Monday, May 21, 2012

The Lightning Thief - Chapter 17



Chapter 17
 WE SHOP FOR
 WATER BEDS
 
 It was Annabeth's idea.
 She 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?" Annabeth asked.
 He shrugged. "Some of 'em. Same as credit cards. I gotta swipe 'em through first."
 Annabeth handed him her green LotusCash card.
 He looked at it skeptically.
 "Swipe it," Annabeth 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." Annabeth sat up a little straighter. I could tell she liked the "Your Highness"
thing. "Get us there fast, and you can keep the change."
 Maybe she 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. I told Annabeth and Grover about my latest dream, but the
details got sketch-ier the more I tried to remember them. The Lotus Casino seemed to have
short-circuited my memory. I couldn't recall what the invisible servant's voice had sounded like, though I
was sure it was somebody I knew. The servant had called the monster in the pit something other than
"my lord" ... some special name or title....
 "The Silent One?" Annabeth suggested. "The Rich One? Both of those are nicknames for Hades."
 "Maybe ..." I said, though neither sounded quite right.
 "That throne room sounds like Hades's," Grover said. "That's the way it's usually described."
 I shook my 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."
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 Annabeth's eyes widened.
 "What?" I asked.
 "Oh ... nothing. I was just—No, ithas to be Hades. Maybe he sent this thief, this invisible person, to get
the master bolt, and something went wrong—"
 "Like what?"
 "I—I don't know," she said. "But if he stole Zeus's sym-bol 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."
 I wasn't sure what was wrong with her. She looked pale.
 "But if I'd already retrieved the bolt," I said, "why would I be traveling to the Underworld?"
 "To threaten Hades," Grover suggested. "To bribe or blackmail him into getting your mom back."
 I whistled. "You have evil thoughts for a goat."
 "Why, thank you."
 "But the thing in the pit said it was waiting fortwo  items," I said. "If the master bolt is one, what's the
other?"
 Grover shook his head, clearly mystified.
 Annabeth was looking at me as if she knew my next question, and was silently willing me not to ask it.
 "You have an idea what might be in that pit, don't you?" I asked her. "I mean, if it isn't Hades?"
 "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 CALI-FORNIA 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 my 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 toward 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 sol-stice deadline would pass and war would begin.
 "The answer is in the Underworld," Annabeth assured me. "You saw spirits of the dead, Percy. There's
only one place that could be. We're doing the right thing."
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 She tried to boost our morale by suggesting clever strategies for getting into the Land of the Dead, but
my heart wasn't in it. There were just too many unknown fac-tors. It was like cramming for a test without
knowing the subject. And believe me, I'd done that  enough times.
 The cab sped west. Every gust of wind through Death Valley sounded like a spirit of the dead. Every
time the brakes hissed on an eighteen-wheeler, it reminded me of Echidna's reptilian voice.
 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, Annabeth, and I walked down to the edge of the surf.
 "What now?" Annabeth 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 Montauk, on the opposite side of the country, looking out at a different sea.
 How could there be a god who could control all that? What did my science teacher used to
say—two-thirds of the earth's surface was covered in water? How could I be the son of someone that
powerful?
 I stepped into the surf
 "Percy?" Annabeth said. "What are you doing?"
 I kept walking, up to my waist, then my chest.
 She called after me, "You know how polluted that water is? There're all kinds of toxic—"
 That's when my head went under.
 I held my breath at first. It's difficult to intentionally inhale water. Finally I couldn't stand it anymore. I
gasped. Sure enough, I could breathe normally.
 I walked down into the shoals. I shouldn't have been able to see through the murk, but somehow I could
tell where everything was. I could sense the rolling texture of the bottom. I could make out sand-dollar
colonies dotting the sandbars. I could even see the currents, warm and cold streams swirling together.
 I felt something rub against my leg. I looked down and almost shot out of the water like a ballistic
missile. Sliding along beside me was a five-foot-long mako shark.
 But the thing wasn't attacking. It was nuzzling me. Heeling like a dog. Tentatively, I touched its dorsal fin.
It bucked a little, as if inviting me to hold tighter. I grabbed the fin with both hands. It took off, pulling me
along. The shark carried me down into the darkness. It deposited me at the edge of the ocean proper,
where the sand bank dropped off into a huge chasm. It was like standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon
at midnight, not being able to see much, but knowing the void was right there.
 The surface shimmered maybe a hundred and fifty feet above. I knew I should've been crushed by the
pressure. Then again, I shouldn't have been able to breathe. I won-dered if there was a limit to how deep
I could go, if I could sink straight to the bottom of the Pacific.
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 Then I saw something glimmering in the darkness below, growing bigger and brighter as it rose toward
me. A woman's voice, like my mother's, called: "Percy Jackson."
 As she got closer, her shape became clearer. She had flowing black hair, a dress made of green silk.
