Dinner at deviants palac.., p.27
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       Dinner at Deviant's Palace, p.27

           Tim Powers
 
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  McAn frowned, as if trying to think of a civilized way to say something uncivilized, then obviously gave up and just said, “Irwin Barrows intends to have you killed as soon as you’ve brought his daughter back.”

  Rivas laughed softly and took a long sip of the beer. “Does he indeed,” he said, letting the heavy glass clank back down onto the table. “Because he thinks we’ll be wanting to run off together?”

  “Right. So, uh, what I want to tell you is, if you do want to run off with her, just get what money you’ve got, and go, right away. Don’t go near his place.”

  Rivas stared at McAn, then looked around the bar. “I’ve been recognized,” he said, “and even though it’s not crowded right now, it’s a safe bet that you have too. He’d know you warned me.”

  “As I said, I owe you one.”

  “Thanks, Frake.” Rivas had another pull at the beer. At least he was making the glass easier to lift. “But as a matter of fact, I don’t want to run off with her. I’d like to return her to him. How does he plan to do it, anyway?”

  “He’s pinning his main hopes on you being killed in a duel with her fiancé. I gather you called him out before you left, and he’s going to insist on satisfaction.”

  “Ah. Yeah, I called him sport. You’ve seen him?”

  McAn nodded. “Not even eyebrows. Of course, in the shape you’re in, you’d certainly be justified in asking for an extension on the date of the duel. I’m not sure what Barrows would think of that. I guess if you’re not interested in his daughter anymore—and haven’t messed with her during this redemption—”

  “I haven’t.”

  “—Then he probably won’t care what you do. Unless you insulted him, too…?”

  “Maybe I did. It all happened a long time ago.” He reached out, hoisted the heavy pitcher and topped up his glass, reflecting that all this weight-lifting ought to help him get back in shape.

  “In any case, if you had wanted to marry her, and managed to kill Montecruz, I’m pretty sure Barrows would have fixed up a fatal accident for you to have. I’m just saying this to let you know what kind of scene is waiting for you up on that hill.”

  Rivas shook his head wonderingly. “And he was appointed distiller of the treasury by the Sixth Ace! Incredible. I’ve always known he was tough, but…”

  “You tapped the stressed part of his personality and it broke.”

  “Can happen,” Rivas said. “Not always a bad thing, maybe.”

  McAn shrugged. “Anyway—if you’re staying, want me to be your second?”

  “I’d appreciate it, Frake. Let’s not rush this beer, though—the ladies will stay in the wagon, and even though I’m not a big fan of bugwalk, I’d like to hear this pelicanist.” As he drank, his fingers absently toyed with the bulky lead-wrapped pendant he’d made the day before, which hung now on a wire around his neck.

  After a tiring visit to the commander of the Ellay forces to warn him that the San Berdoo army would probably attack from the south, Rivas borrowed some money from McAn and bought some clothes to replace the ones Barbara had bought for him in Venice, and they managed to get enough food, despite the widespread pre-siege hoarding, to cook up some dinner in the wagon’s kitchen. Urania ate sparingly and hardly spoke at all, though McAn tried to draw her out, and it was obvious to Rivas that he was looking for anxieties and weak spots that he’d be able to use against her in their upcoming breaking and restoration sessions. Finally there were no more excuses for delay, so two fresh horses were hired and Rivas, McAn, Barbara and Urania set out for the Hollywood Hills and the Barrows estate.

  The air was chilly up in the hills, away from the street pavement that would hold the sun’s warmth nearly until dawn, and as the horses pulled the battered old wagon around the last steep bend, Rivas shivered and pulled the blanket closer around himself. He had insisted on joining McAn on the driver’s bench, and as McAn flicked the reins again, Rivas shook his head. “I think we passed the place,” he said, squinting around at the trees made visible by the wagon’s swinging lantern.

  McAn looked over at him. “No, it’s still ahead of us.”

  Urania was braced in the kitchen doorway behind Rivas, and he felt her shift her feet. Yeah, Uri, he thought—I’m a little surprised too that I forgot.

  “Here we are,” McAn said, slanting the horses sharply left onto an ascending brick-paved driveway. An iron gate blocked the way ahead, bracketed by two lamps on short stone pillars.

