Medusas web, p.9
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       Medusa's Web, p.9

           Tim Powers

  Even though I’m not who you were expecting, thought Scott—the person you sort of met in this house once.

  “Maddy,” he said, “who do you mean—”

  “It was just a dream I had once, never mind.”

  Scott nodded doubtfully. “How did you get down here?” Before he’d been able to open the cellar door, he’d had to brush a lot of dirt and leaves off it.

  “I crawled in through a basement window beside the porch. I was afraid the freeway was getting closer. Fast. Can you bear it?”

  He gathered that she meant, Can you believe it? “Actually I wouldn’t be surprised, today.” He turned the flashlight’s beam onto the lug wrench.

  “And I always did feel safe beside the scare-bat,” she added, brushing her trembling fingers across the top socket of the thing. Scott could read the words pressed into the cement at the foot of it: Hic iacent curiosi.

  He turned the flashlight beam onto the floor behind him, and his sister limped forward onto the illuminated patch of mud. He swung the light ahead of her, and she painstakingly made her way along the path it traced out while he followed. On the ascending dirt slope he supported her with his arm, though when they reached the level floor above she was able to walk more steadily to the daylight below the open cellar door at the east end. She made hard, gasping work of climbing the ladder.

  At last they stood up on the grass in the sunlight. Madeline was panting, and her hands and the knees of her jeans were black with mud.

  “You don’t seem to be in the best shape for scrambling around in cellars,” Scott said.

  Madeline frowned at him. “I’m in fine shape,” she said defensively. “I’m just sick. If I didn’t stay fit, I wouldn’t be able to climb Mount McKinley.”

  “You climbed Mount McKinley?”

  She shook her head.

  “You’re planning to?”

  “No, but I’m able to.” She waved the topic aside. “Thanks for getting me out of there. I don’t think I ever could have got out on my own. Ever.”

  “Madeline,” he said, haltingly, “this morning when I was climbing onto the roof—”

  She raised a hand. “Don’t tell me, yet, okay? And don’t ask me about what happened to me today, or why I’m sick. We can talk about it later, when it’s less . . . recent.”

  “Like after the sun goes down? You’re . . . still sure you want to stay here? You know I think it’s a mistake.”

  “I think I am sure, in spite of everything. Else. So far.” She gave him a haunted smile. “You really don’t have to stay, on my account.”

  “I really do, you know,” he said sharply.

  She nodded seriously. “I guess big brothers have to do that sort of thing.”

  ARIEL PEERED OUT PAST the half-opened kitchen door, but her black Kia Optima sedan just stood unremarkably in the driveway a dozen feet away, its windshield gleaming in the noon sun. The shadow under it didn’t waver, and no anachronistic shapes seemed imminent. Beyond the car the western lawn stretched a hundred yards to the palm trees by the garage road, and above them she could see the white line of a jet trail in the cobalt blue sky. The sounds were just the usual whisper of wind in the palm fronds and the creaking of the house.

  It looks like solid 2015, she thought, and she stepped cautiously out of the shadows and pulled a pair of sunglasses out of her purse and put them on.

  She walked around to the driver’s side, still limping a little, and when she had climbed in and pulled the door closed she threw her purse onto the passenger seat, then tugged an iPad out from under the seat and turned it on. Tapping into a deep-web server, she entered a web address with a dark suffix. The familiar picture came up—a movie poster for the Ingmar Bergman movie Through a Glass Darkly—and in two blanks at the top of the screen she entered a password and her zip code, then tapped the sign-on icon.

  A map of the Hollywood area came up, with a pulsing red dot on Santa Monica Boulevard just a block or two east of Las Palmas. She had no particular recollection of that neighborhood but started the car and backed down the driveway till it joined the branch driveway that led up the hill to the ridge garages and Gower Street beyond; from long practice she was able to back and fill until the car was aimed downhill, and she coasted between the tall, shaggy palm trees down to Vista Del Mar.

