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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 42

Greg Bear

  Michael heard a piano playing. The sound was fuzzy and distant, but it was indeed powerful, pounding. There was no melody, as such.

  "When did you record this?" Michael asked.

  "Yesterday," Robert said.

  "We're very curious," Mrs. Dopso said. "It's something of a mystery, don't you agree?"

  Michael nodded, the dinner suddenly heavy in his stomach. "I can't fell you what's happening, though. I just don't know."

  "The house is haunted by a spirit that loves music," said Mrs. Dopso, her expression again beatific. "How very appropriate for Arno's house. I do not think you're in danger in that house, young man." She took a deep breath. "But if you should find out more, do let us know?"

  She went to bed shortly thereafter. Robert explained, chuckling, that his mother "Rises with the birds. Pardon our intruding."

  "No intrusion," Michael said. "Has anybody else complained?"

  "We aren't complaining; please don't think that. And no, nobody else has commented."

  "If you hear it again, will you record it for me again?"

  "Of course," Robert said. They shook hands at the door, but Robert escorted Michael to the sidewalk anyway. Dusk was deep blue above the shuffling black outlines of the neighborhood trees. "Thanks for speaking with my mother."

  "My pleasure."

  Michael returned to the Waltiri house, where he stood by the silent piano, tapping the rich black surface of the lid. "Arno?" he asked softly, the name again raising the hairs on his neck and arms.

  No answer.

  He hadn't expected one. Not yet.

  A shaft of late afternoon sunlight wanned the hardwood floor beneath his feet. He sat in Waltiri's music library, the old black phone in his lap, surrounded by tapes and records and books, and dialed Kristine Pendeers's home number. A man answered on the third ring, his voice deep and indistinct. Michael asked to speak to Kristine. "Who's this?" the man asked.

  "My name is Michael. She'll know me."

  "She isn't here right now… Wait. She's at the door. Hold on." In the background, Michael heard Kristine and the man talking. There seemed to be a disagreement between them. The man's hand made squelching noises over the mouthpiece. She finally came on the line, breathless.

  "I've found what you're looking for," Michael said.

  "I was just coming up the steps… to our house. Wait a minute. I'm winded. I heard the phone. You've found what…45?"

  "I just opened a sealed basement door and found it among other papers below the house." He realized he didn't sound particularly happy about the discovery. Why was he calling at all? Perhaps to talk with her again, meet with her. Using the discovery as an excuse.

  "That's wonderful, it really is. When can I take a look at it?"

  He gingerly ran his fingers over the discolored, shimmering manuscript on Waltiri's desk. "It's not in very good shape. We'll need to copy it… maybe a copy machine will work, and maybe not."

  "What's wrong with it?"

  "You'll have to see it." Dangerous, dangerous! Simply staring at the manuscript was enough to bend a person's view of reality.

  "Can you bring it here, or do I come over there?" She seemed to catch on that he was playing a game, and she didn't sound comfortable.

  "I think you'd better come over here," Michael said. "Not tonight. I'll be busy. Tomorrow. In the morning, perhaps?"

  "I'll have to be there early. About seven-thirty."

  "Fine. I'll be expecting you."

  "You sound strange, Michael."

  "I just have a lot to do between now and then. We'll talk tomorrow."

  "Okay." There was an awkward moment of termination and then simultaneous good-byes. He replaced the receiver and returned the phone to its niche on a bookcase. Then he held the manuscript up to his nose and smelled it. The sweet fragrance this time was fainter, like dried fruit.

  Any world is just a song of addings and takings away… The difference between the Realm and your home, that's just the difference between one song and another… So Eleuth had informed him in the Realm.

  Was it possible, then, to create a song - a piece of music - that actively contradicted the song of a world and subtly altered the world?

