Dinner at deviants palac.., p.22
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       Dinner at Deviant's Palace, p.22

           Tim Powers
 
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  “Aw, hell, kid,” Rivas said in a tone of weary, scared exasperation. “I didn’t do it. He shot at me and then jumped in, remember?”

  “He was,” the boy said brokenly as he drew a long knife from his belt, “just beginning to… forget about… Nigel. And then you had to remind him… and now he’s dead.”

  Rivas flipped back his cuff and got his own knife into his left hand and waved it around, just to make the boy back off. The boy kept advancing. Rivas swore, then turned to look northeast.

  The strange barge was, as perhaps he should simply have assumed, at rest beside the white stone centipede of a dock in front of Deviant’s Palace.

  Quickly he turned back to the roof, and saw that if there had been a chance of getting back down the ladder without a fight, it was gone now. Lollypop’s young friend was only a few steps away, clearly waiting for Rivas to move away from the roof edge, and he was warily watching Rivas’s knife.

  Rivas wondered how the Rivas of a week ago would have handled this. The footing wasn’t the greatest up here—probably he’d have tried a long kick at the boy’s knife hand and, as close to simultaneously as possible, a wide, unaimed slash that could be relied on to strike somewhere between forehead and throat.

  What he did was smile, sheathe his knife and step off the edge of the roof.

  His fall was controlled this time—he was careful to keep his body straight and his feet together, and as he took and held a breath he wondered if the workman by the crane was watching. When he hit the water and was under it he spread his arms and kicked to keep from hitting the bottom. He was pleased with the unruffled way he’d handled it until he remembered that old Lollypop was drifting around down here somewhere in the dark water—maybe above him right now, grinning and reaching for him with cold hands—and he flinched to the side, swam spasmodically for a few strokes and then did a panicky thrash up to the surface. This time when he surfaced and shook the wet hair out of his face, he looked anxiously down. He swam fairly hastily toward the pillars and when he was in among them in the shadow of the massive overhanging masonry he became aware of a spattering sound.

  He paused to lift his head and blink around, and he realized that the mutant children perched in the nets and hammocks were clapping their webbed hands, clearly hoping he’d do it one more time.

  Lisa was standing out on the little pier in front of her house when Rivas came trudging up the canalside path. He’d stopped dripping, and his hair wasn’t as damply spiky now, but his shoes still squished when he walked.

  “Afternoon, Greg. I gather you fell into the canal last night; do it again today?”

  “The ocean,” he said. “Twice.”

  He’d decided not to approach Deviant’s Palace from the seaward side, not at first, anyway, but to reconnoiter the place by simply walking in the front door. Beyond that he wasn’t sure. Order a drink? If the legends were accurate, the place was as much a bar as it was anything else. Ask for a job? He shuddered.

  “What are you doing out here?” he asked.

  “I keep thinking I hear a hurt animal in the canal. This is the third time I’ve been out to look.” She shrugged and started toward the house. “Oh well.” She squinted back at him over her shoulder. “You don’t look like you found your person.”

  “No.” Thinking of her carpet, he kicked off his mud-caked shoes on the porch and peeled off his socks.

  She looked surprised at the courtesy, but didn’t remark on it. “Well,” she said, “while you were off looking for somebody, somebody was here looking for you. He left a—” She stopped, and looked at him.

  He had frozen in the act of hanging the socks on the porch rail. “A… hurt animal,” he said.

  She nodded. “In the canal. Do you know something about it?”

  “Maybe.” Jesus, he thought, what does it take to kill one of those things? And I’ve led it here. “Have you ever heard of, uh, hemogoblins?”

  “Yeah,” she said, her eyebrows halfway up to her hairline. “Vampire ghosts in the southern hills, right? Is that what I’ve got in my canal, one of those?”

