Our Lady of Darkness

Chapter 7

The far side of Corona Heights, which faced Buena Vista Park and turned its back on the central city, was steeper than it looked. Several times Franz had to restrain his impulse to hurry and make himself move carefully. Then, halfway down, a couple of big dogs came to circle and snarl at him, not Saint Bernards but those black Dobermans that always made one think of the SS. Their owner down below took his time calling them off, too. Franz almost ran across the green field at the hill's base and through the small door in the high wire fence. He thought of phoning Mrs. Luque or even Cal, and asking them to check out his room, but hesitated to expose them to possible danger - or upset Cal while she was practicing - while as for Gun and Saul, they'd be out. Besides, he was no longer certain what he most suspected and in any case liked to handle things alone. Soon - but not too soon for him, by any means - he was hurrying along Buena Vista Drive East. The park it closely skirted - another elevation, but a wooded one - mounted up from beside him dark green and full of shadows. In his present mood it looked anything but a "good view" to him, rather an ideal spot for heroin intrigues and sordid murders. The sun was altogether gone by now, and ragged arms of fog came curving after him. When he got to Duboce, he wanted to rush down, but the sidewalks were too steep - as steep as any he'd seen on any of San Francisco's more than seven hills - and once again he had to grit his teeth and place his feet with care and take his time. The neighborhood seemed quite as safe as Beaver Street, but there were few people out in the chilly change of weather, and once more he stuffed his binoculars back in his pocket. He caught the N-Judah car where it comes out of the tunnel under Buena Vista Park (Frisco's hills were honeycombed with 'em, he thought) and rode it down Market to the Civic Center. Among the crowders boarding a 19-Polk there, a hulking drab shape lurching up behind him gave him a start, but it was only a blank-eyed workman powdered with pale dust from some demolition job. He got off the 19 at Geary. In the lobby of 811 Geary there was only Fernando vacuuming, a sound as gray and hollow as the day had grown outside. He would have liked to chat, but the short man, blocky and somber as a Peruvian idol, had less English than his sister and was additionally rather deaf. They bowed gravely to each other, exchanged a "Senyor Lookay" and a "Meestair Jueston," Fernando's rendering of "Westen." He rode the creaking elevator up to six. He had the impulse to stop at Cal's or the boys' first, but it was a matter of - well, courage - not to. The hall was dark (a ceiling globe was out) and the shaft-window and knobless closet door next to his room darker. As he approached his own door, he realized his heart was thumping. Feeling both foolish and apprehensive, he slipped his key into the lock, and clutching his binoculars in his other hand as an impromptu weapon, he thrust the door swiftly open and quickly switched on the ceiling light inside. The 200-watt glare showed his room empty and undisturbed. From the inside of the still-tousled bed, his colorful "scholar's mistress" seemed to wink at him humorously. Nevertheless, he didn't feel secure until he'd rather shamefacedly peered in the bathroom and then opened the closet and the tall clothes cabinet and glanced inside. He switched off the top light then and went to the open window. The green drapes were lined with a sun-faded tan, all right, but if they'd been blown halfway out the window at some point, a change of wind had blown them neatly back into place afterward. The serrated hump of Corona Heights showed up dimly through the advancing high fog. The TV tower was wholly veiled. He looked down and saw that the windowsill and his narrow desk abutting it and the carpet at his feet were all strewn with crumbles of brownish paper that reminded him of Gun's paper-shredding machine. He recalled that he'd been handling some old pulp magazines here yesterday, tearing out pages he wanted to save. Had he thrown the magazines away afterward? He couldn't remember, but probably - they weren't lying around anywhere nearby, at any rate, only a neat little stack of ones he hadn't looted yet. Well, a thief who stole only gutted old pulp magazines was hardly a serious menace - more like a trashman, a helpful scavenger. The tension that had been knotting him departed at last. He realized he was very thirsty. He got a split of ginger ale from the small refrigerator