Three days to never a no.., p.8
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       Three Days to Never: A Novel, p.8

           Tim Powers
 

  And Marrity stopped reading again, his face suddenly cold. Derek, he thought. That’s my father’s name. He ditched us in ’55—sometime before May, since my mother killed herself in May. Was he just off visiting his grandfather? If so, why didn’t he ever come back? Did he die? If he died, why wouldn’t Grammar have told Moira and me?

  Quickly he worked his way through the rest of the letter.

  I hope you have not told him too much! I said to him to go Home, I am always watched, can tell him Nothing. And Derek not knows his own Origin, that he has no lineal Status. I have spoken to NB when he was here in October, just enough to assure he has no Inkling of the Maschinchen. And he has not. I am in Hospital, with a ruptured Aortic Aneurism, and I know I do not survive. I wish to have seen you one more Time! We are such Stuff as Dreams are made on, and our little Life is rounded with a Sleep.

  It was signed simply, Your Father.

  That last sentence was of course from The Tempest.

  With a shaking hand Marrity laid the letters aside, and stood up and tiptoed into the hall, where the Britannica volumes stood on a shelf above head height. He pulled down the EDWA to EXTRACT volume, blew dust off the top page edges, and flipped to the article on Einstein.

  It listed his birth year as 1879, but there was no death date in this 1951 edition. Marrity only skimmed the accounts of Einstein’s discoveries, but noted that Einstein had become professor of mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey, in 1933.

  An image more vivid than a daydream unfocused his view of the page—Daphne was dreaming. In her dream a young man with long hair was tied up and gagged, lying on his back in some kind of recessed space in a metal floor between padded, bolted-down seats, and a hand with a knife hovered over his throat; then it was Daphne lying on her back on a red-and-black linoleum floor, and Marrity was crouched over her with an opened pocketknife in one hand, pushing her chin up with the other—

  “Daph!” he called, stepping quickly back into the living room. He was anxious to wake her before the dream could go any further. “Daph, hey, your movie’s over! Up up up! You can sleep with me tonight, since your bed’s all smoked. Right right?”

  She was sitting up, blinking. “Okay,” she said, apparently mystified by his liveliness. The dream was clearly forgotten.

  “And I don’t have time to correct those papers tonight,” he went on, “so I’m going to call in sick tomorrow. We can have lunch at Alfredo’s.”

  “Okay. Did you clean up my bedroom?”

  “Yes. Come on, up.”

  “How does it look?”

  “Halbfooshin’.” It was a family word that meant pretty bad, but not near as bad as a little while ago.

  She smiled. “Tomorrow we can flip the mattress and put the bed different?”

  “Right. You’ve been east-west—we’ll put you north-south for a while. The cats will still land on you when they come in the window.”

  She nodded contentedly and followed him down the hall.

  Viewed by the other drivers on the westbound 10 freeway this evening, the bus generally looked black—its bright blue showed up only when it sped past under one of the high-arching streetlights—and a driver passing it had to squint to make out the word helix along its side.

  The windows along the side of the bus were gleamingly dark in the back, but the two or three right behind the driver’s seat glowed yellow, and a driver passing the bus in the fast lane was able to glimpse a white-haired man sitting as if at a table.

  In the lounge area behind the bus’s driver, Denis Rascasse sat back in one of the two captain’s chairs and with his open hand rolled his Bic pen across the flat newspaper in front of him.

  “Lieserl Marity came out of hiding in order to die,” he said formally, as if he were dictating a newspaper photo caption.

  “In effect,” agreed Paul Golze. He sighed and audibly shifted his bulk in the other captain’s chair, probably passing from one ear to the other the telephone that was connected to the modified CCS scrambler. “A Moira Bradley called the hospital at twelve forty-five—she’s one of the next of kin. And at six-ten a cop from San Diego called too, a detective, asking about Lisa Marrity. Nobody else, no press.”

  By the interior lights glowing over the seats and fold-out tables at the front of the bus, Rascasse was working on the Los Angeles Times crossword puzzle. Without looking up, he said, “I think we should get that cop.” His French accent made the last word into something like coop or cope.

