Three days to never a no.., p.9
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       Three Days to Never: A Novel, p.9

           Tim Powers
 

  She had never mentioned this emergent homing ability to her control officers at Fort Meade, though, because even as a child she had known that they would immediately reassign her to a site that was reliably watched by foreign psychics, just so that she could spy on the psychics. She didn’t want to leave the secret underground kingdom of the Silo Rascals.

  The Launch Control Centers were her home, along with the stairs and corridors between the entrapment doors, and the two-hundred-foot cableway with its infinity of hiding places between the support girders, and the vast silo itself, ten stories deep with the shiny bulk of the Minuteman missile filling the infinite volume.

  An exploding battery in the charger bay had blinded her in 1978, when she was nineteen.

  In the nightmare months that followed—after the hospitals and the therapy, and after her extensive debriefing and eventual honorable discharge—she had discovered two things that had made her blindness and exile bearable. She learned that she could see through the eyes of anyone who was within about a hundred feet of her—the distance varied a bit, depending on the seasons—and she discovered alcohol.

  Golze got up from his table now and descended the tight stairs to the tiny restroom just behind the front door of the bus; idly Charlotte monitored him, and she smiled at the way he was careful to do his business at the urinal by touch alone, staring up at the close plastic ceiling. He wasn’t what anyone would call a gentleman, so it must be shyness. Men who knew about her ability always, when they went into a restroom, made a point of either modestly looking up or arrogantly looking down. Rascasse always looked down, but with Rascasse somehow it always seemed to be in surprise.

  She shifted her attention to Rascasse, and she saw that he was staring at one of the crossword-puzzle clues: a four-letter word that meant “underground fence.”

  “Haha,” she called toward the front of the rocking bus.

  “What’s funny back there?” he called.

  “An underground fence is called a haha,” she told him.

  In the newspaper margin he wrote, Y dont U finish the bottle and sleep. Bzy day morrow.

  “Haha,” she said, and then set about taking his advice.

  Six

  When Frank Marrity walked down the gravel driveway at eight the next morning to pick up the Los Angeles Times, the green Rambler was parked just outside the chain-link gate.

  He had awakened before Daphne, and slid out from under the covers without disturbing her, and in his pajamas and slippers he padded out to the kitchen to call the college and then make breakfast.

  After he’d explained to the English Department secretary that he would not be coming in today, he boiled milk on the stove and poured it into two bowls of Quaker instant oatmeal, then stirred into each bowl a tablespoon of Cool Whip and a teaspoon of Southern Comfort liqueur. Daphne appeared just as he was carrying the bowls to the kitchen table.

  “I looked in my room just now,” she said as she pulled out a chair.

  “We’ll fix it up today,” Marrity told her.

  “Crazy day, yesterday,” was all she said before digging into the oatmeal.

  “The craziest,” he agreed.

  He was glad that she didn’t comment on being served what was usually her “sick girl” breakfast instead of the routine cereal or bacon and eggs; but after the choking she’d experienced last night at dinner, he wanted to put off giving her anything that required chewing.

  The telephone rang, and he decided to stay where he was and let the answering machine get it.

  “You’re reached the Marritys,” said his voice from the machine, “and we’re not able to come to the phone right now, but leave a message and your number and we’ll get back to you.” The beep followed, and two seconds of silence, and then the dial tone, which soon shut off.

  He glanced at Daphne. She was frowning, but for a moment it seemed to him that it was his voice coming from the other side of the room, and not the hang-up, that had disturbed her.

  A black-and-white cat jumped up onto the table, sliding on yesterday’s newspaper, and Daphne nudged him off and then absently stared at the headlines. “Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of Elvis’s death,” she said. “I wonder if ghosts come back on their anniversaries.”

  “I’ll get dressed and go fetch today’s paper,” Marrity said, pushing his chair back.

  The sun in the east was throwing shadows across the gravel driveway from the lemon and peach trees, and the sky to the south was a deep, cold blue. Tiny white flakes of ash glittered as they fell silently through the sunlit air, for the northern sky over the mountains was a white haze of smoke.

