Dinner at deviants palac.., p.21
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       Dinner at Deviant's Palace, p.21

           Tim Powers
 
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  After washing the dishes and locking the door behind him he left Lisa’s house and walked north to Century and then turned left, toward the deep canals and the waterfront, the pouch with the bottle in it swinging at his side. The narrow sunlit streets were alive with cats, the rooftops with monkeys and the sky with parrots, though the human species was represented only by a few shamblers and some steamy smells of coffee and bacon wisping up from tiny street-level windows.

  Nearly all of the items that were offered for sale in Venice’s shops or served in her restaurants were, if not made or grown locally, wagoned in from Santa Monica to the north or Ellay to the east; the mile of docks and piers rotting over the sea was the site of none but the most furtive sorts of trade, and the citizens who preferred shorefront property did so because they were in the Blood or birdy girl trade, or preyed on those who were, or liked having a whole ocean to dispose of inconveniences in, or simply were more comfortable swimming from place to place, along the waterfront or up and down the canal network, than trying to walk on limbs that had begun to devolve back toward a simpler way of life.

  The waterfront area had been built up more than a century ago, during the days of the First Ace, and all the docks and sea walls and canals had been so determinedly built to last that the architects had not hesitated to add touches simply for the sake of decoration—fancy towers, fairy bridges too high and light for any actual traffic, even a seaside amusement park for children. But construction had stopped during the years of the Second Ace, and even maintenance was discontinued when the Third Ace came to power, and now the constructions were cracked, canted and undercut by the sea, and the towers and lacy bridges and the sun-bleached frameworks of the amusement park rides waved and creaked in the wind like the abandoned toys of a long-departed child.

  Palms and hibiscus and vines grew in hybrid profusion here, and folklore had it that it was easier to get from place to place through the clustered treetops than by trying to negotiate the unmapped maze of alleys and canals and wobbly bridges, and that the snakes and bugs and monkeys one would encounter in the jungly heights would be less dangerous than the denizens below.

  If he’d had two good hands Rivas might seriously have considered taking the green highroad on his trip to the waterfront. What he wanted to do this morning was get near enough to Deviant’s Palace to see if that was, as he feared, the destination of the barges full of Jaybird girls, once the Blood baskets had been sold off. There was, of course, the possibility that the barge he’d stowed away on had been the last for a week or so, and that he’d have to try to get into Deviant’s Palace without confirmation of his hunch; but he had heard nothing in the Holy City or from the boy who had spoken Sevatividam’s thoughts to indicate that the shipments of girls from Irvine were due to be cut any time soon.

  As the sun slowly rose above the buildings at his back, the streets ahead of him became narrower, for lines of little houses and shops had been built down the middle of the old wide streets, and in some cases even the resulting ways had been split by rows of food and drink and fortune-telling and peepshow tents, so that no wagon nor even a very fat person could maneuver through. Some of the food tents and liquor vendors were doing business, but most of Venice had only gone to bed a couple of hours ago.

  Closer to the sea the ways became uneven as alleys zigzagged sharply to circumnavigate collapsed buildings, or rose and fell where makeshift bridges had been flung up over gaps in the undercut pavement, and it became hard to keep moving west—it was as though the city itself were trying to prevent him from getting to the waterfront. At last, though, nearer to noon than dawn, Rivas edged his way cautiously out along a tilted, swaying fire escape and, crouching to look under the remains of some ancient gable that had broken free of its original mooring and was now jammed precariously between two roof edges, he saw the surging, wrinkled darkness of the sea. He shuffled along his perch, trying to keep the sea in sight, and climbed through an arched doorway that was in the slow process of becoming a window as the masonry settled away below it.

