Medusas web, p.7
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       Medusa's Web, p.7

           Tim Powers
 

  Her perspective largely came back then, and she saw that she was in the upstairs hall at Caveat, touching the door that had been salvaged from the Garden of Allah. When is a door not a door?

  Her tongue and the hinges of her jaw ached, and it occurred to her that it was because two other bodies had just briefly overlapped with hers—Aunt Amity’s and then the Natacha woman’s.

  Madeline drew her legs up and winced; her left thigh throbbed with an ache that seemed to go all the way down to the bone. She prodded her jeans, but the fabric was dry and the flesh of her leg felt springy and intact, and she exhaled in relief.

  Carefully she turned her head to look up and down the row of unopenable doors. South was more or less in front of her, and what she had seen in the spider vision had been somewhere a bit west of that, and not far away; close enough that a hospital on Sunset and Vine was apparently the nearest one. She was sure that she could find the house where Natacha had been shot . . . if it was still there. The cars had looked like models from the 1920s.

  She was panting, and she made herself relax and take deep, slow breaths. I’m back in 2015, she told herself. I’m Madeline Alice Madden, and I’m at Caveat.

  With the doorknob to brace herself on, she managed to get to her feet, and she limped back to her room to call her client and cancel their astrological appointment for today.

  THE ONLY PATCH OF pavement Scott trusted to foot the aluminum ladder on was around back, west of his and Madeline’s rooms.

  He slung the leather tool bag over his shoulder and started climbing carefully; when fully extended, the ladder had a tendency to flex, momentarily lifting its top rails from the roof edge above, and so he moved slowly. Aunt Amity is lucky she didn’t fall off this damn thing and break her neck, he thought. Well—she did make it alive onto the roof, anyway.

  The breeze from over the top of the hill was cold on his back, but he was sweating and promising himself that he would find a better way down from the roof—several rooms and a garage had been added onto the building over on the east side, and he hoped to be able to find a low roof he could simply drop from, onto soft dirt.

  Suddenly the breeze at his back was warm, even hot, and he inadvertently shook the ladder as he whipped his head around—

  —and then he just clung to the ladder and stared.

  The view out across the garden was divided on a wobbly diagonal, and the upper section showed bright sunlight on trees and bushes greener and more luxuriant than they had been when he had carried the ladder over here, while in the lower section, which was higher on the left side, he saw flickering puddles and leaves shaking with rain in dim light.

  The two views were separated by a slanted, blurry gray line, and as he watched, it thickened like a peculiarly undispersing fog erupting from a crack across the landscape; he gripped the ladder rails tightly as the gray expanded to fill his vision.

  A loud crack twitched the air and shook the building, and then in an instant the gray was gone, and the garden lay spread out in its ordinary winter disorder under the chilly blue sky.

  His head still turned to look over his shoulder, Scott stared out across the slope and for nearly a full minute didn’t let himself blink, for fear the normal landscape might fracture away again.

  At last he relaxed, and after a few deep breaths even resumed climbing the ladder. It was an aftershock, he told himself, a residual flash of anachronism from the spider I looked at yesterday. Maybe spider users experience this sort of thing all the time. He managed a frail smile. I should ask Claimayne.

  There had been some sort of sharp explosion at the end of the hallucination—had that been close thunder echoing out of the rainy-garden half of the vision?—or had it been the heater on the roof blowing up because Claimayne was adjusting the thermostat downstairs?

  Up at the roof edge at last, Scott crawled out across the flat tarpaper, walking on the palms of his hands, until the tool bag bumped over the low coping and his feet lifted from the next-to-last ladder rung, and then he got up no higher than a crouch.

  The weathered four-foot-square aluminum box that must be the heater stood on flat two-by-four sections several yards in front of him, just this side of the slanted shingle roof that covered the front half of the building. Evidently this northern half of the structure had been added on at some point and been provided only with a flat tarpaper roof. No wonder the ceilings below it leaked. Fresh black tarpaper sheets held down by cinder blocks were spread out a few yards to his left, presumably where Aunt Amity had detonated her grenade.

