Dinner at deviants palac.., p.5
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       Dinner at Deviant's Palace, p.5

           Tim Powers
 

  As a jiggerless young vagrant, Rivas was in no position even to verify the existence of such fabulous places, and even a tortilla with some beans rolled up in it was the price of a day’s hard labor—but Blood was cheap.

  The drug was a reddish brown powder that could be snorted, brewed, smoked or eaten, and it sucked the user into a semicomatose state, comfortingly bathed by the triple illusion of great deeds done, time to rest, and warmth; longtime users claimed to feel also a vast, loving attention, as if it was God himself rocking the cradle.

  In Venice it was daringly fashionable to sample Blood, perhaps because the genuine Blood freaks were such an unattractive crew. Many of them simply starved to death, unwilling to buy food with money that could be used to get more of the drug, and none of them ate much, or bathed, or shambled any farther than to the next person that could be wheedled out of a jigger or two, and then back to the Blood shop.

  After Rivas found himself a steady job washing dishes in one of the many restaurants and got a little money, he wandered one evening into a narrow little Blood shop beside one of the canals, curious about the drug because in Ellay it was illegal and expensive. The man who ran the shop was a user himself, and delivered such a glowing panegyric in praise of the stuff that Rivas fled, sensing that this all-reconciling drug would rob him of his carefully constructed vanity, his painful memories of Urania, his budding musical ambitions… in short, everything that made him Gregorio Rivas.

  “Beautiful morning, isn’t it?”

  Rivas jumped realistically and looked with wary hope at the man who’d paused beside him. Though not as tall as Rivas, he was a good deal stockier, and except for his nose and his eyes his whole face was hidden by a hat and a bushy copper beard.

  “Uh, yeah,” said Rivas in a nervous tone as he shifted his knapsack to a more comfortable position on his shoulders. “Kind of cold, though.”

  “Yeah, it is.” The man yawned and leaned against the wall beside Rivas. “Waiting for someone?”

  “Oh yes,” said Rivas quickly, “I—” He paused and then shrugged. “Well, no.”

  The man chuckled. “I see. Listen, I’m on my way to get some food. You hungry?”

  Rivas hoped that the quick gesture of touching his wallet looked spontaneous. “Uh, I guess not.”

  “You sure? The place I’m thinking of will give us each a big plate of machaca con juevos, on the house, no charge.” He winked. “And I can get us a table right next to the fire.”

  Rivas frowned. This was beginning to sound wrong. “Yeah? Where’s this?”

  “Oh, it’s a little place on Spring, run by some friends of mine.” The man yawned again and stretched his arms over his head and then let them fall—one of them landed, and stayed, around Rivas’s shoulders.

  Rivas’s mouth became a straight line. “Spring and what?”

  “Huh? Oh, only a couple of blocks from here, Spring and Main. A five minute—”

  “Right.” Rivas stepped out from under the man’s arm. “That would be the Boy’s Club. No thank you.” He strode off to find a different wall to lean on.

  But the man came hurrying after him. “You know about the place, huh? Well, listen, lad, this is no time for false pride. Let me just—”

  Rivas spun to face him, and he let the man see the knife he’d snatched from his right sleeve. “I can have it in your heart so fast you won’t have time to yell,” he remarked, not unkindly. “Vaya.”

  “Jesus, kid,” the man exclaimed, stepping back, “okay!” Once out of range of the knife he permitted himself to amble away insouciantly, and he called back over his shoulder, “But you could have had a friend!”

  I like the way, thought Rivas in almost honest puzzlement as he settled the knife back in its sleeve sheath and walked on, that every person in the world thinks his or her friendship is worth something. My God, if I really was a broke, hungry kid, I’d be a lot more chagrined at the loss of that breakfast.

  Earlier Rivas had noticed a gang of young people crouched around a fire under a canted stone arch beside the Relic Exchange, and when he glanced in that direction now he saw that one of the girls was walking toward him, smiling, her hands in the pockets of her long, pavement-sweeping dress.