  The Vespers radar dish at Pyramid Peak near the Nevada border covertly monitored all telephone communications that the NSA bounced off the moon, and swastika and Marity were two of the hundred high-specificity words the Vespers computer was programmed to flag. Tonight these two had occurred in the same conversation, and one of the technicians at the compound outside Amboy, all of whom had been on full alert since shortly after noon, had telephoned the New Jersey headquarters as soon as the correlation was noted and transcribed, and the New Jersey people had called Rascasse.

  Paul Golze spoke into the telephone: “Read me the entire conversation, slowly.” He began scribbling on a yellow legal pad.

  Stretched out on a couch by the dark galley in the back of the bus, Charlotte Sinclair paid wary attention to the two men at the tables ten rows forward.

  Charlotte had lost both eyes in an accident, but she could see through the eyes of anyone near her.

  She was tensely amused whenever one of the two men looked at the other; they were such opposites, physically—Rascasse tall and straight with close-cropped white hair, Golze slouchy and fat and bearded, and always pushing his stringy black hair away from his glasses.

  Charlotte wondered if she would be able to sleep.

  She had lit a cigarette to kill the spicy smell of the thing they called the Baphomet head, but the smoke irritated her eyelids, and she crushed it out in the armrest ashtray.

  Instead she reached under the seat and lifted out of her bag the bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon, still reassuringly heavy, and twisted out the cork cap. A mouthful of the warm liquor dispelled the incense-and-myrrh smell perfectly, so she had another to work on dispelling the memory of the thing as well, and then corked the bottle and tucked it beside her under her coat.

  It had been three years now since Rascasse had picked her up in a poker club in Los Angeles and she had begun working for the Vespers, but she still didn’t know much about the organization or its history.

  The thing they were looking for now was apparently invented in 1928, but the Vespers had supposedly been pursuing it under other forms for centuries. Before the advances in physics during the twentieth century, it had been categorized as magic—but so had hypnotism, and transmutation of elements, and ESP.

  Rascasse had told her once that the Vespers were a secret survival of the true Albigenses, the twelfth-century natural philosophers of Languedoc whose discoveries in the areas of time and so-called reincarnation had so alarmed the Catholic Church that Pope Innocent III had ordered the entire group to be wiped out. “The pope knew that we had rediscovered the real Holy Grail,” Rascasse had said, nodding toward the chalice-shaped copper handles on the black wood cabinet behind the driver’s seat. “We lost it during the Church’s Albigensian Crusade, when Arnold of Citeaux destroyed all of our possessions at Carcassonne.” When Charlotte had dutifully made some derogatory remark about the Catholic Church, Rascasse had shrugged. “Einstein suppressed it too, after rediscovering it in 1928.”

  Another time Rascasse had told her that in the 1920s the Vespers—called the Ahnenerbe then—had worked with Adolf Hitler, and had even provided him with the swastika as an emblem; though Rascasse had added that the group’s core had never been interested in the screwy Nazi racial philosophies, but had only hoped to use Hitler’s government to fund their researches. The association had apparently not worked out, and long before the Ahnenerbe had been incorporated into the SS, the core members had stolen the archives and left Germany and taken on
, or possibly reassumed, the name Vespers. Golze said Vespers was a corruption of Wespen, the German word for wasps, though Charlotte liked to think it referred to the French term for evening prayers. Rascasse himself was French, and probably old enough to have been active during the war, but she had never been able to figure out when he had joined the Vespers.

  Their researches had to do with the nature of time, and her payment for working with them was going to be derived from that.

  But “researches” probably wasn’t the right word, except in a historical-detective sense—they weren’t hoping to discover how to manipulate time, but to rediscover work that had already been done toward that, work that had subsequently been lost or hidden or suppressed.

