Dinner at deviants palac.., p.13
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       Dinner at Deviant's Palace, p.13

           Tim Powers
 
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  He was sure to get some good lyrics out of all this.

  Then with an unwelcome clarity that memory can rarely manage, he re-heard how Barrows had described him four nights ago: “…Just a kind of shrewd, cunning insect.” And though he’d laughed then, all at once he was astonished at how thoroughly Barrows had understood him. My God, Rivas thought now, you’re going to get some lyrics out of this, are you? Sister Windchime may be birdy, but she’s twice the human being you are, boy.

  Well, he replied to himself defensively, I’m a professional songwriter—what am I supposed to do, pretend I don’t derive my songs from the things that happen to me?

  No, clown, what you’re supposed to do now is the same thing you were supposed to do yesterday. Go get Uri.

  But they took her into the Holy City.

  So?

  So no one has ever come out of the Holy City except a few jaybushes and shepherds. Even Norton Jaybush himself hasn’t been seen since entering there ten years ago. Everyone knows that a redemption attempt ends when the quarry goes in there. And no, I don’t think such an unheard-of effort is called for by the unheard-of price I screwed Barrows into paying. (Though how on earth could I have bargained for Uri’s soul?)

  Now memory replayed a statement of his own, one he’d made to Barrows that same night: “Evidently she’s worth five to you, but not ten.” So what do you tell yourself, boy? he thought. Evidently she’s worth a cut thumb and a few scares, but not worth putting your life on the table on a long-shot chance?

  Against this question he involuntarily held up a sheaf of treasured images: his apartment on First by the North Gate, with rain and night outside and himself inside with warm lamplight and a pipe and a drink and a book; long summer afternoons with the feet up on a sunny balcony rail, and a friend or two, and a cool beer standing right where his hand could reach it; the pleasant certainty of new pretty girls to charm and impress and possibly take to his bed, and the equally pleasant certainty of being comfortably alone in that bed later….

  And at length he realized, bleakly, that all this did not balance the scale. Not when Uri’s life was what was being weighed. He had to go to Irvine and get into the Holy City and get Uri out.

  God damn her, he thought fervently, for getting us into this.

  BOOK TWO: Leaving by The Dogtown Gate

  “…And when he glimpsed a patch of sky above,

  Fearing the sight would startle her, he turned—

  But saw, behind him, no one…”

  —Ovid, Metamorphoses,

  Book X, lines 55–7

  the W. Ashbless translation

  Chapter Six

  FRACAS MCAN SCOWLED FIERCELY at a harmless couple of Jaybird girls who were ambling down the other side of the street, and was edgily gratified to see them register alarm and duck into one of the ubiquitous prayer parlors, for the response indicated that his shepherd disguise was convincing—at least to the rank and file. And he only had a couple of blocks still to go before he got to the imminent-departure yard, and it looked like he wouldn’t have any trouble getting there while the morning dew was still wet on the wagon he was after, and before today’s fresh batch of wagons began to be wheeled in. Just so he didn’t run into a genuine shepherd! He supposed they probably had some system of passwords or winks or some damn thing that would instantly expose him as a phony. What a damnable advantage Rivas had in actually having been a Jaybird for a few years!

  McAn was scared. In all his previous redemptions he’d been careful not to go anywhere near Irvine, and now here he was only a long stone’s throw from the high, inward-slanting white walls of the Holy City itself.

  He touched the knife strapped to the inside of his left wrist, but it didn’t give him quite the confidence it usually did. He’d been feeling less than confident ever since the parents of this quarry had reluctantly explained to him that the first redeemer they’d hired to retrieve their son had limped back to Ellay with a bullet in his leg and a story of having been shot at by Jaybird shepherds armed with real working guns and live ammunition.

  McAn had asked for five hundred fifths with half payable upon agreement, the most he’d ever asked for a job, and he had explained that he would search only in the areas north of the Seal Beach Desolate. They had objected to that at first, as his clients always did, but he gave them his standard explanation: that the residual radiation—an impressive phrase—was simply so great in those distant regions that no sane person would spend the kind of time there that even the easiest redemption would require, and that even if a Jaybird could be found and snatched at that point, he or she, and probably the redeemer too, would die like a Venetian fish-eater long before they got back to Ellay.

