Dinner at deviants palac.., p.3
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       Dinner at Deviant's Palace, p.3

           Tim Powers
 

  Rivas took a gulp of the whiskey and chased it with a long draught of the beer. “Right,” he said coldly, “in fact why let even Rivas himself know, eh? Who was your touchy negotiator this evening? Some jumped-up vineyard foreman? He didn’t handle the approach in a terribly businesslike way—almost wound up challenging me to a duel.”

  Irwin Barrows stared at him speculatively. “I considered not telling you this,” he said finally, “but I will, because I don’t think it will alter your decision. Montecruz can be excused, perhaps, for showing some heat—you see, he’s her fiancé. They’re to be—they were to be—married next month.”

  Rivas was surprised by the gust of unhappiness that battered at his control—and even shook it, for he could feel the color draining from his rigidly expressionless face—and he realized wearily that the grief he’d been tending like a garden for thirteen years had gradually become domesticated, ceased to be the wild, naturally occurring sort. And then a moment later he was disgusted with himself for having such an obsessive focus on the feelings of Gregorio Rivas. My God, he told himself, that Montecruz son-of-a-bitch was right: for you, everything exists only to the extent that it pleases or displeases your favorite person—you.

  Still, I won’t fetch her back for him.

  He hastily downed the remainder of the whiskey, but instead of the obscuring fog he’d hoped for, it brought an unwelcome clarity to his thoughts; and he knew, despairingly, that he couldn’t let the Jaybirds have her.

  If only I didn’t know, he thought, if I hadn’t been one myself for almost three years, I could probably turn him down. If I hadn’t seen for myself Jaybush’s methodical disassembly of human minds, his consumption of souls as if they were firewood, I could probably spit in Barrow’s face this minute and stalk out of here in a grand gesture of rejection. You exiled me from her thirteen years ago—now I exile you from her. How do you like it? Yes, to rub his hitherto celestially superior nose in it… to send his smug complacency out the Dogtown gate… to let him beg me for her, and be contemptuously dismissed…

  If only I didn’t know!

  But when he replayed that last thought and considered the several things it indicated about himself, he had to suppress a shudder, for it had momentarily sickened him simply to be Gregorio Rivas.

  Finally he looked up. “You’re right,” he said, wishing his voice hadn’t hoarsened for the occasion. “It doesn’t alter my decision. I’ll do it.”

  Barrows inclined his head. “Thank you.”

  “So when did they get her?”

  “Last night, late. She was at a party north of here, at Third and Fig, and somehow she wound up alone out front, and a gang of them started talking to her—I guess you should know their stinking arguments and tricks as well as anyone—and when her lazy and now unemployed bodyguard finally caught up with her, it was just in time to see Urania climbing into the back of a Jaybird wagon as the horses were being whipped up.”

  “It took off in what direction?”

  “East on Third.”

  “One wagon alone?”

  “That’s what the bodyguard said.”

  Rivas sat back and drummed his fingers on the table and his eyes lost their sharp focus as, for the first time in three years, he began planning one more redemption. “You should have come to me right away,” he said, “and not wasted time trying to undermine my job here and sending that clown in here this evening. Still, it’s a good sign that it was a single eastbound wagon; that implies the shepherd wanted to recruit at least another one or two people before returning to his caravan camp. They might still be in the area, camped in one of the neglected districts outside the wall.”

  “Can you find out tonight?”

  Rivas smiled at the naive question. “No way. You don’t just ask the nearest Jaybird where one of their wagons went. And even if they are right outside—even if there were a full moon out tonight, instead of this rainy overcast—do you know how many square miles of ruins there are out there?”

  “Tomorrow morning, then. Now as Montecruz evidently started to explain to you, all you’ll have to do is—”

  “—Locate her. Yeah, he did say that, but that’s not how it’s going to be. I’ll do the kidnap and breaking too.”

  Barrow’s eyes narrowed and his face assumed the stony cast Rivas remembered so well. “No,” he said firmly. “That is simply out of the question.”

  Rivas pushed his chair back and stood up. “Frake McAn lives over Mister Lou’s on Sandoval Street. Don’t tell him I sent you—it’ll only prejudice him against you. And don’t waste time,” he added, poking a finger at Barrows. “Some of those recruiting caravans go directly to the Holy City.” He picked up his beer glass and reached for the door latch.