  The newspaper was lying on the gravel just inside the gate, but Marrity had seen the green Rambler now and he slowly walked past the newspaper and unhooked the padlock from the chain, not taking his eyes off the car. Behind the wheel, staring back at him, was the same gray-haired man who had driven the car into their driveway yesterday afternoon, and had then reversed out and driven away.

  Marrity pulled the gate back enough to step through, and then walked out into the street to approach the driver’s-side window. It was rolled down.

  Before Marrity could speak, the man in the car said, “She called me yesterday, early. She said I could have her car.”

  Marrity stared at the lined, slack face under the combed gray hair, wondering where he’d seen it before. “So you broke her kitchen window to get the keys,” he said. “Who are you? Why are you here?”

  “I’m here because—” The old man appeared to try the door handle, and then give up on getting out. He leaned back in the seat. “There’s no easy way to say this.” His voice was rough, as if from decades of cigarettes and liquor. “I’m Derek Marrity.”

  Marrity was dizzy, and his stomach was suddenly cold. He took a step back to catch his balance, but he made his voice steady when he said, “You’re my father?”

  “That’s right. Your grandmother—my mother—listen, youngster—she said I should—she said it would be best for everybody if I just went away. Back in ’55. Now that she’s dead she can’t blackmail me anymore. I could have killed her, and stayed—maybe I should have—but how can you kill your own mother?”

  “You killed my mother.”

  The man exhaled through clenched teeth. “Goddammit, boy, I didn’t know that. I sent money to your grandmother, to give to Veronica. And letters too. I guess your grandmother just kept the money and trashed the letters. Typical.”

  “You left your children with her.”

  “Would you rather have been in a foster home? Was Grammar a bad parent to you? Remember, she didn’t know Veronica would kill herself.”

  Marrity wanted to tell the old man about Veronica’s drunken, hopeless last days, before the car-crash suicide—and he wanted to hear, very much wanted to hear the old man’s replies—but he didn’t want to do it out here on the street.

  “Who was Grammar’s father?” he asked instead. “What was Prospero’s actual name?”

  The gray-haired man shook his head. “No concern of yours, boy. Prosper O. will do fine.”

  “Albert Einstein,” said Daphne from the shadows behind the half-opened gate.

  “Daph—” snapped Marrity in alarm, stepping toward her, “you shouldn’t be out here. This man is—”

  “Your father,” Daphne finished for him. She was still in her pajamas, and barefoot on the gravel. “That was Albert Einstein you were picturing, wasn’t it, Dad? The crazy-haired old scientist?” She stepped through the gate into the chilly, slanting sunlight and walked up to Marrity and took hold of his hand. “Why was Grammar blackmailing you?” she asked the man in the car.

  “Daph,” said Marrity desperately, “we don’t know who this man is. Go wait for me inside.”

  “Okay. But he must be your father—he looks just like you.” Daphne let go of his hand and scampered back through the gate and up the driveway.

  Marrity couldn’t help glancing at the man in the car, though the glance must clearly h
ave shown that he had found Daphne’s statement unflattering.

  But his father’s eyes were tightly shut, and he was frowning, as if with sudden indigestion.

  “Are you okay?” asked Marrity.

  The old man opened his eyes and blotted them on the sleeve of his nylon jacket. He took a deep breath and let it out. “I hope to be, I hope to be. What did she say?”

  “She said you look like me.”

  “The Marrity jaw,” said his father, smiling now, a little sourly. “And I think there’s something about the eyes and the bridge of the nose. Look at some photos of Einstein, back when he was in his thirties.”

  “I thought—we were Irish.”

  “My father might have been, whoever was Ferdinand to my mother’s Miranda. His name wasn’t Marrity, though—that was your grandmother’s maiden name, with an extra R added to make it look Irish. It’s Serbian, originally, by way of Hungary. I guess fathers tend to be delinquent, in our family. Though I had—I really believe I had—no choice.” He opened his mouth and closed it, then said, “But I’m sorry—sorrier than I can say.”