  “We could still go away together, Greg,” said Urania suddenly. “It’s still a few yards short of being too late.”

  McAn reined in the horses and put on the brake, then looked away, out into the darkness. Rivas heard the creak of the bunk in the wagon as Barbara stood up to listen.

  “No, Uri,” he said.

  After a pause the brake squeaked off, the reins flapped and the wagon got moving again.

  A restored telephone booth stood beside the driveway ahead, and when the wagon halted in front of the gate an officious fat man hurried out of it toward them. “I’m sorry,” he was saying in tones of satisfaction, “I wasn’t told to expect any donuts tonight. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to leave.”

  “We’re Fracas McAn,” said McAn evenly, “and Gregorio Rivas, and Urania Barrows.”

  “And a friend,” put in Rivas.

  The guard, startled, peered more closely—then, albeit with ill grace, walked back to the gate and unlocked it. “You might have had the thoughtfulness,” he remarked stiffly, “to have brought the young lady home in a less shabby vehicle.”

  Rivas laughed, with an edge of hysteria. “Hell, he’s right. What were we thinking of? Something with, like, bells and ribbons and a pipe organ….”

  The gate was open, and McAn flicked the reins. “Cool off, Greg,” he muttered as they moved forward and the gate was drawn closed behind them.

  The guard commenced clanging a bell, and the racket was kept up, raising a sympathetic chorus of bird cries in the surrounding shrubbery, until the driveway leveled out under the wagon’s wheels and they were in the paved front yard, where a grander wagon was half loaded with furniture and crates. The front door of the big old house was open and several men were hurrying down the steps and toward the newly arrived wagon.

  “Uri!” came Irwin Barrows’s well-remembered voice. “Uri! Damn me, if that fool grabbed the wrong bell by mistake—”

  “It says donuts, Mister Barrows,” pointed out another voice dubiously.

  “Donuts! Damn me! I’ll—”

  “Urania is here, Mister Barrows,” called Rivas.

  The tall, white-haired old man walked slowly forward, after having waved someone else back. “Mister Rivas,” he said. “You’ve come for your final five thousand fifths.”

  McAn glanced at Rivas in surprise.

  “No,” said Rivas.

  “I see,” said Barrows, a weary harshness in his voice. “You think you’ll go away with her, is that it? And you think that waiving the second half of your fee will make me more—”

  “No,” Rivas interrupted. “Urania and I have no plans for getting married or going anywhere together. But I overcharged you eleven days ago, in the… heat of the moment. Here’s your daughter. We’re square.”

  “Uri!” Barrows called, a new suspicion evidently having occurred to him. “She’s hurt, badly hurt, is that it? Or no, a babbling idiot because of having repeatedly taken the sacrament, right? God damn you, you—”

  “Maybe he just brought back her corpse, Mister Barrows,” helpfully suggested the other man, whom Rivas recognized now as the bald Joe Montecruz.

  “No, dad, I’m okay,” said Uri in a loud but listless voice. She edged behind Rivas and dropped to the ground, then plodded across the paving stones to Montecruz, who took her into his arms with an ostentatious show of emotion.

  Barrows slowly walked the rest of the way to the donut wagon. He was frowning thoughtfully as he stared up at Rivas’s face, which, under its bandage, was lit in craggy chiaroscuro
by the wagon’s lantern. “You’ve suffered, sir,” he said.

  “Redemptions are never easy,” said Rivas.

  “He…killed Norton Jaybush,” McAn told Barrows, awe putting a slight quaver in his voice.

  “You did?” asked Barrows, startled.

  “More or less.”

  Barbara was standing behind Rivas now, and she put her hands on his shoulders. “He cut Jaybush’s throat,” she said.

  Barrows hesitated; then, “Perhaps neither of us is quite the same person he was two weeks ago,” he said. His uncertain gaze slid away from Rivas to the big old house and the grounds, and Rivas belatedly realized that Barrows and his people were in the process of leaving to take refuge inside the city walls, and that soon this house and these vineyards might very well be sacked by the San Berdoo army. “Thank you for my child,” Barrows said. “Now please go.”

