.” She kicked her valise. “I should go into some other line of work. I saw an ad in the paper for a job that included lighthouse work. I think that would be nice, like in Captain January.”

  Scott thought about that for a moment, then said, “Uh, are you sure it wasn’t light . . . housework?”

  Her face was blank. “Oh. Damn. I bet you’re right.” She sighed. “I wonder if they even have lighthouses anymore. Captain January had to move out of his, and they took Shirley Temple to an orphanage.”

  Scott jumped then at a loud snap, and when he looked at the window, he saw a web of cracks across the glass of the raised frame.

  “Somebody threw a rock at our window!” Madeline exclaimed.

  “And broke the inner pane but not the outer one?” Then Scott stepped between her and the window. “Don’t look at it,” he said sharply.

  He was wearing a long-sleeved flannel shirt, and he gently knocked out the glass with his elbow, averting his eyes and being careful not to break the glass in the outside frame. Several of the broken pieces slid out from between the frames and whispered away in the thick shrubbery below.

  “Nobody threw a rock,” he said.

  Madeline was staring at
the floor. “Can I look now?” She glanced at him, and her eyes widened when she saw the expression on his face. “What, don’t tell me it was another of the damn patterns? Showing up in cracks in glass?”

  Scott now looked at the shards still stuck in the raised wooden window frame. “Well—I don’t know. I just glanced at it out of the corner of my eye, but—no, you’ve just got me spooked. This house is crooked, and settling. All kinds of stresses.” He knew he was talking to himself as much as to her. “Not surprising that windows would break.”

  “You’re supposed to tighten some screws in the basements too, Ariel said.”

  “I bet. I’m glad we’re not going to inherit this place—it should have been condemned years ago.”

  “We might.” She picked up her cup and took a sip of coffee. “Inherit it. Could I have ten dollars for gas? What about those mice?”

  Scott flicked his cigarette out the window and stepped away from it. “Let’s look.”

  CHAPTER 5

  THEY WALKED OUT OF Scott’s room and down the hall to the right, to the door of their aunt’s old room. The hall was in shadow except for daylight from a window at the far end, and reflected light up from the stairs ahead of them; Scott resisted the temptation to step to the other side of the hall and knock on the Garden of Allah door. When is a door not a door?

  Madeline cocked her head beside their aunt’s door. “Hear it?”

  Scott listened, and now he could hear a faint, irregular rippling. “I don’t think it’s mice.” He turned the knob and pushed the door open.

  Their aunt’s bedroom was a sickroom. A big hospital bed with a bare, segmented mattress and high aluminum side rails occupied a good deal more of the floor space than her old bed had, and an IV pole with bare hooks stood on the far side of it. The window was closed, and the room smelled of Lysol and laundry soap.

  The walls, at least, were as Scott and Madeline remembered them—photos of various silent-movie stars, half a dozen ornately framed mirrors, and varnished pine bookcases with all the Cyclone Severiss novels in their bright dust jackets. The byline on all the books was Amity Speas, their aunt’s maiden name, since the first one had been published in 1965, three years before she had married Edward Madden.

  On the top of a blue bedside table was ranked a collection of orange plastic pill bottles beside a mirror with a handle, and on a lower shelf was a black computer keyboard, its cord trailing on the bare wooden floor.

  The soft, irregular clicking noise was coming from the keyboard—Scott could see keys rapidly dipping and springing back up like the keys of a player piano.

  Below it, the USB plug lay on the floor, clearly not plugged in to anything.

  “She’s still writing!” whispered Madeline.

  Scott’s face tingled, and he said, “Stop it!” more harshly than he had meant to. He found that he had grabbed Madeline’s arm and backed into the hallway even as his eyes were tightly focused on the impossibly working keyboard, and he could no longer hear the faint clicking over the ringing in his ears.

  The keys kept rising and falling, one at a time but rapidly.

  Scott tore his gaze from the keyboard and made himself step into the doorway again and look around the room. The bookshelves, the yellow lace curtains, and the trees outside the window gradually reasserted themselves as parts of the normal world, isolating the abnormality on the bedside table shelf.

  He made himself relax, at least to the extent of releasing his sister’s arm, though he was as aware of the keyboard as he would have been of a luminous snake in the room.

  “Okay now,” he said, carefully keeping his voice level, “that’s just too damn weird. And the cat last night? Let’s get out of here, Maddy, pack our stuff and go right now, this minute.”

  Madeline was wide-eyed and chewing her knuckle, but she said, “We need to know what she’s saying! Scott, it’s Aunt Amity!”

  Who greeted me with one of these damned spiders yesterday, Scott thought, posthumously. He was so anxious to get out of the house that the whole structure seemed to be tilting him toward the stairs.

  “She loved us,” insisted Madeline. “Can we just walk away from it? From her?”

  “I—yeah, I think so, Maddy, sure. This isn’t the Aunt Amity we knew! This is the crazy old lady who climbed up on the roof with a grenade last week. And she’s dead!”

