Dinner at deviants palac.., p.2
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       Dinner at Deviant's Palace, p.2

           Tim Powers
 

  “We’re going to gun,” Rivas said firmly.

  After a few moments, “Are you gonna do ‘Drinking Alone’?” Fandango persisted. “It’s the hardest.”

  “Christ, Tommy,” said Rivas impatiently, “this is your job. Yes, I’m going to do that song. If you don’t want to learn the whole trade, you may as well grow a beard and beg out on the street.”

  “Well, sure, Greg, except—”

  “Think I moved back here from Venice working like that?”

  “No, Greg.”

  “Damn right. Maybe we’d better go through it now, before the show, to give you some practice.”

  Before Fandango could reply, a chair rutched back in the corner and the man at the windowside table stood up and spoke. “Mr. Rivas, I’d like to have a word with you before you start.”

  Rivas cocked a wary eyebrow at the man. What’s this, he wondered, a challenge over some despoiled daughter or wife? Or just a bid for a private party performance? The man was dressed respectably, at least, in a conservative off white flax shirt and trousers and a dark leather Sam Brown belt—in contrast to Rivas’s own flamboyant red plastic vest and wide-brimmed hat. “Sure,” said Rivas after a pause. “Shoot.”

  “It’s a personal matter. Could we discuss it at the table here, perhaps over a drink?”

  “…Okay.”

  Mojo bumbled up to the stage with the refilled beer glass just as the pelicanist hopped down. “Thanks,” said Rivas, taking it from him. “And a glass of whatever for the citizen yonder.”

  Mojo turned toward the stranger, who said, “A shot of that Currency Barrows, please.”

  Rivas walked over to the man’s table, holding the beer in his right hand so that his knife hand was free, and when he got there he hooked back a chair for himself with his foot.

  Mojo arrived with the glass of brandy a moment later, set it down in front of the stranger, then stepped back and cleared his throat.

  “On my tab, Mojo,” said Rivas without taking his eyes off the stranger—who, he noticed, had no hair on his head at all, not even eyebrows or lashes.

  “No, I insist,” the man said, “and Mr. Rivas’s beer, too. How much?”

  “Uh… one ha’pint.”

  The stranger took a bugshell moneycase from his belt pouch, snapped it open and handed Mojo a one-fifth card. Mojo took it and lurched away.

  “Never mind the change,” the man called after him.

  Mojo slowed to a more comfortable pace. “Thank you, man,” he called back in a voice from which he was unable to keep a note of pleased surprise.

  “Well?” said Rivas.

  The man gave Rivas a distinctly frosty smile. “My name is Joe Montecruz. I’d like to hire your services.”

  Though still a little puzzled, Rivas relaxed and sat back. “Well, sure. You want a backup band too, or just me? It’s twenty fifths a night for me, and for this band it’s seven fifths ha’pint extra. If I put together a better group it’d be more, of course. Now I’m booked solid until—”

  Montecruz raised a hand. “No no. You misunderstand. It’s not in your musical capacity that I wish to hire you.”

  “Oh.” I should have guessed, he told himself. “What, then?” he asked dutifully, just to be certain he was right.

  “I want you to perform a redemption.”

  He’d been right. “Sorry. I’m retired.”

  Montecruz’s not quite friendly smile didn’t falter. “I think I can make an offer that will bring you out of retirement.”

  Rivas shook his head. “Look, I wasn’t being coy. I’ve quit. I make plenty now with the music—and anyway, I’m thirty-one years old. I don’t have that kind of reflexes and stamina anymore.” Or luck, either, he thought sourly. “And it’s been three years since my last one—the country will have changed. It always does.”

  Montecruz leaned forward. “Rivas,” he said quietly, “I’m talking five thousand Ellay fifths.”

  Rivas raised his eyebrows in genuine respect. “That’s handsome,” he admitted. “There can’t be fifty people in Ellay that can even hope to borrow that much.” He took a long sip of beer. “But I’m retired. I just don’t want to risk my life and sanity for strangers anymore. There’s other redeemers around, though. Hell, five thousand would buy Frake McAn ten times over.”

  “Is McAn as good as you?”

