Dinner at deviants palac.., p.4
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       Dinner at Deviant's Palace, p.4

           Tim Powers

  It was, though, a priceless piece of popular superstition for fortunetellers to exploit.

  Rivas yawned audibly—so that for a moment he and the old woman seemed to be yawning in tandem—but he closed his mouth with a snap when Barrows darted an angry glance at him, and he had to make do with just arranging himself more comfortably in his chair. He’d given up trying to sleep last night after a dream about Urania had sent him jack-knifing out of bed just as the one o’clock bell was being rung. He’d spent the remainder of the night on the roof of his building with his pelican, sawing and strumming increasingly fantastic gun improvisations on the tune of Peter and the Wolf.

  Perhaps because Rivas seemed unimpressed with her routine thus far, the old Toothtalker let her jaw relax and hurried to a closet from which, after knocking a few things over, she produced a yellow plastic telephone with a receiver which began buzzing and clicking after she gave it a couple of shakes. She frowned reprovingly at Rivas as she began whispering into it.

  For a few minutes he tried to pay attention, if only to figure out what she was saying about him to the spirit world, but the interrupted dream from last night seemed to cling to him like a faint, disagreeable odor, ignorable most of the time but intruding itself whenever he shifted position. Finally he sighed and gave in, and let the recollection take him.

  In the dream Urania had been one of a row of people kneeling in a typical Jaybird nest, a cramped room out in the ruins somewhere, littered with the sort of relics that aren’t worthy anybody’s time to scavenge. The priest—known as the jaybush, for during administration of the sacrament he was supposed to become an actual, literal extension of the Messiah, Norton Jaybush himself—moved down the line, pausing in front of each communicant just long enough to touch him or her on the forehead.

  Every one of the kneeling figures at least jerked at the touch, and many pitched over in violent fits. Rivas still remembered very clearly his own first receiving of the sacrament—remembered watching the jaybush work his way down the line toward him, and wondering how much of the gaffed-fish response was just hysteria or outright faking; and then the jaybush had come to him, and touched his forehead, and the rending physical shock of it had blacked him out, leaving him to wake up on the floor, dazed and bruised and stupefied, half an hour later.

  In the dream, when the jaybush came to Urania and touched her, she had raspingly exhaled a cloud of pink vapor, and then had steadily kept on exhaling more of it, long after her lungs should have been wrung completely empty, and when Rivas rushed up in concern and took her in his arms he could feel her flesh diminishing inside her clothes like an outgoing tide; for a long time he cradled the still impossibly exhaling and ever-lighter girl, and when the emptying finally stopped and he raised his head from her shoulder and looked down into her face, it was nothing more than a naked skull that gaped blindly up at him.

  And, he recalled now with something like nausea, that discovery had not in any way altered his determination to bring her back to Ellay and make her his wife. He rubbed his eyes and pushed a stray lock of hair back into place.

  “Ah,” the old woman said, nodding and pacing back and forth with the telephone receiver pressed to her ear. “Neutrons, you say? Goddamn. And…master cylinders? Lord have mercy.” She squinted down her nose at Rivas to see if he was properly impressed by these esoteric terms. He noticed that she hadn’t bothered to connect the end of the telephone cord to anything, and it was dragging around on the floor behind her. He wondered whether she’d trip over it. “Ten-four,” she said finally, and then put the telephone down on the window sill, apparently to cool off.

  She turned to her guests. “Well, the spirits had a lot to say. You, sir,” she said, pointing at Rivas, “are the focus of a lot of uncertainty. You see, in every equation there’s an unknown factor—the hex, as we mathematicians say—and in order to untangle the various lifelines involved and see which one comes out healthy at the end, it’s necessary to…”

  She went into a long speech then, full of “identity resonances” and “orbital velocities of the soul,” frequently waving toward her dust-covered and obviously random collection of shabby books to support her statements. Presently she dug out a deck of playing cards and, while shuffling them, explained that Matt Sandoval, Ellay’s legendary First Ace, had designed the fifty-two cards on his deathbed as a means for mystically savvy people to be able to consult him even after his demise. The four “aces,” she informed her guests, were called that because they represented the four natures of the Ace himself; She then began laying the cards out on a tabletop in a significant-looking pattern, scowling or nodding as each card was added.

