A SCANNER DARKLY -- CHAPTER 5
But in this case the suspect Robert Arctor obligingly left his house, taking his two roommates with him, to go check out a cephalochromoscope they could use on loan until Barris had his working again. The three of them were seen to drive off in Arctor's car, looking serious and determined. Then later on, at a convenient point, which was a pay phone at a gas station, using the audio grid of his scramble suit, Fred called in to report that definitely nobody would be home the rest of that day. He'd overheard the three men deciding to cruise down all the way to San Diego in search of a cheap, ripped-off cephscope that some dude had for sale for around fifty bucks. A smack-freak price. At that price it was worth the long drive and all the time.
Also, this gave the authorities the opportunity to do a little illegal searching above and beyond what their undercover people did when no one was looking. They got to pull out bureau drawers to see what was taped to the backs. They got to pull apart pole lamps to see if hundreds of tabs sprang out. They got to look down inside toilet bowls to see what sort of little packets in toilet paper were lodged out of sight where the running water would automatically flush them. They got to look in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator to see if any of the packages of frozen peas and beans actually contained frozen dope, slyly mismarked. Meanwhile, the complicated holo-scanners were mounted, with officers seating themselves in various places to test the scanners out. The same with the audio ones. But the video part was more important and took more time. And of course the scanners should never be visible. It took skill to so mount them. A number of locations had to be tried. The technicians who did this got paid well, because if they screwed up and a holo-scanner got detected later on by an occupant of the premises, then the occupants, all of them, would know they had been penetrated and were under scrutiny, and cool their activities. And in addition they would sometimes tear off the whole scanning system and sell it.
It had proven difficult in the courts, Bob Arctor reflected as he drove along the San Diego Freeway south, to get convictions on theft and sale of electronic detection devices illegally installed in someone's residence. The police could only tack the bust on somewhere else, under another statute violation. However, the pushers, in an analogous situation, reacted directly. He recalled a case in which a heroin dealer, out to burn a chick, had planted two packets of heroin in the handle of her iron, then phoned in an anonymous tip on her to WE TIP. Before the tip could be acted on, the chick found the heroin, but instead of flushing it she had sold it. The police came, found nothing, then made a voiceprint on the phone tip, and arrested the pusher for giving false information to the authorities. While out on bail, the pusher visited the chick late one night and beat her almost to death. When caught and asked why he'd put out one of her eyes and broken both her arms and several ribs, he explained that the chick had come across two packets of high-grade heroin belonging to him, sold them for a good profit, and not cut him in. Such, Arctor reflected, went the pusher mentality.
He dumped off Luckman and Barris to do a scrounging number for the cephscope; this not only stranded both men and kept them from getting back to the house while the bugging installation was going on, but permitted him to check up on an individual he hadn't seen for over a month. He seldom got down this way, and the chick seemed to be doing nothing more than shooting meth two or three times a day and turning tricks to pay for it. She lived with her dealer, who was therefore also her old man. Usually Dan Mancher was gone during the day, which was good. The dealer was an addict, too, but Arctor had not been able to figure out to what. Evidently a variety of drugs. Anyhow, whatever it was, Dan had become weird and vicious, unpredictable and violent. It was a wonder the local police hadn't picked him up long ago on local disturbance-of-the-peace infractions. Maybe they were paid off. Or, most likely, they just didn't care; these people lived in a slum-housing area among senior citizens and the other poor. Only for major crimes did the police enter the Cromwell Village series of buildings and related garbage dump, parking lots, and rubbled roads.
There seemed to be nothing that contributed more to squalor than a bunch of basalt-block structures designed to lift people out of squalor. He parked, found the right urine-smelling stairs, ascended into darkness, found the door of Building 4 marked G. A full can of Drano lay before the door, and he picked it up automatically, wondering how many kids played here and remembering, for a moment, his own kids and the protective moves he had made on their behalf over the years. This was one now, picking up this can. He rapped against the door with it.
Presently the door lock rattled and the door opened, chained inside; the girl, Kimberly Hawkins, peered out. "Yes?"
"Hey, man," he said. "It's me, Bob."
"What do you have there?"
"Can of Drano," he said.