  One spider to rule them all? she thought, remembering Claimayne’s words. What could that mean—containing them all? Like a master key that opens all the doors? The car’s windows were rolled up and the confined air was hot and smelled faintly of the anchovy pizza Claimayne had demanded two days ago, but Ariel was shivering. And the rest of Aunt Amity’s stash of spiders, she thought—those would probably be very dirty, lots of people would have looked at them already, you’d be linking with all those reciprocating retinas, overlapping all those physical lives, and they’d be merging with you, even sharing your bloodstream—young losers, sick old folks, drunks—it exhausted you last night even to merge with your own healthy three-day-future self!

  You don’t want it.

  She turned right on Franklin and then south on Argyle in the momentary shade under the 101 Freeway overpass, and then she was out in the sun again, driving past the high windowless back wall of the Pantages Theatre and through the wide Hollywood Boulevard intersection. On her left now was a big parking lot and on her right the stark white Stalinist-looking east face of the new W Hotel, all of it throwing needles of noon glare into her eyes even through the polarized lenses of the sunglasses.

  Why did he have to come back? Why did Aunt Amity want him to? He left us all.

  Ariel felt her face redden now as she remembered the note she had written to Scott thirteen years ago, when she had been twenty and he had been twenty-three. After he had moved out, intending to marry that Louise woman, she had found the note in the bag of trash he had left in his room, with idiot teenager! scrawled across her signature. I was twenty, she thought now, not a teenager!

  And I’m thirty-three now and stuck living in declining circumstances at Caveat with my demented wheelchair-bound cousin—what’s the way out of that?

  What’s the way out for Scott? Or even Madeline? Back to their shabby south-of-Sunset lives?

  According to Claimayne, Scott and Madeline saw this big spider when they were kids. And look at them now. I wonder if it was worth it.

  You can’t know whether it was or not. Not yet, anyway.

  Argyle ended at Sunset in front of the blue pillars of the Nickelodeon On Sunset studio, and she turned right.

  You don’t want it, she told herself again.

  She peered ahead through the glittering windshield. If she turned right instead of left at Las Palmas, she’d pass Miceli’s, the Italian restaurant Scott had several times taken her to, long ago. Seeing the brick wall and the green awning of the place would bring back memories. You don’t want that either, she thought. Damn it, you don’t.

  What she most wanted, she conceded to herself dejectedly, was a clean, fresh-printed spider, and just that infinite moment of separation from everything, especially from consciousness, from her self.

  But she turned left on Las Palmas, and then left again at Santa Monica Boulevard, and she rolled down the window and took deep breaths of the hot pavement-scented breeze.

  The sidewalks along this stretch of Santa Monica were empty except for a half-dozen men lined up at a white taco truck down the street; the north side appeared to be builders’ supply lots and the south side was little anonymous office buildings . . . but she saw a pale green light in the dusty window of a shop on her right, and she swerved in to the curb. The sign above the shop said BOTANICA, which was plausible cover; the Hispanic botanicas all dealt in semi-magical herbs and oils and candles, and in any case this one probably hadn’t been in business more than a week or so and might not be here tomorrow. The spiderbit shops had to move around a lot. Spiderbits was the slang term for people who had quit or were trying to.

  Ariel got out of the car and dropped two quarters in
to the parking meter, then stepped across the sidewalk and pushed open the shop’s door. Bells attached to the frame jingled.

  The air was cool inside and smelled of camphor and mint; Ariel took off her sunglasses and blinked around at the plastic bottles and aerosol spray cans and shrink-wrapped coyote skulls that crowded the shelves and tables, and she jumped when a plastic angel by her knee began bobbing and squeaking.

  “Proximity,” said a man behind a long counter at the far side of the shop. “You got near it.”

  “Magic?” asked Ariel dryly.

  “Motion sensor. Rechargeable battery.” He took off a pair of glasses, then relaxed and laid them on the counter. “Oh, hi—haven’t seen you in a while.”

  She peered at the bald young man and nodded. “You were running a video arcade by the chicken and waffles place on Gower.” She walked forward, careful not to jostle any of the bottles of money-attracting or spell-repelling oils; the man’s name, she recalled, was Harry, or at least that’s what one called him, and he was always dressed in a gray sweatshirt, possibly always the same one. The droopy mustache was new.