  He wished he knew how to play the piano and was better at reading music. It was possible he had actually heard some of the music contained in the manuscript, when Clarkham's house and the replica of Kubla Khan's pleasure dome had collapsed in the Realm, but he coi.^Vt remember what it sounded like now. The tune was elusive, and the orchestration had faded completely from memory

  He slipped the manuscript into a manila envelope and placed it in Waltiri's safe. After memorizing the safe's combination, written in Golda's hand on a piece of masking tape attached to the door, he removed the tape, burned it in a metal cup on the desk and shut the door. Why the precautions were important, he wasn't sure.

  (Perhaps it wasn't Arno - in any form - playing the piano when the house was empty…)

  He had a lot to do this evening. He would not be back until early the next morning.

  Just at dusk, as the moon-colored streetlights were coming on and a slight breeze sighed through the green leaves on the maples, Michael stood before David Clarkham's house. He had not come to this place since his return from the Realm.

  The deserted house was in even worse shape than when he had last seen it. The lawn had gone to seed, a definite contrast to the green, well-kept grounds on both sides. The hedges were unruly, aggressing onto the driveway of parallel concrete strips, reaching out for the cracked white stucco walls. A FOR SALE sign still leaned at an awkward angle on the front lawn; either the realtors handling the property were not pushing it or the buyers were not enthusiastic, or the sign was a sham. There was no phone number attached, and Michael had never heard of the firm before: Hamilton Realty.

  He closed his eyes and found the region nestled between his thoughts that controlled evisa and casting a shadow. It was not difficult to find, and the act was as easy on Earth as it had been in the Realm.

  He left an unmoving and slowly fading decoy of himself by the curb. Anybody watching would soon lose interest and turn away; and if they didn't turn away, then the image would smoothly disappear among the shadows of the trees, and they would be none the wiser.

  Michael approached the front porch with pry bar in hand. Best to begin at the beginning.

  In four minutes, he had the door open. The house radiated something unpleasant; it was more than just unkempt, it was distasteful, as if the part of the world it occupied had been ill-used and now brooded resentfully. Michael didn't like the sensation at all, and his dislike went beyond mere association with the last time he had entered Clarkham's house.

  He switched on his flashlight and closed the door to a crack behind him. The hallway before the living room was dusty and quiet; the living room itself was empty and drained and faintly melancholy, the back wall illuminated by square samples of the streetlight across the way.

  Despite the unpleasant sensations, there was nothing magical or supernatural about the place. Michael could feel no hidden power or lurking residue. He advanced down the hall and checked the ground floor rooms sequentially, shining his flashlight into each, seeing only dusty floors and emptiness. He returned to the middle hallway and played the beam up the flight of stairs to the second floor. The carpeted steps exuded thin puffs of dust at each footfall.

  At the head of the stairs, a hallway led past the three second-floor rooms, ending at the bathroom door. Clarkham's house in the pleasure dome had been laid out in just such a fashion; no surprise. Michael peered into the first bedroom. Nothing. The second bedroom was broad and empty, its windows draped with sun-tattered expanses of old cloth slung over bent curtain rods. Cupboards and drawers covered the far wall, reminding Michael of a morgue. "Nothing here," he said in a soft whisper. He was not afraid, he was not even particularly wary, but he knew that the preternatural sensibilities instilled in him by the Crane Women had brought him here for a reason and not jus
t to satisfy old curiosities.

  The final bedroom's floor was covered with a thin layer of dust, dulling the dark wood. So far, he had only taken two steps into the room. He played the beam back and forth across the dust.

  Footprints interrupted the grayness in the middle of the floor. The prints led to the hallway and passed beneath his feet, where they were erased by his own shuffling. He knelt down and examined them more carefully. The dust around the footprints was undisturbed. Only one pair of feet - wearing moccasins or sandals, since the prints were unbroken by an arch - had made the prints, and the owner had moved without hesitation, beginning his journey (his because the pattern of the feet was large and broad) in the middle of the room

  Michael knelt down and touched the nearest complete print. There was something odd about the amount of dust disturbed. He walked beside the prints, noticing that near the center of the room, where they began, they were quite clear. Toward the end of the trail, they became less distinct, disturbing the dust only slightly, as if the person had weighed much less.

