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Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 47

Greg Bear

  His back crawled. Tonn's wife had referred to him as a mage. And by implication, something would happen to Kris-tine that Michael would have little or no power to prevent.

  The Waltiri house seemed less and less a sanctuary and more his own special kind of trap.

  Chapter Eight

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  "I've opened that basement door," Michael told his father. They sat on the back porch of the Perrin house while his mother prepared iced tea and sandwiches in the kitchen.

  "Oh? What'd you find?"

  "A basement. It's crammed full of papers."

  "John has something to ask you," Ruth said stiffly, laying a tray on the glass-topped table. She sat across from them, her face drawn. She had tied her long, dark red hair back in a bun.

  "LAPD came by yesterday, in the form of a detective," John said. "He asked us questions about you, about your time away. We told him we'd rather discuss those things with you present."

  "What did he say to that?"

  "He smiled," Ruth said. "He said that was okay and that he had talked to you already. He said you were mysterious but seemed to want to cooperate."

  "Then why did he come here?" Michael asked.

  "I don't know," John said. "I suppose all this is linked with your disappearance."

  Michael picked up a cucumber sandwich, examined it and then set it back on the plate. "I'm going to tell you everything," he said. "I don't care whether you believe me or whether you want to hear. I mean, I care, but I'll tell you anyway."

  Ruth wrapped her arms around herself. John glanced at her. "I think it's about time, myself," he said. She sat beside him and nodded slowly.

  "All right," she said.

  Michael pulled a small cardboard box from his pocket and opened it on the table. There, embedded in cotton gauze, was the glass rose given to him by Mora, Clarkham's Sidhe mistress.

  And he related the story, much as he had spun it out for Bert Cantor, from the summer days he had spent with Arno and Golda to the few days in Clarkham's Xanadu; from the end of Xanadu to the opening of the basement and the discovery of the curiously altered manuscript of The Infinity Concerto.

  The telling lasted into the evening, with a pause for dinner. There were many glasses of tea, and later of beer, and Ruth wept quietly once toward the end, whether for his sanity or in commiseration with what her son had experienced, Michael couldn't judge.

  Twilight was deep blue above the trees and hedges in the back yard. Michael sat with his father while his mother went for a sweater in the house.

  "It was always twilight in the between-place," Michael said.

  "Where Tristesse waited for travelers," John said.

  "It was odd in the between-worlds. Muddy, peaceful. I mean, the sensation of reality there was thin. It was more like a dream, or a nightmare. In the Realm, everything was sharply real, but it didn't feel the same as this, now." Michael tapped the table.

  Ruth re-emerged with a pink silk and angora sweater draped over her shoulders. "Do things like that happen?" she asked her husband, matter-of-factly. John barked an astonished laugh.

  "Damned if I know."

  "I've always made myself be the practical one in this family," she said, face turned toward the fading blue in the west. Michael detected a falseness in her voice, almost a posturing. He realized she was playing a kind of role, using this persona as armor against something she felt threatened by. "John's the master at wood, and Michael… wordsmith, scattershot talents. I could never be sure what Michael would end up being." She glanced pointedly at her son. "You know I've always preferred Updike to Tolkien."

  "Witches of Eastwick?' John asked with a small grin.

  "It wasn't like Tolkien," Michael said*.

  "No, I suppose not. And this is the only evidence?" She touched the glass rose.

  "There are several places I could show you. The Tippett Residential Hotel and Clarkham's house. Arno's basement could be first."

  "I suppose the rule is, you'll have to show us three impossible things before breakfast," John said, picking up the rose gingerly to inspect it. It still kept a faint interior glow in the evening gloom. He sniffed it.

  "Do you know what the hauntings in the newspapers mean?" his mother asked. Michael shook his head.

  "Not exactly. I think I know what they're leading up to, though, which is why I'm telling you all this now."

  "Is that why you're letting Kristine Pendeers get involved?" John asked.

  "I don't know how I feel about all that." Michael stood and helped his father clear the dinner dishes from the table. When they were done, and the dishes had been stacked in the dishwasher and the table and counters wiped down, Ruth stood in the porch doorway with her arms folded.

  She was crying. Her cheeks were shiny and drops beaded her sweater. "I just can't believe it," she said. "I've been saying this is all a nightmare for so long." Michael came to her, and she held him, running the fingers of one hand through his hair.

  Michael started to say something, but John caught his eye and shook his head, no.

  Later, after Ruth had gone to bed, Michael and his father sat in the back yard under the dim Los Angeles stars. "There's something she's going to tell us," John said. "She's had it inside her as long as I've known her. But it's never come out. Seems to me what you said tonight almost shook it loose."

  "What is it?" Michael asked.

  "I really don't know," John said.

  "Is it important?"

  "To her, it sure is."

  Lieutenant Brian Harvey stood with Michael in the rear bedroom of Clarkham's house and peered at the footprints that began in the middle of the floor. "So there's no real estate company by that name," he said. "So there's no record of ownership for the house - no record of when it was even built. So this is supposed to be an empty lot. We're still trespassing."

  "Are you worried?" Michael asked ironically.