  McAn had always known that the story wasn’t entirely true, but until the day before yesterday he’d never worried about how much of an exaggeration it might be.

  He’d been following a caravan of several loosely connected Jaybird bands who’d been moving south from the Flirtin hills; he wandered along with them, imitating a birdy imbecile whenever anyone tried to speak to him, and he waited for them to stop somewhere and stage one of their big communion spirals so that he could see if anyone present particularly fitted the description of his quarry.

  Finally, just as he’d been about to give up on them and retreat back north, they did all stop for a communion, in a parking lot at the Anahime Convenshin Centr. It had been about noon of the day before yesterday.

  The shepherds had climbed to the tops of the old light poles and the weird two-tone roar had started up as the old man in white showed up and walked into the spiral, going around and around as he got closer to the center. McAn had watched the whole spectacle while sitting comfortably on the roof of a truck, remembering to wince occasionally and glance with chagrin at his hand, which he’d wrapped in the realistically red-spotted rag he always took with him now on redemptions. People in severe pain, he’d learned, were disqualified from taking the sacrament.

  During the parking lot ceremony he spotted two possibles, and when the sacrament hammered them down he noted which of the sprawled shapes they were, so that after they recovered he’d be able to approach each of them and spring one of the questions the quarry’s parents had primed him with.

  Though his luck, as he now knew, had been about to run out, it had not quite, abandoned him yet. The second of the boys, still somnambulistic from the communion, had not only shown clear recognition of the family dog referred to in the question—“Lucy’s chewing all her fur off and she’s covered with sores, what can we do besides have her killed?”—he’d even given the correct answer: “Put garlic in her food, like we did last summer.”

  McAn had been eyeing the nearby fences and walls and doorways, looking for a hidden spot where he could knock the kid out and then carry him away unseen, when the shrill metallic whistling began. Because he’d been peering around he was among the first to see the several dozen Y-shaped bicycles racing across the pavement toward the Jaybird crowd, and he grabbed his quarry’s arm and pulled him along in the opposite direction through the confused crowd. An irregular pop-pop began punctuating the screams behind the fleeing pair, but it wasn’t until McAn and his quarry had broken away from the crowd and begun running south along a sheltered sidewalk that he realized the noise must have been gunfire.

  The Jaybirds had been at two disadvantages when the attack occurred: most of their number were unconscious or disoriented, and, secure in the knowledge that hooters never dared to attack Jaybird bands, the shepherds had set up the communion in an open, paved spot.

  McAn couldn’t get the boy to run for more than a minute at a time, and the fleetest Jaybird fugitives quickly caught up with and passed them, and soon McAn and his quarry were just two bobbing heads in a packed crowd that was being herded south by grim-faced shepherds on horseback. The shepherds held drawn pistols, and kept standing up in the stirrups to look back, and they took every opportunity to drive their herd up steep hillsides and through narrow gaps in the
eternal aluminum chain-link fences—clearly they expected the starving hooters to try again. McAn assumed that the wagons, and all the still unconscious communicants, were being taken south too by some other route, but he couldn’t see anything—his horizon was the close heads of the Jaybirds who jogged uncomplainingly along all around him. All he could do was trot along with them and maintain his grip on his quarry’s arm.

  They passed the wide street which was Chapman Av. They were in the Seal Beach Desolate now, and showed no sign of slowing down.

  McAn still wasn’t too worried. Obviously there would be some opportunity between here and Irvine for him to grab the boy and slip away.

  McAn paused now when he came to the alley that he’d reconnoitered last night. He knew it looped around to the square where the wagons stood, and he swept a disapproving glance over the street before he stepped out of the patchy, unwarm sunlight and into the shadows of the alley.

