Dinner at deviants palac.., p.20
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       Dinner at Deviant's Palace, p.20

           Tim Powers
 
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  He looked up at her helplessly. “Somehow I’m still not sleepy.”

  Her smile was becoming tired, but she refilled the glasses.

  When he’d downed the third set he had to admit that, despite how dead for sleep he ought to be, the alcohol was giving him some kind of spurious energy and restlessness. “Maybe a walk,” he said, and though it was hard to speak he felt entirely sober, “would relax me a bit.”

  “Okay, Greg. Can you find your way back here?”

  “Sure. Okay if I borrow a couple of jiggers? Just pocket change.”

  “Of course. I may be out myself when you get back, but if you yank on the fern by the front door—it’s plastic, the fern, I mean—it opens the latch. Got that?”

  “Yank the fern, right.”

  “And I’ll leave out the stuff you want—a shoulder pouch and a fifth of something, right?”

  “That’s it. Tequila will be fine.”

  She cocked her head and gave him a troubled look. “Am I going to have to worry about you, Greg?”

  Even with shock, liquor and exhaustion working on him he could see that she wasn’t concerned that he might rob her or bring rowdy drunks back to her place; touched, he told her, “Nah, Lisa, I’m okay. Just going to have a drink at the old Bom Sheltr.”

  “Do be careful. Here’s half a pint, which will buy you more than you ought to have, probably. And I can get you more tomorrow, if you need it.”

  “Thanks, Lisa. I’ll pay it all back as soon as—”

  “No,” she said. “No. Pay me back and you’ve put a bit of tilt on the scales again. Do it my way and we’ll be all square, with no reason to even speak to each other if we pass in the street.” Her smile had not faltered or become strained.

  He knew he wasn’t understanding this, so he didn’t pretend to be hurt or angry. “Okay.” He got up, pocketed the half-pint card and walked, pretty steadily, to the door, and opened it. Somehow the sky had already gone molten in the west behind the tall palm trees, and the long shadows were purple. He turned back to her and said, “But thanks.”

  She waved. “Por nada.”

  The air had cooled outside, and though at noon it had smelled only of dust and baking pavement, now at twilight it was elusively scented with jasmine and gardenia and the not so distant sea. He scuffed thoughtfully down the canalside path, kicking an occasional pebble into the water, pondering the fact that he’d become a different man since leaving Venice five or six years ago…. No, Greg, he told himself, be honest, since leaving Ellay five days ago. Was it an improvement? It didn’t feel like it.

  The flavors of the breeze changed as he walked toward the sea; now there was smoke in the air, the smoke from a hundred basement Mexican and Chinese kitchens, and though he knew he was probably imagining it he thought he detected tobacco and marijuana and perfume and the quiver of distant music. He remembered having whimsically wondered today whether the ghost of young Rivas might still haunt these bars and bridges and canals. Let’s go see, he thought, whether I can catch him out of the corner of my eye.

  He smiled almost sadly when he rounded the last corner and saw, in the still vacant paved yard, the dozens of pieces of plexiglass set flush with the old concrete, for they reminded him of his very first days of working here, washing cups and pitchers in the yellow afternoon light that filtered down through the translucent plexiglass skylight. The upright, wedge-shaped shed which was the top of the entry stairs was a little flimsier-looking now, and the lettering on the sign over the doorway had been repainted carelessly at least once; but several more tall poles had been planted in the dirt or nailed to the sides of the shed, and the many lengths of wire and string draped from one to another were lavishly flagged with bits of cloth and colored plastic and tinfoil; and through the soles of his feet he fancied he could feel the bass beat of subterranean music. He pushed his disordered hair back from his forehead, straightened his borrowed coat and crossed the yard to the descending stairs.

  The band was noisy and only just competent, but the place had so many tunnels and burrows that it wasn’t difficult to find a table from which the music was just a remote crashing. Candles behind colored glass threw tinted shadows, reminding him of one of the worlds he’d seen in Jaybush’s memory, the world where the orange spider-things had each cast two shadows, a red and a blue.

  A waitress arrived. He’d never seen her before, and she obviously wasn’t interested in who he was. He ordered a tequila with water on the side, and she strolled away to get it.