  “Car stereo shop next, I think,” he said.

  She nodded, sure that whatever his next green-light shop would be, it would not be a car stereo shop. Spiderbit outlets drew nasty sorts of predators, and locations of the green-light shops were always secret and temporary.

  “I need some more stuff,” she said.

  “I’ve got it all—distorting veils, stick-on windshield ridges, high-octane tarantella CDs . . . Mundane stuff too, while you’re here—plexiglass to replace your glass windows, tapestries in case of wall cracks, Bakelite dishes, plaster for rounding off multi-angle corners—”

  “No MP3?”

  He shook his head. “Try downloading one of the 18/8-time tarantella numbers and the bad guys track your credit card, no matter how good the site’s security encryption is. And it always turns out to be an ordinary three-quarter time tarantella anyway.”

  Ariel shook her head. “The tarantella music would upset my cousin. He still uses.”

  The bells on the street-side door jingled then, and Ariel looked around quickly; a short man in horn-rimmed glasses had come into the shop, but, seeing another customer already there, he turned around and walked out, pulling the door closed behind him.

  Harry had stepped back from the counter and quickly put the glasses back on. His eyes appeared to be just swirls now behind the bull’s-eye lenses.

  He didn’t take them off when he looked back at Ariel. “I may close early. You said your cousin still uses?”

  “Yes, but I’ve been clean—”

  “You live with him? Does he know you came here today? Does he know where this is?”

  “No—I didn’t know it myself till I got in the car and got on the website. And he’s in a wheelchair and never leaves the house and he never has contact with anybody. He just lives for his Medusa, using the same old ones over and over.”

  “Huh.” Harry relaxed and slowly took off the glasses. “He calls it Medusa? That’s a very old term for it.”

  Ariel shrugged. “He learned about it from his mother, I think.” She shivered and gripped her purse more tightly. “And then I learned about it from him.”

  Harry stepped around from behind the counter and walked up to where she stood. “The term is a lot older than his mother, kid. Have you heard of La Mano Negra?”

  “Black Hand. Sure. Italian extortionists in Chicago, wasn’t it?”

  “That was a different crowd.” Harry’s breath smelled of Altoid mints. “La Mano Negra was a secret society in Andalucia, in Spain—the police called them anarchists, but all the legitimate anarchist groups—”

  Ariel gave him a faint, quizzical smile. “I like the idea of legitimate anarchist groups.” She reached to the side and touched a can of High John the Conqueror good luck spray.

  Harry shook his head, dismissing the interruption. “Well, they all said they had nothing to do with any Mano Negra, and in fact the group that the police rounded up in 1884 and executed—and burned all their papers, unread—were more like a religious order.”

  “Uh . . . Christian?” She picked up the can and pretended to read the directions.

  “Hardly. Their secret symbol was a black hand . . . with eight fingers. Their public symbol was a stylized Medusa head.”

  “With eight snakes growing out of her head,” guessed Ariel, thinking of the Medusa wall in the garden. Harry nodded. “Eighteen eighty-four,” she went on. “I got the idea the spider patterns were invented in the 1920s.”

  “Hell, La Mano Negra was centuries old by the time the Spanish police wiped them out; and they weren’t the oldest branch, though they were the biggest.” He waved as if to indicate how old some of them were, and his hand brushed Ariel’s shoulder. “Yeah, and spiders were a sort of secret fad with rich movie folks in the ’20s, but those designs seemed to be more from India.”

  Ariel was impatient to get out of the shop and this neighborhood, and she popped the plastic cap off the spray can, wondering if she might have to give old Harry a squirt in the face. “I bet there’ve been these shops forever, too, huh?” she said brightly. “Always charging too much for the merchandise.”

  Harry looked down at the can in her hand and shrugged, and after a moment he stepped back behind the counter.

  “So what did you want?” he said gruffly.