  But of course, he thought, no such opportunity came, and here we are in actual goddamn Irvine. I’ve stumbled onto a couple of small pieces of luck—having been healthy-looking enough to be assigned to the detail that loaded wagons with the people, including my quarry, who passed out during the two-day forced march; and being able to salvage this robe from a shepherd killed yesterday, in the confusion of the hooters’ second attack—but now it’s time to make some luck. My disguise is good; they never iron these robes, so you can’t tell that this one spent twelve hours crumpled in my pack, and with the hood up you can’t see the cropped patches on my head where I cut off hair to make this fake beard with.

  Think about that second two hundred and fifty fifths! And the unparalleled stories you’ll be able to tell once you get yourself and the kid out of this loony, bottom-of-the-world town.

  I think the thing about this place that most puts my teeth on edge, he thought as he silently picked his way along the trash-littered alley, is that there’s nobody in the whole damn ramshackle settlement who’s not birdy as a bedbug. The real shepherds have to hop just to keep slugging all the guys who click over to the speaking-in-tongues channel, and piling them onto the wagons heading into the Holy City. I suppose I ought to punch somebody, just to seem in character. I wonder if there’s a back gate to the city somewhere, where they bring the empty wagons out. There must be otherwise you’d be able to see the piles of old wagons over the top of the wall. Heh heh. Unless they—

  He froze, for a ragged figure was crouched tensely at the courtyard end of the alley, apparently staring at the wagon McAn had to get to. Well, McAn thought, his heartbeat beginning to accelerate as he flexed his right hand and stole silently forward, here’s where I start behaving in character.

  But with an alertness uncharacteristic of Jaybirds the figure spun to face him when he was still several yards away, and with no hesitation the man drew a knife from his sleeve and lunged at McAn. McAn managed to knock the knife arm aside, but the man collided hard with him and they both tumbled to the filthy pavement. McAn’s false beard was hanging from one ear and was badly unraveled, but he’d sat up and got his own knife out now, and had begun a feint to draw a wide, flank-exposing parry from his opponent—

  “Frake!” his opponent gasped, and McAn hesitated.

  He peered at the gaunt, red-eyed face. “Who are you?” McAn asked in a clipped whisper, not lowering his knife.

  “Rivas.”

  “Tell me who you are, or—” McAn looked more closely. “Really?”

  Rivas nodded, leaning back against the alley wall and obviously trying to pant quietly.

  “What on earth’s happened to you, Rivas? And I thought you’d retired.”

  “I did.” He took several deep breaths. “This is… special circumstances.”

  McAn got painfully to his feet. “You’re awful hasty with a knife. You I was only going to hit.”

  Rivas had got his breath back, and stood up too. “That’s why you were always the second-best redeemer.”

  McAn smiled coldly as he carefully re-hooked the beard across his lean young face. “Yeah. I sure do envy what being number one has done for you.”

  To McAn’s surprise, Rivas actually reddened. What’s this, Greg, he thought—did you shed the cynical armor too when you shaved off that silly, affected, half beard?

  “You’re on a job, I gather,” said Rivas quietly. “Someone in that wagon?”

  “Right. The skinny kid just inboard of the right rear wheel. I put him there late yesterday. Which one’s yours?”

  “Mine’s already in the city. How’s this—you make some kind of commotion out in the street to get the attention of anybody who may be hanging around here and I’ll drag your boy over to this alley for you, and then I’ll take his place in the wagon.”

  McAn stared at him with genuine horrified awe. “You’re going in there to get yours?”

  Rivas nodded hopelessly.

  And I thought I was walking the farthest, most insanely dangerous edge just by having come this far, thought McAn. Impulsively he tossed his knife to his left hand and held out his right. “Rivas, I’ve always figured you for a posturing, slimy son-of-a-bitch, but by God, I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that you’re the best damn redeemer there ever was.”

  Rivas gave him a fragile smile and took the extended hand. “Thank you, Frake.” He sheathed his knife. “Let’s get moving before they bring the conscious members of this band over here.”

  Rivas didn’t know how McAn did it, but no more than half a minute after the young man had loped back up the alley there came a splintering crash from the street, followed by a lot of screaming; he even heard one voice, evidently that of a far-gone startled right over into the last stage, begin babbling about how tasty it was when everybody helped to boil down the heavy water.