  Barrows raised a frail hand. “All right,” he said tiredly, “wait, sit down, you can have it. The whole thing, like you say.”

  Rivas opened the door and leaned out. “Mojo!” he called. “Another beer here!” He closed it and resumed his seat. “Then I guess we’ve got a deal, Barrows.” Unconsciously he ran his fingers through his hair, disarranging it. “Ten thousand fifths of your Currency brandy; a bank draft for five thousand now, and another of the same when and if I can bring Urania back inside the Ellay walls.”

  “You misunderstood. Five thousand is the total price.”

  “Montecruz went up to ten.”

  “Montecruz must have got carried away in his anxiety. I think that’s understandable. But there’s no—”

  “That’s something you can take up with him later,” Rivas said. “I’m taking the offer that was made to me.”

  “The price I’m offering,” said Barrows angrily, “is still much more than you’ve ever been paid before.”

  The door was pulled open from the outside and Mojo hobbled in, set the fresh beer on the table, took the old glasses and exited.

  “Evidently she’s worth five to you,” Rivas remarked matter-of-factly, “but not quite ten. Did you catch McAn’s address? Over Mister Lou’s on—”

  Barrows was staring at him with loathing. “This is interesting,” he interrupted in a tight voice. “I had thought that extended use of the Jaybird sacrament always simply eroded the intelligence of the communicant, but I see it can do far worse than that—I see it can destroy the person’s empathy, his very humanity, leaving just a… sort of shrewd, cunning insect.”

  Rivas knew that anger was what Barrows wanted, so he leaned back and laughed. “Not bad, Barrows! I like it, write it down so I can use it in a song sometime.” He leaned forward and let his smile unkink. “And I hope you realize that a ‘shrewd, cunning insect,’ as you so diplomatically put it, is exactly what you need right now. Yes, I was a Jaybird for nearly three years after that night you drove me off the Barrows estate, and I have taken their devastating sacrament a number of times—as Urania is probably doing at this very moment, quite a thought, hmm?—though I pretty quick figured ways to blunt its effects, make my mind inaccessible to it. But that’s why I’m the only guy who’s been any kind of successful at prying people out of Jaybush’s hands… or off his dinner plate, let’s say; I’m sure you like that better, you being such a fan of colorful metaphors, right?”

  The door was pulled open again, but this time it was the furiously grinning Steve Spink that leaned in. “You gonna get back out here, Greg? People are beginning to leave, and I remember what you said about always filling the place to overflowing.”

  Rivas had a quick, involuntary vision of himself as he’d probably be if he lost this job and blew the Barrows redemption deal—a no longer young man fiddling for jiggers on a Dogtown corner, his beard thick and bushy and no longer a daring, carefully trimmed symbol of straddling the line dividing the upper classes from the lower—but he took a leisurely sip of the beer and managed to sound unconcerned when he said, “I’ll be back up there in a minute, Steve. They aren’t going to forget who I am between now and then.”

  “Hope you’re sure of that, Greg,” Spink said with a couple o
f extra teeth showing in his grin. Then he noticed Rivas’s companion. “Say, that’s the old guy who was—”

  “I know, Steve. One more minute.”

  The door closed again, muting the crowd sounds, and Rivas turned to Barrows with raised eyebrows. “Well?”

  “Okay,” the old man said quietly. “Ten. Five now and five when you bring her back.”

  “Done. See me after the show tonight to set up the details.”

  Barrows nodded, got to his feet and edged around the table to the door, but paused. “Oh, by the way,” he said uncertainly.

  Rivas looked up, clearly impatient.

  “Uh, there’s something that’s been… puzzling me for thirteen years. Maybe I shouldn’t ask.”

  Rivas was afraid he knew what was coming, but he said, “Yes?” casually.

  “Why—excuse me, I don’t by any means insist on an answer—but on that night I had you driven off, why were you behind those bushes on your hands and knees, throwing up and… barking?”

  Rivas was humiliated to realize that his face was turning red. Why, he thought, can’t he and I forget that damned incident? “You’ve been wondering about that for thirteen years?” he asked.