  "I suppose not," Harvey said. "It's a good trick, that." He pointed to the prints. 'I can guess how it was done. Sprinkle dust around the floor-" He extended his jaw and rubbed his lower lip with his index finger.

  "Your dad's an artist type, the kind that might enjoy this sort of thing, isn't he?"

  "! suppose."

  "You told them everything you've told me?"

  "In more detail. There was more time. It took most of an afternoon and evening."

  "Magic and ghosts and alien worlds," Harvey sighed. "Okay. So this Tristesse was transformed - is that a good word? - by the Shee."

  "Sidhe," Michael corrected.

  "I'll never get it right, and don't try to make me," Harvey grumbled. "They gave her extra joints and turned her into a mummy."

  "She was a vampire," Michael said, "Did you look at her teeth?"

  "No. Did you?"

  Michael hadn't even seen her face. "What did her face look like?"

  "I don't remember. A mummy's, I suppose. But you know, that is odd - I don't remember."

  "Is she still in the morgue?"

  "They were both cremated after nobody claimed them and the coroner's office couldn't prove homicide. I think they dumped the fat woman and the mummy just to keep from having them around. But I have photos on file. And in my car."

  "Why are you still on the case?"

  "Because I go in for weird things, Mr. Perrin. And I wanted to know what your connection was. What Waltiri had to do with it. I'm a mystery fan. There're so many unsolved crimes and so damned few mysteries in my work. Do you understand?"

  "I'd like to see the pictures," Michael said.

  "I thought you would. Tit for tat. You tell me the story, show me around, and I show you the pictures. You've fulfilled your end of the bargain."

  Sitting in the unmarked police car, Harvey handed a file folder to Michael. "They're grim," he said.

  Michael opened the folder and took out the facial shots of Lamia. There was a coldness to the black and white photography, and the way her flesh had slumped after death added to th
e sense of unreality, of a poor cinematic makeup job.

  He turned the picture over. The photo beneath it was ruined; an oily, varnish-like stain had obscured the middle of the print. Michael held it up for Harvey's inspection.

  "Damn," Harvey said. "I'm sure there are other prints. We'll get new ones from the negative."

  "I don't think you will," Michael said. "She must have been very beautiful, and very sweet."

  "Why do you say that?"

  "Because the Sidhe turned her into a monster and made certain no one would ever really see her face again."

  Harvey sat silent for a moment, holding the ruined print in his hand. "Now you're spooking me," he said. "What in hell are we going to do?"

  Michael shrugged. "Wait, I suppose. Do you want to investigate this case any more?"

  "What's to investigate?" Harvey said. "There's nothing here that would mean anything to anybody in my profession. Only the end of the world."

  "It may not be quite that bad," Michael said.

  "I'd be scared stiff if I were you."

  "Oh, I'm scared," Michael said. But I can't just stop everything in its tracks. There was a process under way, of which he was only a part - and how big a part, there was no way of knowing.

  A mage. A face in the blown snow.

  What scared him most of all was the dawning realization that his part was likely to be very big indeed.

  Chapter Nine

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  Kristine called late the next morning. He answered the phone in the master bedroom upstairs and sat on the edge of the four-poster.

  "Michael, I'm sorry about the night before last." She sounded tired; her tone was almost flat.

  "So am I."

  "Things haven't gotten any better. I'm not sure whom I can turn to."

  "He hasn't hurt you any more, has he?"

  "No. He's taken the car, and I don't know where he is. I've gotten this call… not from him. From an older-sounding man. He mentioned your name. And then he said terrible things were coming."

  Michael looked down at his forearms. The hair was standing on end. "Did he tell you his name?"

  "No. Do you know anybody who would do that?"

  "I'm not sure," Michael said, his eyes closed.

  "1 was going to talk up the concert before the department chairman today. Now I don't know what to do. Michael, this man said the manuscript should be burned. He didn't have to say what manuscript. We know what he means, don't we?"


  "He's some sort of crank, right?"

  "I don't know."

  "He made me angry. Everything's making me angry now."

  "I think you should move out of there," Michael said.

  "Oh? Move where?"

  Michael didn't answer.

  "Yes, well, I've been packing. Some of my girlfriends are looking around for places. Rent is just crazy these days."

  "You could move in here," Michael said, and immediately regretted it.

  There was silence on the other end for a long time. "It isn't that easy, and you know why."

  "Yes. But it's a large house, and-"

  "I'll think about it. I'm at our house now. I'll take a bus to the university this afternoon and try to do some work." She seemed to be leaving an opening.

  "We should get together later, then," Michael said. "No talk about the concerto or about anything important. Just small talk."

  "That would be nice," she said, sounding relieved. "Michael, what happened in the street-"

  "I am sorry-"

  "No, it was stupid, it was all crazy, but I wanted to thank you. It was gallant, too."

  They made arrangements to meet in front of Royce Hall on the campus at five. Michael opened his eyes as he replaced the receiver on the old black phone.

  The footsteps in the middle of the dusty floor. The message in the blank notebook. He could feel the presence at the very fringes of the probe he had made throughout the call. There was something foul in the air. a sensation that made his stomach twist and his muscles knot.