  “Infinitely better, since I don’t do it at all now. Thanks for the beer—and now I really should try to show that damn fool drummer what I want.” He got to his feet.

  “Wait a minute,” Montecruz said quickly, holding up a pudgy hand and beginning to look a little less confident. “You’re the only guy that ever performed eight redemptions—”

  “Six. Two got to the Holy City before I could catch them.”

  “Okay, six. You’ve still got the record. The girl’s father wants the best, and listen, this won’t be as difficult as the others. All you’ve got to do is locate her, her family will do the kidnap and breaking—”

  “Her family can do the whole thing,” said Rivas, straightening up. “I’m not kidding about being out of that game. Hire me as a pelicanist or songwriter anytime—they’re my only occupations nowadays.”

  He turned and started back toward the stage, but Montecruz, agile for a fat man, scrambled around the table and caught Rivas’s elbow when he’d taken only four paces.

  “We’ll go ten thousand!” the man hissed.

  Exasperated, Rivas turned back to face him. “I told you my answer.”

  For a couple of seconds Montecruz’s face was expressionless, and looked oddly childlike; then, “To sing?” he demanded, his voice shrill with incredulous scorn. “You’d stop saving lives—souls!—to sit in a bar and sing? Oh, but you only did it while you needed the money, isn’t that right? And now that you can fiddle for it, everybody else can… can be gutted and skinned, and it won’t disturb your self-satisfaction even as much as a wrinkle in your precious costume would, huh? It must be nice to be the only person worthy of your concern.”

  A crooked, unmirthful grin had appeared on the pelicanist’s face during Montecruz’s speech, and when the man had finished, Rivas said, “Why don’t you go home and just deal with things you know something about, sport.”

  He’d spoken quietly, but Mojo and Fandango heard him and looked up in alarm.

  The insult, especially deadly in view of Montecruz’s hairlessness, hung in the air for several seconds and hardened jaw muscles made Montecruz’s suddenly pale face seem even wider.

  Rivas yanked his arm free and took two steps back, the skin over his cheekbones taut and his left hand near his knife sheath.

  Finally Montecruz, whose hand had darted for his own knife, took a deep breath, let it out, and then whispered, “I don’t take that, Rivas—I’ll just hold it for a while.” He turned and stalked out of the building.

  When the swinging doors had creakily flapped shut after him Rivas looked at the ceiling and exhaled a long, descending whistle. That, he told himself, was loss of control. Better slow down on the beer, old buddy—you’ve had enough already, at home and here, to keep you oiled for the rest of the evening.

  “God, Greg,” said Fandango in some awe as the pelicanist walked back to the stage, “you were mad, weren’t you? I just realized, I never seen you mad before—just, you know, grouchy about something not being done right. What’d he say to make you call him out that way? That stuff about singing, and your clothes? And whose life did he want you to—”

  “Oh, shut up, Tommy,” said Rivas wearily. Mojo had got the bright lamps lit at the front of the stage, so he put on a look of only mild annoyance as he climbed back up onto it. “He didn’t make me mad, all right? I’m tired of everybody thinking they’ve got a right to my time, that’s all. And I didn’t mean to call him out.” He picked up his instrument and the horsehair bow, and was embarrassed to notice that his hands were trembling; he lowered them quickly and shot a freezing look at the drummer, but Fandango was shaking his head and tapping
out a quick burst on one of his drums and clearly hadn’t noticed.

  “But you called him a sport,” the drummer said. “I mean, sure, you call me that when I screw up sometimes, but that guy was one—I could see from here he was a baldy.”

  “I’m going to think you’re a mental one if you still can’t grasp the tempo of this,” said Rivas. “From the beginning now, and make it rattle.” He tapped his foot three times while Fandango frowned attentively, then began playing.

  They had to stop a few minutes later when Mojo began turning the noisy, ratcheted wall cranks that hoisted the lit chandeliers up to the ceiling, and in spite of his earlier resolve Rivas put down his pelican and went to the bar for another refill. He came back and perched cross-legged on his stool and then just stared absently into the still dim corners of the ceiling, where long, dusty festoons of paper dolls were draped like huge cobwebs around three of the walls.