  On the other side he got to his feet and looked around—and realized that he’d stumbled onto what appeared to be a long established scavenger’s roost. He was on a gently slanting rooftop with a fancy wrought iron railing along the seaward edge but not even a length of twine to stop a person from walking off the north or south edges; a number of the men on the roof had turned toward the arch as he’d clambered through it, and were now looking at him with a variety of expressions: alarm, anger, speculation and boredom. One man near Rivas seemed to be about to launch a kite that had a spread fish-net for a tail, most of the ones by the railing held fishing poles or binoculars, several were just sleeping in the sun, and one white-haired old fellow scampered to the north edge of the roof, crouched and then disappeared below the edge—presumably down a ladder—when Rivas entered.

  “What do you want, hombre?” asked one lean old man whose yellowish beard, as Rivas saw when the man stood up and drew a knife, hung all the way to his belt.

  Rivas grinned. “Just want to look at the ocean—and maybe find somebody to help me drink this.” He pulled the bottle of tequila out of his pouch.

  The tension relaxed a little. The old man put his knife away, stepped forward and grudgingly took the bottle. He pulled the cork with his teeth and, holding the cork like a fat cigar, he sniffed the clear liquor. Evidently satisfied, he spat the cork over the rail and said, “Okay. But if you’re in Blood—”

  “Or birdy girls,” added a young man with fine blond hair curling like golden smoke around his head.

  “—Then you’ll find you’ve made a mistake coming here,” the old man finished.

  “Not me,” Rivas assured everyone. “I’m just a… a birdwatcher.”

  “What?” exclaimed the man with the kite.

  “He’s kidding, Jeremiah,” said the yellow-bearded man. He tilted the bottle to his mouth, and bubbles gurgled up in it. “Well,” he said when he’d lowered it again, “your credentials are in order, sir.” He handed the bottle to someone else.

  Rivas walked down the slope of the roof to the rail, but its moorings were so corroded-looking that he didn’t lean on it. Glancing left, right, and down, he saw why these men had chosen this place for their eyrie; there was deep water a hundred feet below for fishing, and since they were above most of the surrounding structures the rooftop commanded a wide view of the sea. Holding the rail carefully and glancing to his right, Rivas felt his already fluttery stomach become even colder, for he realized that the white building way off there, looking like a cutaway section of a nautilus shell with long-stemmed mushrooms growing all over it, was Deviant’s Palace. He looked away quickly, not wanting to let these men guess that his business had to do with that place.

  Gradually all the rooftop businessmen resumed their activities, and as the bottle made the rounds the glances turned on Rivas became less suspicious. The man with the net-bearing kite got the thing up into the air and then began skipping back and forth across the rooftop and whistling peculiarly. Another man was watching the course of one particular rowboat and making notes in a little book, and one of the men with binoculars had found something in a nearby window that absorbed him totally. The blond young man kept looking around worriedly, as though he was supposed to have met someone here a while ago. Rivas just watched the ocean.

  He saw any number of boats—a trio of broad ones with tall structures on their decks, a refitted ferryboat apparently operating as a seagoing bar and grill, and many fishing boats clustered around the dark blue patch of ocean where lay the submarine pit known as the Ellay-Ex Deep, dropping nets on long lines to haul up the mutant phosphorescent fish that were so highly prized in some circles—but none of them was obviously the sort he was watching for, and it occurred to him that he’d never gotten any kind of good look at the vessel that had brought him up from Irvine. At least a couple of these boats he’d seen today could have been the same one, or a duplicate.

  The anxious young man wit
h the curly hair peered through the arch where Rivas had entered, then went to the north edge of the roof and looked down. At last he turned back to the company and asked, “Did any of you hear the old man I was with say where he was going?”

  “No, kid,” said the yellow-bearded man drunkenly. “Fact I din hear ’m say anything at all.”

  Far off to his left, just on the horizon, Rivas could see some ponderous vessel approaching. The sun had just begun to fall away from the meridian, and he had to squint against the flickering needles of reflected sunlight.

  It was some kind of barge, with strange cowls and fins all over it. There were masts and rigged sails, but Rivas felt certain that it was the boat he’d been watching for. Now all he had to do was note where it docked.

