Dinner at deviants palac.., p.26
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       Dinner at Deviant's Palace, p.26

           Tim Powers
 
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  “What’s that?”

  “Did you get my beer?”

  She frowned, then reached into the big pocket of her skirt. “Well, yes,” she said, producing a bottle. “Can you drink it?”

  “I think with it balanced on my chest I could.”

  “All right.” She uncorked it and set it on his chest and braced his hands around it. “You okay?”

  “Yeah,” said Rivas. “Thanks.” He tilted the bottle to his mouth, and got a good sip in spite of the wagon’s rocking.

  She smiled. “Good. You really did look terrible when I got you out of there. The doctor who put your head back together knew you, by the way. He said, ‘Rivas is rapidly using himself up.’ I told him there was lots more to you than met the eye.” She patted his bony shoulder and went forward to help Urania with the driving.

  Rivas spent most of that day eating and drowsing, and when it became imperative that he either call for a bedpan or visit the wagon’s bathroom—a tiny closet between the head of the bunk and the back kitchen wall—he managed to stand up and make the trip himself, though when he reeled back to the bunk he collapsed limply into it, nauseous, cold, sweating, and almost fainting from exhaustion. He slept several hours after that, and when he woke up Barbara had halted the wagon for the night in what she assured him was a well-concealed spot. The three fugitives made the last of the soup serve as dinner, though dessert was lavish, and then, over Rivas’s weak protests, the two women stretched out on the floor to go to sleep.

  Rivas slept too, but fitfully, and a tiny clink in the middle of the night brought him instantly awake.

  The wall across from his bunk could be unlatched and folded down on hinges to provide a window and flat counter for selling donuts, and by the faint moonlight filtering in through the cracks he could see someone holding the tequila bottle. She turned half toward his bunk as she held the bottle up to peer into it, and he saw that it was Urania. Even as he opened his mouth to tell her to put it back, she licked the glass, sliding her tongue up toward the cork.

  “Uri!” Rivas croaked in alarm, “put that down, you—”

  When he spoke she jumped, then with feverish haste clamped her teeth over the whole neck of the bottle.

  Rivas flung himself out of the bunk and managed to collide with her and knock her against the hinged wall, but a moment later he had tumbled helplessly to the floor, blinking his eyes and breathing deeply to fight off unconsciousness.

  Barbara was on her feet and looking around jerkily, aware that there was an emergency but not what it was; she seemed to think someone was trying to break in, and Rivas didn’t have enough strength in his lungs and jaws to speak.

  The cork came out of the bottle with a pop, and then Barbara knew what was happening, and she lunged at Urania. Her shoulder thudded into Urania’s stomach and they both crashed into the hinged wall, which came unlatched and fell open with a series of loud wood-on-wood whacks and a sudden glare of moonlight. Both women had fallen and as they gasped and struggled on the floor, the tequila bottle rolled past Rivas’s face. There was still some tequila sloshing around in it, but no crystal.

  Rivas rolled over and propped himself up on one elbow to see what was going on. Barbara was kneeling on Urania’s back and strangling her; Uri was thrashing furiously, but one of her arms was pinned under her and she could only claw ineffectively at Barbara’s wrists with the other. Rivas might have interfered, at least to stop Barbara from being quite so rough, if he hadn’t seen Uri’s eyes blazing at him out of her darkening face, for in that instant he was sure that it was Jaybush glaring through her eyes at him.

  “Spit—it—out—or—die—Uri,” grated Barbara.

  For another three seconds it looked as though Uri had decided to die, but then her mouth opened and the crystal was spat out; Barbara rolled off her and Uri went limp, panting rapidly in harsh whistling gasps.

  Rivas picked up the crystal. You win, it said in his mind. You’re the boss. I’ll work for you. Swallow me.

  Barbara was helping him up. He had to keep blinking, for blood was running down his forehead from his reopened wound.

  “That would have,” said Barbara tightly as she rolled him back up onto the bunk, but she began coughing before she could finish the sentence, and had to sit down on the foot of the bunk.

  “What?” The monotonous voice in Rivas’s head made him speak too loudly. Uri kept on wheezing.

  “If she’d swallowed it,” said Barbara. “That would have harmed it, harmed him?”

