Our Lady of Darkness

Chapter 6

An hour afterward Franz was climbing Beaver Street, taking deep breaths to avoid panting later. He had added the bit about Time clearing her throat to Weird Underground #7, sealed the manuscript in its envelope, and mailed it. When he'd started, he'd had his binoculars hanging around his neck on their strap like a storybook adventurer's, so that Dorotea Luque, waiting in the lobby with a couple of elderly tenants for the mailman, had observed merrily, "You go to look for the e-scary thing to write e-stories about, no?" and he had replied, "Si, Senora Luque. Espectros y fantasmas," in what he hoped was equally cockeyed Spanish. But then a block or so back, a bit after getting off the Muni car on Market, he'd wedged them into his pocket again, alongside the street guide he'd brought. This seemed a nice enough neighborhood, quite safe-looking really; still there was no point in displaying advertisements of affluence, and Franz judged binoculars would be that even more than a camera. Too bad big cities had become - or were thought to have become - such perilous places. He'd almost chided Cal for being uptight about muggers and nuts, and look at him now. Still, he was glad he'd come alone. Exploring places he'd first studied from his window was a natural new stage in his reality trip, but a very personal one. Actually there were relatively few people in the streets this morning. At the moment he couldn't see a single one. His mind toyed briefly with the notion of a big, modern city suddenly completely deserted, like the barque the Marie Celeste or the luxe resort hotel in that disquietingly brilliant film Last Year at Marienbad. He went by Jaime Donaldus Byers's place, a narrow-fronted piece of carpenter Gothic now painted olive with gold trim, very Old San Francisco. Perhaps he'd chance ringing the bell coming back. From here he couldn't see Corona Heights at all. Nearby stuff masked it (and the TV tower, too). Conspicuous at a distance - he'd got a fine view of its jagged crest at Market and Duboce - it had hidden itself like a pale brown tiger on his approach, so that he had to get out his street guide and spread its map to make sure he hadn't got off the track. Beyond Castro the way got very steep, so that he stopped twice to even out his breathing. At last he came out on a short dead-end cross street behind some new apartments. At its other end a sedan was parked with two people sitting in the front seats - then he saw that he'd mistaken headrests for heads. They did look so like dark little tombstones! On the other side of the cross street were no more buildings, but green and brown terraces going up to an irregular crest against blue sky. He saw he'd finally reached Corona Heights, somewhat on the far side from his apartment. After a leisurely cigarette, he mounted steadily past some tennis courts and lawn and up a fenced and winding hillside ramp and emerged on another dead-end street - or road, rather. He felt very good, really, in the outdoors. Gazing back the way he'd come, he saw the TV tower looking enormous (and handsomer than ever) less than a mile away, yet somehow just the right size. After a moment he realized that was because it was now the same size his binoculars magnified it to from his apartment. Strolling to the dead end of the road, he passed a long, rambling one-story brick building with generous parking space that modestly identified itself as the Josephine Randall Junior Museum. There was a panel truck with the homely label "Sidewalk Astronomer." He recalled hearing of it from Dorotea Luque's daughter Bonita as the place where children could bring pet tame squirrels and snakes and brindled Japanese rats (and bats?) when for some reason they could no longer keep them. He also realized he'd seen its low roofs from his window. From the dead end, a short path led him to the foot of the crest, and there on the other side was all the eastern half of San Francisco and the Bay beyond and both the bridges spread out before him. Resolutely resisting the urge to scan in detail, he set himself to mounting the ridge by the hard gravelly path near its crest. This soon became rather tiresome. He had to pause more than once for breath and set his feet carefully to keep from slipping. When he'd about reached the spot where he'd first seen the hikers, he suddenly realized that he'd grown rather childishly apprehensive. He almost wished he had brought Gun and Saul, or run into other climbers of the solid, respectable sort, no matter how colorfully clad or otherwise loud and noisy. At the moment he wouldn't even object to a transistor radio blatting. He was pausing now not so much for breath as to scan very carefully each rock clump before circling by it, for if he thrust his head too trustingly around one, what face or no-face might he not see? This really was too childish of him, he told himself. Didn't he want to meet the character on the summit and find out just what sort of an oddball he was? A gentle soul, most likely, from his simple garb and timidity and love of solitude. Though of course he most likely had departed by now. Nevertheless Franz kept using his eyes systematically as he mounted the last of the slope, gentler now, to its top. The ultimate outcropping of rocks (the Corona? the crown?) was more extensive and higher than the others. After holding back a bit (to spy out the best route, he told himself), he mounted by three ledges, each of which