"No kidding." She unchained the door in a listless way; her voice, too, was listless. Kimberly was down, he could see: very down. Also, the girl had a black eye and a split lip. And as he looked around he saw that the windows of the small, untidy apartment were broken. Shards of glass lay on the floor, along with overturned ashtrays and Coke bottles.
"Are you alone?" he asked.
"Yeah. Dan and I had a fight and he split." The girl, half Chicano, small and not too pretty, with the sallow complexion of a crystal freak, gazed down sightlessly, and he realized that her voice rasped when she spoke. Some drugs did that. Also, so did strep throat. The apartment probably couldn't be heated, not with the broken windows.
"He beat you up." Arctor set the can of Drano down on a high shelf, over some paperback porn novels, most of them out of date.
"Well, he didn't have his knife, thank God. His Case knife that he carries on his belt in a sheath now." Kimberly seated herself in an overstuffed chair out of which springs stuck. "What do you want, Bob? I'm bummed, I really am."
"You want him back?"
"Well --" She shrugged a little. "Who knows?"
Arctor walked to the window and looked out. Dan Mancher would no doubt be showing up sooner or later: the girl was a source of money, and Dan knew she'd need her regular hits once her supply had run out. "How long can you go?" he asked.
"Can you get it anywhere else?"
"Yeah, but not so cheap."
"What's wrong with your throat?"
"A cold," she said. "From the wind coming in."
"You should --"
"If I go to a doctor," she said, "then he'll see I'm on crystal. I can't go."
"A doctor wouldn't care."
"Sure he would." She listened then: the sound of car pipes, irregular and loud. "Is that Dan's car? Red Ford 'seventy-nine Torino?"
At the window Arctor looked out onto the rubbishy lot, saw a battered red Torino stopping, its twin exhausts exhaling dark smoke, the driver's door opening. "Yes."
Kimberly locked the door: two extra locks. "He probably has his knife."
"You have a phone."
"No," she said.
"You should get a phone."
The girl shrugged.
"He'll kill you," Arctor said.
"Not now. You're here."
"But later, after I'm gone."
Kimberly reseated herself and shrugged again. After a few moments they could hear steps outside, and then a knock on the door. Then Dan yelling for her to open the door. She yelled back no and that someone was with her. "Okay," Dan yelled, in a high-pitched voice, "I'll slash your tires." He ran downstairs, and Arctor and the girl watched through the broken window together as Dan Mancher, a skinny, short-haired, homosexual-looking dude waving a knife, approached her car, still yelling up to her, his words audible to everyone else in the housing area. "I'll slash your tires, your fucking tires! And then I'll fucking kill you!" He bent down and slashed first one tire and then another on the girl's old Dodge.
Kimberly suddenly aroused, sprang to the door of the apartment and frantically began unlocking the various locks. "I got to stop him! He's slashing all my tires! I don't have insurance!"
Arctor stopped her. "My car's there too." He did not have his gun with him, of course, and Dan had the Case knife and was out of control, "Tires aren't --"
"My tires!" Shrieking, the girl struggled to open the door.
"That's what he wants you to do," Arctor said.
"Downstairs," Kimberly panted. "We can phone the police -- they have a phone. Let me go!" She fought him off with tremendous strength and managed to get the door open. "I'm going to call the police. My tires! One of them is new!"
"I'll go with you." He grabbed her by the shoulder; she tumbled ahead of him down the steps, and he barely managed to catch up. Already she had reached the next apartment and was pounding on its door. "Open, please?" she called. "Please, I want to call the police! Please let me call the police!"
Arctor got up beside her and knocked. "We need to use your phone," he said. "It's an emergency."
An elderly man, wearing a gray sweater and creased formal slacks and a tie, opened the door.
"Thanks," Arctor said.
Kimberly pushed inside, ran to the phone, and dialed the operator. Arctor stood facing the door, waiting for Dan to show up. There was no sound now, except for Kimberly babbling at the operator: a garbled account, something about a quarrel about a pair of boots worth seven dollars. "He said they were his because I got them for him for Christmas," she was babbling, "but they were mine because I paid for them, and then he started to take them and I ripped the backs of them with a can opener, so he --" She paused; then, nodding: "All right, thank you. Yes, I'll hold on."
The elderly man gazed at Arctor, who gazed back. In the next room an elderly lady in a print dress watched silently, her face stiff with fear.