  Rivas looked at her with something close to despair, then closed his eyes. The pillow was wet with blood against his cheek. “I can’t do this… by myself,” he said. “You’ve got to help. Do you want him to come back? Do you want to take the sacrament again?”

  “…No,” Barbara said slowly. “No, I don’t want him…back again, but I somehow don’t want him dead either.” She stood up and went to the kitchen and came back with a lit lamp, which she put down on the floor in order to step over Urania. She unfolded the counter wall, lifted it back into place and latched it shut. Urania, incredibly, was snoring, evidently fast asleep.

  “Do you want him dead?” Barbara asked when she sat down again on the bunk.

  “Yes,” said Rivas.

  Barbara smiled at him. “Really? There isn’t any little bit of you that would like to… merge with the Lord, stop being you?”

  Swallow me. You win. You’re the boss. Rivas reached out and put the crystal down on the torn blanket between them, and it was a relief for him to stop hearing the voice. “Okay, maybe there is. And when I took a huge dose of Blood recently, there was a part of me that wanted to just relax and go down. But have you seen any real Blood freaks? Well, you’ve seen real far-gones.”

  “Sure, but their outward form, we’re told, isn’t the whole story. If I take a boat to get somewhere, and then later you find the boat all rotted and decrepit on some shore, you can’t tell anything about where I’ve gone or how I am.”

  She touched the crystal, and her eyes widened in shock. After a few seconds she took her finger away. “What would have happened if Uri had swallowed it?”

  “She would have become Jaybush.”

  “He’d have been with us again?”

  Rivas nodded unhappily. It was very late, and he was exhausted and scared and his head hurt.

  “Swallow it,” said Barbara suddenly. “Quick, without thinking about it. You know you want to.”

  “No,” snapped Rivas, “I want—” He paused, thinking about what he’d started to say, and then he said it quietly, with a smile. “I want you to.”

  “Me? But then I’d be him. And you’re the guy who killed him.”

  “If I wanted him back that wouldn’t make any difference to me, the fact that he might kill me right away.”

  She nodded sadly. “I know what you mean. Better that your parents find you and beat the daylights out of you than that you spend the night lost.”

  Rivas laughed softly. “We both… sort of… want him back, but neither of us wants to be him.” He looked down at Uri. “We shouldn’t have stopped her.” He smiled at Barbara, and said, “We should wake her up and feed it to her.”

  And then suddenly his words weren’t a joke at all. Barbara snatched the crystal and stood up. Rivas thought he should say something to stop her, and he meant to, but not right away. He had to catch his breath first.

  At that moment a voice spoke from outside the wagon. “Swallow me. You win.”

  Barbara dropped to her knees, and Rivas fell back onto his soggy pillow, his eyes tightly shut.

  “You’re the boss,” the voice went on. “I’ll work for you…”

  It’s him, Rivas thought dizzily, somehow he’s right outside, he’s gonna break down the wall and get us, he’ll burn us to ash just by looking at us, consume the souls out of our bodies like a big spider emptying a couple of captured flies, we’ll absolutely cease to be and what is he waiting for?

  Abruptly the familiar litany stopped; Riv
as opened his eyes; and then it started up again—“Swallow me. You win…”—but in a different voice.

  Barbara stood up and tottered to the back door. She lifted the bar and pulled the door open and peered around outside.

  Rivas could hear other voices now. “He isn’t gone!” someone exclaimed. “His spirit is still with us!”

  “Tell us how to find you, Lord!” cried a woman’s voice.

  “Swallow me…” the second voice droned on.

  Barbara closed the door and came back to the bunk. “It’s a gang of Jaybirds,” she told Rivas, “evidently without a shepherd. Why are their far-gones saying the same things as this?” She held up the crystal.

  “They’re picking up his thoughts,” Rivas said. “Evidently without a brain to project them the thoughts don’t carry very far.” He sighed. “Do you still want to feed it to Uri?”

  Barbara’s shoulders slumped with loss. “No. Not right now.”

  “Is this moon bright enough to drive by?”

  “I don’t know,” she said dully. “I guess so.”

  “Then I think maybe we ought to get a head start on the morning.”

  On the floor Uri snored on.