  In these three years Charlotte had seen them pursue a number of leads—clues that took them to private European libraries, and odd old temples in India and Nepal, and remote ruins in Middle Eastern deserts—all of which had proved to be dead ends. Rumored scrolls or inscriptions were gone or had been misleadingly described, alchemical procedures proved to be too obscure to follow or did nothing, and disembodied Masters turned out to be disembodied imbeciles, if not complete fabrications.

  It had been Charlotte herself who had obtained the one solid lead for them: She had got access to a secret archive in New Jersey, and had stolen several files of papers that contained information about a woman who had been living under a false name in Southern California as recently as 1955, a woman who had at one time had possession of some sort of potent artifact. Charlotte hadn’t been told all the details, but it had been this discovery that had led Rascasse and his team here to Los Angeles to work with the California branch of the Vespers.

  A mouthful of bourbon heated her throat now as she banished the memory of what she had done to get access to that archive.

  Charlotte didn’t think Rascasse and Golze had truly believed the old woman’s device still existed; certainly they had assumed she must have died years ago. But at noon all the Vespers electronic Ouija boards had shaken into activity, with ghosts anxious to know if they still had identities—this and a careful study of the day’s seismological charts convinced Rascasse that the device had been activated and used.

  He had immediately got the Vespers remote viewers busy trying to triangulate its location; and after an hour they had narrowed it down to somewhere in the Los Angeles area.

  Then the old woman’s gadget had reportedly moved east, at about 1:30—the viewers couldn’t be precise, since the device had not been activated at the time—and so Rascasse had rounded up Golze and Charlotte and set out in the bus toward Palm Springs.

  At one point on that long drive a gong had sounded from the cabinet behind the driver’s seat, and the cursor on the electronic Ouija board above the cabinet had been bouncing like the virtual ball on a Pong game, lighting up random letters and numbers. Charlotte had faintly heard the thing in the cabinet moaning.

  After a quick, whispered argument with Rascasse, Golze had opened the cabinet doors with evident reluctance.

  Charlotte had had to fight down sudden nausea. It seemed to her that the head always smelled worse—like hot rum spiced with “blood and honey and the scrapings of old church bells,” as Thurber had once written—when it was agitated. And even though it had no eyes, she always imagined that it was looking at her.

  Golze had gingerly lifted the tarry-black head and its wooden base out of the cabinet and shuffled around to the windows with it held out at arm’s length, to let the thing, as he said, “scope the traffic,” but though the head seemed to quiver with more excitement when he carried it back to the galley and held it up to the back window, none of the vehicles nor anything in the sky had seemed unusual.

  Rascasse had curtly told Charlotte to scan the nearby perspectives, but she got nothing more significant than a view of the dashboard of a car or truck, and a rust-flecked white hood. Nothing that looked like opposition.

  Charlotte had tried to avoid seeing the awful black head, but at one point while she was using Rascasse’s eyes he had looked straight at it.

  Polished black skin clung tightly to the eyeless skull, and paisley-shaped panels of silver filigree had been glued or tacked onto the forehead, cheeks, nose and chin, like metal Maori tattoos—probably to cover worm holes, Charlotte thought nervously—and a slack ribbon around its neck swung back and forth underneath the wooden stand. “Charlie Chaplin’s hat,” Golze and Rascasse called the ribbon. According to Golze it was the liner ribbon from a hat that had once belonged to Chaplin, cut now and fitted with a button and loop.

  Charlotte had hastily switched to the driver’s point of view.

  Golze had eventually put the head back in its cabinet and closed the doors, wiping his hands afterward. Only then had Charlotte taken a deep breath.

  At 4:10 p.m., though, the head had begun moaning again behind its closed doors, and again the electronic Ouija board had rapidly indicated meaningless numbers and letters; but, luckily before they could open the cabinet again, Rascasse had got a frantic call from the Amboy compound, reporting that the old woman’s gadget had disappeared—dropped right out of the perceptions of all the remote viewers.

  Rascasse had immediately made another call to the seismology lab at Cal Tech, but there had been no earthquakes within the last half hour. Apparently the gadget had been briefly activated again—too briefly to hope to triangulate it—but had disappeared without having been used.