"This must be bad on you," Arctor said to the two elderly people.
"It goes on all the time," the elderly man said. "We hear them all night, night after night, fighting, and him saying all the time he'll kill her."
"We should have gone back to Denver," the elderly lady said. "I told you that, we should have moved back."
"These terrible fights," the elderly man said. "And smashing things, and the noise." He gazed at Arctor, stricken, appealing for help maybe, or maybe understanding. "On and on, it never does stop, and then, what is worse, do you know that every time --"
"Yes, tell him that," the elderly lady urged.
"What is worse," the elderly man said with dignity, "is that every time we go outdoors, we go outside to shop or mail a letter, we step in ... you know, what the dogs leave."
"Dog do," the elderly lady said, with indignation.
The local police car showed up. Arctor gave his deposition as a witness without identifying himself as a law-enforcement officer. The cop took down his statement and tried to take one from Kimberly, as the complaining party, but what she said made no sense: she rambled on and on about the pair of boots and why she had gotten them, how much they meant to her. The cop, sitting with his clipboard and sheet, glanced up once at Arctor and regarded him with a cold expression that Arctor could not read but did not like anyhow. The cop finally advised Kimberly to get a phone and to call if the suspect returned and made any more trouble.
"Did you note the slashed tires?" Arctor said as the cop started to leave. "Did you examine her vehicle out there on the lot and note personally the number of the tires slashed, casing slashes with a sharp instrument, recently made -- there is still some air leaking out?"
The cop glanced at him again with the same expression and left with no further comment.
"You better not stay here," Arctor said to Kimberly. "He should have advised you to clear out. Asked if there was some other place you could stay."
Kimberly sat on her seedy couch in her debris-littered living room, her eyes lusterless again now that she had ceased the futile effort of trying to explain her situation to the investigating officer. She shrugged.
"I'll drive you somewhere," Arctor said. "Do you know some friend you could --"
"Get the fuck out!" Kimberly said abruptly, with venom, in a voice much like Dan Mancher's but more raspy. "Get the fuck out of here, Bob Arctor -- get lost, get lost, goddammit. Will you get lost?" Her voice rose shrilly and then broke in despair.
He left and walked slowly back down the stairs, step by step. When he reached the bottom step something banged and rolled down after him: it was the can of Drano. He heard her door lock, one bolt after another. Futile locks, he thought. Futile everything. The investigating officer advises her to call if the suspect returns. How can she, without going out of her apartment? And there Dan Mancher will stab her like he did the tires. And -- remembering the complaint of the old folks downstairs -- she will probably first step on and then fall dead into dog shit. He felt like laughing hysterically at the old folks' priorities; not only did a burned-out freak upstairs night after night beat up and threaten to kill and probably would soon kill a young girl addict turning tricks who no doubt had strep throat if not much else besides, but in addition to that --
As he drove Luckman and Barris back north, he chuckled aloud. "Dog shit," he said. "Dog shit." Humor in dog shit, he thought, if you can flash on it. Funny dog shit.
"Better change lanes and pass that Safeway truck," Luckman said. "The humper's hardly moving."
He moved into the lane to the left and picked up speed. But then, when he took his foot off the throttle, the pedal all at once fell to the floor mat, and at the same time the engine roared all the way up furiously and the car shot forward at enormous, wild speed.
"Slow down!" both Luckman and Barris said together.
By now the car had reached almost one hundred; ahead, a VW van loomed. His gas pedal was dead: it did not return and it did nothing. Both Luckman, who sat next to him, and Barris, beyond him, threw up their arms instinctively. Arctor twisted the wheel and shot by the VW van, to its left, where a limited space remained before a fast-moving 'Vet filled it up. The Corvette honked, and they heard its brakes screech. Now Luckman and Barris were yelling; Luckman suddenly reached and shut off the ignition; meanwhile, Arctor shifted out of gear into neutral. The car slowed, and he braked it down, moved into the right-hand lane and then, with the engine finally dead and the transmission out of gear, rolled off onto the emergency strip and came by degrees to a stop.
The Corvette, long gone down the freeway, still honked its indignation. And now the giant Safeway truck rolled by them and for a deafening moment sounded its own warning air horn.
"What the hell happened?" Barris said.