  He looked away from it and stood up cautiously, and before stepping toward the box he turned to glance back down over the roof edge at the garden. Off to the right, past the Medusa mosaic wall and out in the east yard where a couple of abandoned bungalows sat in sagging disrepair, he saw the lengthening shadow of a cellar door being lifted. He remembered it—it didn’t sit flat on the ground, but was uptilted about ten degrees, like the storm-cellar door in The Wizard of Oz.

  Two children climbed up out of the cellar; from this distance he could see only that they were a girl and a taller boy, both in jeans and T-shirts. He thought of calling out to them, but their shadows didn’t seem to fall in exactly the same direction as the shadows of trees that were closer, and instead he just watched as they scampered away south, toward the poolhouse and out of his sight.

  He frowned and turned away, and now his attention was on avoiding any pieces of his aunt that might still be scattered across the roof. He saw only a couple of scraps of lacy yellow cloth, but those might have been from anything, and he walked across to the aluminum box.

  One side of it was deeply dented, and the service panel lay a few feet away, bent and twisted; but it still had a little puddle of rainwater on it—at least there hadn’t been an explosion up here lately.

  Scott pulled the tool bag off over his head and knelt by the now-open side of the furnace housing. Inside, a few inches above the dusty aluminum floor, four iron mixing tubes hung behind the manifold pipe, and their air shutters were not only open but appeared to be rusted that way. The furnace was obviously old—a sooty thermocouple wire was bent over the nozzle of a pilot light; at the apartment building he managed, all the furnaces had flame sensors and ignition coils instead.

  Claimayne had said the fan came on, but no heat issued from the vents.

  The gas shutoff valve was on the outside of the housing, but Scott left it in the on position and pulled a yellow Bic lighter out of his pocket. He turned the pilot light knob, then waved a flame over the nozzle while he pushed the reset button, and a thumb-sized blue flame sprang up, enveloping the end of the thermocouple wire. Scott held the reset button down for fifteen seconds, then let it up. The pilot light wavered and went out. Apparently the thermocouple was no longer producing voltage to hold the interior gas valve open, whether because Aunt Amity’s grenade had fractured it or because of plain age.

  It would be easy enough to buy a new thermocouple. He reached around the outside of the housing and twisted the handle of the gas valve to the crosswise off position; but it was rattling loose in its housing, probably a result of the grenade concussion. Really, Scott thought, they should replace the whole unit.

  He straightened up and looked north. From up here on the roof he could see over the row of garages on the ridge to the treetops above the houses that were farther up in the hills, and above them, clear in the morning air despite the distance, the white letters of the Hollywood sign. He took a step toward the roof edge and looked down, and he saw someone now standing in the garden by the Medusa mosaic wall. Squinting against the sun and the rooftop breeze, he saw that it was Madeline.

  He opened his mouth to shout to her and ask her to help him find a better way down from the roof, but he glanced warily up at the sky first; when he looked down at the garden again, she was no longer visible—evidently she had walked around to the far side of the wall. He crouched, bracing himself with one hand on the roof coping, and waited for her to reappear.<
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  When a full minute had gone by without her stepping out from behind the wall, he sighed, fetched the tool bag, and got up to go look around for another way down from the roof.

  HAVING CALLED HER CLIENT and canceled their appointment, Madeline had gone downstairs and stepped out through the back kitchen door and begun walking at a slow pace along one of the gravel paths, sometimes having to duck under a thorny mesquite branch or step wide around shaggy Jerusalem sage.

  The aches in her joints and face had seemed to be loosened by the crisp morning sunlight, and she had moved steadily east along the overgrown paths toward the sun until she was in the shadow of the Medusa wall.