  “Lost a friend, huh?” she asked when she was close enough to speak quietly and be heard.

  “Oh.” Rivas waved Vaguely. “I didn’t know him. He just came over and started talking to me.”

  “Are you hungry? Come and share our breakfast.”

  Rivas’s heart was thumping, for he suspected this might be the baited hook he’d been looking for, but he made himself look wistful as he said, “Well, I don’t have any money….”

  The girl put her hand on his shoulder and looked into his eyes. “Money is just the checkers in a game played by unhappy children,” she told him earnestly, and he turned away in case his sudden burst of feral satisfaction might show in his face—for he recognized her statement as one of the standard Jaybird come-along lines, unchanged since he’d first heard it on that lonely morning thirteen years ago. He’d later used it himself when out on recruiting expeditions.

  “That may be true,” he said, reciting a response to it that he remembered as being easy to counter, “but you need money to live.”

  “No,” she said gently, pulling him toward the leaning arch, “you’re exactly wrong. You need money to die. It’s love you need to live.”

  He laughed with sophomoric bitterness. “That’s even harder to find.”

  “Anything’s hard to find,” she told him, “if you don’t know where to look for it or what it is.”

  This girl’s smooth, Rivas thought as he allowed himself to be led toward the group of Jaybirds, who were all looking up now and smiling at him; the grime around her neck and wrists has been there a while, and the dress has been slept in, but the figure’s adequate, she delivers her lines with fair sincerity, and, despite her teeth, that smile is as bright as a lamp in a window on a stormy night, and it’s the only thing a hungry stray would notice anyway.

  The Jaybirds in the circle shifted to make room for Rivas, and he looked around sharply as he sat down on the damp dirt, but Urania wasn’t one of them. It seemed to be a typical band—mostly young people, their faces ranging in expression from the timid optimism of the new recruit through the sunny confidence of those who, like the girl that had snagged him, had been with the faith for a while, to the vacuous inattention of a couple of long time communicants, on whose faces the obligatory smile sat like a welcome mat in front of an abandoned house.

  “This is a new friend of ours,” his guide told the group as she sat down next to him, “who’s been kind enough to accept our invitation to breakfast.”

  There were quietly delighted exclamations, and from all sides Rivas was warmly assured that his arrival had brightened their day enormously. Rivas set about the task of responding as they would expect him to.

  Abruptly he realized that he was shaking hands and grinning like an idiot spontaneously—for at least several seconds there he had not been acting. He felt a faint stirring of uneasiness—no, genuine fear—deep inside himself, for this had happened to him only twice before in his life, this warm, happy surrender of personality: once thirteen years ago when as a scared runaway he had first been approached by the Jaybirds, and then once only three years ago while performing his last redemption. He had finally located the girl he’d been hired to snatch, had finalized his plan for the escape late that evening, and had incautiously permitted himself the luxury of relaxing in the crowded Jaybird nest in the meantime. Both times it had been just a brief slip, and he’d only been vulnerable at all because of extreme fatigue—but what was his excuse this time?

  “What’s the matter, brother?” A skinny Jaybird girl had noticed Rivas’s sudden chill and was leaning forward solicitously, stroking his cheek with one hand and, he noticed out of the corner of his eye, furtively twitching the other hand at her companions in the tighten-the-net signal. Instantly the gang closed aroun
d him, expressing concern and as if by accident blocking all the directions in which he might make a run for it.

  Rivas looked around at them all and decided it was time to find out which one was the boss here. “I, uh, was just thinking,” he stammered, “I really should be trying to find a way to get back home; to my family.”

  He knew this called for a strong block, and that he’d learn now who their leader was; and as he’d guessed, it was Sister Sue, the girl who’d found him, that now knelt in front of him and took his hands and, leaning almost close enough to kiss, stared hard into his eyes.