  Rivas lifted his head and looked past Barrows. “I think Mister Montecruz has something to say to me.”

  Montecruz looked up, blinking as he changed his focus, then released Urania and walked toward the wagon. His walk was uncertain, as though he were dutifully taking part in a ritual that had been improperly prepared. Finally he stopped and stared impassively at Rivas. “You insulted me,” he said flatly.

  Rivas, huddled in his blanket, smiled. “You’re right. I did.”

  “I…must demand satisfaction.”

  “And I’ll give it,” said Rivas. “I apologize. I was wrong to say what I said. The speech you made, which goaded me into insult, was the truth, which of course is why it stung me so deeply.” Rivas spread his hands. “You were right. I was wrong. I mean that.”

  Again McAn was staring incredulously at Rivas.

  Montecruz was at a loss. “You’re a coward,” he said, loudly but without conviction.

  “No, he’s not,” said McAn. Night insects sang in the darkness.

  “No,” echoed Irwin Barrows tiredly, “he’s not.” To Rivas he added, “Please go.”

  “Adios,” said Rivas. “Goodbye, Uri.”

  There was no reply. McAn urged the horses forward and around, awkwardly because of the other wagon. Lamps were lit in the house but the curtains were gone, and Rivas looked in at the dining hall as they inched past, the front window. All the furniture was gone, and nothing looked familiar.

  At last McAn had the old wagon facing downhill, and, leaning on the brake, began to guide it down the sloping driveway.

  “See those bushes there, to the right?” Rivas remarked to him quietly. “Before the night’s out, have me tell you what I once did behind them.”

  Epilogue

  AT NOON THE NEXT day, Rivas was sitting on the roof of his apartment, gripping the neck of his new pelican and skating the bow across the strings to produce various chords.

  It was sounding better. At first he’d produced only squawks that had raised protesting howls from the dogs in the street below, but now he was getting his maimed hand to hold the bow properly… though he still didn’t have the heart to try any strumming.

  Gripping the instrument with his chin to free his right hand, he reached down, snagged his jug of beer, raised it—and then paused, baffled.

  “What shall I take?” asked Barbara drily.

  “Uh… the pelican.”

  She stood up from the shaded wicker chair, reached out and took the instrument by the neck.

  “Thanks,” he said. Free now to tip his head back, he took a long sip of the beer, which had stayed fairly cool in the shadow of his chair. He put the jug down and took the pelican back.

  He took a deep breath and then sawed out the opening of Peter and the Wolf. Doesn’t sound half bad, he thought.

  “That’s what you whistled, isn’t it?” Barbara asked. “That night.”

  “Sure is,” said Rivas. He could feel the sun-heated weight of the leaden pendant resting on his chest, and he remembered yesterday’s dawn when, once Urania was safely tied up in the wagon’s bunk, he’d made Barbara go out and pry the lead balancing weights off the wheel rims of a dozen of the ubiquitous old car shells; when she’d returned with a handful he had helped her heat them and watched critically as she had hammered them into a sheet to wrap the crystal in.

  “Uri was quieter after we wrapped the crystal up,” said Barbara now. “Did the lead stop his… influence?”

  Rivas shrugged. “Maybe. I mainly wanted to block out any radiation that might strengthen him.” He squinted at the sun. “Even warmth is something. I’ll have to dunk him in cold water later.”

  Barbara shuddered. “I wish you could ditch him.”

  “You don’t wish it any more than I do.” He supposed that whatever was left of the hemogoblin was in there too.

  Barbara shifted in her chair. “You said the quality of food inside the city is going to be dropping pretty quickly,” she reminded him. “What time is it?”

  Rivas grinned and lowered the instrument. “Not till we’re actually besieged,” he told her. “In fact they’re stripping the fields now and crowding cattle into the whole South Gate area, so for a couple of days, at least until the perishables perish, we’ll be eating better than usual. But you’re right, it is lunchtime.” He stood up—almost lithely!—and shut the pelican up in its case, slipped the bow under the strap he’d had made for it, and picked up the case by the handle.

  “What, are you bringing that along?”

  He started to put it down, then straightened again. He could feel his face reddening. “Well,” he said awkwardly, “you never know. They might ask me to play.”