  All at once it came to him what it was that he’d been reminded of by the sensation of falling this afternoon, when the Blood dealer had dumped him and the far-gone boy onto the trash pile; for an instant it had taken him back to the at-rest-in-free-fall sensation of being in the long wait between planets. But that wasn’t a memory of his own—that was Jaybush’s. It didn’t please him to find himself sharing the Messiah’s recollections.

  During his third tequila, just as he was getting ready to leave and walk back to the Ladybug Canal, a lean, grinning middle-aged man walked up to him hesitantly, pointing at him. Rivas couldn’t remember ever having seen him before.

  “Greg?” the man said. “It’s Greg, right? Rivas!”

  He could have denied it, but the man at REALIGNMENT AND BALANCING having doubted him and called him Chucko, and the irresponsibility induced by the tequila, made him smile and say, “Right.”

  “I knew it! You remember me, don’t you?” The man dragged a chair over and sat down at Rivas’s table.

  Ordinarily Rivas would probably have objected to the unsought company, but tonight he wanted reassurance—admiration, if only from this silly little man. “Remind me.”

  “Jack Frenchfry. I been working here forever. Remember? I helped you arrange some of your first songs—polished ’em for you.”

  Like hell you ever did, thought Rivas; but, “Sure, I remember you, Jack,” he said. “So how’s the old place doing?”

  “Real good, Greg. Old Hanker died two years ago—he was real mad at you, but I told him, ‘Hey, Greg is a genius,’ I said, ‘and geniuses can’t be bothered with things like giving notice.’ Am I right? Hah? Yeah, they wanted me to take over the place when he died, but I told ’em I’d rather stay maiterdee, out where I can meet the people. I like meeting people, you know? That’s the kind of person I am.”

  “Sure, Jack.” The man was beginning to depress him, but before Rivas could kill his drink and go, Frenchfry had ordered him another.

  “You know who this guy is, Doris?” Frenchfry said to the waitress. “This is Greg Rivas from Spink’s in Ellay. We’re old friends. He comes back to see me every chance he gets, don’t you, Greg?”

  “Sure,” said Rivas, feeling dizzy.

  “You don’t look like him,” the waitress said. “And who needs old Rivas anyway?”

  “I don’t know,” said Rivas, shaking his head.

  “Just bring him the drink, will you, Doris?” The unnecessary harshness in Frenchfry’s voice made it clear to Rivas that the man had no particular authority over the girl. “If the new boss was here, Greg, he’d let me make it on the house—but he’s in Ellay, on business. Sorry. You know how it is trying to deal with damn clerks and cashiers.”

  Rivas’s chest had gone cold and he fumbled in his pocket to see if he had enough left to cover this unwanted drink. He did, but barely, only if he ludicrously undertipped the waitress. That’ll impress her with me, he thought.

  “Yeah, I just kind of work here part time,” said Frenchfry expansively, “in like an advisory capacity. Fact is, I quit too, a while ago. This new boss started yelling at me about some crap or other, and I walked out. Who needs ’em, eh?” He leaned forward with raised eyebrows and poked Rivas painfully in the chest. “You know something?”

  Rivas’s drink was clanked down in front of him, and he pushed all his money across the table to the girl without looking at her. She took it and left with at least no spoken comment.

  “You know something?
Frenchfry repeated.

  “What,” said Rivas dully.

  “You and me, Greg—we’re two of a kind.”

  “Jesus.” Rivas pushed his chair back and stood up. Why had he come here?

  “Hey, Greg, where are you going?” Frenchfry started to get up too. “I know, you want to go to a better place, right? With girls, if I remember you correctly, eh? Listen, there’s a place I go to a lot nearby where they got girls that’ll—”

  “You stay here,” Rivas said, afraid he might hit the man, or start crying again. “I’m leaving.”

  “Well, say, Greg, I wasn’t going to bring it up right now,” Frenchfry said, beginning to sound worried himself, “but I can’t break the last, uh, hundred-fifth note they paid me here, and I was wondering—”

  “That was it,” said Rivas, “for that drink.” He pointed at the fresh glass. “All the money I had.” He was having trouble taking a deep breath. “But hey, help yourself, man. Mi tequila es su tequila.”