  Thanks, Frake, thought Rivas. He sprinted to the wagon, rolled the luckily emaciated boy over the rail, crouched to get him draped across his shoulders, then straightened up and, gritting his teeth against the possibility of losing consciousness himself, plodded to the alley. At the last possible instant he changed his mind and instead of simply heaving the kid like a sack of gravel, squatted down and rolled him almost gently onto the pavement.

  The unconscious young man was wearing clothes very similar to his own, so Rivas just hurried back to the wagon, climbed in and lay down in the same position the boy had been in, with his face well concealed under someone’s limp shoulder, and then let his breathing and heartbeat slow down. After a while he heard a muted scuffling from the direction of the alley, and thought he heard a whispered, “Thanks, Greg. Good luck.”

  The morning began gradually to warm up, and Rivas heard the rumble of other wagons arriving in the enclosed yard. From time to time he heard desultory conversation, though he didn’t catch any words. He actually fell asleep for a while, but came instantly awake when closely approaching boots and hooves clocked on the pavement and the wagon shifted as someone—and then a second person—climbed onto the driver’s bench. “These all still out?” someone asked. Rivas heard the jingling of harnesses.

  “Yeah, looks like. Buckled up there? Okay, let’s go, the rest of you walk alongside.

  The wagon jerked, then the axles began creaking and it was moving. Rivas could hear the footsteps of the conscious members of the band walking beside the vehicle; to judge by the snifflings and hitches in breathing, at least one of them was quietly weeping.

  He felt the grating shifts of a couple of slow turns, and then all too soon the rattle of the wheel rims became a soft hissing and he realized they’d left the pavement and were crossing the hundred yards of pale sand that ringed the Holy City like a gritty moat, presumably merging with the real beach sand on the seaward side. It occurred to him that it would be very easy to break out in a high, keening wail that could be maintained indefinitely by doing it while inhaling too… and as soon as he thought of it, it became difficult not to do it.

  One of the plodders alongside must have felt something similar, for the hot noon air was abruptly shake
n with glossolalic jabbering.

  Rivas wasn’t particularly surprised when no one silenced this babbler—he’d already come to the conclusion that the shepherds did that to keep them from revealing something… but who cared what might be learned by people who were in the very process of entering the Holy City?

  “Annoyances!” croaked this far-gone now. “What do I care? Deal with it yourselves, you idiots, I’m not to be interrupted in my cooking…. Sevatividam can’t be bothered with these provincial problems… far places, long ago times, I take a longer view…. What if it was your dreaded Gregorio Rivas? He can’t impede me….”

  Rivas had stiffened with panic, assuming that they knew who he was and were only conducting this performance to let him know, albeit a bit elaborately, that he was caught; he assumed the wagon would now stop, the bodies slumped around him would leap up, and he’d find himself surrounded by triumphant shepherds with drawn-back slingshots. But the wagon kept rolling and the plodders kept plodding and the speaker in tongues babbled on: “This stinking boat, you’re trying to kill me, careful, ow…”

  Rivas began, one muscle at a time, to relax. Could it simply have been a coincidence? Who the hell was it that was talking, anyway? Obviously not the individual Jaybirds. Was it Norton Jaybush himself? How? And why in English now, when a few years ago it was all just gargling? Though the word—or name—Sevatividam showed up in both versions….

  “…Leave me alone, I’m about to give the sacrament in Whittier,” the helplessly babbling man went on. “Oh, look at them all, turn around, you damned old carcass, I want to see them all…. Sevatividam’s blessings on you, my dears… give me your push, children, your at-a-distance strength… you never use it yourselves, you don’t need it… I wish I could just take that from you, not use you all up so fast… but it seems to be linked to your minds, so maybe you do need it… hard luck…. Oh, some first timers, how tasty….At this point the stuff became more the way Rivas remembered it from his own days as a Jaybird, just grunts and burping and conversational-tone yodeling.

 
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