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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 39

Greg Bear

  He took the bags into the hall and set them down at the foot of the stairs. "Hello," he said nervously. Waltiri's presence still seemed strong enough that a hale answer wouldn't have surprised him.

  The upstairs guest bedroom was his first project. He searched for a storage closet, found it beneath the stairs and pulled out a vacuum cleaner - an old upright Hoover with a red cloth bag. He cleared the hardwood floors of dust upstairs and down and unrolled the old oriental carpets and the stair runners. Removing yellow-edged sheets from the linen closet, he made up the brass bed and folded the plastic covers into neat squares.

  He then went from room to room, standing in each and acquainting himself with their new reality - devoid of Waltiri or Golda. The house was his responsibility now, his place to live for the time being, if not yet his home.

  Michael had spent most of his life in one house. Getting accustomed to a different one, he realized, would take time. There would be new quirks to learn, new layouts to become used to. He would have to re-create the house in his head and cut new templates to determine his day-to-day paths.

  In the kitchen, he plugged in the refrigerator, removed a box of baking soda from the interior and unchecked the double doors to let them swing shut. The pantry - a walk-in affair, shelved floor-to-ceiling and illuminated by a bare bulb hanging from a thick black cord - was full of canned and dry goods, all usable except for a bloated can of pineapples that rocked to his touch. He threw it out and made up a shopping list.

  In the triple garage behind the house, a 1939 black Packard was parked next to a maze of metal shelves stacked high with file boxes. Michael walked around die beauty, fingering a moon of dust from its fender and observing the shine of the chrome. Enchanting, but not practical. Leaded premium gas (called ethyl in the Packard's heyday) was becoming difficult to find; besides, it would draw attention - something he wanted to avoid - and be incredibly expensive to maintain. He peered through the window and then opened the door and sat behind the wheel. The interior smelled new: leather and saddle-soap and that other, citrusy-metallic odor of a new car. The Packard might have been driven out of the showroom the day before.

  Wedged between the seat and seat back on the right side was a folded piece of ivory paper. He pulled it loose and read the cover.

  Premiere Performance


  Opus 45

  by Arno Waltiri

  8:00 P.M. November 23rd

  The Pandall Theater

  8538 Sunset Boulevard

  Within the fold was a listing of all the players in the Greater Los Angeles Symphonia Orchestra. There were no other notes or explanations. After staring at the program for several minutes, Michael replaced it on the seat and took a deep breath.

  Parked outside by the east wall of the garage, in a short cinderblock-walled alley, was a late 1970's model Saab. Michael unlocked the door on the driver's side and sat in the gray velour bucket seat, resting his hands on the steering wheel.

  This was much more practical.

  He had ridden Sidhe horses, aband from point to point in the Realm, and touched a myriad of ghostly between-worlds, and yet he still felt pride and pleasure at sitting in a car, knowing it would be his to drive whenever and wherever he pleased. He was a child of his times. After a long search for the latch, he popped open the hood and peered at the unfamiliar engine. The battery cables had been unhooked. He reattached them to the posts.

  Michael knew enough about fuel injection systems not to depress the gas pedal when starting the engine. The engine turned over with a throaty rumble on the first try. He smiled and twisted the wheel this way and that, then backed it carefully out of the alley, reversed it on the broad expanse of concrete before the garage and drove to the supermarket.

  That evening, he inspected the living room fireplace and chimney and brought wood in from where it had been stacked beside the Packard. In a few minutes, a lusty blaze brightened the living room and shone within the black lacquer of the grand piano. Michael sat in Waltiri's armchair and sipped a glass of Golda's Ficklin sherry, his mind almost blank of thoughts.

  He was not the same boy he had been when he entered Sidhedark through the house of David Clarkham. He doubted he was a boy at all.

  The Crane Women had trained him well; he didn't doubt that. He had survived the worst Sidhedark had to offer - monstrous remnants of Tonn's early creation; the ignorant and frustrated cruelty of the Wickmaster Alyons; Tarax and Clark-ham himself. But what had he been trained for? Merely to act as a bomb delivering destruction to the Isomage, as Clarkham had called himself? Or for some other purpose besides?