  “Trust yourself,” she said to him in a low vibrant voice that seemed to resonate in his teeth. “You realized that they weren’t your real family, didn’t you, saw that there are qualities and depths in yourself that they can’t share or recognize? Questions they not only can’t answer, but can’t even understand? That is why you left them—no, don’t interrupt—think about it, and you’ll realize I’m right. I knew the moment I saw you that you had a real soul and that you were seeking the family that you can join totally. I don’t say trust me, or them, or anyone; I tell you that the only person you dare trust is yourself. And where did your need to find love lead you? To me. To us.”

  Her eyes were glistening with tears, and the other Jaybirds, even the deteriorated ones, were nodding at him and humming deep in their throats, half of them on a very low note and half on a very high one, and the insidious two-toned buzz seemed to get right in behind his eyes and set all the contents of his brain vibrating into softened blurs.

  It was hard to remember anything… nearly impossible to hold onto a thought for more than a few seconds… but he knew he didn’t need to anymore. The self-consciousness, the anxious policing of his personal boundaries, could at last be relaxed.

  He felt tired—his knees didn’t seem to have their usual spring—but of course he hadn’t gotten much rest last night, and he didn’t have any reason to stand up anyway. He was among people he could trust.

  He was aware of some inconsistencies between his memory and his perceptions—he remembered this Jaybird band as consisting of different people, and he thought he’d been sitting with them at a different corner, and the gray overcast he remembered seemed to be gone, and his clothes were somehow clean and pressed again, no longer caked with dust and dried blood—but his own personal memories and perceptions no longer seemed crucially important.

  He smiled into the pair of eyes that seemed to fill the whole world, and he realized that he felt better already. The loss of Urania might have happened years ago for all the pain it caused him now, and even the aches and stiffnesses from the beating Barrows and his men had given him last night, after Urania’s birthday party, were gone.

  “You’ve found your real family now, haven’t you?” Sister Sue asked softly.

  If there was a part of his mind screaming in horrified denial, it was well buried. Rivas, totally at peace for the first time in many years, happily breathed the single word, “Yes.”

  When the Jaybird band left the city at noon they took Rivas with them. One of the guards at the South Gate, a grayed veteran who had seen this sort of thing many times over the years, wearily walked out of the guard shack and extended his staff across their way to stop them.

  “Alto,” he said. “Whoa.”

  Sister Sue beamed at him. “Is there anything wrong, man?”

  The guard nodded toward Rivas, who had bumped into, the man in front of him when the group stopped, but was smiling benevolently at everyone.

  “Who’s the blurry boy?” the guard asked sternly.

  “He’s one of us,” the girl said. “His name is Brother Boaz.”

  “Is that right, son?” he asked more loudly. “Son? Jeez, one of you nudge him, will you? That’s got it. Listen to me, do you want to leave the city? You don’t have to.”

  “I want to go where these people go,” Rivas explained.

  “Where are they going?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “What’s your name?”

  “Uh… they told me, but I forget.”

  “Well, that’s fine,” the guard said bitterly, letting his staff tip clack onto the flagstones. He looked at the girl. “And him still dressed respectable. You all sure didn’t waste any time on him, did you?”

  “Some are more ready than others to give themselves to the Lord,” she told him serenely.

  He opened his mouth for an angry retort, then apparently couldn’t think of one, for he just said, “Vaya,” and turned back to the guard shack.

  “Vayamos,” Sister Sue replied, and led her band forward under the high arch of the gate and then across the cobbled wall road and down the gravel slope west toward the Harbor Freeway. The day being clear and sunny, a number of beribboned tents and booths had been set up in random patterns across the face of the slope like some kind of colorful mushrooms brought out by yesterday’s rain, and some of the vendors hooted at the group of pilgrims.

  “Hey, señora,” yelled one fat old tentkeeper to Sister Sue, “let me give you a bath and a little lipstick and I swear to Jay bush you could knock down three fifths a day!”

  The other vendors within earshot laughed, and the laughter doubled when one added, “A jigger at a time!”

  Some of the newer Jaybirds looked embarrassed or angry as they plodded their winding course through this irreverent gauntlet, but the smiles on the faces of Sister Sue, Rivas, and the several deteriorated communicants never faltered.