Arctor, his hands and voice and the rest of him shaking, said, "The return spring on the throttle cable -- the gas. Must have caught or broken." He pointed down. They all peered at the pedal, which lay still flat against the floor. The engine had revved up to its entire maximum rpm, which for his car was considerable. He had not clocked their final highest road speed, probably well over one hundred. And, he realized, though he had been reflexively pushing down on the power brakes, the car had only slowed.
Silently the three of them got onto the emergency pavement and raised the hood. White smoke drifted up from the oil caps and from underneath as well. And near-boiling water fizzled from the overflow spout of the radiator.
Luckman reached over the hot engine and pointed. "Not the spring," he said. "It's the linkage from the pedal to the carb. See? It fell apart." The long rod lay aimlessly against the block, hanging impotently and uselessly down with its locking ring still in place. "So the gas pedal didn't push back up when you took your foot off. But --" He inspected the carb for a time, his face wrinkled.
"There's a safety override on the carb," Barris said, grinning and showing his synthetic-like teeth. "This system when the linkage parts --"
"Why'd it part?" Arctor broke in. "Shouldn't this locking ring hold the nut in place?" He stroked along the rod. "How could it just fall off like that?"
As if not hearing him, Barris continued, "If for any reason the linkage gives, then the engine should drop down to idle. As a safety factor. But it revved up all the way instead." He bent his body around to get a better look at the carb. "This screw has been turned all the way out," he said. "The idle screw. So that when the linkage parted the override went the other way, up instead of down."
"How could that happen?" Luckman said loudly. "Could it screw itself all the way out like that accidentally?"
Without answering, Barris got out his pocketknife, opened the small blade, and began slowly screwing the idle-adjustment screw back in. He counted aloud. Twenty turns of the screw to get it in. "To loosen the lock ring and nut assembly that holds the accelerator-linkage rods together," he said, "a special tool would be needed. A couple, in fact. I'd estimate it'll take about half an hour to get this back together. I have the tools, though, in my toolbox."
"Your toolbox is back at the house," Luckman said.
"Yes." Barris nodded. "Then we'll have to get to a gas station and either borrow theirs or get their tow truck out here. I suggest we get them out here to look it over before we drive it again."
"Hey, man," Luckman said loudly, "did this happen by accident or was this done deliberately? Like the cephscope?"
Barris pondered, still smiling his wily, rueful smile. "I couldn't say for sure about this. Normally, sabotage on a car, malicious damage to cause an accident ..." He glanced at Arctor, his eyes invisible behind his green shades. "We almost piled up. If that 'Vet had been coming any faster ... There was almost no ditch to head for. You should have cut the ignition as soon as you realized what happened."
"I got it out of gear," Arctor said. "When I realized. For a second I couldn't figure it out." He thought, if it had been the brakes, if the brake pedal had gone to the floor, I'd have flashed on it sooner, known better what to do. This was so -- weird.
"Someone deliberately did it," Luckman said loudly. He spun around in a circle of fury, lashing out with both fists. "MOTHERFUCKER! We almost bought it! They fucking almost got us!"
Barris, standing visible by the side of the freeway with all its heavy traffic whizzing by, got out a little horn snuffbox of death tabs and took several. He passed the snuffbox to Luckman, who took a few, then passed it to Arctor.
"Maybe that's what's fucking us up," Arctor said, declining irritably. "Messing up our brains."
"Dope can't screw up an accelerator linkage and carb-idle adjustment," Barris said, still holding the snuffbox out to Arctor. "You'd better drop at least three of these -- they're Primo, but mild. Cut with a little meth."
"Put the damn snuffbox away," Arctor said. He felt, in his head, loud voices singing: terrible music, as if the reality around him had gone sour. Everything now -- the fast-moving cars, the two men, his own car with its hood up, the smell of smog, the bright, hot light of midday -- it all had a rancid quality, as if, throughout, his world had putrefied, rather than anything else. Not so much become all at once, because of this, dangerous, not frightening, but more as if rotting away, stinking in sight and sound and odor. It made him sick, and he shut his eyes and shuddered.
"What do you smell?" Luckman asked. "A clue, man? Some engine smell that --"
"Dog shit," Arctor said. He could smell it, from within the engine area. Bending, he sniffed, smelled it distinctly and more strongly. Weird, he thought. Freaky and fucking weird. "Do you smell dog shit?" he asked Barris and Luckman.
