(13) We Shop for Waterbeds
It was my idea.
I loaded us into the back of a Vegas taxi as if we actually had money, and told the driver, “Los Angeles, please.”
The cabbie chewed his cigar and sized us up.
“That’s three hundred miles. For that, you gotta pay up front.”
“You accept casino debit cards?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Some of ’em. Same as credit cards. I gotta swipe ’em through, first.”
I handed him my green LotusCash card. He looked at it skeptically.
“Swipe it,” I invited.
He did. His meter machine started rattling. The lights flashed. Finally an infinity symbol came up next to the dollar sign. The cigar fell out of the driver’s mouth. He looked back at us, his eyes wide.
“Where to in Los Angeles... uh, Your Highness?”
“The Santa Monica pier.” I sat up a little straighter. I kinda liked the ‘Your Highness’ thing. “Get us there fast, and you can keep the change.”
Maybe I shouldn’t have told him that. The cab’s speedometer never dipped below ninety-five the whole way through the Mojave Desert.
On the road, we had plenty of time to talk. Percy told Grover and I about his latest dream, but he said the details got sketchier the more he tried to remember them. The Lotus Casino seemed to have short circuited his memory.
Percy couldn’t recall what the invisible servant’s voice had sounded like, though he was sure it was somebody he knew. The servant had called the monster in the pit something other than ‘my lord’... some special name or title...
“The Silent One?” I suggested. “The Rich One? Both of those are nicknames for Hades.”
“Maybe...” Percy frowned.
“That throne room sounds like Hades’s,” Grover said. “That’s the way it’s usually described.”
Percy shook his head. “Something’s wrong. The throne room wasn’t the main part of the dream. And that voice from the pit... I don’t know. It just didn’t feel like a god’s voice.”
My eyes widened. What if we had misinterpreted the prophecy? What if we weren’t supposed to go to Hades but somebody else?
“What?” Percy asked.
“Oh... nothing. I was just – No, it has to be Hades. Maybe he sent this thief, this invisible person, to get the master bolt, and something went wrong –”
“I – I don’t know,” I said. “But if he stole Zeus’s symbol of power from Olympus, and the gods were hunting him, I mean, a lot of things could go wrong. So this thief had to hide the bolt, or he lost it somehow. Anyway, he failed to bring it to Hades. That’s what the voice said in your dream, right? The guy failed. That would explain what the Furies were searching for when they came after us on the bus. Maybe they thought we had retrieved the bolt.”
Percy looked at me with confusion.
“But if I’d already retrieved the bolt,” he said, “why would I be traveling to the Underworld?”
“To threaten Hades,” Grover suggested. “To bribe or blackmail him into getting your mom back.”
Percy whistled. “You have evil thoughts for a goat.”
“Why, thank you.”
“But the thing in the pit said it was waiting for two items,” Percy said. “If the master bolt is one, what’s the other?”
Grover shook his head, clearly mystified. I looked at Percy, knowing his next question, and was silently willing him not to ask it.
“You have an idea what might be in that pit, don’t you?” He asked me. “I mean, if it isn’t Hades?”
I had a hunch, but I pushed my thought aside.
“Percy... let’s not talk about it. Because if it isn’t Hades... No. It has to be Hades.”
Wasteland rolled by. We passed a sign that said: CALIFORNIA STATE LINE, 12 MILES.
I got the feeling I was missing one simple, critical piece of information. It was like when I stared at a common word I should know, but I couldn’t make sense of it because one or two letters were floating around. The more I thought about the quest, the more I was sure that confronting Hades wasn’t the real answer. There was something else going on, something even more dangerous.
The problem was: we were hurtling towards the Underworld at ninety-five miles an hour, betting that Hades had the master bolt. If we got there and found out we were wrong, we wouldn’t have time to correct ourselves. The solstice deadline would pass and war would begin.
“The answer is in the Underworld,” I assured Percy. “You saw spirits of the dead, Percy. There’s only one place that could be. We’re doing the right thing.”