  He pointed the beam at the air above the floor where the prints began and saw nothing unusual. Felt nothing unusual. The house was otherwise undisturbed and normal. The sensation of earthly reality was seamless.

  Still, Michael knew beyond any doubt that Clarkham's house had once again become a gate.

  The Tippett Residential Hotel appeared regal and desolate and out-of-place against the ragtag architecture of the Strip. Its sad, sooted, broken windows and the trash chute attached to its face gave it a painful air, as if it were a victim of patchwork surgery, of half-hearted and ill-guided attempts to bring it back to life.

  Through the chain link, Michael saw that the main entrance had been securely boarded off with big sheets of blue-painted plywood. Yet the former owner - if that was what the raggedy man was - had hinted that a few people still managed to get into the building, however foolishly. There had to be other entrances.

  He had looped the short pry bar onto his belt, hanging it down inside his pants. A palm-sized flashlight rested in his jacket pocket.

  On the building's west side, a broad patio and swimming pool were visible through the trees and shrubs pressing against the fence. Steps rose from the patio level to a terrace on the south side, overlooking the city. All this was dimly illuminated by streetlights along Sunset, and the general sky-glow reflected from the broken cumulus clouds above the city.

  Michael glanced over his right shoulder at the lighted windows in the Hyatt across and down the street. Two instances of breaking and entering in one night. Superstitiously, he thought that might make things twice as bad as they had been after the night of his first passage through Clarkham's house…

  He couldn't enter from the front without risking discovery. He strolled east on Sunset until he reached a side street and then walked downhill and doubled back to approach from the rear.

  An open-air asphalt parking area, still accessible from the street behind, abutted a blank concrete wall on the hotel's east side. Michael saw there was no easy entrance from that direction.

  On the west side, a garage in the lower depths of the building offered spaces for forty or fifty tenants. The entrance was blocked by a run of chain-link and a securely padlocked swinging gate. The iron-barred gate that had once rolled along a track on rubber wheels was no longer in place. Within, one space was still occupied by an old rusted-out Buick.

  The rear doors and service entrances were covered over by sheets of blue plywood. He looked up to the top of the building. More broken-out windows.

  With a sigh, he stood in the darkness, hands thrust into the pockets of his jacket, and closed his eyes.

  How to get in… without noise, without drawing any attention…

  No inner answers presented themselves. The mental silence of Earth prevailed; no Death's Radio, no supernatural clues, simply Michael Perrin, on his own.

  He felt around the boards covering the rear doors. The pry bar would make a horrible racket pulling out these nails - would anyone notice?

  "I thought you'd be back."

  He tensed and immediately probed the aura of the speaker. Rotten vegetables - a supermarket full of dead produce, ancient thoughts, old dreams: the ex-owner. Michael could barely see him in the darkness; he stood inside the fence, at the south end of the footpath to the pool, little more than a gray smudge against the bushes beyond.

  "I didn't think you were a reporter. You must have known them… the two women. But what would a young kid like you have been doing with them? I figure one was a circus fat lady, the other… Who knows?"

  "I'm just curious about the building," Michael said.

  "It gets to you, doesn't it? So pretty. Like a pretty woman, and you're all optimistic, and you find out she's a real whore. Well, she's not a whore, but she's not what you'd expect. She was built well. She still meets earthquake standards. Work of craftsmanship and art. You want to get in?"


  "Just look around?"


  "You seem okay. Not the kind to set fires or worse. Why don't you follow me. I…" The blur rummaged through a pocket with an arm. "… have a key. Old key. Maintenance entrance. Go back around to the lot"- he pointed east-"and jump that short wall, then crawl along the fence until you meet me here."

  "You're not afraid to go in?" Michael asked.

  "No. You're not afraid to go in with me, are you? I'm maybe not harmless, but I'm clean. Took the bus to my sister's in Venice, showered, cleaned my grubbies out, and not with Woolite, either." He chuckled dryly.