required a leg-stretching step, to the very top, where he at last stood up (though rather carefully, bracing his feet wide - there was a lot of wind from the Pacific up here) with all of Corona Heights beneath him. He slowly turned around in a full circle, tracing the horizon but scanning very thoroughly all the clumps of rock and all the brown and green slopes immediately below him, familiarizing himself with his new surroundings and incidentally ascertaining that there wasn't another being besides himself anywhere on Corona Heights. Then he went down a couple of ledges and settled himself comfortably in a natural rock seat facing east, completely out of the wind. He felt very much at ease and remarkably secure in this eyrie, especially with the sense of the mighty TV tower rising behind him like a protective goddess. While smoking another leisurely cigarette, he surveyed with unaided eyes the great spread of the city and Bay with its great ships tinier than toys, from the faintly greenish thin pillow of smog over San Jose in the south to the dim little pyramid of Mount Diablo beyond Berkeley and on to the red towers of the Golden Gate Bridge in the north with Mount Tamalpais beyond them. It was interesting how landmarks shifted with this new vantage point. Compared with his view from the roof, some of the downtown buildings had shot up, while others seemed trying to hide behind their neighbors. After another cigarette he got out his binoculars and put their strap around his neck and began to study this and that. They were quite steady now, not like this morning. He chucklingly spelled out a few big billboards south of Market on the Embarcadero in the Mission, mostly ads for cigarettes and beer and vodka - that Black Velvet theme! - and a couple of the larger topless spots for the tourists. After a survey of the steely, gleaming inner waters and following the Bay Bridge all the way to Oakland, he set in seriously on the downtown buildings and soon discovered to his embarrassment that they were quite hard to identify from here. Distance and perspective had subtly altered their hues and arrangement. And then contemporary skyscrapers were so very anonymous - no signs or names, no pinnacle statues or weathercocks or crosses, no distinctive facades and cornices, no architectural ornament at all: just huge blank slabs of featureless stone, or concrete or glass that was either sleekly bright with sun or dark with shadow. Really, they might well be the "gargantuan tombs or monstrous vertical coffins of living humanity, a breeding ground for the worst of paramental entities" that old de Castries had kept ranting about in his book. After another stretch of telescopic study in which he managed to identify a couple of the shifty skyscrapers, at last, he let his binoculars hang and got out from his other pocket the meat sandwich he'd made himself . As he unwrapped and slowly ate it, he thought of what a fortunate person he really was. A year ago he'd been a mess, but now -He heard a scrutch of gravel, then another. He looked around but didn't see anything. He couldn't decide from what direction the faint sounds had come. The sandwich was dry in his mouth. With an effort he swallowed and continued eating, and recaptured his train of thought. Yes, now he had friends like Gun and Saul... and Cal... and his health was a damn sight better, and best of all, his work was going well, his precious stories (well, precious to him) and even that terrible Weird Underground stuff - . Another scrutch, louder, and with it an odd little high-pitched laugh. He tensed himself and looked around quickly, sandwich and thoughts forgotten. There came the laugh again, mounting toward a shrill shriek, and from behind the rocks there came dashing, along the path just below, two little girls in dark blue playclothes. The one caught the other and they spun around, squealing happily, in a whirl of sun-browned limbs and fair hair. Franz had barely time to think what a refutation this was of Cal's (and his own) worries about this area, and for the afterthought that still it didn't seem right for parents to let such small, attractive girls (they couldn't be more than seven or eight) ramble in such a lonely place, when there came loping from behind the rocks a shaggy Saint Bernard, whom the girls at once pulled into their whirling game. But after only a little more of that, they ran on along the path by which Franz had come up, their large protector close behind. They'd either not seen Franz at all or else, after the way of little girls, they'd pretended not to notice him. He smiled at how the incident had demonstrated his unsuspected residual nervousness. His sandwich no longer tasted dry. He crumpled the wax paper into a ball and stuck it in his pocket. The sun was already westering and striking the distant tall walls confronting him. His trip and climb had taken longer than he'd realized, and he'd been sitting here longer too. What was that epitaph Dorothy Sayers had seen on an old tombstone and thought the acme of all grue? Oh, yes: "It is later than you think." They'd made a popular song of that just before World War Two: "Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it's later than you think." There was shivery irony for you. But he had lots of time. He got busy with his binoculars again, studying the medieval greenish-brown cap of the Mark Hopkins Hotel housing the restaurant-bar Top of the Mark. Grace Cathedral atop Nob Hill was