  The bathtub-sized pool below the wall had indeed been filled in, or removed altogether—if she hadn’t remembered splashing in it as a child, she wouldn’t have known a pool had ever been there. She looked up at the surface of the wall above the pool—a new crack, fuzzy with green weeds, ran down one side of it, and rain and sun had popped many of the mosaic stones out, but the Medusa face was still intact at the center.

  The face was no more than six inches across and made of only twelve flat stones, black and white—two black rectangles for the eyes, a smaller one for the mouth, white triangles for the cheeks and a fan of them for the forehead—but the tendrils of the snaky hair spiraled out in all directions across the rest of the wall, in a variety of shades of purple against a gold background. Madeline remembered how they seemed to glow, even to pulse, in the coppery light of late October afternoons.

  And in fact their colors were faintly rippling now, as if the stones of them were dark opals; and Madeline’s shadow dimmed the glow of a patch of them in front of her.

  She turned around, and it wasn’t morning anymore—the sun hung in remote wings of gold and topaz clouds in the west, just above the seashell-studded wall that divided the garden from the croquet court. The sunlight was horizontal—what Aunt Amity had called “Griffith’s magic hour,” because the director D. W. Griffith had believed faces were best photographed in that fleeting evening light.

  At her left, the house was farther away than it had been only a few moments ago, and she didn’t recognize the windows and doors. One of the upstairs windows glowed, and Madeline could hear someone playing a slow passage from Scheherazade on a violin—and she realized that no other sounds intruded on it. She was belatedly aware that there had always been a faint background hum, even here, a very weak infusion of the mingled noises of automobiles and sirens and helicopters and probably even distant voices, and that it was now absent. And no faintest hint of exhaust fumes tainted the jasmine-scented breeze.

  The Medusa mosaic had no crack across it, and none of the stones were missing.

  Madeline looked away from the Medusa’s face—and moved around the north end of the mosaic wall, toward the shadowed path by the east side of the house—for she could feel an almost unbearable happiness welling up inside her, and she didn’t want to put that stark little black-and-white face into this experience, whatever it was.

  There were none of the remembered structures added on to the east side of the house now, and so she strode quickly across the neatly mowed grass—all her aches and weariness were gone—and soon rounded the corner to the front of the house, and then she paused, breathing deeply. The marble-railed porch was the same one she remembered, but the slope below her was visibly terraced now, not a jungle, and ranks of red and white roses waved in the shadows.

  And below, beyond the slope, was Hollywood, lit only by the twilight glow in the sky. No, yellow lights shone here and there in the scattered shapes of houses, but there were no lights on the freeway. In fact of course the freeway was gone, or rather not built yet, and there was only a view of distant muted lights in the space where the Capitol Records building would one day stand.

  The steps that led down to the parking lot were swept, and no branches or vines hung over them. The apartment building no longer stood down there to the left, and the parking lot was half the size she remembered, and unpaved.

  Two girls in dresses were hurrying up Vista Del Mar, and Madeline could clearly hear their voices. One was worried that they had left the water running in Uncle Cecil’s swimming pool, and the other hoped it hadn’t overflowed and flooded the tennis court.

  Madeline began stepping down the cement stairs, and so quiet was the evening that the girls heard her and stopped to look up the slope. Madeline smiled and waved . . .

  But the light brightened abruptly, and a sound like distant surf drowned the faint rustling of the leaves. The black parking lot gleamed in bright sunlight below, and the apartment building reared its unlovely stuccoed walls down there to her left.

  She yelled “Wait!” in the hope that the connection to the past might not quite have ceased; and then she sat down on the steps, hidden from the street and the house by the overhanging trees, and cried.

  A FIRE ESCAPE CLUNG like scaffolding to the east side of the house, and Scott had at last decided it was the best way down from the roof. He held the tool bag out over the edge and let it drop to the roof of the garage two stories below.

  He was able to hang from the roof edge and drop three feet to the iron-grille platform outside the third-floor windows, and he exhaled in relief when the grille under his shoes didn’t give way. He started down the rusty ladder to the next platform, carefully placing his feet squarely on the rungs and gripping the cold rails.