  They were headed back to the L.A. office now, and Charlotte had long since calmed her nerves with the bourbon. Rascasse would surely get the device soon, whatever it was, and there was nothing she could do to help right now.

  She knew that she could look at the highway ahead, and see the lights of windows in the darkness—distant kitchens and bedrooms and living rooms—but she didn’t exert herself to look. Right now she didn’t want that heimweh, that homesick longing for strangers’ lives. She was too distressingly close now to getting a life for herself.

  Golze had said he could never sleep on the bus, but usually Charlotte could—the noise and the rocking took Charlotte back to her childhood.

  From the age of eight until the age of nineteen, when she had been honorably discharged because of disability, Charlotte Sinclair had been one of several children working for the United States Air Force in a remote string of Minuteman ICBM missile silos in the Mojave Desert south of Panamint Springs. She and the other children had spent most of their days and nights in the underground Launch Control Centers, each of which was a compact three-story house suspended inside a concrete sphere on “shock isolators,” four huge compressed-air shock absorbers, and the floor had constantly tilted one way and then the other as the Boeing air compressors tried to compensate for pressure loss in one or another of the shock isolators. Sometimes the floor would stay tilted for hours before the compressor came on, and she and the crew would get used to it—and then it was always disorienting to notice that the stationary blast door appeared to be rotated to one side or the other.

  Golze had hung up the telephone in the slot in its carrying case and was reading the notes he had made on the legal pad. “Her next of kin are the Moira Bradley who called the hospital, and one Frank Marrity, spelled with two rs. Pasadena and San Bernardino area codes. We could visit Marrity in San Bernardino tonight. He’s east, and the thing moved east.”

  “We won’t call on him,” said Rascasse, “especialy not at night. Don’t want to scare anybody, we don’t. We will call Marrity tomorrow, offer to buy it, if he’s got it. Fifty thousand dollars should be…effective. And in case there’s a hitch, it should be Charlotte that does the visiting.”

  In the darkness at the back of the bus, Charlotte nodded. Visiting I can do, she thought; and I’m good at looking. I don’t mind if you ask me to do those things.

  Back in the early ’60s, someone in Army Intelligence at Fort Meade had been worried that Soviet psychics might identify American missile silos, and so he had designed this secret cluster of silos to confuse
any such remote viewers. The tar-and-gravel runway was concealed behind a row of gaudy carnival tents and booths and rides, and the gray walls of the underground Launch Control Centers were all hung with pictures of Bozo the Clown and Engineer Bill and Gumby, and the Launch Control consoles were painted in such garish stripes and circles that the functional lights and buttons could hardly be distinguished; and the commander’s launch key had a little clown’s head epoxyed to the top of it. Charlotte and the other children had been required to play with Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs in the LCCs, and to accompany maintenance men into the tunnels and silos, which had been decorated with enormous Dr. Seuss murals. Any Soviet psychic who managed to view the missile launch site would, it was hoped, assume that he was seeing some sort of amusement park or progressive elementary school instead, and would write off the session as a miss.

  Charlotte had been the queen of the Silo Rascals, since she had been able to sense the intrusion when a distant psychic was using her eyes to look out through; and it had happened two or three times every year. At those moments she was trained to begin singing “Bye Bye Blackbird” as loudly as she could, at which signal all the air force personnel would drop their official work and begin dancing or putting on hand puppets or blowing through cheap tin trumpets. There had been times—when a favorite officer was being yelled at, or when she had been assigned to accompany the Corrosion Control crew below Level 7 at dawn in the middle of winter, or even when she had simply been bored—when she had begun singing the song without having sensed any outside monitoring. Even at the time she had been sure that the crew commanders sometimes suspected her of raising a false alarm, but they had apparently been under strict orders not to question her alerts.

  Eventually she had become able to fix on a remote viewer who was looking through her eyes, and follow the link back, and get a glimpse of his surroundings—generally just some featureless dark room, though on a couple of occasions she had found herself staring at the dashboard of a moving car.

 
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