  “Yes.”

  Rivas shook his head and waved at the door. “Keep on wondering.”

  After Barrows had left, Rivas sat back and tilted up his glass again, and then, gingerly, he gave in and allowed himself to remember that disastrous night—the first and last time he’d ever tasted the Currency brandy.

  It had been in the fall of—Rivas counted the years on his fingers—the sixth year of the Sixth Ace, and Urania Barrows had decided to invite Gregorio, her fieldboy lover, to her gala seventeenth birthday party. Though only the son of one of the tenant farmers, the eighteen-year-old Gregorio had managed to save some money—a fifth and some change, big money to a field hand—and on the day of the party he spent it all on renting a suit and getting a haircut and a presumptuously aristocratic shave. And he went to the party, and in spite of being terribly nervous in the sophisticated company, he had made a good impression… until the brandy was served.

  Young Gregorio had been drinking wine since childhood, but distilled spirits were new to him, and he didn’t know that one was supposed to drink them more slowly. He eventually realized that he was foolishly drunk and embarrassing Urania, so he left the party… and as soon as he was out in the fresh air, it occurred to him that he was sick.

  Not wanting to be seen vomiting, he’d reeled off the path into a tiny clearing behind some bushes and then, on his hands and knees, begun the lengthy process of expelling the brandy from his stomach.

  And at one point, when he’d paused for breath, he heard a lady on the path asking someone about the peculiar noises coming from behind the bushes. A man’s voice replied that it sounded like a dog.

  Rivas shuddered now, and drained his beer. He remembered that he had desperately wanted the people to forget about the noises and go away, and somehow he’d concluded that the best way to accomplish that would be to convince them that it was indeed only a dog, and not anything that needed investigating. So he’d begun… barking.

  He stood up now and opened the door, but he was unable to avoid remembering the rest of it, his last conscious moments of that disastrous evening… when he’d finally opened his eyes and seen Irwin Barrows’s boots six inches from his face.

  He left the little room, swinging the door shut behind him, and as he reeled back toward the stage—the alcohol had caught up with him again—his eyes only half saw the dim bar and the stage ahead and the uneasy faces watching him; overlaid on that scene like a second transparency he was seeing again the One-a-One Freeway, seeming because of the thick fog to be a solitary track across the chilly sky, down which he’d fled on foot on that awful dawn thirteen years ago. He’d been shivering with cold and dizzily sick from a concussion as well as a hangover, for the outraged Irwin Barrows had given him a solid kick in the head before dragging him out from behind the bushes and ordering the kitchen crew to carry him away and dump him somewhere outside the Barrows land boundary.

  He’d walked all that day, and as the sun rose and gradually scattered the fog, he’d seen for the first time the weathered and vine-hung ruins of big old Ellay, noisy now only with the chatter of parrots and monkeys. Decrepitude lent the still imposing building shells an air of tragic grandeur that they couldn’t have had in life, and the sheer number of them—they stretched like ranks of uncared-for tombstones to the horizon—awed the young Gregorio; several times his curiosity had outweighed his sickness and haste and numb sense of loss, and he’d gone exploring through old rooms and up and down alarming, rubble-strewn stairways. By the time he finally sighted the high west wall of Ellay, only its top trim of crenelations was still lit by the low red sun. The summer-shrunken river beyond the city was invisible in the darkness, and fear of hooters and hemogoblins made him ignore his headache and cover the last couple of miles at a run.

  That had been the first night he’d ever spent out of his father’s house, and, after a couple of hours of unhappy wandering through the streets, he’d spent it in a corner of a shed in Dogtown. He hadn’t been the only vagrant to seek shelter there, and he was awakened several times by the abrupt awareness of, and then the weary effort of refusing, the affectionate attentions of one or another of his shed-mates. One young man, offended at having been rebuffed, had asked Gregorio if he’d care to leave the city right at that minute by the Dogtown gate. Rivas had politely refused… and been very glad of his refusal when he learned, years later, that there was no such gate, and that the phrase “leave by the Dogtown gate” meant to disappear, figuratively or literally, into one of Dogtown’s ubiquitous, feculent trash trenches.