  He blundered out of the place, aware of the stares of other drinkers. The waitress had obviously told them who he claimed to be. Some seemed to believe it and some didn’t, but none of them seemed very impressed.

  In the darkness outside he walked quickly, as though trying to outpace the memory. You and me, Greg—we’re two of a kind. My God, he thought. And everybody there thought we were! So who cares? So I care—you are what people think you are, which is why it’s so important to get them thinking you’re someone who…counts. Gaah.

  By the time he came to the canal, the night breeze seemed to have blown away the worst edges of the tequila and the memory, and he stood on the bank and watched the reflected moon waver on the black water and then separate into glowing white streaks as some swimming thing approached, rippling the water. A rat? No, too many ripples. A dog, conceivably, or some kid.

  The low waves subsided as the swimmer stopped in the darkness below Rivas and to his left.

  “Greg,” came a whisper from the darkness.

  “Who’s—” he began, but he realized he didn’t have to ask. He tried to tell it to go away, but at the moment he didn’t have the strength.

  “I can restore you,” said the whisper. There was a slurrying sound as the thing flapped gently in the black water.

  “What do you mean?” Rivas asked angrily, though keeping his voice down. “You couldn’t lift up a medium-size stone.”

  “True. But I’m part of you. Maybe the most important part, the part that makes—used to make—you you. You know when I… was born?”

  “No.”

  “That day at the Cerritos Stadium, when you gashed your thumb to avoid merging with Jaybush. That works, of course, intense pain does block you from the sacrament, but it splinters a piece of you away—something like a ghost. That’s me. And you’ve noticed qualities missing from yourself since then, haven’t you? Weaknesses where there used to be strengths, hesitations and uncertainties where you used to have assurance?”

  “… Yes,” Rivas whispered.

  “Merge with me and let me make you whole. You don’t mind merging with me—I’m nothing but yourself.”

  “But… would I be…”

  “Remember when you threw rocks at me that first day, how I tore apart but grew back together, so you couldn’t see I’d ever been cut?” It chuckled out there. “Merge with me and I’ll grow back your two fingers for you.”

  Rivas gasped as if he’d been hit, and before he’d even thought about it he’d taken two steps forward, so that he was standing on the tilted dirt slope of the canal bank. There was more swirling in the water, and then the thing swam out of the shadows of the trees into the moonlight, and Rivas could see that it was a lot solider now than it had been when he’d seen it last.

  “How did you get here?” he asked, thinking of all the populated urban miles around them.

  “Followed your boat up,” the thing said, its voice taking on a gobbling sound because of its eagerness. “I caught the new-born ghost that was cast when you used the pain parry against that dose of Blood, so you don’t have to worry about where that piece of you went. I ate it. It’s in me. And then all day I’ve been eeling around through the canals, trying to find you. Almost got to you before that damn whore did. You don’t need her, do you?”

  “Need her. Well, I don’t know, I—”

  “You—we—don’t need anybody. Thinking you did is what split us in the first place, isn’t it? And it has nearly destroyed you.”

  The thing had swum in closer, and Rivas didn’t have to whisper loudly at all for it to hear him. “I’m not sure that’s…”

  “I was angry, earlier today,” the thing said, giggling reproachfully, “when I realized you were in that boat full of women. I was hoping you wouldn’t be stupid enough to… have congress with any of those vacas in the state you’re in.”

  Rivas started to tilt, then took a step back, up the bank, to right himself. “Why… shouldn’t I?”

  “It would diminish you. It always does, but in your present broken, unstrong condition it could make you forget.”

  The thing had fishtailed closer as he backed off, and now he could see its fingers above the water, gripping the muddy stones and glistening like fat sea creatures in the moonlight.

  “Forget what?”

  “Who you are, man. If we forget we’re Rivas, what’s left of us?”

  Rivas took two more steps back. “Whatever is me. That’s what’s left.”

  The thing was trembling so violently that a lot of close rings were radiating away from it. The canal water smelled like crushed green leaves. “Come to me,” the thing in the water choked.