  Chapter Twelve

  DESPITE BEING SHY ONE pedal, the bicycle ratcheted rapidly up the street and a couple of doors east of Serena’s Cantina the boy laid the bike down in a controlled slide that left him, after a couple of running steps, right in front of the place. The boy peered into the bar from the doorway until he’d spotted Fracas McAn, and then he darted in and yanked on McAn’s sleeve before the bartender could yell at him to get out.

  When McAn saw who it was, he raised his hand to prevent the bartender’s outburst. “What is it, Modesto?” he asked the boy. “Have you seen him?”

  “I think so, man. He’s traveling with two women.”

  “Two of them? I don’t see—well, no, that sounds like Rivas, actually,” he said. “Afoot? On horseback?”

  “In a donut wagon.”

  “A… a donut wagon.”

  “Si.”

  “Coming from the south, is it?” McAn asked hopefully. “He’s at the army checkpoint?”

  The boy looked apologetic. “No, man. He’s coming in from the west, on the Ten Highway.”

  “Like from Venice? Hell, I’d like to be able to let you have the fifth, Modesto, but I don’t see how this—”

  “The kid really can’t hang around in here, Frake,” said the bartender. “Sorry, but you’ll have to take it outside.”

  McAn looked indecisive for a moment, then shrugged. “Okay, Modesto,” he sighed. “I’ll listen.” He drained his glass of Ellay Red and tossed a couple of jiggers onto the bar. “Uh, don’t put the bottle away, Sam,” he said. “Okay, come on,” he added to the boy.

  Outside the air was cool with early evening, and rats could be seen in silhouette scampering along roof edges. “Well now,” said McAn to Modesto, “what makes you think it’s Rivas?”

  “Well, he looks like Rivas, in a beat-up way—he looks even worse than you said he would, big bandage on the head—and he’s with at least one lady who’s not wife or girlfriend… and there is a haste about them, hurry to get here. I asked to buy a donut, but they didn’t have any.”

  McAn glanced toward the western wall of the city. Torches were already flickering by the newly erected barracks, and tomorrow it might be difficult to get in or out. “How near are they?”

  “Maybe at the gate by now,” Modesto said. “I rode my bicycle as fast as I could, but, as I told you, this is not a donut wagon that stops to sell donuts.”

  “May as well go see, I guess.”

  McAn started walking west, Modesto wobbling along slowly on his bicycle beside him. Twice, as they made their way toward the gate, kids looked up from scavenger labors and called fast questions in Spanish and then swore when Modesto grinned and nodded. Each of them was of course hoping to be the first to sight the San Berdoo army, but private watch-for-’ems like McAn’s paid a lot better than the Ellay government’s.

  The boy’s confidence began to infect McAn. “Well, if this isn’t Rivas,” he said, mostly to himself, “then I doubt if he’ll be coming back at all. Tomorrow it’ll be a week since I saw him in Irvine.”

  Ahead of them they could see the high black band that was the wall, its uneven top edge indenting the orange sky. In one of the palm trees overhead a parrot exclaimed, “Hooray, it’s Gregorio Rivas!” McAn grinned at Modesto and held up crossed fingers.

  “Ah, mira, man, there is the wagon now!”

  The boy was pointing at a wagon that was just entering the gate, being pulled by one overworked horse. When the two of them got closer to it, McAn sprinted to the curb to be able to see it better than just as a head-on silhouette. It was battered and powdered with dust, but he could read DA-DOO-RON-RON DONUTS on the side of it.

  “It’s who you described,” McAn admitted, trotting back to the center of the road. “Let’s see if it’s who I’m after.”

  The horse was panting deeply and seemed to be letting the wagon coast, and McAn guessed that simply getting inside the Ellay walls had been these people’s goal.

  He strolled up to it as it waveringly approached, and he smiled up at the exhausted-looking young lady on the driver’s bench. “Hi!” he said. “I have an important message for Greg Rivas. Would he happen to be aboard?”

  There was a pause, then, “Who are you?” the girl asked.

  “My name is Fracas McAn.”

  The wagon had zigzagged to a halt now, and the girl got up and disappeared inside. Modesto nudged McAn, who dutifully dug a fifth-card out of his pocket but held onto it.

