Forced Perspectives – Snippet 04
Before parting last year, he and Castine had agreed that if she put an ad having to do with skeet shooting in the Times classifieds, the two of them would meet at Canter’s at the date and time specified in the ad. October 29, 2018, 2 PM. Now, in retrospect, the scheme seemed foolhardy, and he was tempted to get into his car and drive back north to his trailer in Barstow.
The driver’s-side door of the Honda opened — and it was Castine herself stepping out. She closed the door and began walking this way, toward the corner and the crosswalk. Vickery put his hat back on and faced straight ahead, watching her peripherally.
Her auburn hair was longer now, bouncing around her shoulders as she walked, and she was wearing tan slacks and a matching jacket and white sneakers. She didn’t have a purse, and her jacket seemed too short and close-fitting for her to be wearing a holster.
Vickery himself had a Glock 43 behind his belt buckle, under his untucked shirt. The gun was six inches long from backstrap to muzzle and only an inch wide, but it held seven 9-millimeter rounds.
He let Castine walk past the bus bench and stop at the corner, waiting for the green walk signal. He wasn’t surprised that she hadn’t recognized him. His dark hair had been longer last year, and he had been more or less clean-shaven; and spending a lot of time outdoors lately had given him a deep tan.
She’s thirty-one now, he thought. Standing straight, shoulders back, slim and graceful — she seems to have brushed her hair over the gunshot scar above her right ear, or maybe she had got hair implants.
Vickery recalled that she had been engaged last year, and that her fiancé had been murdered. The last time Vickery had seen her, last August, she had said she was on paid leave from the Transportation Utility Agency…which had pretty clearly been responsible for the man’s death. He wondered, not for the first time, how she had reconciled herself to going on taking the agency’s paychecks, and what her situation was these days.
He had first met her five years ago, when he had been a Secret Service field agent and onetime Los Angeles Police officer, and she had been an active agent of the TUA. He had broken protocol during a Presidential motorcade on Wilshire Boulevard, and stumbled onto the TUA’s top-secret clandestine use of ghosts as a security measure, and she had arrested him and turned him over to a couple of higher ranking TUA agents. They had taken him away in handcuffs, intending to summarily execute him in the desert out by Palmdale, but he had managed to escape by killing both of them…and for the next five years he had led a furtive, covert life as the fictitious Sebastian Vickery.
And then last year he and Castine had been thrown together again in fleeing the lethal attentions of a rogue regional TUA director…and they had wound up fleeing together right out of the normal world into the Labyrinth afterworld, and back.
Vickery and Castine had become allies, during it all — friends, even.
The rogue director had decisively disappeared, the TUA had undergone a drastic reorganization, and Castine had stayed on the TUA payroll.
When the walk signal came on, he waited until she was halfway across the street before he stood up from the bench and followed her. Glancing from side to side behind the lenses of his sunglasses, he didn’t see any car doors opening or anyone who seemed to be watching her.
On the west side of the street, he paused as if to look at the display in a mattress store window while Castine walked on and pulled open the steel-framed glass door of Canter’s. When she had gone in, he followed and caught the door before it had quite closed.
The air inside was cool and smelled of corned beef and pickles. Castine was already past the cashier and being shown to the left, where Vickery remembered a row of orange vinyl booths by the stairs that led up to the restrooms. He paused as if to look at a display of eclairs and brownies on the street side of the cash register; before joining her, he wanted to see who else might follow her in.
Canter’s is a busy restaurant, even after the lunch rush. A couple in their twenties, wearing shorts and probably tourists, pulled open the door and crossed to the cashier’s desk to ask if they could get their parking slip validated; a middle-aged red-haired man in a black turtleneck sweater and red cowboy boots came in after them and stepped directly to the “Please Wait To Be Seated” sign, and a waiter escorted him straight ahead, toward the back of the restaurant; he was followed a few moments later by a goateed teenager in a black Bob Marley T-shirt, who waved familiarly at the clerk behind the bakery case before making a beeline to the right, toward the lunch counter. None of them glanced to the left, toward where Castine was presumably sitting.
Vickery had just turned to step past the cash register into the dining room when the front door was pulled open again, and a young man in round black-frame glasses and a a white shirt with red suspenders stepped quickly in from the street. His hair was now long and styled on top and shaved close over the ears — but Vickery recognized him.
Vickery’s chest was suddenly cold and his pulse was pounding in his ears, though his expression didn’t change as he let his gaze shift unhurriedly to the tables in the dining room — and the man hurried past him with no sign of recognition.
Did my beard and sunglasses fool him? Vickery wondered. He knew me eight months ago, when he and his accomplices stole The Secret Garden and nearly grabbed me too. And now he’s after Castine? What the hell’s going on?
The man paused to glance around at all the tables and the counter along the right-side wall; when he looked to the left he seemed to stiffen, and then started in that direction.
Vickery followed him, closely, and saw Castine sitting alone in a booth ten feet ahead.
The young man lifted a dish from a table he passed, and he tossed it past Castine’s booth; and when the thing shattered loudly on the linoleum floor, and Castine had turned a startled glance in that direction, the man crowded close to her table — and Vickery saw him surreptitiously shake the contents of a tiny envelope into her water glass and then without a pause move on toward the restroom stairs.
Vickery quickly stepped forward, but was shouldered aside by the red-haired man in the black turtleneck, who reached across him and slapped Castine’s water glass right off the table onto the seat across from her.
“Stop Elisha, damn it,” the man snapped at someone behind Vickery. “We’ve got this.”
For just an instant Vickery looked anxiously after the man disappearing up the restroom stairs; then he leaned in and grabbed Castine’s shoulder. “Up,” he said, “we’re out of here.”
She tried to throw herself back in the booth, but Vickery’s grip was unyielding. “Get away from me,” she said, as hands from behind clamped on Vickery’s left arm and the back of his neck.
“It’s him!” said one of the people holding him. “We’ve got both of them!”
“Stun-gun if you have to,” rasped another, “just get ’em both into the car, quick.”
Vickery felt a blunt object bump across his back — evidently a stun-gun, and he knew that in a moment he might be knocked down by millions of volts of electricity.
Instantly old training took over. He sprang back away from Castine and spun to his right, sweeping his arm around to knock the hand away from his neck — it belonged to the man in the turtleneck, his white teeth now bared with effort — and in the same motion pistoned the heel of his left hand very hard into the goateed chin of the teenager who was holding his left arm with one hand and gripping a black plastic stun-gun in the other. The incongruous pair tumbled backward onto the table behind them, overturning dishes and glasses. People at other tables were getting to their feet.
Turning back to Castine’s booth, Vickery leaned in and grabbed her by both shoulders. “It’s me, Vickery!” he hissed at her. “Come on!”