  He straightened up and spread his hands helplessly. “Well, I—yeah, if I had to make a guess. I thought I killed it last night. I twisted its head off, for God’s sake.” He sat on the rail, next to his socks, and stared unhappily at the floor. “I’m sorry, Lisa. I didn’t mean to lead it to your place. It’s been following me around for days, sneaking up and saying disgusting things to me. I think it’ll follow me when I go, but just in case, if you can get any screens for your windows, just for a couple of days, I’d—”

  He stopped, for he’d finally looked up at her, and the mixture of pity and apprehension in her eyes startled him. He reviewed the last few things he’d been saying, and suddenly, after one flash of indignant anger, he was laughing—and then a moment later the laughter was shaking him as if it were a pack of invisible dogs, and he had to fall off the rail on one side or the other so he let himself fall in, and he sat rocking and hooting on the boards of the porch floor while tears coursed into his beard and Lisa, backed up to the far rail, smiled twitchily in an effort to keep from joining him; but soon she was laughing as hard as he was.

  As the laughter subsided, Lisa stepped away from the rail, pushed a stray lock of hair back from her forehead, and sighed. “Screens,” she said weakly. “And some of that spray. Isn’t there a spray?”

  Rivas snapped his fingers. “Now why didn’t I think of this earlier? We’ll get a leash on the thing and sell it to somebody as a guard dog.”

  She giggled. “And… and what, something about blood. Do they say pure-blood dogs? I guess not. Still, there’s a joke there somewhere.” Her smile had worn off. “In the old days, you’d never have thought it was funny that somebody thought you were crazy.”

  “I nearly didn’t today.”

  “But you’re not, are you? Crazy?”

  “I’m afraid not.”

  “You did twist the head off a vampire out there last night?”

  He nodded. “Not easy, with this bad hand.”

  “What a world.” She opened the front door. “There’s screens in the shed. I’ll put ’em up. Oh, I started to tell you—a guy came looking for you and left a note.”

  “Not Jack Frenchfry,” Rivas groaned, getting to his feet. “Middle-aged, skinny, lechy grin?”

  “No,” said Lisa from inside the house. “Where’d I put it—here we go.” He’d followed her into the kitchen and she handed him an envelope. “This guy had a beard and only looked about twenty-five.”

  Shaking his head blankly, Rivas tore open the envelope and took out the enclosed card. “Nice paper, hm?” he said.

  On the front of the card, in handsome calligraphy, was written, “Mister Gregorio Rivas”. He flipped it open. “…is invited,” the card went on, “to have dinner at eight o’clock tonight at the Venice house of his one-time spiritual father… if he knows where the place is; and I can’t believe he does not.” It was signed, in a different and messy scrawl, “SEV.”

  Lisa had been peering over his shoulder. “This Sev wouldn’t be who you’re looking for, would he, Greg?”

  “Uh,” said Rivas, reflecting that he’d been a fool to let himself be recognized last night. “No. But he knows where she is.” His heart was thumping too quickly and his mouth was dry. His hand began to shake and he put the invitation down.

  “What’s wrong, Greg?” He didn’t answer, so Lisa turned to the liquor cabinet and asked as casually as she could, “Will you be accepting this invitation?”

  Mechanically Rivas took and drank deeply from the glass of whiskey she handed him. “Aaahrrr,” he said quietly, almost conversationally. His face was pale. “Maybe I will,” he said wonderingly. “God help me, maybe there isn’t any other way…”

  She looked uneasily at the invitation and then back at Rivas. “Where is the place?”

  He gave her the ghost of a smile. “Promise not to try to do anything about it?”

  “Well… ok
ay.”

  He sighed. “It’s Deviant’s Palace.”

  Lisa sat down and had a drink herself, from the neck of the bottle.

  A lot of its substance had been lost in the canal—it had been set back days. It had expected resistance, certainly, some obstinacy on Rivas’s part, but it had not expected treachery—for he had taken two steps toward it, obviously intending to cooperate, before suddenly backing away and making that remark about go suck a fish—nor had it expected sudden senseless violence.

  It bobbed again to the surface and noticed that the sun had set. It rolled its milky eyes toward the house and bared its teeth in a smile. He was back! He must have returned while it had been brooding oh the canal bottom. With a lot less effort than would have been required yesterday, the thing kicked its diminished body up into the air, glancing sadly back down at the canal. So much hard-won blood wasted, just spilled into the water! And so much of the thing’s substance—intelligence, even, it admitted—gone with it. Well, it promised itself as it drifted back down, I’ll catch up with him again, and this time it won’t be seduction. It’ll be rape.