Light flick-ered around her, and her eyes were so distractingly beautiful I hardly noticed the stallion-sized
sea horse she was riding.
 She dismounted. The sea horse and the mako shark whisked off and started playing something that
looked like tag. The underwater lady smiled at me. "You've come far, Percy Jackson. Well done."
 I wasn't quite sure what to do, so I bowed. "You're the woman who spoke to me in the Mississippi
River."
 "Yes, child. I am a Nereid, a spirit of the sea. It was not easy to appear so far upriver, but the naiads,
my freshwater cousins, helped sustain my life force. They honor Lord Poseidon, though they do not serve
in his court."
 "And ... you serve in Poseidon's court?"
 She nodded. "It has been many years since a child of the Sea God has been born. We have watched
you with great interest."
 Suddenly I remembered faces in the waves off Montauk Beach when I was a little boy, reflections of
smiling women. Like so many of the weird things in my life, I'd never given it much thought before.
 "If my father is so interested in me," I said, "why isn't he here? Why doesn't he speak to me?"
 A cold current rose out of the depths.
 "Do not judge the Lord of the Sea too harshly," the Nereid told me. "He stands at the brink of an
unwanted war. He has much to occupy his time. Besides, he is forbid-den to help you directly. The gods
may not show such favoritism."
 "Even to their own children?"
 "Especially to them. The gods can work by indirect influence only. That is why I give you a warning, and
a gift."
 She held out her hand. Three white pearls flashed in her palm.
 "I know you journey to Hades's realm," she said. "Few mortals have ever done this and survived:
Orpheus, who had great music skill; Hercules, who had great strength; Houdini, who could escape even
the depths of Tartarus. Do you have these talents?"
 "Urn ... no, ma'am."
 "Ah, but you have something else, Percy. You have gifts you have only begun to know. The oracles have
foretold a great and terrible future for you, should you survive to man-hood. Poseidon would not have
you die before your time. Therefore take these, and when you are in need, smash a pearl at your feet."
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 "What will happen?"
 "That," she said, "depends on the need. But remember: what belongs to the sea will always return to the
sea."
 "What about the warning?"
 Her eyes flickered with green light. "Go with what your heart tells you, or you will lose all. Hades feeds
on doubt and hopelessness. He will trick you if he can, make you mis-trust your own judgment. Once
you are in his realm, he will never willingly let you leave. Keep faith. Good luck, Percy Jackson."
 She summoned her sea horse and rode toward the void.
 "Wait!" I called. "At the river, you said not to trust the gifts. What gifts?"
 "Good-bye, young hero," she called back, her voice fad-ing into the depths. "You must listen to your
heart." She became a speck of glowing green, and then she was gone.
 I wanted to follow her down into the darkness. I wanted to see the court of Poseidon. But I looked up
at the sunset darkening on the surface. My friends were waiting. We had so little time....
 I kicked upward toward the shore.
 When I reached the beach, my clothes dried instantly. I told Grover and Annabeth what had happened,
and showed them the pearls.
 Annabeth grimaced. "No gift comes without a price."
 "They were free."
 "No." She shook her 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 I'd 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 me. "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.
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 I froze in front of an appliance-store window because a television was playing an interview with
somebody who looked very familiar—my stepdad, Smelly Gabe. He was talking to Barbara Walters—I
mean, as if he were some kind of huge celebrity. She was interviewing him in our apartment, in the middle
of a poker game, and there was a young blond 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 counselor, 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 seri-ous 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, Annabeth, 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 me. He hauled me away before I 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 New Yorker. I don't scare easy. But L.A. had a totally different feel from New York. Back
home, everything seemed close. It didn't matter how big the city was, you could get anywhere without
getting lost. The street pattern and the subway made sense. There was a system to how things worked. A
kid could be safe as long as he wasn't stupid.
 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, I stopped.
 Before I knew it, we were surrounded. A gang of kids had circled us. Six of them in all—white kids with
expen-sive clothes and mean faces. Like the kids at Yancy Academy: rich brats playing at being bad
boys.
 Instinctively, I 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 me with a switchblade.
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 I made the mistake of swinging.
 The kid yelped. But he must've been one hundred per-cent 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!" I screamed at Annabeth
and Grover.
 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!" Annabeth shouted.
 Only one store on the block looked open, its windows glaring with neon. The sign above the door said
something like CRSTUY'S WATRE BDE ALPACE.
 "Crusty's Water Bed Palace?" Grover translated.
 It didn't sound like a place I'd ever go except in an emer-gency, but this definitely qualified.
 We burst through the doors, ran behind a water bed, 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 seven feet tall,
with absolutely no hair. He had gray, leathery skin, thick-lidded eyes, and a cold, reptilian smile. He
moved toward 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.
 I resisted the urge to say, Yes, you are.
 "Sorry to barge in," I told him. "We were just, um, browsing."
 "You mean hiding from those no-good kids," he grum-bled. "They hang around every night. I get a lot of
people in here, thanks to them. Say, you want to look at a water bed?"