I tried to boost Percy and Grover’s morale by suggesting clever strategies for getting into the Land of the Dead, but their hearts wasn’t in it. There were just too many unknown factors.
The cab sped west. Every gust of wind through Death Valley sounded like a spirit of the dead.
At sunset, the taxi dropped us at the beach in Santa Monica. It looked exactly the way L.A. beaches do in the movies, only it smelled worse. There were carnival rides lining the pier, palm trees lining the sidewalks, homeless guys sleeping in the sand dunes and surfer dudes waiting for the perfect wave. Grover, Percy and I walked down to the edge of the surf.
“What now?” I asked. The Pacific was turning gold in the setting sun. I thought about how long it had been since I’d stood on the beach at Camp Half-Blood, on the opposite side of the country, looking out at a different sea.
Percy stepped into the surf.
“Percy?” I said. “What are you doing?”
He kept walking, up to his waist, then his chest.
I called after him, “You know how polluted that water is? There’re all kinds of toxic- and he’s under.”
When Percy finally decided to finish his polluted bath, he told Grover and I what had happened with the Nereid, and showed them the pearls.
I grimaced. “No gift comes without a price.”
“They were free.”
“No.” I shook my head. “There is no such thing as a free lunch. That’s an ancient Greek saying that translated pretty well into American. There will be a price. You wait.”
On that happy thought, we turned our backs on the sea. With some spare change from Ares’s backpack, we took the bus into West Hollywood. I showed the driver the Underworld address slip Percy taken from Aunty Em’s Garden Gnome Emporium, but he’d never heard of DOA Recording Studios.
“You remind me of somebody I saw on TV,” he told Percy. “You a child actor or something?”
“Uh... I’m a stunt double... for a lot of child actors.”
“Oh! That explains it.”
We thanked him and got off quickly at the next stop. We wandered for miles on foot, looking for DOA. Nobody seemed to know where it was. It didn’t appear in the phone book. Twice, we ducked into alleys to avoid cop cars.
Percy froze in front of an appliance store window because a television was playing an interview with somebody who looked like he’d be besties with Mr. D.
I assumed this was Percy’s stepdad and I felt a pang of pity for him. The man was talking to Barbara Walters – as if he were some kind of huge celebrity. She was interviewing him in an apartment, in the middle of a poker game, and there was a young blonde lady sitting next to him, patting his hand.
A fake tear glistened on his cheek. He was saying, “Honest, Ms. Walters, if it wasn’t for Sugar here, my grief counsellor. I’d be a wreck. My stepson took everything I cared about. My wife... my Camaro... I – I’m sorry. I have trouble talking about it.”
“There you have it, America.” Barbara Walters turned to the camera. “A man torn apart. An adolescent boy with serious issues. Let me show you, again, the last known photo of this troubled young fugitive, taken a week ago in Denver.” The screen cut to a grainy shot of me, Percy and Grover standing outside the Colorado diner, talking to Ares.
“Who are the other children in this photo?” Barbara Walters asked dramatically. “Who is the man with them? Is Percy Jackson a delinquent, a terrorist, or perhaps the brainwashed victim of a frightening new cult? When we come back, we chat with a leading child psychologist. Stay tuned, America.”
“C’mon,” Grover told Percy.
He hauled him away before he could punch a hole in the appliance-store window. It got dark, and hungry-looking characters started coming out on the streets to play. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a demigod. I don’t scare easy. But L.A. had a totally different feel from what I was used to. Back home, everything was close. It didn’t matter where you were at camp, as long as you weren’t dumb, you were fine.
L.A. wasn’t like that. It was spread out, chaotic, hard to move around. It reminded me of Ares. It wasn’t enough for L.A. to be big; it had to prove it was big by being loud and strange and difficult to navigate, too. I didn’t know how we were ever going to find the entrance to the Underworld by tomorrow, the summer solstice.