  Suddenly the thing came to a stop in midair, undulating like a fish to stay in one place. There he was! Rivas was leaving the house! The thing spread itself to catch the breeze, and followed.

  You can still turn back, Rivas told himself hopefully as he walked away from Lisa’s house. More truly than ever, you’ve earned Barrows’s five thousand fifths. Getting this far has all but destroyed you, and now the enemy even knows who and where you are!

  But I know who and where he is, too. And at this point I’m afraid I simply can’t back away. I don’t think it’s even for Uri’s sake anymore. It’s for my own sake. Too many hard-won things will have turned out to be worthless if I don’t read the last page. Too many people, including a substantial amount of Gregorio Rivas, will have died for nothing.

  He knew that if he hadn’t been so devastated by the events of this past week he’d never have dreamed of following this present course, but that knowledge didn’t slow his steps. Maybe, he thought wryly, a released stone falls because it chooses to.

  He’d transferred his knife to a makeshift pocket in the collar of his shirt. It would probably be overlooked in a quick search, and if it should come to seem necessary, one hard slap at his own chest would send it up into his jugular.

  There were still streaks of orange in the western sky, though squares and dots of yellow light were beginning to appear in the dark structures around him, and he smiled at the flashy, vulgar, colorful, vital town. I’m not sure I appreciated the place when I lived here, he thought. My focus was always too narrow.

  A chair scraped on a darkening second floor balcony, and in the early evening stillness he heard the clink of a bottle on a cup edge, and then a faint splashing. “Evening, man,” said a courteous voice.

  “Evening,” said Rivas, waving up at the balcony.

  At Inglewood Street he turned north, and, not having the remotest idea what Jaybush’s dinner might consist of, he climbed up onto the wagon of a traveling kushi seller. With a glass of cool beer he munched his way through two skewers of hot teriyaki beef and green onions. The beer and food cost only three jiggers but it tasted wonderful, and as he climbed back down to the pavement Rivas wondered if he’d ever really paid enough attention to food.

  He continued north, over a couple of torch-lit canal bridges, and he was glad he’d thought of food when he had, for he’d have been reluctant to eat at any of the ubiquitous restaurants and snack stands in this area. The stuff sizzling in these pans was highly spiced and often couldn’t even be distinguished as meat rather than fish or fowl—as if, and it wasn’t inconceivable, these cooks had access to some hitherto unknown class of animal. Rivas had always been told to avoid dining spots that didn’t have dogs hanging around the kitchen door, but he’d never understood whether the advice meant you’d be better off not eating the product of kitchens that smelled so bad as to repel even dogs, or if it meant that the lack of dogs was the result of the cook’s policy of catching any that chanced by and cooking them. In any case he couldn’t see any dogs around these places.

  Women, and persons who were probably men dressed up as women, smiled peculiarly at him from open doorways, and children with knives offered to give him a cheap shave, and several old Blood freaks who had very evidently not taken off any article of clothing for any purpose for quite a while shambled up and asked him if he had any brandy to spare. As politely as he could, Rivas managed to elude all of them.

  The buildings were tall in this area and crowded together with just grudged alleys between, and Rivas knew that direct sunlight probably never got down this far. The pavement was uneven cobbles, either individual stones or crumbled asphalt, and the eternal mud between the pieces was faintly luminous, so that he seemed to be walking on a ghostly spiderweb. Vibrations like bouts of fast drumming shook the walls from time to time, and once he thought he heard a lot of awkward voices raised in atonal song, and always there was the sleepy smack and buzz of the huge flies that nested way up under the eaves.

  Rivas had his knife out now and was tapping the blade along the wall as he walked, to let the dwellers within earshot know that he was armed, but after turning west near Arbor Vitae and winding his way down another hundred yards of alleys and ladders and half-roofed courts he stopped doing it, for it was assumed that everyone here was armed, or else so horribly diseased that their mere proximity was dangerous.