  “It must have hurt her terribly, climbing all the way up that ladder with her bad foot. We’ve got to see what she has to say.” Madeline stepped into the room and set her coffee cup down beside the pill bottles. She crouched to lift the keyboard off the shelf, then stood up and stared at the dipping keys. After a few seconds, she turned it toward him. “Can you read it?”

  Scott reluctantly watched the black keys popping up and down. They were all among the shiny ones in the middle and left side of the keyboard; the function keys along the top and the number keys to the right were dusty. “Uh, ‘me get in . . .’ No, she’s too fast for me. You need to plug it into a computer. You’ve got a computer at your apartment. I’ll come with you. Let’s go right now.”

  Madeline rolled her eyes at him. “I’m certain this typing won’t happen away from this house, Scott! She’s here, she’s all over the roof! And if it stopped because we took it away, it might never start again!”

  “Madeline, this place is haunted. You know? Actually.” He had lowered his voice, as if afraid the keyboard might overhear him. “Paranormal stuff, like on TV. We’d be crazy to stay here, for anything.”

  “That stuff can’t hurt you. And she loved us, and she’s trying to . . . communicate.”

  “And she’s dead! And who says it can’t hurt you?”

  Madeline just shook her head.

  “Maddy, can you listen to reason for just a minute?”

  “Not right now, I’m sorry. I’m not leaving.”

  “Do you intend to sleep here again? At night?”

  “Scott—yes. If she’s still talking. If she says anything that makes me think I have to stay.”

  Scott bared his teeth in agonized frustration. “I—won’t leave while you’re still here, I won’t—”

  “I’m sorry, Scott!”

  He shivered and allowed himself a whispered shout, then took a deep breath and said, “Let’s go find a goddamn computer.”

  “I’ll stash this in my room till we find one,” said Madeline. “I think she’d be more comfortable away from the hospital bed.”

  WHEN MADELINE ASKED ARIEL if there was a computer they could use—citing the necessity of getting their e-mail—their cousin curtly directed them to the library and told them that the password was adelaida. Madeline ran back upstairs and shortly reappeared with the vibrating keyboard wrapped in a sweater, closing the library door after she’d handed the bundle to Scott.

  The room was almost as small as the kitchen on the opposite side of the house, though an ornate marble-fronted fireplace dominated the east-side wall. A relatively new black Hewlett-Packard computer stood on the crowded desk, with a flat-screen monitor beside it, and a printer sat on a low filing cabinet next to the desk. The keyboard sitting in front of the computer was white plastic, apparently a replacement for this black one that Aunt Amity had taken with her into her sickroom.

  Stacked below the south-facing window were several of Aunt Amity’s old computers and a tractor-feed daisy-wheel printer. The floor-to-ceiling shelves on the remaining two walls didn’t seem to have changed since Scott had last seen them—they were still jammed, vertically and horizontally, with his aunt’s research books on the history of Los Angeles, and he could also see the narrow spines of Claimayne’s two collections of poetry. Scott thought he could even still catch the faint aroma of the unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes their aunt had smoked incessantly.

  He carried the sweater-wrapped keyboard, which he had to remind himself was not a living thing, across the carpet to the far side of the desk. The cable swung loosely like a tail.

  “Get Word running,” he told Madeline.<
br />
  “Don’t you want to plug in her keyboard first?”

  “No, you’d never get anywhere with her keystrokes interrupting everything.”

  “Oh, right.” Madeline pushed the power button at the top of the computer and sat down in the padded office chair. The computer rang four notes and the printer beeped, and Madeline typed in the password and then clicked the mouse.

  She clicked it a few more times and then said, “Okay, Word’s up.”

  Scott pulled the white keyboard’s plug out of its USB port in the back of the computer and replaced it with the plug dangling from the keyboard he was carrying.

  “Wow, it’s going,” said Madeline, staring at the monitor. Scott hastily unwrapped the black keyboard and set it down behind the computer, then hurried around the desk to crouch beside his sister.

  Words were appearing rapidly across the screen:

  climb down in their eyes her eyes i know i know charlene hes a man no good it needs to be her i know i know if it was then i remember all in one room cowboys fighting richelieus swordsmen fencing lovers holding hands and all the shouting at once the tablecloths and even the walls fluttering in the wind charlene listen to me get in her eyes and climb down to it I know i know cyclone i already know

  “It’s just gibberish,” said Scott quickly. “She doesn’t have anything to say, she’s just talking in her sleep.” He reached across for the mouse, but Madeline caught his hand.

  “It’s not total gibberish,” she said. “It’s her Cyclone Severiss character talking to someone, someone named Charlene.”

  “Incoherently! Let’s just go. There’s nothing here that’s—”

  Madeline startled him by abruptly giggling, though she immediately caught herself and stopped. “Claimayne said Shores of Hollywood was the last of her first-person novels,” she said. “I think this is the first of her last-person novels.”

  Scott shook his head tensely, half lifting his hand toward the mouse again. “I don’t think this one is going to be a hit.”

  The text they’d read was repeated several times, and even Madeline seemed ready to unplug the keyboard, when new lines appeared:

 

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