  Marrity gave him a brittle smile. “Maybe you are. No help at this point, of course.”

  After a pause, his father shook his head. “I suppose it isn’t. Can I come in?”

  Marrity blinked at him. “Of course not! We can meet sometime—give me your phone number—in fact, when you leave here, you, you’d better walk—I’ve got the license number of that car now, and I’m going to report it as stolen.”

  “Can I come in?” the man repeated. “My mother—your grandmother—died yesterday.”

  Marrity frowned. He wouldn’t be able to ask his father about unpleasant things around Daphne; but maybe they shouldn’t start with the unpleasant things anyway. And if he sent the old man away right now, he might never reappear, and that would be intolerable, again.

  Marrity sighed heavily. “Of course you can come in. But—you have to promise to leave with no scene as soon as I say it’s time for you to go.”

  “Fair enough.”

  Bert Malk was leaning in under the open hood of a rented Ford LTD on the opposite side of the street half a block away, and he didn’t dare straighten up to peer after Marrity and the old man who had been sitting in the station wagon, though he noticed that the old man limped; but it was a fair guess that they were going into Marrity’s house. Malk had seen the little girl come out in pajamas and say something to them before going back in.

  Malk had laid an open toolbox on the radiator and was pretending to assemble or disassemble the clamp on the positive battery terminal. He had been standing here for ten minutes now, alternately bending over the engine and sitting behind the wheel as if trying to start the car, and he would have to leave soon.

  This neighborhood was in an unincorporated area outside the San Bernardino city limits, and there were no streetlights or sidewalks; Malk was standing on a patch of grass flattened and rutted by tires. The house he was parked in front of had plywood bolted over the windows and doors, and a brown steel Dumpster nearly as big as the house sat in the driveway.

  At the east end of the street a blue BMW appeared, and drove slowly toward him. He bent over the battery, as if looking very closely for any corrosion on the terminal.

  The BMW passed him, and the brake lights flashed briefly as it passed the Marrity house, and then it had gone on past, its rear window a featureless block of sun glare. It paused at the stop sign at the west end of the block, then made a right turn.

  Malk’s face was cold, and he began tossing the tools back into the box. Get out now, he thought.

  The woman sitting beside the driver had also been in the passenger seat of a Honda Prelude that had passed him here four minutes ago, also driving slowly east to west. He made mental notes: shoulder-length dark hair, slim, thirty-ish, with sunglasses; blue short-sleeve blouse. A real pzaza, he thought, a dark-haired beauty. In both passes she had appeared to be looking straight ahead, not toward the Marrity house, and she might just be a local resident; but she had passed the house twice in different cars, and the cars had had different drivers.

  He snapped the toolbox closed and unhooked the support rod from the hood. It was time to get out of here.

  I remember the fires,” Marrity’s father said, looking over the top of the house at the white northern sky.

  “‘Tenderly the haughty day fills his blue urn with fire,’” said Marrity, randomly quoting Emerson as he strode up the driveway. He was impatient to get inside now, and it irked him to wait for his limping father to catch up.

  As Marrity pushed open the kitchen door, his father nodded toward the blistered VCR that still lay on the grass.

  “That’s an unfamiliar sight,” he said.

  “The machine burned up,” said Marrity shortly. “Bad wiring, I guess.” He pulled the door closed behind him when the old man had limped unsteadily inside. “Daph! We’ve—got company.”

  When Daphne appeared in the kitchen doorway she had changed out of her pajamas and was wearing green corduroy overalls over a white T-shirt; clearly she had expected her father to ask the old man in. “I was just explaining,” Marrity went on, “that a short circuit in the VCR burned it up yesterday. Did you shut your bedroom door to keep the cats out?”

  She nodded, and then told her grandfather, “Burnt up the movie in it too.”

  “Really?” said Marrity’s father. “What movie?” He unzipped his olive green Members Only jacket, and Marrity noticed that it was still stiffly pressed, and the long-sleeved red-and-white-striped shirt under it was stiff too, and creased where it had been folded. Marrity wondered if Grammar had had any cash lying around at her house.