  The boy leaned out over the north edge. “Hey?” he yelled. Rivas was just about to ask one of the men if he could borrow his binoculars when the boy added, “Lollypop?”

  Chapter Nine

  RIVAS FORCED HIMSELF TO do nothing more than look over at the boy, who was still peering around worriedly. He tried to remember what the old man who had left when he’d arrived had looked like. Jeez, he thought. Not too tall, white hair—could have been the same guy. And he didn’t let me see his face, though he must have seen mine. And the kid here warned me that I’d better not be after birdy girls.

  I’d better assume it’s the same guy—and leave here fast, now.

  As he backed away from the railing, trying to seem casual, he caught another glimpse of the barge out on the sea, and he thought he saw a row of dangling ropes along its side.

  And then something tore across the top of his head so hard that he was flung forward across the railing, which broke loose at one end and swung out away from the rooftop like an outward-opening door, and then bent downward as the hinge end buckled.

  With his legs more than his hands Rivas clung, sideways and nearly upside down, to what had been the railing and was now an ill-moored ladder swinging over an abyss. He’d heard the screams as at least two of the other men had tumbled away toward the sea so far below, and a couple of yards above him he could see one other man clinging to the penduluming railing; and beyond the kicking legs of that man he could see the rage-contorted face of old Lollypop himself, who was jigging wrathfully along the edge of the roof, trying to get off a second shot at Rivas with a slingshot he’d no doubt bought in memory of dear dead Nigel.

  The slingshot thrummed, the man above him heaved and screamed, and Rivas unclamped his legs from the iron bars and plummeted toward the sea, spinning and flailing and hoping to land feet first, and he heard the mosquito-buzz of another missile passing very close to his head.

  The water felt like concrete shattering under him when he hit it, and it punched the air out of his lungs and left him thrashing, weakly, God knew how far under the surface, in a churning cloud of bubbles. He didn’t know which way was up until the bubbles stopped shaking and began wobbling in one direction, and then he flapped and kicked himself up after them.

  The first thing he did after he broke the surface and shook the hair out of his eyes was crane his neck to look upward, and his eyes widened in horror, for here came Lollypop bicycling down through the air and getting bigger every instant, in a jump that seemed likely to land him right on top of Rivas.

  With nearly the last of his strength Rivas lunged spasmodically toward the shore, throwing a bow-wave that was engulfed by the tremendous booming splash as the old man hit the water directly behind him, and the big surging wave from that swept Rivas even further in, as well as knocking out what little air he’d managed to draw into his stunned lungs.

  Ahead of him the sea water splashed in shadow around the stout concrete pillars that evidently supported this entire waterfront block. Old nets and hammocks had been strung from column to column and served as perches for at least a dozen children, who were all staring at him in awe. Even in the sudden dimness Rivas could see their baldness, and as he paddled further in under the overhang he noticed too the suggestive wrinkles on their necks and the webbing between the fingers and long toes. He made it to one of the unoccupied nets, the splashing of his progress echoing among the pillars, and he floundered up into it and turned back to face the wide circle of flat white water. He fumbled his knife out and gripped it in his left hand and then sagged limp to let his lungs get themselves straightened out.

  Can I kill him? he asked himself. I have to… but that doesn’t mean I’ll be able to.

  He realized that some of the wetness on his face was blood, and with his knife hand he clumsily felt the top of his head. There was a long ragged scratch there, as if he’d tried to part his hair in the middle with a saw. He shivered and wondered whether he’d even have felt anything if the missile had struck an inch or two lower. When he brought his hand down he saw that some red had got on the knife blade, and he wondered if soon there might be more on it.

  He managed to take a deep, shuddering breath. Back in the breathing game, he thought. But for how much longer? With a clarity of imagination he hadn’t known he was capable of, he saw his own arm drive the knife toward the old man’s throat, felt the blade cut through gristly resistance until his hilt-gripping fingers hit against the Adam’s apple, and saw the twitching body slosh back in the water, saw the spreading stain, the round eyes of all these children….