  Michael did as he was instructed and soon faced the man on the path. There was no menace in him, only a crazy kind of hope, but hope for what, Michael couldn't tell. Old dreams. Rotten produce stacked yards deep. Dead ideas.

  "Journalism used to be an interest of mine, writing, all that. My name's Hopkins. Ronald Hopkins. Yours?"


  "No last name, huh?"

  Michael shook his head; no last name.

  Hopkins held up the key, barely visible as a gleam in the dim light, and motioned for Michael to follow him around the south corner.

  The maintenance entrance was a wide, heavy double door on the west side of the building, set flush against the wall. Michael hadn't even noticed it in passing. Hopkins inserted the key and opened one door, pushing it against a runnel of mud. "No power," he said. Michael held up the flashlight and switched it on.

  "What do you expect to find?" Hopkins asked, his voice a low croak in the darkness.

  "I don't know," Michael said. He shined the light against cinderblock walls, water and sewage pipes on the ceiling, a flight of stairs at the end of the hallway. Through an open door on the right, he saw a huge hot water tank suspended high above a trash-littered floor.

  "You looking for ghosts? A psychic investigator?"

  Michael shook his head. While he was grateful for Hopkins's services, he much preferred acting alone in the darkness without having to take another's safety into account. (And did he think there would be something dangerous here? More red lights?)

  "I should be quiet, right?" Hopkins asked. Michael turned the light on him.

  "Right,"' he said. "Thanks for letting me in."

  "Nothing to it. You going above the lobby level?"

  "I think so," Michael said.

  "I'll go that far. No farther."

  "Okay." They climbed the stairs.

  "Cops found the women on the eleventh floor," Hopkins said behind him. "But I still won't go above the lobby."

  Michael tried the handle on the door at the top of the stairs. It was unlocked. They stepped out onto the darkened lobby. Hopkins eased the door softly shut behind them.

  The air was heavy with decay. Mildew, dust, rotting carpet, stagnant puddles of water. Michael stepped over a pile of lumber and fractured sheetrock and played the light around the lobby. A long upholstered counter ran along one wall, its faded red leatherette ripped and scuffed and stained. The countertop - pro
bably marble at one time - was gone, no doubt salvaged. The walls around the elevator and near the entrance had also been stripped, leaving mottled plaster and gaping holes for electrical connections.

  Just beyond the elevator, a grand-ballroom flight of stairs led up to the second floor. The once cardinal-red carpet on the stairs was now dirty brown and black, water-stained and torn, coyly revealing concrete floor and rotten padding. Hopkins stood behind Michael, sadly surveying the ruin. "Brought it on herself," he murmured.

  The elevator doors, half-open, showed a dark and empty shaft beyond. The polished aluminum door panels were gouged and marred and reflected Michael's light back with funhouse glee.

  He sensed nothing beyond the melancholy and careless decay. There was nothing supernatural about such destruction. It was characteristically human; that which is not viable and protected is soon eroded by the passage of the desperate and irresponsible, the opportunists and the destructively curious. Humans had passed through here like water in a channel, wearing and grinding. Still, he felt a need for caution.

  The Sidhe, Michael thought, would never engage in idle destruction for its own sake. However evil the Sidhe might become, they were never petty, never so unstylish as to vandalize.

  "I'm going upstairs now," he said to Hopkins. "Will I need any more keys?"

  "Nope," Hopkins answered.

  Michael took the grand staircase, remembering Lamia at the top of her stairs, a huge bag of flesh, in Clarkham's first house in the Realm…

  Which did he prefer - humanity in its idle and destructive carelessness, or the exquisite cruelty of the Sidhe, who could condemn a dancer and lover of ballet to become an obese monster?

  "Be careful," Hopkins admonished.

  The second-floor hallways stretched in three directions from the landing at the top of the stairs. Michael's light traveled only so far in the muddy darkness; he could not see the ends of the long hallways running east and west, but the south hall was short, with only one door on each side.