  Only a few customers had wandered in and sat down by the time Mojo finished his tour of the wall cranks, and Fandango glanced inquiringly toward Rivas, but the pelicanist seemed to have forgotten his dissatisfaction with the drummer’s playing. More people drifted in, and the chandeliers slowly stopped swinging as the ripple of conversation grew louder and the laughter and clinking of glasses more frequent; but Rivas remained oblivious, and when the pair of typically mute Chino twins who were the steel guitarist and chimes-banger arrived and climbed onto the stage, Rivas’s hand-jive greeting was as unconsciously automatic as the twitch of a horse’s flank when a fly lands on it.

  Finally Fandango had to nudge him and hiss, “Heads up, Greg!” when the owner appeared and began threading his way around the tables toward the stage.

  Steve Spink and Rivas were of about the same age and build—thirty or so and rangy but tending a little toward plumpness over the belt—but Spink with his ready smile and undisciplined tumble of blond hair fairly radiated boyish cheer, while Rivas’s dark hair and beard and deeply lined cheeks gave his face in repose an almost theatrical look of disdain.

  Spink leaned toward the stage as Rivas, looking only startled at the moment, hastily hopped off his stool and picked up his instrument and blinked around in some surprise at the filled room.

  “You okay, Rivas?” Spink asked pleasantly.

  “Uh, what?” Rivas stepped to the edge of the stage, inadvertently kicking over his forgotten beer glass. The glass broke, and beer spattered Spink’s expensive leather coat.

  “Damn it, I asked if you were all right. You don’t act like you are. Can you still perform?”

  Rivas scowled and straightened to his full height. “Of course I can perform! What do you mean still? My God, just because I kick over one cheap beer glass—”

  “Since when is glass cheap? There was an old guy in here at lunch talking to me. Said you were a Jaybird once. Any truth to that?”

  “Yes,” Rivas said haughtily. “I don’t make any secret of it. I’ve been a lot of things in my life.”

  “You talk about all the other things, though. Did you take the sacrament very often?”

  For the second time that evening Rivas felt real anger kindle in him. “Just what are you trying to say, Steve?”

  Spink let his habitual eye-narrowing smile relax into a frown. “I’m sorry, Greg. But you can understand my concern, can’t you? I can’t have any of the people I rely on going birdy.”

  “Start worrying about it when I can’t fill your damn place to overflowing for you anymore.”

  “You’re right, Greg. Sorry. I shouldn’t have listened to the old guy.” He turned to the audience, and Rivas glimpsed the smile flashing back on. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Spink said loudly, “tonight once again we’re privileged to have with us Gregorio Rivas, of Venice.”

  The applause came right on cue and was satisfactory in volume and duration, and Rivas grinned as arrogantly as ever as he bowed in acknowledgement—but under it he was uneasy. How would the applause sound, he wondered, if I didn’t have a few paid prompters in the crowd to lead it? And how much longer can the dangerous glamor of Venice plausibly cling to me? I’ve been out of Venice for five years, after all, and while it’s true that Steve’s standard intro still gets raised eyebrows and shocked whispers from strangers, old Mojo the other day was actually surprised when I mentioned having worked at the Bom Sheltr Bar in Venice—he said he thought that story was just flash for the tourists, like the fake hooter skulls on spikes on the roof.

  As the clapping and whistling was tapering off, Rivas turned to Fandango and the twins and impulsively hand-jived the signal for “Everybody Wants to Smoke My Comoy,” his trademark song, which he usually saved for reviving an apathetic audience. Fandango hammered out the staccato opening of the song and the crowd reacted with unmistakably genuine enthusiasm, and for the next few minutes Rivas forgot his doubts and let his singing and playing absorb him totally.

  During a lengthy alternation between the steel guitarist and the drummer—a sequence Rivas knew they had no trouble with—he took the opportunity to scan the audience—a little nervously, for he was afraid the Hammond girl might have shown up to make a scene. Spink might have liked it, as being evidence of what a genuine Venetian rake-hell the pelicanist was, but Rivas dreaded such encounters, inevitable though they seemed to be. He peered at each face that he could make out by the illumination of the chandeliers and the tabletop candles, and was relieved not to see her.

