By Echo Light by Tim Powers
“Have you seen Eddie?”
In the dappled sunlight that filtered through the boughs and yellow blossoms of the acacia, the face of the young woman who had spoken was in momentary shadow, and Sebastian Vickery closed the book he had been reading and squinted up at her.
Only a few yards behind her, past the flat gravel shoulder, were the rushing lanes of the Santa Monica freeway—known as Old Man 10 to the few fortune-tellers who still inhabited the overgrown borders and onramp-encircled islands of the Los Angeles freeways—and behind the carob tree at Vickery’s back was a short slope down to the parking lot of a row of apartment buildings.
Eddie might have been one of those freeway-side gypsies, though Vickery couldn’t recall one with that name. There was an Edgy, but Vickery hadn’t run across Edgy since the events of last May. Most of the furtive mediums had lost their livelihoods then, and Vickery himself had been left with what he thought of as an occasional and unwanted vision impairment.
“I haven’t seen anybody,” he told her.
“He was—so mean to me!”
Vickery tried to think of a response, and finally just shook his head and said, “Sorry to hear it.”
“You’re reading a book,” the woman said then, stepping into the little clearing. The diesel-scented breeze shaking the surrounding leaves was warm, but she was wearing a long khaki coat. “I’ve done that. I bet I’ve read . . . a hundred books.”
Vickery smiled wryly and laid the book aside to get to his feet, but the young woman lithely sat down cross-legged in front of him, and he settled back.
She ran the fingers of one hand through her short-cropped dark hair, leaving it standing up as if she were facing into a strong wind. “Have you read It’s A Sin to Kill A Mockingbird?”
“Uh,” said Vickery, blinking, “yes. Great book.”
“It’s my nickname. Anyway I tell people to call me that.”
“No—Scout. She was the girl in that book, remember?”
“Sure. Her father was Atticus Finch.” Gregory Peck, in the movie, he thought.
It occurred to Vickery that she looked a bit like the actress who had played Scout in the movie of To Kill A Mockingbird—thin, with freckles and narrow eyes and disordered bangs streaking her forehead.
She was holding out her hand, and he reached out and shook hands with her.
“Pleased to meet you, Scout,” he said. “I’m Sebastian.”
“Sebastian,” she said carefully. “I’m happy to make your acquaintance, Sebastian. Are you often to be found here?”
Vickery wondered whether to say no; and whether, even so, he might stop coming to this particular old freeway nest. The contra-natural current generated by free wills moving rapidly past in the freeway lanes hadn’t nearly returned to its pre-2017 levels, but he had made a practice of reading this book, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, in the flickers of enhanced possibility that the current still sometimes provided. There were other nests, all mostly abandoned these days, along the shoulders of many of the L.A. freeways, and he could read in any of those instead.
But he had shaken hands with Scout, and the plain fact of her having found her way here implied, at least, that they were both outliers from the clockwork world out in the surface streets.
“Yes,” he said, “I’m here most afternoons.”
“It’s very peaceful. Peaceful is what you feel in moments when nothing is going wrong, but peace sustains you even when everything’s gone wrong.”
Vickery hesitated, then asked, “Have things gone wrong?”
“Well, I never did get lunch,” she said brightly. “Would you join me, Sebastian? My treat. You can bring your book.”
Vickery cocked his head, wondering about her Eddie. He almost asked about him, then dismissed the idea. And in fact he had not had lunch, or even breakfast. “Sure,” he said, getting to his feet. “And my poor book doesn’t eat anything.”
Her eyes crinkled in a gamin grin as she straightened her legs and stood up. Then she caught his arm for balance and said, “Oh—and can we stop for some Neosporin and Band-Aids?”
“There’s a Rite-Aid on Vermont. Have you got a cut?”
“I wonder if I might even need a tetanus shot.” She let go of his arm and pulled open her coat, then looked up at him, her eyebrows raised questioningly.
Her blouse was white at the collar and in patches on the shoulders, but the rest of the fabric was glistening red, from her breasts down to her belt, and her black skirt gleamed wetly.
Vickery’s ears were ringing, the breath stopped in his throat, and his vision had narrowed down to focus on two—no, three, at least—holes punched in the front of her blood-soaked blouse.
He heard her say, “I wonder if I’m dead.”
She turned her back on him, then spun to face him again, and a moment later she was spinning rapidly, though her hair and coat didn’t extend outward at all, and finally she simply wasn’t there, and Vickery took an involuntary step forward as a soft thump shook the air.
He let his knees bend with the forward motion and turned to sit down heavily on the dirt. He was breathing rapidly now, and his face was chilly with sudden sweat. He quickly looked around at the trees, and the slope down to the parking lot behind him, just to be sure, but he already knew he was alone here.