and drank it eagerly. While he made coffee on the hot plate, he sketchily straightened the disordered half of the bed and turned on the shaded light at its head. He carried over his coffee and the two books he'd shown Cal that morning, and settled himself comfortably, and read around in them and speculated. When he realized it was getting darker outside, he poured himself more coffee and carried it down to Cal's. The door was ajar. Inside, Cal's shoulders were lifting rhythmically as she played with furious precision, her ears covered with large padded phones. Franz couldn't be sure whether he heard the ghost of a concerto, or only the very faint thuds of the keys. Saul and Gun were talking quietly on the couch, Gun with a green bottle beside him. Remembering this morning's bitter words he'd overheard, Franz looked for signs of strain, but all seemed harmony. Perhaps he'd read too much into their words. Saul Rosenzweig, a thin man with dark hair shoulder-length and dark-circled eyes, quirked a smile and said, "Hello. Calvina asked us down to keep her company while she practices, though you'd think a couple of window dummies could do the job as well. But Calvina's a romantic puritan at heart. Deep inside she wants to frustrate us." Cal had taken off her headphones and stood up. Without a word or a look at anyone, or anything apparently, she picked up some clothes and vanished like a sleepwalker into the bathroom, whence there came presently the sound of showering. Gun grinned at Franz and said, "Greetings. Sit down and join the devotees of silence. How goes the writer's life?" They talked inconsequentially and lazily of this and that. Saul carefully made a long thin cigarette. Its piney smoke was pleasant, but Franz and Gun smilingly declined to share, Gun tilting his green bottle for a long swallow. Cal reappeared in a surprisingly short time, looking fresh and demure in a dark brown dress. She poured herself a tall thin glass of orange juice from the fridge and sat down. "Saul," she said quietly, "you know my long name is not Calvina, but Calpurnia - the minor Roman Cassandra who kept warning Caesar. I may be a puritan, but I wasn't named for Calvin. My parents were both born Presbyterians, it's true, but my father early progressed into Unitarianism and died a devout Ethical Culturist . He used to pray to Emerson and swear by Robert Ingersoll. While my mother was, rather frivolously, into Bahai. And I don't own a couple of window dummies, or I might use them. No, no pot, thank you. I have to hold myself intact until tomorrow night. Gun, thanks for humoring me. It does help to have people in the room, even when I'm incommunicada. It helps especially when evening begins to close in. That ale smells wonderful, but alas, same reason as no pot. Franz, you're looking quietly prodigious. What happened at Corona Heights?" Pleased that she had been thinking about him and observing him so closely and accurately, Franz told the story of his adventure. He was struck by how in the telling it became rather trivial-seeming and less frightening, though paradoxically more entertaining - the writer's curse and blessing. Gun happily summed up. "So you go to investigate this apparition or what-not, and find it's pulled the big switch and is thumbing its nose at you from your own window two miles away. 'Taffy went to my house' - that's neat." Saul said, "Your Taffy story reminds me of my Mr. Edwards. He gets the idea that two enemies in a parked car across the street from the hospital have got a pain-ray projector trained on him. We wheel him over there so he can see for himself there ain't no one in any of the cars. He's very much relieved and keeps thanking us, but when we get him back to his room, he lets out a sudden squeal of agony. Seems his enemies have taken advantage of his absence to plant a pain-ray projector somewhere in the walls." "Oh, Saul," Cal said in mildly scathing tones, "we're not all of us your hospital people - at least yet. Franz, I wonder if those two innocent-seeming little girls may not have been involved. You said they were running around and dancing, like your pale brown thing. I'm sure that if there's such a thing as psychic energy, little girls have lots of it." "I'd say you have a good artistic imagination. That angle hadn't even occurred to me," Franz told her, acutely aware that he was beginning to disparage the whole incident, but unable to help himself. "Saul, I may very well have been projecting - at least in part - but if so, what? Also, the figure was nondescript, remember, and