We walked past gangbangers, bums and street hawkers, who looked at us like they were trying to figure if we were worth the trouble of mugging. As we hurried passed the entrance of an alley, a voice from the darkness said, “Hey, you.” Like an idiot, Percy stopped. Before I knew it, we were surrounded. A gang of kids had circled us. Six of them in all – white kids with expensive clothes and mean faces. Like the Ares kids at camp.
Instinctively, Percy uncapped Riptide. When the sword appeared out of nowhere, the kids backed off, but their leader was either really stupid or really brave, because he kept coming at him with a switchblade.
Percy made the mistake of swinging. The kid yelped. But he must’ve been one hundred percent mortal, because the blade passed harmlessly right through his chest. He looked down.
“What the...” I figured I had about three seconds before his shock turned to anger.
“Run!” Percy screamed at Grover and I. We pushed two kids out of the way and raced down the street, not knowing where we were going. We turned a sharp corner.
“There!” I shouted. Only one store on the block looked open, its windows glaring with neon. The sign above the door said something like: CRSTUY’S WATREBDE ALPACE.
“Crusty’s Waterbed Palace?” Grover translated. It didn’t sound like a place I’d ever go except in an emergency, but this definitely qualified. We burst through the doors, ran behind a waterbed, and ducked. A split second later, the gang kids ran past outside.
“I think we lost them,” Grover panted.
A voice behind us boomed, “Lost who?”
We all jumped. Standing behind us was a guy who looked like a raptor in a leisure suit. He was at least two meters tall, with absolutely no hair. He had grey leathery skin, thick-lidded eyes, and a cold reptilian smile. He moved towards us slowly, but I got the feeling he could move fast if he needed to. His suit might’ve come from the Lotus Casino. It belonged back in the seventies, big time. The shirt was silk paisley, unbuttoned halfway down his hairless chest. The lapels on his velvet jacket were as wide as landing strips. The silver chains around his neck – I couldn’t even count them.
“I’m Crusty,” he said, with a tartar-yellow smile.
Yes, yes you are, I thought.
“Sorry to barge in,” Percy told him. “We were just, um, browsing.”
“You mean hiding from those no-good kids,” he grumbled. “They hang around every night. I get a lot of people in here, thanks to them. Say, you want to look at a waterbed?”
I was about to say “No, thanks,” when he put a huge paw on Percy’s shoulder and steered him deeper into the showroom, leaving Grover and I no choice but to follow.
There was every kind of waterbed you could imagine: different kinds of wood, different patterns of sheets; queen-size, king-size, emperor-of-the-universe-size.
“This is my most popular model.” Crusty spread his hands proudly over a bed covered with black satin sheets, with built-in Lava Lamps on the headboard. The mattress vibrated, so it looked like oil-flavored jelly.
“Million-hand massage,” Crusty told us. “Go on, try it out. Shoot, take a nap. I don’t care. No business today, anyway.”
“Um,” Percy said, “I don’t think...”
“Million-hand massage!” Grover cried, and dived in. “Oh, you guys! This is cool.”
“Hmm,” Crusty said, stroking his leathery chin. “Almost, almost.”
“Almost what?” Percy asked.
He looked at me. “Do me a favor and try this one over here, honey. Might fit.”
I said, “But what –” He patted me reassuringly on the shoulder and led me over to the Safari Deluxe model with teakwood lions carved into the frame and a leopard-patterned bedspread.
When I didn’t lie down, Crusty pushed me.
“Hey!” I protested.
Crusty snapped his fingers. “Ergo!” Ropes sprang from the sides of the bed, lashing around me, holding me to the mattress. Grover tried to get up, but ropes sprang from his black-satin bed, too, and lashed him down.
“Not cool!” he yelled, his voice vibrating from the million-hand massage. “Not cool at all!”
The giant looked at me, then turned towards Percy and grinned. “Almost, darn it.”
Percy tried to step away, but Crusty’s hand shot out and clamped around the back of Percy’a neck.
“Whoa, kid. Don’t worry. We’ll find you one in a sec.”
“Let my friends go.”
“Oh, sure I will. But I got to make them fit, first.”