  The next morning, stunned by hunger and exhaustion, he’d set out walking, and in the South Gate area by Sandoval Street he’d met the group of the zealots popularly known as Jaybirds… the wonderfully concerned, shoulder-patting, sympathetically smiling Jaybirds.

  Steve was right, he thought uneasily when he stepped back up onto the stage and surveyed the crowd—quite a few people have left. How long was I in that room talking to Barrows? It’d probably be an error to ask, admit I don’t know. Goddamn whiskey. No more beer or anything for you tonight, man!

  He started to signal for “Everybody Wants to Smoke My Comoy,” and then remembered that he’d already used it and signaled instead for “Drinking Alone.”

  Fandango sighed audibly as he started the song. Oh, look on the bright side, Tommy, Rivas thought—the next main attraction performer they get in here will probably want to do nothing but Scrap and Bugwalk.

  Chapter Two

  SOMEHOW THE CLEAR BLUE sky visible through the unglassed windows only made the interior of the Toothtalker’s room look shabbier. The Toothtalker herself, it occurred to Rivas, looked like just one more piece of faintly morbid antique trash to avoid tripping over. The thought made him smile in spite of his headache. Yes, he thought, among all these pictures and specimen jars and rotted books and bits of incomprehensible old-time machinery, she looks like a desiccated old mummy. The lower jaw, perhaps due to some error in taxidermie technique, had gradually pulled away from the face as the unwholesome memento dried out, finally leaving the effigy frozen forever in a stressful but inaudible scream.

  A mummy which, he added as once again she treated her guests to some of the eerie low gargling she was so good at, has become inhabited by baritone mice. In spite of being irritable and grainy-eyed from a nearly sleepless night, Rivas had to strangle a chuckle. The effort made his headache worse.

  He glanced at the chair beside him and saw that Irwin Barrows was sitting hunched forward, anxiously watching the motionless, gargling old woman. Rivas was surprised—he had thought that Barrows’s insistence that they consult a Toothtalker before Rivas embarked on the redemption was nothing more than a formality, a traditional gesture like letting a wagon “warm up” for a few minutes on cold mornings before flicking the reins a
nd getting started… but the old financier was obviously as credulous as the stupidest scavenger who ever shambled up these tower stairs to hear the judgment of the spirit world on which beyond-the-wall districts were particularly favored or imperiled by the configurations of the stars.

  Rivas felt almost betrayed to realize it. Come on, he thought, you’re one of the wealthiest men in Ellay, surely you can see through this nonsense if I can.

  He leaned back and looked out the window at the sunlit but still damp landscape. To the west he could see a green band that was the edge of the south farms, but to the south was nothing but the spread of tumbled, empty buildings, a scene lost somewhere between city scape and landscape, animated by rolling tumble weeds and, once in a while, the ragged figure of a scavenger too weak to venture very far from the city walls. Further to the south he could see the gleam of San Pedro Harbor. And beyond that, he knew, was Long Beach Island and then the open sea, and, way down the coast at the mouth of the Santa Ana River, Irvine.

  I hope I can catch her, he thought, before having to travel too far in that direction. He shuddered, remembering one redemption—one that had not succeeded—that actually brought him within sight of the high white walls of Jaybush’s Holy City at Irvine. I never, he thought firmly, want to be that close to that damned place again. It wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t more than half suspect he is some kind of messiah. My father used to swear he’d seen the spray of shooting stars that lit the sky on the night of Jaybush’s conception, thirty-some years ago—and even rival religions admit that before he retired from public life he several times did, verifiably, bring dead people back to life… though of course the rival religions claim he had Satan’s help.

  A patch of morning sunlight had been inching its way across the wall, and when Rivas glanced again at the old woman in the corner, he saw that the light had reached her face, and, in her gaping mouth, was glittering on all the bits of metal glued to her teeth. Well, Barrows can’t say he isn’t getting his money’s worth, he thought. There must be half a pound of scrap metal in there. Rivas knew—as Barrows evidently didn’t—that this was just a gaudy prop, that real toothtalking was supposed to be a consequence of having tiny metal fillings in the teeth. In years past a few people with such fillings had reported hearing faint voices in their mouths; but they said it happened very seldom and only on mountain tops, and Rivas hadn’t heard of a verified case of it showing up within at least the last ten years.

 
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