wasn't doing anything objectively sinister." Saul said, "Look, I wasn't suggesting any parallel. That's your idea, and Cal's. I was just reminded of another weird incident." Gun guffawed. "Saul doesn't think we're all completely crazy. Just fringe-psychotic." There was a knock and then the door opened as Dorotea Luque let herself in. She sniffed and looked at Saul. She was a slender version of her brother, with a beautiful Inca profile and jet-black hair. She had a small parcel-post package of books for Franz. "I wondered you'd be down here, and then I heard you talk," she explained. "Did you find the e-scary things to write about with your... how you say... ?" She made binoculars of her hands and held them to her eyes, and then looked questioningly around when they all laughed. While Cal got her a glass of wine, Franz hastened to explain. To his surprise, she took the figure in the window very seriously. "But are you e-sure you weren't ripped off?" she demanded anxiously. "We've had an e-stealer on the second floor, I think." "My portable TV and tape recorder were there," he told her. "A thief would take those first." "But how about your marrowbone?" Saul put in. "Taffy get that?" "And did you close your transom and double-lock your door?" Dorotea persisted, illustrating with a vigorous twist of her wrist. "Is double-lock now?" "I always double-lock it," Franz assured her. "I used to think it was only in detective stories they slipped locks with a plastic card. But then I found I could slip my own with a photograph. The transom, no. I like it open for ventilation." "Should always close the transom, too, when you go out," she pronounced. "All of you, you hear me? Is thin people can get through transoms, you better believe. Well, I am glad you weren't ripped off. Gracias," she added, nodding to Cal as she sipped her wine. Cal smiled and said to Saul and Gun, "Why shouldn't a modern city have its special ghosts, like castles and graveyards and big old manor houses once had?" Saul said, "My Mrs. Willis thinks the skyscrapers are out to get her. At night they make themselves still skinnier, she says, and come sneaking down the streets after her." Gun said, "I once heard lightning whistle over Chicago. There was a thunderstorm over the Loop, and I was on the South Side at the university, right near the site of the first atomic pile. There'd be a flash on the northern horizon and then, seven seconds later, not thunder, but this high-pitched moaning scream. I had the idea that all the elevated tracks were audio-resonating a radio component of the flash." Cal said eagerly, "Why mightn't the sheer mass of all that steel - ? Franz, tell them about the book." He repeated what he'd told her this morning about Megapolisomancy and a little besides. Gun broke in. "And he says our modern cities are our Egyptian pyramids? That's beautiful. Just imagine how, when we've all been killed off by pollution (nuclear, chemical, smothered in unbiodegradable plastic, red tides of dying microlife, the nasty climax of our climax culture), an archaeological expedition arrives by spaceship from another solar system and starts to explore us like a bunch of goddamn Egyptologists! They'd use roving robot probes to spy through our utterly empty cities, which would be too dangerously radioactive for anything else, as dead and deadly as our poisoned seas. What would they make of World Trade Center in New York City and the Empire State Building? Or the Sears Building in Chicago? Or even the Transamerica Pyramid here? Or that space-launch assembly building at Canaveral that's so big you can fly light planes around inside? They'd probably decide they were all built for religious and occult purposes, like Stonehenge. They'd never imagine people lived and worked there. No question, our cities will be the eeriest ruins ever. Franz, this de Castries had a sound idea - the sheer amount of stuff there is in cities. That's heavy, heavy." Saul put in, "Mrs. Willis says the skyscrapers get very heavy at night when they - excuse me - screw her." Dorotea Luque's eyes grew large, then she exploded in giggles. "Oh, that's naughty," she reproved him merrily, wagging a finger. Saul's eyes got a faraway look like a mad poet's, and he embroidered his remark with, "Can't you imagine their tall gray skinny forms sneaking sideways down the streets, one flying buttress erected for a stony phallus?" and there was more sputtery laughter from Mrs. Luque. Gun got her more wine and himself another bottle of ale.

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