  One small time vice-caterer vaulted the counter of his booth and sprinted across the slope to Rivas and waved a piece of paper at him. It was a faded black-and-white photograph of a nude woman, a shabby example of the sort of relic that, bigger and more explicit and in color, could sell for cases of fifths in the fancy galleries in the city.

  “You like that, eh?” cackled the merchant.

  Rivas’s gaze crossed the picture and then returned to it, and for the first time in a couple of hours his eyes focused and his smile relaxed and was replaced by a frown.

  “Oho, don’t like girls, eh?” said the merchant loudly, playing to the delighted audience. “I’ll bet this is what you like, am I right?” And he yanked out of his pocket a pint bottle of cheap Ventura gin and waved it alluringly.

  Rivas stopped, and the man behind him bumped into him as Rivas hesitantly reached for the bottle. The attentive vendors roared, pounding on the counters of their booths and rolling on the ground.

  “Not all the way birdy yet!” yelled the prancing merchant. He was tugging at the stopper when a hard slap knocked the bottle out of his hands; Sister Sue was in front of him now, leaning toward him, her smiling gaze so intense that the man actually squinted before it as though it were an intolerably bright light.

  She whispered to him for a few seconds and then said, “We’ll be back for you, brother.”

  She turned to Rivas and said softly, “Follow me, Brother Boaz.” He nodded, and fell into step when the band began moving forward between the now silent vendors, but Sister Sue kept looking back at him, for the tiny creases of frown hadn’t left his face.

  The vice-caterer, who’d been wobbling ever since Sister Sue turned away from him, all at once sat down heavily on the gravel, and the ancient magazine clipping slipped from between his fingers and fluttered away across the slope.

  Chapter Three

  ALL MORNING THE LITTLE group moved south along the shore of the great inland sea that, though its broad surface now extended north nearly to the walls of Ellay, was still called San Pedro Bay; and though Rivas didn’t particularly slow the group—he climbed over fallen building sides, waded down streets reclaimed by the sea, and plodded across the occasional stretches of gray powder as tirelessly as any of them—his pace remained somnambulistic, his gaze unfocused.

  They’d moved into the Inglewood Desolate, a wide band that extended east all the way from Venice; plants grew poorly in the Desolate, but the main reason for its almost complete lack of population was the spe
ctrum of illnesses suffered by long term residents, and the impossibility of having unsporting children here. Several times during their trek lean faces peered longingly down at them from glass-less windows or up from sewer vents, but the hunched, hungry, scarcely human creatures that would have attacked other travelers let Sister Sue’s band pass unmolested, for it was only in and around the cities that the Jaybirds pretended to be pacifists, and the dwellers in the Desolate had learned to stay away from even the most defenseless-looking group of them.

  They passed a few piers that had been built recently enough not to have been swallowed by the ever-rising water, but one could only speculate about what businesses might be practiced by the men who moored their boats at them, for the furtive sailors never yelled or waved, and all carried long knives and slingshots.

  The area around the Gage Street pier, though, was a sort of Jaybird settlement. Several tents had been erected, and every month a different group of shepherds took over the task of maintaining the boats and making sure all new recruits were shipped on across the bay.

  Sister Sue’s group presented no problems. Along with the rest of them, Rivas shambled docilely out to the end of the pier. The Jaybirds’ pier was a result of luck rather than construction, for it was a big, ancient truck lying on its side; the uphill end of it, which was the cab, was half buried in the layers of soil that a dozen winter floods had flung over it, and out at the far end the top side of the box-shaped trailer was nearly awash in the water of the bay. The surface of this pier was rusted and scuffed and riddled with finger-sized punch holes, but a big cross that might once have been red was still dimly visible painted on it, along with fragments of words, after a hundred baking summers. Ordinarily Rivas would have tried to read the words and guess at their meaning, but today they were just patterns on the pavement. Beyond the rear of the truck, silhouetted against to his new masters earlier that day… but now it only deepened his frown. He glanced at Sister Sue and saw that she was watching him, and he looked away quickly.

 

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