  Rivas stopped paying attention. During the last several years he had laboriously learned to read the old-time writing, with all its silent letters, superfluous tenses and fabulous, credulity-straining words; and he’d actually read a number of the books and magazines that were just decorations in the more affluent households, and props for fortunetellers. And though he had arrived at no very clear understanding of the bright, crowded, “electrical” world of more than a century ago—even their maps described a southern California coastline that didn’t exist—he’d gleaned enough to know that most people who made their livings by claiming to know about the ancient wonders actually knew less about them than he did.

  Her story about Sandoval having invented playing cards, for example, and naming the aces after his own title, was, Rivas knew, exactly backward. Rivas had read a journal kept during the First Ace’s reign, and had learned that the citizens of Ellay had wanted to confer the title of king upon the man who had founded the currency, had the wall built, broken the terror hold of the piratical “motorcyclists” known as the hooters, and re-instituted agriculture. Sandoval had accepted the job but not the title. “There’ve been too many kings,” he was reported to have said; “and Queen or Jack or Joker won’t do—I’ll be the first Ace.”

  The old woman seemed to be winding down anyway. “I see success for you both,” she said. “The spirits say you’re cookin’ with gas. For you, man,” she went on, pointing at Barrows, “I see an increase in your fortune, I see those old brandy bottles just a-rolling toward you.”

  Rivas looked over at Barrows. Yes, the chance of mention of brandy had firmly set the Toothtalker’s hook—the old man’s eyes were wide and his knuckles were white on the arms of the chair.

  “And for you,” she continued, now pointing at Rivas and eyeing his bare wedding ring finger, “I see… a reunion with a long-lost lover, a wedding and… six unsporting children.”

  Rivas blinked. You old phony, he thought in instant panic, don’t say that, he believes your idiot predictions! The musician glanced apprehensively at the old man and, sure enough, Barrows was staring at him coldly and nodding.

  “I wondered how great the risk of that would be,” Barrows murmured.

  Rivas abruptly decided that he’d go after Urania unpaid and independently if he had to—but leaving to perform a redemption right now would almost certainly cost him his job, and Barrow’s payment would mean the difference between a leisurely, well-fed year or two in which to court another position on the one hand, and poverty and bad food and the selling off of possessions and hasty, undignified begging for any sort of job on the other. And if at all possible he wanted to prevent Barrows from hiring some other redemptionist who’d certainly only manage to muddy the water and put the Jaybirds on their guard.

  “Look,” he said evenly, “this old lady’s a fraud, and no more able to tell the future than I am. Now just because she—”

  “Don’t try to claim that, Rivas,” rasped Barrows. “After she knew—”

  “She just said you’d get a lot of money! That’s a standard fortuneteller’s line, dammit, same as the one she gave me! She didn’t know you’re the guy that distills it.”

  The Toothtalker, disconcerted that so innocuous a prediction had caused such rancor, had been listening closely, and her eyebrows went up at Rivas’s last sentence.
Yes I did,” she said instantly. “The vibratory dimensions told me everything. Greg Rivas and Irwin Barrows, you two are.”

  Smothering a curse, Rivas sprang out of his chair, crossed to the window and picked up the telephone receiver, which had quieted down but began buzzing again when he jiggled it. “Damn it,” he shouted at Barrows, “none of this is real. Look.” He unscrewed the perforated plastic cap on the earpiece and a large wasp flew out; it looped a confused figure-eight in front of his eyes and then lighted on his cheek and stung him. “Ow, goddammit.”

  “You see?” cried the Toothtalker triumphantly. “You can’t mess with scientifical machinery with impunity!” The wasp found the window and disappeared outside. “Look, you made me lose my… high frequency receptor.”

  Rivas saw that Barrows, who evidently didn’t know how telephones were supposed to have worked, was even more impressed with the Toothtalker’s powers now than he’d been a minute ago. “Holy smokes,” the old man exclaimed, “Rivas isn’t going to die, is he?”

