The Lightning Thief – Chapter 17: WE SHOP FOR WATER BEDS

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It was Annabeths 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. “Thats 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 drivers 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 shouldnt have told him that. The cabs 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 sketchier the more I tried to remember them. The Lotus Casino seemed to have short-circuited my memory. I couldnt recall what the invisible servants 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 Hadess,” Grover said. “Thats the way its usually described. “

  I shook my head. “Somethings wrong. The throne room wasnt the main part of the dream. And that voice from the pit . . . I dont know. It just didnt feel like a gods voice. “

  Annabeths eyes widened. 

  “What?” I 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—”

  “Like what?”

  “I—I dont know,” she said. “But if he stole Zeuss 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. Thats 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 wasnt sure what was wrong with her. She looked pale. 

  “But if Id 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 for two items,” I said. “If the master bolt is one, whats 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, dont you?” I asked her. “I mean, if it isnt Hades?”

  “Percy . . . lets not talk about it. Because if it isnt 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 couldnt 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 wasnt 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 wouldnt have time to correct ourselves. The solstice deadline would pass and war would begin. 

  “The answer is in the Underworld,” Annabeth assured me. “You saw spirits of the dead, Percy. Theres only one place that could be. Were doing the right thing. “

  She tried to boost our morale by suggesting clever strategies for getting into the Land of the Dead, but my heart wasnt in it. There were just too many unknown factors. It was like cramming for a test without knowing the subject. And believe me, Id 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 Echidnas 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 Id 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 earths 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? Therere all kinds of toxic—”

  Thats when my head went under. 

  I held my breath at first. Its difficult to intentionally inhale water. Finally I couldnt stand it anymore. I gasped. Sure enough, I could breathe normally. 

  I walked down into the shoals. I shouldnt 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 wasnt 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 shouldve been crushed by the pressure. Then again, I shouldnt have been able to breathe. I wondered if there was a limit to how deep I could go, if I could sink straight to the bottom of the Pacific. 

  Then I saw something glimmering in the darkness below, growing bigger and brighter as it rose toward me. A womans voice, like my mothers, called: “Percy Jackson. “

  As she got closer, her shape became clearer. She had flowing black hair, a dress made of green silk. Light flickered 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. “Youve come far, Percy Jackson. Well done. “

  I wasnt quite sure what to do, so I bowed. “Youre 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 Poseidons 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 MontaukBeach when I was a little boy, reflections of smiling women. Like so many of the weird things in my life, Id never given it much thought before. 

  “If my father is so interested in me,” I said, “why isnt he here? Why doesnt 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 forbidden 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 Hadess 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, maam. “

  “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 manhood. Poseidon would not have you die before your time. Therefore take these, and when you are in need, smash a pearl at your feet. “

  “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 mistrust 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 fading 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. Thats 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 Aress backpack, we took the bus into West Hollywood. I showed the driver the Underworld address slip Id taken from Aunty Ems Garden Gnome Emporium, but hed never heard of DOA Recording Studios. 

 or something?”

  “Uh . . . Im 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 didnt appear in the phone book. 

  Twice, we ducked into alleys to avoid cop cars. 

  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 wasnt for Sugar here, my grief counselor, Id be a wreck. My stepson took everything I cared about. My wife . . . my Camaro . . . I—Im 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, 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. “

  “Cmon,” 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, dont get me wrong. Im a New Yorker. I dont scare easy. But L. A. had a totally different feel from New York. Back home, everything seemed close. It didnt 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 wasnt stupid. 

  L. A. wasnt like that. It was spread out, chaotic, hard to move around. It reminded me of Ares. It wasnt 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 didnt 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 expensive clothes and mean faces. Like the kids at YancyAcademy: 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. 

  I made the mistake of swinging. 

  The kid yelped. But he mustve 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!” 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 CRSTUYS WATRE BDE ALPACE. 

  “Crustys WaterBedPalace?” Grover translated. 

  It didnt sound like a place Id ever go except in an emergency, 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 mightve 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 couldnt even count them. 

  “Im 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 grumbled. “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 say No, 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. 

  “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 dont care. No business today, any-way. 

  “Um,” I said, “I dont 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 didnt 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. Dont worry. Well 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. 

  “Cant 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 Annabeths ankles, then around their armpits. The ropes started tightening, pulling my friends from both ends. 

  “Dont worry,” Crusty told me, “These are stretching jobs. Maybe three extra inches on their spines. They might even live. Now why dont we find a bed you like, huh?”

  “Percy!” Grover yelled. 

  My mind was racing. I knew I couldnt take on this giant water-bed salesman alone. He would snap my neck before I ever got my sword out. 

  “Your real names not Crusty, is it?” I asked. 

  “Legally, its Procrustes,” he admitted. 

  “The Stretcher,” I said. I remembered the story: the giant whod 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. “

  “Youre right. Its 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 didnt 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. “

  “Thats right!”

  “Percy!” Annabeth yelled. “What are you doing?”

  “Dont mind her,” I told Procrustes. “Shes 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 theyre longer than six feet?”

  “Oh, that happens all the time. Its 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 subject as best I can and lop off whatever hangs over on either end. “

  “Ah,” I said, swallowing hard. “Sensible. “

  “Im 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. Crustys 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 couldnt 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. “Ill give you thirty percent off on selected floor models. “

  “I think Ill 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 cursing me a lot. 

  “You look taller,” I said. 

  “Very funny,” Annabeth said. “Be faster next time. ”

  I looked at the bulletin board behind Crustys 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 youll ever need!” Under that, a bright orange flier for DOA Recording Studios, offering commissions for heroes souls. “We are always looking for new talent!” DOAs 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 youre ready for the Underworld,” I said. “Its only a block from here. ”

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