  After a moment she grinned, and if her eyes were a little brighter than usual, at least no tears brimmed over. “Oh, I suppose,” she said derisively. “And you’ll have had so many beers by then that you won’t be able to get a single note right.”

  “And then I’ll fall off the stage,” he agreed, “confirming everything they say about me.”

  “Maybe we should sell tickets.”

  They went down the stairs—Rivas vowing to himself that within a week he’d take the steps two at a time, and that tomorrow he’d stop this hobbling, both feet on one step before going on to the next routine—and then started walking toward Spink’s.

  She glanced at him. “You going to keep the beard?”

  Rivas felt his furred chin. “As long as the siege lasts, I guess. Hot water and sharp blades won’t be wasted on whiskers for a while.”

  “No hardship for old Joe Montecruz,” observed Barbara.

  Rivas laughed. “That’s right. For a while the baldy-sports will be the only really aristocratic-looking citizens. I’m sure that’ll be a consolation to Uri.”

  “How long do you think the siege will last?”

  “I don’t know. The San Berdoo guys have to be banking on a quick victory, ’cause they sure couldn’t have set up any useful supply lines in that roundabout route they took. Frankly, I think they’re crazy.”

  After several blocks they rounded the corner onto Woolshirt, and Spink’s was visible ahead. Rivas peered at the place through the wavering mirages. “They’ve got a window broken,” he said. “No, two windows! Christ,” he said, trying to walk faster. “They can’t be outside the walls already, can they? With a catapult?”

  “I don’t know,” said Barbara tensely, obviously restraining herself from running on ahead of him. “Can they?”

  “No, no,” Rivas said, more calmly, “we’d have heard the bells. When the San Berdoo army is sighted, every bell in the city is going to be rung like crazy. No, there must just have been a fight.”

  When they got to the restaurant they saw that a long board had been nailed across the doorway. A man Rivas had never seen before leaned against the wall and shook his head at them. “Sorry, folks,” he said. “Closed for repairs.”

  “I w—” Rivas began. “I used to work here.”

  “Sorry. Big mess inside.”

  “Oh hell,” said Rivas, stepping forward and putting his hands on the board. Someone inside was sweeping with slow s
trokes. “Mojo! Hey, Mojo, it’s Greg. Tell this guy to let us in.”

  The sweeping stopped, and in a few moments Mojo appeared in the doorway. “Hi, Greg. Sure, Tony, they can come in. What do you think of this, eh, Greg?”

  Rivas and Barbara ducked under the board and peered around the dim room. Chairs were overturned and broken, glass shards crunched underfoot, and on the floor by the stage there was a tangle of strings and wood strips that Rivas eventually recognized as having once been a pelican.

  “What the hell happened?” he asked.

  “Some ladies objected to the music,” said Mojo.

  Rivas and Barbara exchanged a frightened look. “What do you mean?” Rivas asked quickly.

  “Well, they were—but wait, you used to live in Venice, Greg, maybe you’ve seen ’em. A guy said they’ve had ’em in Venice for years. They just arrived here this morning, and by bad luck musta just made it inside before the gates were closed to general traffic. They’re all crazy and dirty and wild-eyed, marching like they got God’s own orders to carry out, and they purely kick the living crap out of whoever they please. That new pelicanist lost some teeth.”

  “Pocalocas,” said Rivas.

  “Yeah!” exclaimed Mojo. “That’s what this guy said they were called. He said they hate music.”

  “They sure do. How did they look? The trip from Venice seem to have worn them down at all?” Suddenly Rivas looked much frailer.

  “Oh sure, they were all dusty, hair like greasy old yarn, but God, they got energy! One of them was real thin-faced and sick-looking, but she busted Jeff’s pelican with her bare hands, smiling all the while like a big mean cat.”

  Rivas touched his leaden pendant. “Which way did they go from here?”

  “North. Matter of fact, Greg, they were headed your way. How’d you come here?”

  “Straight down Flower and then west on Woolshirt.”

  “Oh, well, you must have passed ’em, two blocks west of ’em. They went up Grand. Man, I hope never to see nothing like that again. But say, you don’t think they’re here now, do you, like them big ants that just appeared half a dozen summers ago and now can’t be got rid of?”

 
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