  Rivas started to say, scathingly, “Of a wasp sting?” but the old woman, with the reflexes of a veteran entertainer used to quelling troublesome audiences, whipped a squirt gun out from under her robe and squeezed off a blast of raw high-proof gin straight into his face; Rivas squawked, reeled blindly to the window and hung on the sill, gasping and spitting.

  “He would have,” she said serenely, “if I hadn’t given him that. Radio liquor, distilled from isotopes. He’s lucky I had some handy—that was no ordinary wasp.”

  Feeling defeated, Rivas straightened up, took a deep breath and turned around to face Barrows. “Listen to me,” he said. “I’ll promise to bring her back to your house—assuming I can get her away from the Jaybirds—if you’ll promise to let her go with me if she understands what she’d be doing… and if she should happen to want to, after all these years. How’s that? We’ll leave it up to Uri to decide whether this lady’s prediction was accurate.” Barrows started to speak, but Rivas interrupted him by taking a firmer grip on the telephone receiver, which he somehow hadn’t let go of, and slamming it very hard against the concrete window sill. The receiver exploded, and bits of yellow plastic buzzed through the air and clattered around among the piles of incomprehensible old junk. “And of course,” Rivas went on, “keep in mind the fact that I’m the only redemptionist with any real chance of getting her at all.”

  Barrows squinted at him for several seconds, and Rivas was a little surprised to see that the old man actually looked uncertain and even a little sick—as if the price of this redemption had begun to involve something more than his Currency.

  “You make it hard on both of us,” Barrows said softly.

  Rivas wasn’t sure he knew what the old man meant, but he said, “I’m just divvying up the weight.” He crossed to where Barrows was sitting and stuck out his right hand. “Promise?”

  Barrows sighed. “I truly hope she doesn’t decide to join you. Yes, I promise.” He reached up and with the slow emphasis of a weary judge rapping a gavel, shook Rivas’s hand.

  Few of his sophisticated friends would have recognized the lost-looking fellow standing in the rain-puddled square by the South Gate as Gregorio Rivas; he had spent the hour since leaving the Toothtalker’s parlor at a tailor’s and a barber shop. Now, looking years younger with his half beard shaved off and his hair pulled back and funneled into a tarred stump at the back of his neck and his wild clothes replaced by a neat suit of off white flax, he was the very picture of a well-born youth bewildered at finding himself alone, jiggerless and hungover in the nastier end of the big city.

  He wasn’t the only person loitering there. In general parlance the South Gate consisted of the area immediately roundabout as well as the actual gate through which Sandoval Street entered the walled city, and it was perhaps the busiest and most crowded fifty square yards in southern California. At the moment Ellay’s most successful lumber scavenger was bringing several wagons into the city, each one piled high with wooden beams, most of them gray and caked with concrete but a few still bright with ancient paint. The musty smell of freshly resurrected lumber contended in the morning air with the aroma of the hot tacos being sold on several street corners, the stench from Dogtown every time the wind faltered, and the smoky pungency of the charcoal and lye guilds out on eastern Woolshirt; and the big old buildings on the west side of Sandoval echoed back the cacophony of daily life among the barrows and gullies and shacks on the other side. Rivas’s aching head was assaulted with an auctioneer’s jabbering from the big wooden warehouse that was the Relic Exchange, the ringing of hammers in the various blacksmith booths, and even, he half suspected, the clink, clank and curse of the steel miners under the streets, struggling to free and bring up pieces of the vast steel beams that lay tumbled and rusting under the fine soil of the whole eastern half of Ellay. And there was even, Rivas noted with a wry grin, a street balladeer playing a pelican and ineptly singing “Everybody Wants to Smoke My Comoy.” Rivas rubbed his smooth chin and wondered if he wasn’t leaving more of himself in the city than he was taking with him.

  And because the little white cards that represented brandy changed hands so frequently in this quarter, much of the crowd consisted of scavengers of a less respectable sort than the lumber merchant and the miners. Though continuing to behave like a scared young man in unfamiliar surroundings, Rivas watched with concealed amusement the specialized dance of an expert pickpocket—strangely insectlike in its series of hesitant touches culminating in a darting garb, the whole body spring-poised for the possible necessity of flight—and the indolent progress of a somewhat overripe prostitute who had come to terms with the consequences of time and knew how to make the most of shadows and selectively revealing clothes. It occurred to Rivas that he was, at the moment, just as much a web-spinner, just as much a patient angler, as either of them.