  Michael stretched and practiced his discipline for several minutes on the bedroom's hardwood floor.

  David Clarkham had not died in the conflagration that had consumed his Xanadu. He had managed to escape somehow and was now in Los Angeles, or at least on Earth, and he did not want the concerto performed.

  Beneath the tension and the anxiety, there was a calm place that Michael had only become aware of subconsciously in the last few weeks. The part of Michael Perrin that waited and grew within that calm place felt curiosity as to the lengths to which Clarkham would go to prevent the performance.

  The brick facade of venerable Royce Hall dwarfed Kristine, who stood alone, hands clenched in the pockets of her brushed suede coat. Michael walked across the grass and concrete walkways toward her. She turned toward him and smiled with a bare edge of sadness.

  There was no doubt about it now. He was very much in love with Kristine Pendeers She hugged him briefly and then backed away. "I tried to call Tommy at the garage where he works. He quit the other day. They don't know where he is"

  Michael damped the emotions Tommy's name conjured.

  "I'm worried about him," she said. "He just has no control."

  "What about your situation? I can help you find a place to rent."

  "That would be nice. I have friends looking, too. I can't afford much on the pay of a teaching assistant." They walked to a bench and sat, Kristine crossing her booted legs and slumping against the back of the bench, leaning her head back until she faced the bright gray sky. "You know who called me, don't you?"

  "His name is - probably - David Clarkham. He's very old. He helped Arno compose opus 45."

  "How old is he?"

  "Several centuries, at least," Michael said matter-of-factly. Kristine straightened on the bench and half-turned toward him. "I've told my mother and father, and I've told the detective, Lieutenant Harvey, about what happened when I was missing."

  "I'm disappointed," Kristine said. "I would have thought you'd confess to me first." Michael couldn't tell how satirical she was being; her face was clear of guile.

  "Do you believe what I said - you could be in some danger now?"

  She nodded, staring at him. "Are you going to tell me?"

  "Yes," he said.

  "And we're still going to go ahead with the concert, if I can get it arranged?"


  "I have a desk in an office in the music building. We can talk there. It's more private."

  Michael agreed, and they crossed the campus, passing spare and modern Schoenberg Hall. Michael began the story before they reached the small office.

  He had become more practiced in the telling now. He could complete the story in much less time, with fewer unnecessary details.

  They ate dinner in a small pizza parlor in Westwood, then went to see a Woody Allen movie playing in one of the smaller theaters of a hexaplex. Kristine was obviously absorbing and digesting what she had been told; she didn't seem to pay much attention to the film. Michael felt her touch his arm on the rest between them, then grip it.

  "You must have been terrified," she whispered.

  "I was," he said.

  "So you know what all the hauntings are?"

  "I can guess."

  "I thought you were dangerous," she said. "I was right. I'm not sure I need this kind of stuff now."

  "In your situation," Michael prompted.

  A middle-aged couple in the row in front of Michael and Kristine turned their heads simultaneously and delivered stern looks.

  "Let's go," Kristine said. Michael vaguely regretted the fifteen dollars spent on tickets. Back on the streets of West-wood, Kristine took him through several clothing stores, pointing out dresses she would buy if she could afford them. She was still digesting the story.

  "You're not crazy," she said as they left a boutique specializing in Japanese contemporary designs. "I mean, I believe you - in a way. But can you show me so
mething, maybe this hyloka or whatever it was?"

  "I'd rather not," Michael said. "The last thing I want is for you to think that I'm a freak."

  She nodded, thought some more and then said, "I don't want to go home to the house on South Bronson tonight, and I'm not ready to make love with you. But I would like to go home with you. And maybe you could show me Clarkham's house? That might give me something solid to think about."

  "All right."

  "And when we're at Waltiri's house, I will not think you're a freak if you show me some magic."

  Michael didn't answer. They doubled back toward the lot where he had parked the Saab.

  Michael lay in his small guest bed, arms crossed behind his head. The tip of his finger still ached from the trick he had performed for Kristine. Using as an example what Bin had done in the Realm, Michael had taken a boulder in the back yard, applied his glowing index finger to the rock's surface and split it cleanly in four sections. Kristine had jumped back and then quietly asked to return to the house.

  She slept in the master bedroom now. Michael knew she slept without probing her aura. His awareness in many areas now seemed to come without conscious effort. He could feel the sleep-breathing of many people in the neighborhood; he seemed to hear the world turning, and the stars above were almost evident to him through the house's ceiling and the cloudy overcast. Rain fell in a thunderstorm far to the east, over the mountains; he heard its impact on the distant roofs of buildings and in the streets, on tree leaves and blades of grass.

  How much of this was imagination, he could not say for sure; he thought none. Michael was simply coming in tune with his world. His inner breath seemed to follow the respiration of the molecules in the air itself, whining in their manifold collisions. He felt he knew more about how those atoms operated than he had ever been taught in school.

  He knew how each particle communicated its position and nature to all other particles, first by drawing a messenger from the well of nothing and sending it out, while the receiving particle dropped the messenger back into nothing once it had served its purpose. That rather amused him; no little scraps of telegrams lying about in drifts from all the atoms in the universe.