  Very slowly, almost without volition, he tucked his knife back into its sheath and pulled his sleeve down over it.

  His eyes were on the patch of sea where a thousand little bubbles were still making the water hiss, though the choppiness had rebounded back in and spoiled the momentary flatness. He felt a calm that wasn’t entirely of exhaustion, for he was remembering his rush from behind at Nigel five days ago, and the alarmed expression that had been on Nigel’s face in the instant before Rivas’s club broke his forehead.

  The bubbles had mostly disappeared, and the long leisurely waves resumed their pace… and Rivas realized, certainly more with relief than with anything else, that old Lollypop would not be resurfacing. Well, he thought, that was quite a jump, and he was an old man… and who knows, maybe he couldn’t swim, maybe he just wanted to explode my skull with his boot heels before he drowned.

  Because of Nigel. Huh.

  Suddenly he remembered the barge he’d seen. My God, he thought, springing up in the net, I’ve got to see where it docks! See if Jaybush’s “temple in the sister city” really is Deviant’s Palace. He glanced around and saw stairs way back in the shadows, and he let himself fall back into the water and began swimming toward them.

  Several men were sitting on ledges against the inner wall, and there was a narrow boat rocking in the water near them; clearly their business was salvage, and if much more fell down from above they’d be rowing out. But though they turned their expressionless eyes on Rivas, they had obviously decided he wasn’t worth bothering with, and he attained the slimy stone stairs with no obstacle but his own weakness. He didn’t allow himself time to rest, but hurried up the stairs.

  The stairs extended quite a way up, and after three or four ascending circuits of the stairwell he began to see rays of sunlight lancing through the dimness from gaps in the masonry; he stopped to peer through each one that he came to that faced the sea side, but each time there was some close stone or wooden surface blocking his view of the ocean.

  At the first landing he ran out onto a wide concrete terrace where a dozen men were laboring at the cranks and capstan bars of a crane, the chain-supported arm of which stretched thirty feet out over the water, and Rivas looked around wildly, trying to orient himself. After a few seconds he spied the dangling roof-railing, way above him and off to his left. There was no one hanging on it now. He looked northwest, but at this lower level a warehouse wall blocked his view of half the ocean—the half that included the barge and Deviant’s Palace. For one impetuous moment he thought of running out along the crane arm like a tightrope walker, but the cable being hauled in lay along the top of the boom, and was wet, and kept hitc
hing and jerking.

  The workmen were staring at him apprehensively, and he realized that his scalp must still be bleeding. “What’s the,” Rivas gasped, “quickest way up to where that railing is hanging?”

  One of the men frowned. “Some guys fell off there a few minutes ago.”

  “I know.” He waved inexpressively. “One of them was me. So how do I get back up there?”

  After a pause to think about it the man gave him a string of instructions, including one “really long jump,” and concluded with, “but they’ll just throw you off again.”

  “I wouldn’t be surprised,” Rivas agreed, hurrying away.

  Five minutes later he was climbing up the ladder down which Lollypop had fled at Rivas’s previous arrival, and he paused when he was a foot below the edge of the roof. What, he thought, peek? Or scramble right up?

  Scramble up, he decided. He got his feet a couple of rungs higher, then grabbed the roof edge and jackknifed up, rolling to his feet as quickly as he could on the slanting roof.

  The old man with the long beard stared at him in fuddled surprise. “Didn’t happen to bring another bottle?”

  Rivas shook his head and, looking around cautiously, shuffled out to the now unrailed western edge.

  “Then,” said the old man sadly, “your credentials have expired. Hey, kid! Here’s the guy your old buddy dove in after!”

  Rivas looked back, and his heart sank to see the blond young man stand up resolutely from beside the arch, cuffing tears from his face.

 
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