  The difference between us, he thought as he hefted his knapsack and wandered in an aimless fashion to a different corner, is that I’m fishing for predators.

  During the next fifteen minutes he saw, too, a number of people who were genuinely in the sort of plight he was mimicking. Hunched down in a doorway near where he’d been standing before, Rivas noticed an obviously malnourished, no more than teenaged boy muttering angrily to several imaginary companions, and Rivas wondered what it was that had brought the boy to this state. Liquor or syphilis generally took decades to ruin a person’s mind, but dope could have—especially the Venetian Blood—or the Jaybird sacrament, though the Jaybirds nearly never let strangers see any of their very badly eroded communicants.

  There was a drunken girl stumbling around, too, who seemed at first to be with the inexpert pelican player but was eventually led away by a grinning baldy-sport who, Rivas happened to know, was a Blood dealer. What’s the matter, thought Rivas sourly, the dope trade so bad you’ve got to pimp in your spare time? I’d go rescue her if I wasn’t certain she’d drift right back here to one of you.

  Some people, he thought, simply have no will to survive—they’re walking hors d’oeuvres waiting for someone who can spare the time to devour them. And while it’s probably some such unattractive quality as egotism or vanity that has kept me clear of… that catastrophic relaxation, it’s the reason I’m still alive and able to think, and I’ll work on keeping it.

  Rivas smiled, remembering his response to his first taking of the Jaybird sacrament—while the rest of the recovering communicants had been praising the Lord Jaybush and making sure they knew when the sacrament would be administered again so as not to miss it, young Gregorio Rivas, though stunned, exhausted and glad to have found shelter and company, was coldly appraising the situation. He didn’t doubt that the mysterious Norton Jaybush was certainly more than a man and possibly a god, but the prospect of abandoning his individuality in order to “merge with the Lord” was profoundly repugnant to him.

  The Jaybird band that picked him up had taken him to a nest in one of the neglected structures outside the wall and i
ntroduced him to the Jaybird way of life. He had, that first day, watched several of the far-gone communicants “speaking in tongues,” and he was disturbed not so much by the gibberish pouring out of the slack faces as by the fact that they were all doing it in precise, effortless unison, as if—and Rivas still recalled the image that had occurred to him then—as if each of them was just one visible loop of a vast, vibrating worm. Rivas had had no wish to graft himself on, and soon discovered that an alcohol-dulled mind was inaccessible to the sacrament. Thereafter, despite the Messiah’s ban on liquor, he had been careful to take the sacrament only when he was, unobtrusively, drunk. This let him parry the alertness-blunting effects of the damaging communion… though it wasn’t until he got the idea of incorporating his musical skills into the Jaybird services that he found himself able, if only furtively, to riposte.

  And then, when he’d finally left the Jaybirds and drifted northwest to Venice, there had been Blood.

  Venice was a savage carnival of a town that had sprung up like crystals in a saturate solution around the semicircular bay known as the Ellay-Ex Deep, in the center of which was a submarine pit that was reputed to glow with fantastic rainbow colors on some nights. A person who had a lot of money and could take care of himself could sample some amazing pleasures, it was said, in the rooms above the waterfront and canalside bars—Rivas had heard stories of “snuff galleries” where one could strangle to death people who were actually volunteers, frequently but not always goaded to this course by the money that would subsequently be paid to their families; of “sporting establishments,” brothels whose inmates were all physically deformed in erotically accommodating ways; of sport-seafood restaurants, whose long-time patrons eventually could be conveyed inside only with some difficulty, being blind, decomposing and confined to wheeled aquariums… but eager for just one more deadly, fabulously expensive meal; and of course he’d heard whispers about the quintessential nightclub of the damned, the place about which no two stories were consistent but all attributed to it a horrible, poisonous glamor, the establishment known as Deviant’s Palace.

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