  The flames danced with wicked cheer in the broad fireplace, and the embers glowed like holes opening onto a beautiful and deadly world of pure heat and light.

  He drowsed, grateful that no new visions bothered him.

  At midnight, the rewound grandfather clock in the foyer chimed and awoke him. The fire had died to fitful coals. He went up to his bedroom and sank into the cool, soft mattress.

  Even in deep sleep, part of him seemed aware of everything.

  One, the clock announced in its somber voice.

  Two. (The house creaking.)

  Three. (A light rain began and ended within minutes.)

  Four. (Night birds…)

  Five. (Almost absolute stillness.)

  At six, the clock's tone coincided with the sound of a newspaper hitting the front door. Michael's eyes opened slowly. He was not in the least groggy. There had been no dreams.

  In his robe, he went downstairs to retrieve the paper, wrapped in plastic against the wet. A man sang softly and randomly in the side yard of the house on the left. Michael smiled, listening to the lyrics.

  "Don't cry for me, ArgenTEEEENA…" The man walked around the corner and saw Michael. "Good morning!" he called out, waving and shaking his head sheepishly. He was in his early forties, with abundant light brown hair and a face indelibly stamped with friendliness. "Didn't disturb you, I hope." He wore a navy blue jogging suit with bright red stripes down the sleeves and legs.

  "No," Michael said. "Getting the paper."

  "I was just going to do some running. You knew Arno and Golda?"

  "I'm taking care of the house for them," Michael said.

  "You sound like they're coming back," the man said, pursing his mouth.

  Michael smiled. "Arno appointed me executor of the estate. I'm going to organize the papers…"

  "Now that's a job." The man had walked in Michael's direction, and they now stood a yard apart. He extended his hand, and Michael shook it. "I'm Robert Dopso. Next door. Arno and Golda were fine neighbors. My mother and I miss them terribly. I was married, but…" He shrugged. "Divorced, and I moved back here. Momma's boy, I know. But Ma was very lonely. I grew up here; my father bought the house in 1940. Golda and Ma used to talk a lot. My life in a nutshell." He grinned. "Your name?"

  Michael told him and mentioned he had just moved in the day before.

  "I'm not bad in the fix-it department," Dopso said. "I helped Golda with odds and ends after Arno died. I might know a few tricks about the place… If you need any help, don't hesitate to ask. My wife kept me around a year longer because without me, she said, everything stayed broken."

  "I'll ask," Michael said.

  "Maybe we could walk or run together - whichever. I prefer running, but…"

  Michael nodded, and Dopso headed down the street. "You were supposed to BEEE IMMORTal…"

  Michael carried the paper into the kitchen. There, he ate a bowl of hot oatmeal and leafed through the front section. Most of the news - however important and ominous it might seem to his fellows - barely attracted his attention.

  Then he came to a small third-page story headlined


  and his eyes grew wide as he read:

  The unidentified bodies of two females were found by a transient male in the abandoned Tippett Residential Hotel on Sunset Boulevard near La Cienega
Sunday afternoon. Cause of death has not been established by the coroner's office. Reporters' questions went largely unanswered during a short press briefing. Early reports indicate that one of the women weighed at least eight hundred pounds and was found nude. The second body was in a mummified condition and was clothed in a party dress of a style long since out of fashion. The Tippett hotel, abandoned since 1968, once offered a posh Hollywood address for retired and elderly actors, actresses and other film workers.

  He read the piece through several times before folding the paper and putting it aside. His oatmeal cooled in its bowl, half-finished.

  The bodies might be a coincidence, he thought. As rare as eight-hundred-pound women were…

  But in conjunction with a mummy, clothed in a party dress?

  He called up the paper's city desk and asked to speak to the reporter who had written the piece, which had run without a byline. The reporter was out on assignment, he was told, and the operator referred him to a police phone number. Michael paced the kitchen and adjacent hall for several minutes before deciding against phoning the police. How would he explain?