"No," Luckman said, eyeing him. To Barris he said, "Were there any psychedelics in that dope?"
Barris, smiling, shook his head.
As he bent over the hot engine, smelling dog shit, Arctor knew to himself that it was an illusion; there was no dogshit smell. But still he smelled it. And now he saw, smeared across the motorblock, especially down low by the plugs, dark-brown stains, an ugly substance. Oil, he thought. Spilled oil, thrown oil: I may have a leaky head gasket. But he needed to reach down and touch to be sure, to fortify his rational conviction. His fingers met the sticky brown smears, and his fingers leaped back. He had run his fingers into dog shit. There was a coating of dog shit all over the block, on the wires. Then he realized it was on the fire wall as well. Looking up, he saw it on the soundproofing underneath the hood. The stink overpowered him, and he shut his eyes, shuddering.
"Hey, man," Luckman said acutely, taking hold of Arctor by the shoulder. "You're getting a flashback, aren't you?"
"Free theater tickets," Barris agreed, and chuckled.
"You better sit down," Luckman said; he guided Arctor back to the driver's seat and got him seated there. "Man, you're really freaked. Just sit there. Take it easy. Nobody got killed, and now we're warned." He shut the car door beside Arctor. "We're okay now, dig?"
Barris appeared at the window and said, "Want a lump of dog shit, Bob? To chew on?"
Opening his eyes, chilled, Arctor stared at him. Barris's green-glass eyes gave nothing back, no clue. Did he really say that? Arctor wondered. Or did my head make that up? "What, Jim?" he said.
Barris began to laugh. And laugh and laugh.
"Leave him alone, man," Luckman said, punching Barris on the back. "Fuck off, Barris!"
Arctor said to Luckman, "What did he say just now? What the hell exactly did he say to me?"
"I don't know," Luckman said. "I can't figure out half the things Barris lays on people."
Barris still smiled, but had become silent.
"You goddamn Barris," Arctor said to him. "I know you did it, screwed over the cephscope and now the car. You fucking did it, you kinky freak mother bastard." His voice was hardly audible to him, but as he yelled that out at smiling Barris, the dreadful stench of dog shit grew. He gave up trying to speak and sat there at the useless wheel of his car trying not to throw up. Thank God Luckman came along, he thought. Or it'd be all over for me this day. It'd all fucking be over, at the hands of this burned-out fucking creep, this mother living right in the same house with me.
"Take it easy, Bob," Luckman's voice filtered to him through the waves of nausea.
"I know it's him," Arctor said.
"Hell, why?" Luckman seemed to be saying, or trying to say. "He'd of snuffed himself too this way. Why, man? Why?"
The smell of Barris still smiling overpowered Bob Arctor, and he heaved onto the dashboard of his own car. A thousand little voices tinkled up, shining at him, and the smell receded finally. A thousand little voices crying out their strangeness; he did not understand them, but at least he could see, and the smell was going away. He trembled, and reached for his handkerchief from his pocket.
"What was in those tabs you gave us?" Luckman demanded at smiling Barris.
"Hell, I dropped some too," Barris said, "and so did you. And it didn't give us a bad trip. So it wasn't the dope. And it was too soon. How could it have been the dope? The stomach can't absorb --"
"You poisoned me," Arctor said savagely, his vision almost clear, his mind clearing, except for the fear. Now fear had begun, a rational response instead of insanity. Fear about what had almost happened, what it signified, fear fear terrible fear of smiling Barris and his fucking snuffbox and his explanations and his creepy sayings and ways and habits and customs and comings and goings. And his anonymous phoned-in tip to the police about Robert Arctor, his mickey-mouse grid to conceal his real voice that had pretty well worked. Except that it had to have been Barris.
Bob Arctor thought, The Fucker is on to me.
"I never saw anybody space out as fast," Barris was saying, "but then --"
"You okay now, Bob?" Luckman said. "We'll clean up the barf, no trouble. Better get in the back seat." Both he and Barris opened the car door; Arctor slid dizzily out. To Barris, Luckman said, "You sure you didn't slip him anything?"
Barris waved his hands up high, protesting.