  He was suddenly sure that to go to it would mean leaving behind things that had been too costly to acquire. The sadness in the glass eyes of the broken trash man, back in Irvine. The remembered ache in his arm from holding the dying boy up to the corner of the Blood basket where there was air. His shame at having struck a buyer’s-market bargain for saving Uri’s life. The grudged respect of Frake McAn.

  He stepped all the way back up to the path. “No, thank you,” he said politely.

  “Your fingers, I can replace your—”

  “Get away from me,” said Rivas tensely, suddenly aware that he was scared. “Go catch a fish if you need some blood to drink.”

  “You need me more than I need you, Rivas. I can—”

  “Then you don’t need me at all.”

  He turned on his heel and started walking toward Lisa’s house, which all at once seemed very far away; and a moment later he was running, for he’d heard splashing behind him and the slap of wet rubbery feet against the packed dirt of the path. The pursuing footfalls stopped after a few seconds and Rivas let himself slow down a little, thinking that the hemogoblin had stopped—he didn’t realize it had simply taken off and begun flying until it slammed into his shoulders and sent him tumbling down the slope to splash into the canal.

  And then it was on him like a dog that has beaten its companions by only a few seconds to a big piece of meat. As the two of them rolled in the chilly salt water Rivas punched at it with his left fist, feeling jellyfish tissue split apart and spill, but always quickly re-knit, and its entirely solid teeth were greedily tearing at his arms and chest. They were both sobbing with fear and rage, and any time either of them got halfway to his feet the other knocked him down.

  Finally Rivas got his knees around its waist and his hands on the corners of its jaw, and he pulled its face away from him, trying to use only the thumb and heel of his bad right hand.

  It blew out a mouthful of water and blood and then, its big milky eyes boring into him in the moonlight, it whispered, “Please, Greg.”

  Gripping it strongly with his legs, he began twisting its head around.

  The creature began emitting a sort of whispered scream, but the noise was chopped off abruptly when he’d given the head one full turn. The thing’s hands were scrabbling at his chest and arms and sometimes even his face, but it didn’t seem
to have developed fingernails yet, and the fingers just broke against him in a slimy nastiness that was worse than scratches would have been.

  Rivas had been letting his head submerge in the canal water whenever he had a fresh breath and the move would allow him to get a new grip on the creature’s slippery head, but at the third full turn the thing’s neck began to split and spurt some kind of fluid into the water, and after that he tried to keep his head up out of it. The hemogoblin was heaving about under him so strongly that he was afraid he’d be flung off, and he couldn’t believe that the noise of their splashing wasn’t being heard, but at last at the eighth or ninth full turn the creature’s head, which like a clock-winding key had been getting more difficult to twist, snapped off, and the abruptly released force of his straining arms flipped Rivas right over in the fouled water.

  The body of the hemogoblin went limp and, releasing a lot of bad-smelling bubbles, sank beneath him. He struggled to his feet and flung the still quivering head as far down the canal, in the direction away from Lisa’s house, as he could. After three seconds he heard it splash in the darkness. Then, leaving the body there, he swam up the canal, away from the two pieces of the creature, rinsing his mouth and hair in the canal water, which was relatively clean compared to what he had been splashing around in.

  Before long he began imagining that something was wriggling silently through the water in his wake, and he clambered out onto the canal bank and walked the rest of the way to Lisa’s place. She wasn’t home, so he went in and took another bath—which exhausted her water supply—and crawled into the bed she’d made up for him.

  And out in the sluggish, lightless canal, thin filaments were fingering out from two pieces of organic stuff in the water—a small round lump to the west and a big four-limbed lump to the east. The filaments from one traveled toward those of the other, and in the small hours of the night they touched, and merged… and slowly began to pull the two pieces together.

  When Rivas awoke next morning at about seven, he was hungover and stiff, but he felt more solidly put together than he had for the past several days. Lisa was nowhere to be seen, so he broke some more eggs into a pan and dumped in the fillings from some tacos he found in her brick evaporation box, stirred the mess up over her re-stoked fire until it was nearly cooked, then folded in the taco shells, piled it all onto a plate, shook salsa furiosa over it all and then set to. After washing the meal down with a cool beer, he felt at least a lot less unqualified for the sortie he’d planned for this morning.

 
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