“What do you mean?”
“All the beds are exactly six feet, see? Your friends are too short. Got to make them fit.”
Grover and I kept struggling.
“Can’t stand imperfect measurements,” Crusty muttered. “Ergo!” A new set of ropes leaped out from the top and bottom of the beds, wrapping around Grover and my ankles, then around our armpits. The ropes started tightening, pulling us from both ends.
“Don’t worry,” Crusty told Percy. “These are stretching jobs. Maybe eight extra centimetres on their spines. They might even live. Now why don’t we find a bed you like, huh?”
“Percy!” Grover yelled.
I gritted my teeth. My mind was racing. From what I remember, there isn’t a myth on a giant named Crusty.
“Your real name’s not Crusty, is it?” Percy asked.
“Legally, it’s Procrustes,” he admitted.
“The Stretcher,” Percy translated.
I remembered the story: the giant who’d tried to kill Theseus with over hospitality on his way to Athens.
“Yeah,” the salesman said. “But who can pronounce “Procrustes”? Bad for business. Now “Crusty”, anybody can say that.”
“You’re right. It’s got a good ring to it.”
His eyes lit up. “You think so?”
“Oh, absolutely,” Percy said. “And the workmanship on these beds? Fabulous!”
Procrustes grinned hugely, but his fingers didn’t loosen on Percy’s neck.
“I tell my customers that. Every time. Nobody bothers to look at the workmanship. How many built-in Lava Lamp headboards have you seen?”
“Not too many.”
“Percy!” I yelled. He can’t seriously be making small talk while Grover and I were being stretched to death. “What are you doing?”
“Don’t mind her,” Percy told Procrustes. “She’s impossible.”
I had a lot of things I wanted to yell at both of them, but I willed myself to focus on staying conscious.
The giant laughed. “All my customers are. Never six feet exactly. So inconsiderate. And then they complain about the fitting.”
“What do you do if they’re longer than six feet?”
“Oh, that happens all the time. It’s a simple fix.”
He let go of Percy’s neck, but before he could react, Procrustes reached behind a nearby sales desk and brought out a huge double-bladed brass axe.
He said, “I just center the subject as best I can and lop off whatever hangs over on either end.”
“Ah,” Percy said. “Sensible.”
“I’m so glad to come across an intelligent customer!”
The ropes were really stretching me out now. Spots danced across my vision. This cannot be happening, I thought. I’m going to die being stretched to death.
“So, Crusty...” Percy said and glanced at the sales tag on the valentine-shaped Honeymoon Special.
“Does this one really have dynamic stabilizers to stop wave motion?”
“Absolutely. Try it out.”
“Yeah, maybe I will. But would it work even for a big guy like you? No waves at all?”
He sat down eagerly on the bed, patted the mattress.
“No waves. See?”
Percy snapped his fingers. “Ergo.”
Ropes lashed around Crusty and flattened him against the mattress.
“Hey!” he yelled.
“Center him just right,” Percy said. The ropes readjusted themselves at his command. Crusty’s whole head stuck out the top. His feet stuck out the bottom.
“No!” he said. “Wait! This is just a demo.”
Percy uncapped Riptide. “A few simple adjustments...”
“You drive a hard bargain,” Crusty told Percy. “I’ll give you thirty percent off on selected floor models!”
“I think I’ll start with the top.” Percy raised his sword.
“No money down! No interest for six months!”
I turned my head to the ceiling.
Crusty stopped making offers.
Percy cut the ropes on our beds beds. Grover and I got to our feet, groaning and wincing and cursing him a lot.
“I hate you.”
“You look taller,” Percy said.
“Very funny,” I said. “Be faster next time.”
“Come on,” he said.
“Give us a minute,” Grover complained. “We were almost stretched to death!”
Then you’re ready for the Underworld,” Percy said, holding up a bright orange flier he took from Crusty’s bulletin board. “It’s only a block from here.”
A/N: okay... 3k words this time. we’re kinda good :)