  “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” Daphne said.

  Marrity’s father seemed to have some trouble draping his jacket over the back of a chair. “I—” he began hoarsely; then he cleared his throat and went on, “I hope it wasn’t a rental.”

  “No, one of ours,” Marrity told him. “Can I get you some coffee?”

  “Coffee,” echoed his father absently. “Coffee.” He blinked at his son. “No, I’ve been up for so long it’s near lunchtime for me. A glass of that Southern Comfort on the rocks would be bracing.”

  It occurred to Marrity that the man’s odd smell was a mix of Juicy Fruit gum, cigarette smoke, and vodka. Vodka before eight, he thought, and Southern Comfort as a chaser? If a cop pulls him over and gives him a 502 when he drives away from here, am I liable, for having served him the alcohol? Marrity discovered that he didn’t care, and poured a generous slug of the amber liquor into a water glass.

  “Ice in the freezer,” he said as he handed it to him. “Help yourself.”

  “Can I have a bracing drink?” asked Daphne.

  “No!” said the old man.

  Marrity smiled at her. “No. Sit down and be seen and not heard.”

  “Aye aye.”

  Daphne had sat down at the table, so Marrity did too; and as soon as his father had fumbled a couple of ice cubes into his glass, he settled into the chair with his new jacket on it.

  The old man was leaning back and looking around the kitchen, and Marrity found himself resenting his father looking at the things he and Lucy and Daphne had assembled over the years—the Kliban coffee cups and dish towels, the cat calendar on the pantry door, the collection of cartoony salt-and-pepper shakers on the high shelves. But maybe the old man was envious of a settled home—certainly he seemed rootless.

  Finally the old man looked at Marrity. “It’s a very bad idea to give children alcohol,” he said earnestly.

  “How did you hurt your leg?” Daphne asked him.

  “A car ran over me,” the old man said. He seemed angry at Daphne for asking.

  “Grammar called you yesterday?” Marrity said. “How did you know she’s dead?”

  The old man shifted his gaze to Marrity. “I got worried and called the police in Shasta,” he said. “When she called me from there, she was talking as if she thought she would die
soon, giving me the car and all. Even calling me.”

  Marrity realized that he didn’t believe him. Maybe, he thought, he did kill her! Well no, he couldn’t have got back from Shasta in time to break Grammar’s window and take her keys.

  “You asked,” the old man said, apparently to Daphne, though he was staring into his drink, “why she was blackmailing me. A man died, and some money was absconded with, and she knew of evidence that would implicate me in it. She might even have believed I was the guilty party. But she didn’t blackmail me for money, she only wanted me to go away and not contact any of you again. I’d have gone to prison, almost certainly—it was a very good circumstantial case. I even wondered if she—” He stopped, and groped clumsily for his glass; after closing his hand on empty air a few inches short of it, he managed to get hold of it and take a deep sip of the liquor.

  Marrity could see that Daphne was anxious to ask a question, so he asked it for her. “Why did she want you to go away, to disappear?”

  “It’s not—really a subject for a little girl to hear,” said Marrity’s father haltingly. “Uh—I married your mother, to some extent, just a little bit, to prove to myself that I—could love a woman. In the 1950s there was no other option, really. It—wasn’t entirely a success.” The old man’s face was red, and he gulped some more of the liquor and exhaled through his teeth in a near whistle.

  “So was your grandfather Albert Einstein?” asked Marrity quickly. “My great-grandfather?”

  “You seem to know it already,” old Marrity said cautiously.

  “Why is it such a secret? I never got a hint of it till yesterday. The Britannica doesn’t mention Grammar, and she never said a word about it.”

  “Grammar was born in 1902, before Einstein and her mother were married. Uh—too much of a scandal. He wanted to be a professor, and this was really still nineteenth-century Switzerland. After a while the lie, and the little girl’s new identity, were too established to change.”

  “Huh. Why did you visit him in ’55, right after leaving my mother?”

 

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