A ghost, he told himself as he tried to organize his scattered thoughts. Just a ghost!—disappearing in a terminal Y-axis spin, as they often did. The enhanced possibility field cast by the freeway current must be uncharacteristically strong today. And even so, she must be a—have been a—very vivid person, and only recently dead.
How far had her ghost walked, holding her coat closed? From what direction? East or west, she’d have had to stay within the enabling freeway current all the way.
Somewhere, somebody was probably trying to get rid of a gun right now. Vickery had once been a policeman, and he made himself bring back the memory of the moment she had opened her coat, and he tried to estimate the size of the holes he had seen in her blouse; and it seemed to him that they were bigger than .30 caliber, therefore the shots had probably come from a handgun rather than a rifle. Therefore probably up close.
Pleased to meet you, Scout. I’m happy to make your acquaintance, Sebastian.
And he had shaken her hand . . . and accepted her offer of hospitality.
Probably a handgun. Probably up close.
Vickery sighed and got to his feet; and after a moment’s hesitation he stepped to the parking lot side of the clearing. He had been drinking a dozen cups of coffee a day lately to try to suppress his vision impairment, but now he relaxed and let his vision blur as he faced the acacia and the oleander leaves and the cars that quickly came and went on the close freeway.
Often his out-of-phase vision was spontaneous—and inconvenient!—but he could cause it deliberately by unfocusing his eyes and then “looking past” the things in front of him, like seeing a picture behind the random-looking dots on a stereogram print.
And he did it now.
Soon the tree and leaves and cars seemed to lose their scale and relative distances, as if they were all projected on a flat screen a few yards ahead of him; he flexed his gaze past them—
And in spite of the coffee, his vision warped in the now-familiar way. He could focus on the individual trees and the cars again, but everything now appeared to be in a twilight of metallic sepia. The windy whisper of cars on the freeway was muted almost to inaudibility.
He shuffled carefully out of the clearing in the direction Scout had come from, and he was waving his hands in front of his face because real, tangible branches might not be in exactly the same location as the ones he was seeing. By touch, he slid his book into the pocket of his windbreaker beside his cell phone.
Out past the cluster of trees, he peered along the freeway shoulder, but he didn’t see the figure of Scout on her way to meet him and ask about Eddie and invite him to lunch. Vickery’s chronologically dislocated sight varied unpredictably—the events he saw by it might have happened as much as an hour ago, or just within the last couple of minutes. He turned and took a step back toward the clearing.
Through the leaves he saw himself sitting against the tree, alone, head bent over the book; as always in these glimpses of the past, living bodies glowed faintly with a color that he could only describe, inadequately, as silvery bronze. He suspected that it was infrared, perceived directly by the primary visual cortex rather than through his limited retinas.
It no longer disoriented him to see himself doing things he had recently done, and he simply noted—since he had only been reading there for about twenty minutes before Scout entered the clearing—that this particular fractal time-spike was no more than twenty minutes out of synch with the averaged macro Now.
He hoped there were no people in the ordinary present moment out on the freeway shoulder, for he wouldn’t see them.
Very carefully, again feeling in front of him for obstacles that hadn’t been there in this past segment of time, he shuffled down the slope to the parking lot pavement. No figures were visible, and a breezeway that led through the apartment building to the street beyond was empty.
Then all at once he was in bright afternoon sunlight, and he could see the colors of the parked cars around him and hear the surf-sound of the freeway behind him. He had moved out past the boundary of the time-spike, back into the common Now.
“You hear me?” came a yell from his left. He looked that way and saw a young man in a T-shirt and backward baseball cap standing a dozen yards away beside a blue pickup truck that hadn’t been visible to Vickery a few moments ago. The young man was staring at him.
“Uh . . . what?” called Vickery.
“You stoned? You come walking down from the freeway like a fuckin’ zombie, lucky I didn’t hit you when I drove in! Go smoke your crack somewhere else, shithead.”
Vickery gave him an embarrassed wave and hurried away through the breezeway toward the street. There was no way he could retrace his steps and hope to unfocus his way back into the time-spike now, even if it hadn’t already collapsed into the broadly equalized present moment, as they always did.
God knows what I looked like, he thought as he felt his face reddening, groping my way down that slope and onto that parking lot, seeing only what had been there ten or twenty minutes earlier! And it’s no use even trying to ask my pal in the T-shirt if he’d seen Scout—normal people couldn’t see ghosts, and he had looked depressingly normal.
Out on the sidewalk, Vickery looked back, but the young man by the pickup truck hadn’t followed him.
Where did you come from, Scout? he thought.
If he just stood still out here, for a few seconds, nobody would think it was odd.
He took a deep breath and let it out, then relaxed and let his eyes unfocus as he faced the palm trees and blocky pastel apartment buildings that receded away down the street to the west.
After a few moments the view once again lost its depth, becoming just a collage of colored shapes, and he focused his eyes past that; and then, in the familiar metallic sepia light, the buildings and trees regained their sizes and distances . . .