  The next ladder ended on the flat roof of the long-unused garage that had been added on to this end of the house. The leafy branches of a tall mesquite tree shaded the north side of the roof, and he considered climbing down it to the ground; but the mesquite had thorns, and he recalled that a trapdoor on the roof gave access to a wooden ladder that was bolted to the interior garage wall.

  When he was able to step away from the ladder and stand up on the sagging garage roof, he noticed a narrow metal rod and a tangle of wires a few yards away on the tarpaper. He carefully shuffled out across the roof to it, and he knew it was the remains of an umbrella only because he recognized the wooden handle—the beak was broken off now, but the rest of the carved duck’s head was familiar from his childhood. This had been his aunt’s favorite umbrella, cherished because it had allegedly once belonged to the silent-movie star Clara Bow. A few scraps of the purple cloth he remembered still clung to the bent ribs, as yet unfaded.

  He stepped back and gingerly craned his neck to look back up at the top edge of the third story, a stained and flaking ridge against the bright blue sky. Had she carried her precious umbrella up there, along with the grenade? He tried to remember if it had rained last Wednesday; had she sat up there for a while, looking out across the garden from under the umbrella?

  His aunt had always said that Madeline was to get the Clara Bow umbrella one day, and Scott considered bringing it down; but he couldn’t imagine Madeline being glad to have it now.

  He picked his way back to the house side of the garage roof, retrieving the tool bag, and crouched to pry up the old tarpaper-covered trapdoor. When it came creaking up, he pushed it over the other way and lowered it to the roof, and then he peered down into the square hole.

  The garage below wasn’t completely dark, and he remembered that there were three windows in the broad door at the far end. He sighed and sat down on the edge and found the rungs with his feet.

  The wooden ladder held up under his weight, and when he was standing in the shadows on the cement floor, he looked up at the square of blue sky in the garage roof and thought he should somehow have shut the trapdoor. But from the brown-streaked walls and the sour mildewy smell he concluded that the roof leaked anyway, and to hell with it.

  Against one wall leaned a tinfoil-paneled plywood spaceship as big as an SUV, constructed for some 1950s science fiction movie, and in the dimness Scott could see the three foam-rubber space-alien manikins leaning against it, their big bald heads a bit saggier than they used to be. Madeline had never wanted to explore in here, and even teenaged Claimayne had fou
nd the aliens obscurely troubling. “They always look to me like they want to get a life,” he had told Scott once, “by force if necessary.”

  Shoved up against the opposite wall was a twenty-foot-long model of the Los Angeles skyline with metal disks still suspended on cobweb-draped wires above it to represent flying saucers.

  The cement floor in between was littered with leaves and sagging cardboard boxes, and Scott kept his hands out in front of him in the dimness as he made his way between old stoves and stacks of children’s bicycles toward the three windows at the east end.

  The big garage door would certainly not swing up anymore, and the ordinary door set into it was locked; but when he kicked it, the bolt tore out of the frame and the door swung outward, letting in fresh air and a dazzling glare of daylight on weedy pavement, and then the hinges pulled free and the door toppled over onto the driveway with a clatter that echoed back from the cypresses at the east end of the estate.

  Scott stepped hesitantly out onto the cracked old driveway. It ran north to connect with the garage road, and in the other direction sloped down past the vacant apartment building to a vine-hung and long unused gate that faced directly onto Vista Del Mar. He shoved his hands in his pockets and began trudging around the north side of the house, toward the garden and the door to the main house cellars.

  ARIEL PUSHED OPEN THE front door under the broken Caveat lintel and glared up the hall and into the dining room.

  “Claimayne!” she called. There was no answer, so she quickly tapped up the wooden stairs to the second floor and hurried down the hall, away from Scott’s and Madeline’s rooms to Claimayne’s door, and knocked on it.

 

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