  The pavement had been getting muddier, and when one of his feet sank to the ankle he knew that there was now no pavement at all, though the walls crowded in just as closely on either side. At the frequent cross alleys he looked both ways, but the few lights he could see were dim and far away. Somewhere behind him human conversation had stopped being an element of this dark cityscape. The only voice sounds he heard now were occasional shouts, screams, curses and insane laughter, and he couldn’t decide whether he was being paced by someone who paused frequently to vomit or if there were simply a lot of upset Venetian stomachs tonight.

  Finally he came to a section where the mud was uncomfortably warm and the walls were a soft claylike stuff that would hold the tracks of fingers dragged along it, and some fluid was bubbling out of the cracks between the soggy bricks. There were hundreds of little shelled animals like barnacles on the walls and underfoot, waving cilia that stung when they touched his skin. The entire tunnel—for a flexing, fibrous roof had been put up over the alleys here—was dimly glowing, and the wet breeze kept changing direction at regular intervals, blowing into his face for several seconds and then fumbling at the hair on the back of his head.

  There was a collage of smells—hot metal, mildew, bad teeth—and then the tunnel narrowed to a small ragged opening that he had to scramble up a slope to get to, and then he’d squeezed through it and leaped clear and was rolling on cold, gritty, normal pavement.

  He scrambled to his feet and for a moment he was tempted to bless himself as his mother had taught him decades ago, for here, separated from him by only one high-arching canal bridge, and beyond that an ascending flight of steps, was Deviant’s Palace itself.

  Chapter Ten

  TALL RIDES WHIRLED OUT front, glaringly lit, as was the building itself, by apparently genuine electric lights that cast a multicolored noon radiance over the waterfront. A big incandescent orange sign crawled across the front of the edifice, and even as Rivas read it, dizzy with incredulity, he wondered if it could have been put up solely for his own benefit, for the words were in the complicated old-time spelling:

  DEVIANT’S PALACE

  Steaks, Unconventional Seafood, Progressive Cocktails

  Meditation Chapel! Petting Zoo! Souvenir Shop!

  GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS!

  Explicit Scenes & Offensive Sounds

  A million big flying bugs were battering themselves against the glowing glass tubes.

  The stories he’d heard had prepared him for the size of the place—it was huge, stretch
ing away out of sight in either direction, and six or seven stories tall in some places—but had not quite prepared him for the lunacy of the architecture. Everything was rounded or tapering out to spiny points; there were no planes or right angles, and the lavishly applied stucco had the appearance of leathery hide. The many unsymmetrical windows and doors were inset, in arches so ragged and so randomly placed that they seemed to have been made by firing cannons at the walls from within—though each window was covered by an intricately worked grille; a profusion of apparently ornamental arches gave the place a morbidly skeletal appearance, which was not entirely relieved by the hundreds of banners and giant pinwheels and weathervanes. Most of the windows glowed with colored light, and the big front doors were wide open and spilling out a loud two-toned singing, not unlike the Jaybirds’ mind-blurring hum.

  Rivas ran trembling fingers through his hair and took the invitation out of his pocket. This must be the place, he thought, and started forward. He walked slowly, for each step required an individual choice between continuing and fleeing.

  At the top of the bridge he paused to look around. Deviant’s Palace, he saw, was the hub of a dozen canals, which all disappeared inside the place through high arches. He descended the far side of the bridge and approached the stairs.

  A fat, hooded person scrambled out of a manhole in front of him and blocked his way. In glowing letters on the person’s robe front was spelled out: I GOT MY ASHES HAULED AT DEVIANT’S PALACE. “Sorry, sir, invitation only tonight,” piped up a sexless voice.

  Rivas held up his invitation.

  The hooded figure peered at it in the bright electric light. “Well, excuse me, the guest of honor! Just head right on in—you’re expected.”

  The situation had already had a fever-dream unreality to it, but this grotesque courtesy totally disoriented Rivas. “Thank you,” he said, and as he went up the steps he actually caught himself wishing he’d shaved.

 
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