And he leaped back and nearly fell over, for a black silhouette had swept past him, in fact had moved partly through him.
It was the silhouette of a woman in a long, flapping coat—Scout, certainly, for while living people glowed with that silvery bronze color by this retro-sight, ghosts always appeared pure black.
He turned to watch her. The ghost shape was walking up the cement strip toward the apartment breezeway he had just emerged from, and he knew she was on the course that would lead her to meet him in the freeway-side clearing.
He quickly looked at his watch, squinting to see the second hand; and as he centered his attention on the little jerking black needle, color and sound flooded back around him.
He looked toward the apartment building’s empty breezeway and shivered. He knew that the ghost had not really shared volume with him—he had not physically been here when the ghost had passed this spot, twenty minutes or so ago—but the seeming intimacy had shaken him.
She had been coming east on Washington Boulevard. He walked down the sidewalk to the next intersection west, and then paused, leaning on a light pole. The traffic signal ahead of him had just switched to red, and there were no pedestrians nearby; he could surely afford a few seconds of being oblivious to the smoothed-out present.
He let his vision blur—but when he tried to look beyond the flat view of the street and the cars stopped at the crosswalk lines, nothing happened. This spot right now was evidently in synch with the averaged “now.” He was reminded of times when he’d tried to follow blood drops on pavement, and lost the tracks when they had passed over wide patches of bristling grass.
Try another spot, he thought.
The red light winked out and the green walk sign was lit, and he crossed the street, watching for a place where he could be immobile and inconspicuous for a few seconds.
An empty bus bench stood on the sidewalk in front of a corner pharmacy, and he peered down the street but didn’t see a bus in the sun-glare of approaching traffic. Time, at its finest scale, tended to be especially spiky in populated areas, and in a crowded city like Los Angeles it was unlikely that he would find two places that happened at any moment to be chronologically flat. He walked to the bench and sat down.
But I’ve surely lost her trail, he thought. She might have come from north or south to this intersection, instead of from directly west. And though I can expect to find other time-spikes, they’d be as likely to show me intervals in which she hadn’t yet arrived, or had already passed, as to include a glimpse of her black figure. And if I keep provoking these views into the past, they’ll start happening spontaneously again, in spite of all the coffee I drink.
And what, after all, can I do for her?
Peace sustains you when everything’s gone wrong. Is there anything I can do to help her rest in peace?
He sighed and sat back on the bench, and he wearily relaxed his eyes until all the movement and color in front of him seemed to be just shifting or stationary blobs in a vertical plane; and he willed his vision to step past that . . . and now he saw the street by the penumbral echo-light of the recent past.
He stood up—carefully, in case someone in the present might have sat down on the bench beside him—and he peered down the street to the west; but none of the pedestrian figures in that direction shone deep black. The view to the north was largely blocked by a bus stopped at the curb on the far side of Washington Boulevard, but there was no sign of her in the areas he could see.
He turned around to look down the cross-street—and felt his elbow bump a softness that was probably a person standing beside him. He would have to quickly stare at the second hand of his watch to resume seeing in flat time, and then apologize—but for a moment he had glimpsed a black silhouette a hundred feet away, on the other side of the street, moving this way behind two parked cars.
And the spike collapsed spontaneously. Vickery blinked in the sudden wash of color and sound—and, only a foot away, a heavy-set man with a moustache was staring at him angrily.
“Sorry, sorry!” said Vickery, backing away. “Uh lo siento!”
“I speak English,” the man growled.
“Fine,” said Vickery, staring past the man now. “Sorry in any language, okay?”
I’ve got to stop doing this, he thought.
He stepped around the bus-bench and hurried to the corner of the pharmacy and began walking quickly down the sidewalk, looking across the street toward the point where he had seen Scout’s ghost walking along in the recent past.
A freeway overpass bridge shadowed the lanes ahead of him, and in the sunlight beyond that he could now see the piercing blue-and-red lights of at least two police cars on the other side of the street.
As he trudged down the sidewalk, bleakly sure of what he would find at the crime scene ahead, he was resolved to drink still more coffee, live on the damn stuff, and never again deliberately provoke his useless vision impairment. What good was it to see things that had already happened, and not be able to participate, interfere, help?
With luck the chronological handicap would eventually wear off. Last year Vickery had been instrumental in closing the conduit between this world and a particularly malignant afterworld, and so ghosts no longer flitted freely back and forth, and the Los Angeles ghost-trafficking trades had pretty much collapsed—and he had been left with his occasional bouts of hyper-perception of time. He had learned, to his cost, that the generally perceived moment of “now” was actually just the blanket average of an infinity of tiny spikes that sprang up and disappeared at the interface of the future crystallizing into the past.