  He had to have a look at that building. Something nagged him about the address. Sunset and La Cienega… Barely five miles from Waltiri's house.

  He went to the Packard and retrieved the concert program, then checked the glove box in the Saab to find a city map. He took both to Waltiri's first-floor office, dark and musty and lined with shelves of records and tapes, and tried to locate

  Sunset Boulevard, the site of the Pandall Theater according to the concert program.

  The address was less than half a block from the corner of Sunset and La Cienega.

  Chapter Two

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  Michael walked briskly up La Cienega's slope as it approached Sunset, breathing steadily and deeply, taking pleasure in the cool night air and the darkness. He could be anonymous, alone without all the handicaps of loneliness; he could be almost anything - a dangerous prowler or a good Samaritan. The night covered all, even motives. To his left, the white wall of a hotel was painted with Mondrian stripes and squares. At the corner, he stood for a moment, looking across the street at the blocky, ugly Hyatt on Sunset, then turned right. His running shoes made almost no sound on the concrete sidewalk.

  He passed the entrance of a restaurant built on the site where Errol Flynn's guest house had once stood and then spotted the Tippett building.

  It rose more than twelve stories above Sunset, an aging Art Deco concrete edifice with rounded corners. Many of the windows had been knocked out, and black soot marks rose from several of the gaping frames. At ground level, it was surrounded by a chain-link fence. The lobby entrance had been blocked off by a chain-link and steel-pipe gate. A trash tube descended from the roof to a dumpster behind the fence.

  The building made Michael uneasy. It had once been lovely. It stood out in this section of the Sunset Strip even now, in its present dilapidated condition. Yet it had been abandoned for over twenty years and, judging by the state of renovations, might continue that way for another twenty.

  He stood before the gate and squinted to see the obscured address, limned in aluminum figures above the plywood-boarded doors: 8538. The 8 had been knocked askew and hung on its side.

  The Tippet building stood on the site of the Randall Theater. Having confirmed that much, Michael looked around guiltily and glanced over his shoulder at the lighted windows of the Hyatt.

  There was a patched hole in the fencing to the left of the gate; with very little effort, he could undo the wiring on the chain-link patch and crawl under.

  "Odd place, isn't it?"

  Michael turned his head quickly and saw a bearded, sunburned man with thick greasy hair and dirt-green, street-varnished clothes standing on the sidewalk a dozen yards away. "Yes," he answered softly.

  "It's older than it looks. Seems kind of modern, don't it?"

  ""I guess," Michael said.

  "Used to live there," the man said. "Don't live there now. Want to go in?" The man walked slowly toward him, face conveying intense interest and almost equal caution.

  "No," Michael said.

  "You know the place?"

  "No. I'm just out hiking."

  "Care to know about it?"

  Michael didn't answer.

  "Care to know about the two women found dead in there?"


  "One big, a real whale, one a mummy. In the newspapers. You read about that?"

  Michael paused to reflect, then nodded.

  "Thought you might have."

  "Did you find them?'*

  "Heavens," the man said, coughing into his fist. "Not me. Someone who didn't know much. An acquaintance. Dumb to stay in that building for a night." He wrinkled his face up, expecting skepticism, and said, "It's full of things."

  "Why do you hang around, then?" Michael asked.

  "Because," the man said. He stood about two yards from Michael, and even at that distance his smell was rank - urine and sedimented sweat. "You know what their names were?"

  "Whose names?" Michael asked.

  "The women. The whale and the mummy."

  "No," Michael said.

  "I do. My acquaintance found it on a piece of rock next to them. Gave it to the police, but they didn't care. Didn't mean anything to them. Do you know French?"

  "A little."

  "Then you'd know what one of the names means. Sadness. In French. And the other…"

  Michael decided to try for an effect. "Lamia," he said.