 I was about to sayNo, thanks, when he put a huge paw on my shoulder and steered me deeper into the
showroom.
 There was every kind of water bed you could imagine: different kinds of wood, different patterns of
sheets; queen-size, king-size, emperor-of-the-universe-size.
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 "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
Jell-O.
 "Million-hand massage," Crusty told us. "Go on, try it out. Shoot, take a nap. I don't care. No business
today, any-way.
 "Um," I said, "I don't think ..."
 "Million-hand massage!" Grover cried, and dove in. "Oh, you guys! This is cool."
 "Hmm," Crusty said, stroking his leathery chin. "Almost, almost."
 "Almost what?" I asked.
 He looked at Annabeth. "Do me a favor and try this one over here, honey. Might fit."
 Annabeth said, "But what—"
 He patted her reassuringly on the shoulder and led her over to the Safari Deluxe model with teakwood
lions carved into the frame and a leopard-patterned comforter. When Annabeth didn't want to lie down,
Crusty pushed her.
 "Hey!" she protested.
 Crusty snapped his fingers. "Ergo!"
 Ropes sprang from the sides of the bed, lashing around Annabeth, holding her to the mattress.
 Grover tried to get up, but ropes sprang from his black-satin bed, too, and lashed him down.
 "N-not c-c-cool!" he yelled, his voice vibrating from the million-hand massage. "N-not c-cool a-at all!"
 The giant looked at Annabeth, then turned toward me and grinned. "Almost, darn it."
 I tried to step away, but his hand shot out and clamped around the back of my 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."
 Annabeth and Grover kept struggling.
 "Can't stand imperfect measurements," Crusty mut-tered. "Ergo!"
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 A new set of ropes leaped out from the top and bottom of the beds, wrapping around Grover and
Annabeth's ankles, then around their armpits. The ropes started tight-ening, pulling my friends from both
ends.
 "Don't worry," Crusty told me, "These are stretching jobs. Maybe three extra inches on their spines.
They might even live. Now why don't we find a bed you like, huh?"
 "Percy!" Grover yelled.
 My mind was racing. I knew I couldn't take on this giant water-bed salesman alone. He would snap my
neck before I ever got my sword out.
 "Your real name's not Crusty, is it?" I asked.
 "Legally, it's Procrustes," he admitted.
 "The Stretcher," I said. I remembered the story: the giant who'd tried to kill Theseus with excess
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," I said. "And the workmanship on these beds? Fabulous!"
 He grinned hugely, but his fingers didn't loosen on my 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."
 "That's right!"
 "Percy!" Annabeth yelled. "What are you doing?"
 "Don't mind her," I told Procrustes. "She's impossible."
 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 my neck, but before I could react, he reached behind a nearby sales desk and brought out a
huge double-bladed brass axe. He said, "I just center the sub-ject as best I can and lop off whatever
hangs over on either end."
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 "Ah," I said, swallowing hard. "Sensible."
 "I'm so glad to come across an intelligent customer!"
 The ropes were really stretching my friends now. Annabeth was turning pale. Grover made gurgling
sounds, like a strangled goose.
 "So, Crusty ..." I said, trying to keep my voice light. I 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?"
 "Guaranteed."
 "No way."
 "Way."
 "Show me."
 He sat down eagerly on the bed, patted the mattress. "No waves. See?"
 I snapped my fingers. "Ergo."
 Ropes lashed around Crusty and flattened him against the mattress.
 "Hey!" he yelled.
 "Center him just right," I said.
 The ropes readjusted themselves at my command. Crusty's whole head stuck out the top. His feet stuck
out the bottom.
 "No!" he said. "Wait! This is just a demo."
 I uncapped Riptide. "A few simple adjustments ..."
 I had no qualms about what I was about to do. If Crusty were human, I couldn't hurt him anyway. If he
was a monster, he deserved to turn into dust for a while.
 "You drive a hard bargain," he told me. "I'll give you thirty percent off on selected floor models.'"
 "I think I'll start with the top." I raised my sword.
 "No money down! No interest for six months!"
 I swung the sword. Crusty stopped making offers.
 I cut the ropes on the other beds. Annabeth and Grover got to their feet, groaning and wincing and
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cursing me a lot.
 "You look taller," I said.
 "Very funny," Annabeth said. "Be faster next time."
 I looked at the bulletin board behind Crusty's sales desk. There was an advertisement for Hermes
Delivery Service, and another for the All-New Compendium of L.A. Area Monsters—"The only
Monstrous Yellow Pages you'll ever need!" Under that, a bright orange flier for DOA Recording Studios,
offering commissions for heroes' souls. "We are always looking for new talent!" DOA's address was right
underneath with a map.
 "Come on," I told my friends.
 "Give us a minute," Grover complained. "We were almost stretched to death.'"
 "Then you're ready for the Underworld," I said. "It's only a block from here."

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