In the shade under the bridge he didn’t have to squint against sunlight reflecting from cars and apartment windows, and the breeze funneling through the underpass was cool on his sweating forehead. He could see ribbons of yellow police tape ahead now, on that side of the street, and a group of bystanders clustered on the sidewalk ahead of him.
They were all rocking their heads to see past the police cars and vans, and when Vickery had joined them he caught the eye of a gray-haired man in overalls.
“What’s up over there?” Vickery asked.
“Woman got shot,” the man answered. “I live right here, I heard five shots, or it might have been six. No telling how many hit her. Paramedics or somebody took her away a while ago.” He shook his head. “I hope she’ll be okay.”
She won’t, thought Vickery. She isn’t.
He shuffled to the back of the crowd and leaned against a bougainvillea-covered chain-link fence. One last time, he thought, and stared at the people in front of him and the apartment building beyond them; and in a few seconds his view lost all depth, and he cast his attention past it.
In the now brassy light, the onlookers and the police cars were gone, and Vickery was looking directly across the street at the windows of the downstairs apartment. He heard the rippling, overlapping drum beats of what must have been several gunshots, and then the apartment door opened and a light-haired man in a sport coat hurried down the walk to a pale-colored Saturn parked at the curb.
As the man opened the car door, Vickery reluctantly took a couple of steps forward across the empty-looking sidewalk—bumping the shoulders of several people he couldn’t see and who were no doubt protesting his rudeness—for he needed to see the license plate of the car; and though he felt an answering shove from one of the unseen bystanders, he had not moved out of the spike and the license plate was visible as the car swung in his direction to turn around on the street.
Vickery memorized it. He was about to look at the second hand of his watch and begin apologizing to the people around him in average time, when he saw a figure emerge from the apartment’s open door.
It was the jet-black silhouette of Scout, and it began trudging away on the aimless course that would, in a few minutes of this interval of the past, lead her to the clearing in which Vickery then sat reading his book.
Vickery watched the woman-shape reach the sidewalk and start away north, and then he winced as voices and colors crashed in on him.
“-- my foot, asshole,” someone was yelling at him, and someone else punched his shoulder and said, “You got a problem, dickhead?”
“I’m sorry,” said Vickery as he backed out of the group, “I’ve got bad vision, didn’t see you, sorry.”
Several of the people turned to frown back at him as he retreated toward the fence, but the spectacle on the other side of the street soon reclaimed their attention, and Vickery hurried away north on the sidewalk.
He pulled his cell phone out of the inner pocket of his windbreaker. It was a burner phone, and if he called the police with it, he would have to throw it away, and a new one would cost fifty dollars; but he sighed and flipped it open and tapped in 911. It was little enough, but it was all he could do for her.
Soon a woman’s voice answered: “911, what is the location of your emergency?”
“An apartment building on Hoover, just south of the 10 overpass,” said Vickery, “a woman was shot there about twenty minutes ago, there’s cops there now. But I was across the street, and a guy ran out of that apartment right after the shots were fired, blond or white-haired, in a dark sport coat, and he got into a light-colored late-‘90s Saturn and drove away south, license plate 2HRC518. I—I think his name’s Eddie.”
“You know him? Do you know the woman?”
Vickery shut the phone. I never knew her, he thought, but we both liked the book she called It’s A Sin to Kill A Mockingbird.
He thought of hurrying back to the clearing beside the freeway, but he knew that her ghost was gone now, carried away in the current generated by the ever-moving free will charges in the rushing freeway lanes.
Rest, Scout, he thought, in that peace that sustains you when everything’s gone wrong.
He looked ahead at the many-colored signs already visible at the Washington and Hoover intersection, and he hoped he’d be able somewhere to get a big mug of coffee, bitter as wormwood and black as a ghost lost forever in the past.
Copyright © 2018 Tim Powers
This story is set in the world of novel Alternate Routes by Tim Powers, out in August. Other recent Baen books by Powers include Down and Out in Purgatory: The Collected Stories of Tim Powers and Expiration Date . Tim Powers won the World Fantasy Award twice for his critically acclaimed novels Last Call and Declare. Declare also received the International Horror Guild Award. His novel On Stranger Tides was optioned to produce Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. His book The Anubis Gates won the Philip K. Dick award and is considered a modern science fiction classic and a progenitor of the Steampunk genre. Powers won the Dick award again for straight science fiction post-apocalypse novel Dinner at Deviant’s Palace. Powers grew up in Southern California and studied English at Cal State Fullerton, where he met frequent collaborators James Blaylock and K. W. Jeter, as well as renowned science fiction author Philip K. Dick, who became a close friend and mentor. Powers is a practicing Catholic who claims “stories are more effective, and more truly represent the writer’s actual convictions, when they manifest themselves without the writer’s conscious assistance. I concern myself with my plots, but I let my subconscious worry about my themes.” Powers still resides in Southern California with his wife, Serena.