  The man's face became a mask between surprise and laughter. "Gawd," he said. "Gawd, gawd. You're a reporter. I knew it. Odd time of night to be out looking for facts."

  Michael shook his head, never taking his eyes off the man. He had not yet tried to read someone's aura on Earth. Now was as good a time as any. He found a festival of murmurs, a bright little coal of intelligence, a marketplace full of rotted vegetables. He backed away from the search, having come out with only one fact: Tristesse. The second name. It suited the guardian of Clarkham's gate. Bringer of sadness.

  Lamia and Tristesse. Sisters…

  Victims of the Sidhe, sacrificed by Clarkham to guard and wait… But how could they have found their way to Earth? And who had killed them - or inactivated them, since what life they had was dubious at best?

  Abruptly and unexpectedly, Michael began to cry. Wiping his eyes, he glanced up at the Tippett building.

  "Something wrong? I'm the one should be crying," the man said. "You're not a reporter. Relative, maybe? Jesus, no. None of them would have had relatives. Not the type."

  "What do you care?" Michael asked sharply. "Go away."

  "Care?" the man shrilled, backing away a step. "I used to own the place. OWN IT, God dammit! I used to be worth something! I'm not that God damn old, and I'm not so far gone I don't remember what it was like, having money and being a"- he lifted a hand with pinky extended, raised his eyebrows and waggled his head-"a big God damn citizen!"

  Michael probed the man again and felt the sorrow and anger directly.

  "Now everybody comes around here. God damn bank never does anything with it, never tears it down, never sells it. Can't sell it. Now there's people died here. Not surprising.

  I'm going, all right. You figure it out. I've had my fill."

  "Wait," Michael said. "When was it built?"

  "Nineteen and forty-seven," the man answered with his back to Michael, walking away with exaggerated dignity. "Used to be a theater here, a concert hall. Tore it down and put this up."

  "Thank you," Michael said.

  The man shrugged his shoulders and waved away the thanks.

  Michael put his hands in his coat pockets and leaned his head back to look up at the building again. High up near the top, one floor beneath a terrace, a faint red light played over a dusty pane of glass. It burned only for a moment.

  Then, on the fourth floor, the red light gleamed briefly again in a broken and soot-stained win
dow. All WLS still after that and quiet.

  Michael shuddered and began the trek back down Sunset to La Cienega.

  Chapter Three

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  Magic like that worked by the Sidhe was more difficult on Earth; humans could not work Sidhe magic. This much Michael had gleaned from his training in the Realm, Sidhedark. But were these facts or merely suppositions? Breeds - part human and part Sidhe - could work magic; the Crane Women and Eleuth had demonstrated that much. Clarkham, a Breed born on Earth, had nearly bested the Sidhe at their own game.

  Michael himself had done things in the Realm that had no other name in his vocabulary but magic. He had even channeled the energies of a Song of Power to destroy Clarkham. And in the year since he had returned to Earth, he had learned that he could still apply Sidhe discipline and invoke hyloka, the calling-of-heat from the center of his body, and in-seeing, the probing of another's aura to gain information.

  For the time being, he was content not to test the other skills he had learned in the Realm. He had not used evisa, or out-seeing, to throw a shadow; there had been no need.

  Each morning, he went through his exercises in the spacious back yard. He jogged around the neighborhood holding his kima, the running-stick, before him, as the Crane Women had taught him. Several times he jogged with Dopso, who kept up a panting stream of questions and observations. Despite the man's obvious curiosity about Michael, and nonstop talk, Michael liked him. He seemed decent.

  Each day, Michael investigated another cache of Waltiri's papers and began to make a catalog of what he found. Within a week, he had worked his way through the garage and knew basically what was in each file box - manuscripts, contracts and other legal documents, and correspondence, including a wooden box filled with love letters from Waltiri to Golda, written in German. Even though he had studied German after returning from the Realm, he was hardly fluent, and that handicapped him. He thought about hiring a German-speaking student and acquiring the language more rapidly tlirough in-seeing but decided to put that off for now.