  After fully two minutes the girl reappeared, her arm around a tottering, unsteady figure with a bandaged head. The bandaged man sat down and smiled weakly at McAn, but it was several long seconds before McAn handed the fifth-card to the boy. Modesto snatched it, kicked his bike around and cranked it away up the street.

  Rivas’s smile remained in place but turned a bit sour when he became aware of the way McAn was staring at him. Damn it, he thought, you’d think I was an embalmed corpse. “Hello, Frake,” he said, glad that at least his voice hadn’t deteriorated. “This is a coincidence, running into you first thing.”

  “Well, actually, Greg,” said McAn, “it isn’t. Could I hop up there and talk to you for a minute?”

  “Sure. Barbara, could you step back so Frake can have the other half of the bench?”

  McAn climbed up and perched beside Rivas. “I’ve got some important information for you, Greg,” he said. “I’ve had kids watching for you for days, ’cause I figure I owe you one for helping me get my quarry away last week. But first, tell me… tell me what happened! What’s behind the walls of the Holy City? How did you get hurt? Why are you coming back from the west?”

  Rivas smiled. “I’ll tell you the whole story over a pitcher of beer at Spink’s, after I deliver my quarry to her father. But I can tell you this—I’m afraid you’re out of a job. Jaybush is—if not dead exactly—certainly out of the Messiah business.”

  McAn blinked. “You mean… how…” A slow grin built up on his face. “No kidding! I do want to hear about it. But let’s have that pitcher before you deliver Miss Barrows. There are some aspects of that situation that I know and you need to be aware of.”

  “How do you know her name?”

  “I can see Spink’s from here. I’ll tell you when we’re at a table. It isn’t really,” he said, rolling his eyes toward the rear of the wagon, “a story for the ladies.”

  “Okay.”

  McAn hopped down to the pavement. “I’ll meet you there,” he said, and started walking.

  Barbara guided the wagon to Spink’s, but their remaining horse was so tired that McAn got to the place first and was holding the front door open when Rivas stepped carefully down from the wagon.

  “Thank you, Frake,” he said, “but I’m really not quite as frail as I look.” Once inside, he looked around. The chandelier
s were lit and raised, though they were swinging a little, implying that Mojo had only recently cranked them up. The shadows of Noah Almondine’s paper dolls seemed to Rivas to be waving at him. A young man he’d never seen before was sitting on the stage, tuning a pelican and exchanging desultory jokes with Tommy Fandango. Mojo was behind the bar, muttering weary curses and trying to unjam a clogged sink with a piece of wire.

  “I can’t believe it’s been only ten days,” Rivas said, shaking his head gently. “Uh, could you buy the pitcher, Frake? I’ve got a fortune in the spirit bank but not a jigger on me.”

  “Sure, Greg. How’s this one?” asked McAn, indicating a table by the window.

  Rivas grinned, for it was the table Joe Montecruz had been sitting at when he’d originally tried to talk Rivas into this redemption. “Appropriate,” he said, pulling out a chair before McAn could do it for him.

  When they were both seated, Mojo ceased his labors and came puffing over. “What’ll it be, gents,” he recited.

  “A pitcher of beer and two glasses, Mojo,” said Rivas.

  The old man looked at him disinterestedly, and then his eyes went wide in recognition. “Leaping Moses, Greg!” he exclaimed. “Damn, boy, what happened to you?”

  “Nothing some beer won’t start to fix.”

  Mojo turned to the stage. “Hey, Tommy, look who’s back! With a full beard!”

  Fandango peered across the room at them. “Oh, hi, Greg… uh…” He wiped his mouth uncertainly and glanced at the pelicanist, who was now staring at Rivas with alarmed hostility. “Are you back, then?”

  Rivas smiled and waved. “No, no. I’m… retired.” I keep sitting at this table and telling people I’m retired, he thought. “So,” he said, turning to McAn. “What’s up? Why did you post a watch-for-’em on me?”

  McAn said, “I’ve been hired to do the breaking and restoring of Urania Barrows.”

  Mojo brought the pitcher and glasses, and Rivas didn’t reply until the old man had bumbled off and they’d filled the glasses. “Well, you’re welcome to it, as it happens,” he said, “but old Irwin Barrows doesn’t know that. When we made the deal, I insisted on doing that part too. Doesn’t he think I’ll object?”

 
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