  “Bull’s-eye glasses,” she said, nodding at the pair he was holding, “both sunglasses and clear ones like that—one, no, three sets of each, damn it.” Why, she asked herself angrily, am I taking care of Scott and Madeline too?—when Claimayne says they’re probably to blame for everything? I really am like the monkey that gets trapped because she can’t let go. She shook her head and went on, “And a reversing single-mirror periscope.” I won’t get them reversing periscopes, she thought. They can find their own. “How much for all that?”

  “A hundred and fifty bucks.”

  She knew the glasses and the periscope barrel would be cheap plastic, but she had complained about the prices once, a couple of years ago—when Harry was running an apparent comic book store with the pale green light in the window, in Bellflower—and he had told her she was free to shop around openly for such things if she liked, and why not pay with a credit card while she was at it and really risk drawing attention to her peculiar purchases.

  She pulled the roll of twenty-dollar bills out of her purse and flipped through eight of them and pulled them free. “I know you don’t give receipts,” she said, “but I would like the ten bucks change.”

  “What, did you always pay with the exact amount before? I don’t give change. There’s folks who can track it back to me.” He opened a drawer below the counter and, after rummaging around in it, found a Snickers candy bar. “This was going to be my lunch, but you can have it,” he said.

  He tossed it across the counter and tucked the twenties into his pocket, then began filling a T. J. Maxx shopping bag with unmarked boxes from shelves behind the counter. Ariel put the candy bar in her purse.

  “Flash bangs?” asked Harry.

  “I beg your pardon?”

  “Stun grenades, military reloads. They don’t hurt anybody, just blind them with the flash and deafen them with the bang. Disorientation. Just drop it between you and somebody trying to show you a spider, and you’re both out of action for a while.”

  “Sounds like fun. And how much are they?”

  Harry nodded at her bundle of twenties. “You don’t have enough there.”

  “That’s good. Just give me what I asked for, thanks.”

  He slid the filled bag over the counter to her, and Ariel nodded and turned toward the door.

  “I won’t be here next time,” Harry called after her.

  “See you at the car stereo store.”

  “Is that what I said?”

  She pulled open the street door, and she was squinting in the sudden hot sunlight as she crossed the sidewalk and fumbled out
her car keys. When she had opened the passenger-side door and dropped the bag onto the seat, she put on her sunglasses, and she saw that the short man in glasses who had briefly come into the store was now leaning against the wall of the windowless and possibly abandoned one-story stucco building on the far side of the botanica.

  Ariel watched him as she closed the car door. He was wearing rumpled dark wool trousers and a sport coat over a red T-shirt.

  He nodded at her and slowly took off his glasses and tucked them into his jacket pocket, then pulled out another pair and put those on; even from several yards away, Ariel could see the circular ripples in the lenses.

  He opened his mouth and said, “I’ve known spiderbits to blind themselves, so as to avoid maybe seeing one in a broken plate.”

  Ariel didn’t say anything.

  “And then,” the little man went on, “they’re afraid to sleep, because they might see one of the patterns in a dream. Sometimes they kill themselves.”

  “It can’t happen from a dream,” spoke up Ariel. “There’s no physical original, and so no reciprocal image on the person’s retina.”

  The man nodded. “I know that. Too late to tell them, though.” He took a step toward her, and she tensed and darted a hand into her purse, where, down among the lipsticks and wallet and hairbrush, she kept an old Seecamp .32 semiautomatic pistol that had belonged to her mother. High John the Conqueror spray would have been enough for Harry, but this guy was an unknown.

  “Could you spare a couple of bucks?” he said. “For a fellow spiderbit.”

  “No,” she said. She hadn’t found the pistol, but she impulsively pulled out the Snickers bar. “You can have this—it cost me ten bucks.”

  He nodded again, so she held it out at arm’s length, ready to run.

  But he just took it and began tearing off the wrapper. “When the spiders go,” he said, then paused to take a big bite. Chewing the mouthful was a stressful job that didn’t seem likely to end soon, and Ariel had started to turn toward her car when he went on, “Do you think all the spiderbits will die?”


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