masked by the high rises there, but the modernistic cylinder of St. Mary's Cathedral stood out plainly on newly named Cathedral Hill. An obviously pleasant task occurred to him: to spot his own seven-story apartment house. From his window he could see Corona Heights. Ergo, from Corona Heights he could see his window. It would be in a narrow slot between two high rises, he reminded himself, but the sun would be striking into that slot by now, giving good illumination. To his chagrin, it proved extremely difficult. From here the lesser roofs were almost a trackless sea, literally, and such a foreshortened one that it was very hard to trace the line of streets - a checkerboard viewed from the edge. The job preoccupied him so that he became oblivious of his immediate surroundings. If the little girls had returned now and stared up at him, he probably wouldn't have noticed them. Yet the silly little problem he'd set himself was so puzzling that more than once he almost gave it up. Really, a city's roofs were a whole dark alien world of their own, unsuspected by the myriad dwellers below, and with their own inhabitants, no doubt, their own ghosts and "paramental entities." But he rose to the challenge and with the help of a couple of familiar watertanks he knew to be on roofs close to his and of a sign BEDFORD HOTEL painted in big black letters high on the side wall of that nearby building, he at last identified his apartment house. He was wholly engrossed in his task. Yes, there was the slot, by God! and there was his own window, the second from the top, very tiny but distinct in the sunlight. Lucky he'd spotted it now - the shadow traveling across the wall would soon obscure it. And then his hands were suddenly shaking so that he'd dropped his binoculars. Only his strap kept them from crashing on the rocks. A pale brown shape had leaned out of his window and waved at him. What was going through his head was a couple of lines from that bit of silly folk doggerel which begins: Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief. Taffy came to my house and stole a piece of beef. But it was the ending that was repeating itself in his head: I went to Taffy's house, Taffy wasn't home. Taffy went to my house and stole a marrowbone. Now for God's sake don't get so excited, he told himself, taking hold of the dangling binoculars and raising them again. And stop breathing so hard - you haven't been running. He was some time locating his building and the slot again - damn the dark sea of roofs! - but when he did, there was the shape again in his window. Pale brown, like old bones - now don't get morbid! It could be the drapes, he told himself, half blown out of his window by the wind - he'd left it open. There were freakish winds among high buildings. His drapes were green, of course, but their lining was a nondescript hue like this. And the figure wasn't waving to him now - its dancing was that of the binoculars - but rather regarding him thoughtfully as if saying, "You chose to visit my place, Mr. Westen, so I decided to make use of that opportunity to have a quiet look at yours." Quit it! he told himself. The last thing we need now is a writer's imagination. He lowered his binoculars to give his heartbeat a chance to settle down and to work his cramped fingers. Suddenly anger filled him. In his fantasizing he'd lost sight of the plain fact that someone was mucking about in his room! But who? Dorotea Luque had a master key, of course, but she was never a bit sneaky, nor her grave brother Fernando, who did the janitor work and had hardly any English at all but played a remarkably strong game of chess. Franz had given his own duplicate key to Gun a week ago - a matter of a parcel to be delivered when he was out - and hadn't got it back. Which meant that either Gun or Saul - or Cal, for that matter - might have it now. Cal had a big old faded bathrobe she sometimes mucked around in - . But no, it was ridiculous to suspect any of them. But what about what he'd overheard from Saul on the stairs? - the 'e-stealer' Dorotea Luque had been worried about. That made more sense. Face up to it, he told himself: while he was gadding about out here, satisfying obscure aesthetic curiosities, some sneak-thief, probably on hard drugs, had somehow got into his apartment and was ripping him off. He took up the binoculars again in a hard fury and found his apartment at once, but this time he was too late. While he'd been steadying his nerves and wildly speculating, the sun had moved on, the slot had filled with shadow, so that he could no longer make out his window, let alone any figure in it. His anger faded. He realized it had been mostly reaction to his little shock at what he'd seen, or thought he'd seen... no, he'd seen something, but as to exactly what, who could be sure? He stood up on his rocky seat, rather slowly, for his legs were a bit numb from sitting and his back was stiff, and he stepped carefully up into the wind again. He felt depressed - and no wonder, for streamers of fog were blowing in from the west, around the TV tower and half masking it; there were shadows everywhere. Corona Heights had lost its magic for him; he just wanted to get off it as soon as possible (and back to check his room), so after a quick look at his map, he headed straight down the far side, as the hikers had. Really, he couldn't get home too soon.

Back to Table of content

Copyright © novelfull thefreeonlinenovel.com All Rights Reserved.