  And she’d be sure to sit where I would see her, he thought with a slightly drunken shiver. Damn her anyway. Why can’t a girl grasp the fact that a breakup can’t look tragic to the one initiating it? It can only seem tragic to the one being ditched; to the one doing the ditching it’s… fresh air, a load off the shoulders, a spring in the step and a whistle on the lips—the very opposite of tragic.

  And hell, he thought, it’s not as if I haven’t drawn that hand as well as dealt it; only once, granted, but I had naively invested so much that time—much more than this Hammond creature ever could have—that I carry the loss with me still, as helplessly as I carry my skeleton, and like the old-time stainless steel it doesn’t rust away with time into camouflage colors, but is always as bright as new, and mercilessly reflective.

  Rivas turned to the chimes-banger and hand-jived, Remind me later—stainless steel—rust—camouflage colors. The man nodded.

  Yes, thought Rivas with some satisfaction, a nice image. Ought to fit well into a song, with some dramatic way of having lost the girl… death, maybe… suicide even, sure…

  …Anything but the way I actually did lose Urania….

  He shied away from the memory of himself at the age of eighteen, crouched behind a bush, in the ruins of a rented suit that stank of brandy and vomit, and, to his everlasting horror, barking like a dog.

  Once or twice in the years since, during unusually objective moods, it had occurred to him that he might someday find the memory funny. It had certainly not happened yet.

  In any case he was glad the Hammond girl seemed willing to disappear painlessly. He’d found her interesting for a while, but she was no Urania. None of them ever were.

  It was nearly time for the pelican to re-enter, and he had just gripped the neck and poised the bow over the taut strings when he noticed at the bar a well-dressed old man who was watching him; and his belly went cold several seconds before he even consciously realized who it was, and he missed his cue.

  The steel guitarist looked up in mild surprise and without a falter smoothly began the phrase again.

  He had to begin it one more time, though, and let the more attentive members of the audience catch on that something was wrong, for Rivas had now remembered who the old man was and was staring at him with astonishment and hatred and, even after more than a decade, a bit of fear.

  “Greg!” whispered Fandango urgently. “Hop aboard!”

  Rivas blinked, returned some of his attention to the music, and then at the correct moment slashed the bow across the strings, and the song continued as usual.

&
nbsp; He signaled to the other musicians to drop the time-consuming flourishes from the end of the song this time, and, as Fandango obediently rattled out a quick conclusion phrase, Rivas, much soberer now than he’d been a minute ago, lowered his instrument and stepped to the front of the stage.

  “We’ll be taking a short break now,” he said curtly, and leaving the pelican beside his stool, he hopped down and strode to the bar—and he was able to do it fairly quickly, for even the bleariest of the drinkers seemed to sense a dangerous tautness in him, and pulled in their legs and scooted their chairs closer to the tables to get out of his way.

  By the time he stopped in front of the old man his shock had receded enough for him to have deduced what must have happened to bring the man here.

  “There’s a private room off the kitchen,” Rivas said to him in a voice from which conflicting emotions had leached all inflection. “Wait till we get in there to tell me about it. Whiskey,” he added, more loudly, to Mojo. “Double, with a chaser, now.”

  Mojo provided the two filled glasses quickly, and Rivas picked them up and led the old man away from the bar to a door in a shadowed corner.

  “Go fetch us a lamp from somewhere,” the pelicanist snapped at the old man as he held both glasses in one hand to open the door with the other. “Hurry now—chop chop!”

  The old man’s face had been pinched into the expression of someone who has learned that his dinner will consist of the stable boys’ leftovers, and the change it underwent now was as though he had been told that he’d have to express gratitude for it too; but he silently did as he was told and went back to get a lamp from the corner of the bar.

  Rivas stood by the door and shut it behind them when the old man had returned with the lamp and carried it into the little room. All but filling the chamber was a plastic table with half a dozen chairs around it, and Rivas sat down in one of the chairs and set his drinks in front of himself.

  “You should have told Spink who you were this afternoon,” he said. “He’d have been impressed to meet the man who distills Ellay’s money.”

  The lamp clanked down onto the table and the agitated flame made the two men’s shadows fragment and then reform on the wooden walls. “It would do neither of us any good,” came the rasped reply, “to let people know that Irwin Barrows has business with Gregorio Rivas.”

 

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