Dinner at deviants palac.., p.6
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       Dinner at Deviant's Palace, p.6

           Tim Powers

  The nearest horizon was a ragged line of bone-white buildings three miles away across the bay, but the shepherd at the end of the pier was squinting south, where the bay broadened out and one could see, this being a clear day, the distant dot that was Long Beach Island. At the seaward end of the pier Rivas hung back, seeming to find something disquieting about traveling on the water, but a shepherd stepped up impatiently behind him and gave him a hard shove between the shoulders. Rivas wound up making a flailing jump down onto one of the benches, but once he was in the boat he sat down quietly.

  Sister Sue stared at him, then turned to the shepherd, shrugged, and resumed getting the rest of her group aboard.

  In the midafternoon the boat tacked in to a Jaybird dock at Cerritos, which, being a good two miles below the southern edge of the Desolate, presented an almost tropical front to the bay, with tall trees trailing flowers and vivid greenery over the water. The harsh cries of monkeys and parrots rang for hundreds of yards through the trees up and down the coast, and the warty top halves of a few amphibian heads poked up out of the water to see what the commotion was, but there was no hitch as the shepherd helped everyone up out of the boat and onto the dock. As he pushed away and let the wind fill his main and jib sails for the skate back northwest to the Gage Street pier, Sister Sue’s band plodded up the foliage-roofed highroad that split the narrow band of coastline jungle and led the group finally to the crest of a hill from which they could look down on the Cerritos Stadium. Other groups of Jaybirds were arriving from north and south and inland, and there was a considerable crowd at the gates. Sister Sue led her group down.

  Over the stadium’s entrance gates some agile devotee had painted, with more fervor than skill, a mural of the Messiah Norton Jaybush welcoming all of humanity with outstretched, misproportioned arms; and the painted crowd on which he was looking down became, below the long lintel over the gates, the real, animate crowd of smiling Jaybirds jostling up to get inside. They were all silent, and the only sounds were panting, and the scuff of shod or callused feet, and the occasional uncomplaining grunt of a member of the faithful being momentarily compressed against a wall.

  Once inside the huge weathered bowl of the stadium, Rivas absently noticed eight rickety wooden towers set up at even intervals around the periphery of the wide field, and on the little railed platform at the top of each tower stood a brown-robed, bearded man holding a crook-topped staff. Once free of the press at the gates, the various Jaybird groups became distinct and separate again, and each group set out walking toward the base of one or another of the towers.

  There were no visible differences among the hooded, tower-top shepherds, and in this orderly dispersal it was, for once, the most deteriorated and imbecilic member of each group that determined on a specific tower and led his or her band across the weedy field toward it. The tower toward which Rivas’s group plodded was on the far side of the enclosed field, and most of the other bands were already standing at ease in the shadow of other towers by the time his band came to a halt.

  As if at a signal, all the tower-top shepherds abruptly opened their mouths and began producing a low, steady note, and a moment later every deteriorated Jaybird in the stadium joined in with a shrill “eee” sound; though a ground-rumbling roar now instead of a buzz, it was the same insistent two-tone note that had aided Rivas’s acquiescence 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.

  As suddenly as it had started the sound stopped, and in the moment that the last harsh echoes were rebounding away among the high tiers, Rivas took an involuntary step forward, as if the sound had been something physical he’d been pushing against.

  The shepherds slung their staves through their belts and climbed nimbly down from the towers, and Rivas watched the one his group and a couple of others were clustered around. When the man got to the ground he straightened up, hiked his staff free and then strode up to Sister Sue and spoke to her quietly.

  She indicated Rivas with a nod of her head and then whispered to the bearded shepherd for nearly half a minute. The expression on the man’s tanned, craggy face didn’t change, but he slowly lifted his head to stare at Rivas, and when Sister Sue had finished he walked over to the new member.

  “Welcome to your real family, Brother Boaz,” he said in a deep voice.

  Rivas glanced around uneasily, then nodded. “Uh, thank you.”

  “How old are you?”

  “…Eighteen? I think eighteen.”

  The shepherd raised an eyebrow and looked more closely at Rivas’s face and hair. “Hmm. Take off your knapsack, please, and let me have it.”

  Rivas looked over at Sister Sue, who smiled and nodded. With evident reluctance he reached up, slipped the canvas straps off his shoulders, shrugged the knapsack off and held it out toward the shepherd.

  The man took it, stepped back and began undoing the buckles. Around the arena the other shepherds were also busy taking stock of new recruits, and, except for the low mutter of those conversations, the wind in the ragged high tiers was the only sound.

  “Or thirty-one,” said Rivas.

  The shepherd looked up. “What?”

  “Maybe I’m thirty-one years old.”

  The man had got the flap open, but paused to squint at him. “Maybe thirty-one, eh? Have you ever… been with us before?”

  “No, sir. I ran away from home yesterday. My father’s a tenant farmer for Barrows. The Currency brandy estates.”

  “Let me get this straight,” said the shepherd curiously as he pulled a large cloth-wrapped bundle out of the knapsack. “You leave home at thirty-one and call it running away?”

  Rivas was breathing deeply now, clearly trying to resist panic. “No, eighteen,” he said tensely. “That’s right, eighteen. For sure.”

  The shepherd opened his mouth to ask another question but shut it again when he saw what was wrapped up in the cloth—Rivas’s second-best pelican.

  The gaze he now turned on Rivas was full of suspicion. “What the hell is this?”

  After a pause Rivas said, almost in a whisper, “Somebody’s pelican.”

  “Somebody’s? It’s not yours?… Damn it, answer me!”

  “No, sir.” Rivas rubbed his hand across his mouth. “I have one, but not as nice as that.”

  “Well, Brother Boaz, music is one of the things we have to sacrifice.” He opened his hand and the instrument fell to the ground with a discordant bwang, and then he lifted a heavy boot and stamped the thing flat.

  The shepherd started to turn away, then froze, and an instant later he had whirled back to face Rivas again. “Say, what’s your name?”

  For a moment Rivas’s apprehensive frown left his face and, proud of knowing the answer, he said, “Brother Boaz.”

  “No, damn it, I mean before, what was your—”

  A strident trumpet note suddenly split the air, and a voice from the far side of the arena shouted through a megaphone, “Make yourselves ready for the Lord!”

  The shepherd craned his neck and saw that an old man in a white robe had entered the stadium. “The jaybush is here,” he said. “You walk out into the center of the field. We’ll talk some more after the sacrament.” He gave Rivas a push and then turned to the other groups around his tower. “All new members follow this brother!” he called. “I’ll greet you all personally afterward.”

  Rivas plodded out across the uneven ground, which was stippled now with fresh green weed shoots after the rain, and though he walked as slowly as any of the hundred or so new members who were approaching from all sides of the arena in a steadily shrinking circle, his mind was racing.

  That wasn’t my pelican, he thought, I remember mine, I saved up my jiggers and bought it when I was sixteen—okay, so why do I remember the one he stomped? Hell, I even remember that its E-string screw didn’t bind properly, and needed to be readjusted after every set.

  Set? What do I mean
set? That’s right, I play at the… what’s the name of the place? The Bom Sheltr, that’s it, in Venice; of course, and I’m twenty-five—why in hell was I thinking eighteen or thirty-one?

  And what in God’s name am I doing back among the Jaybirds? And lining up for the communion while sober?

  He paused for a moment, but a dim suspicion that he did have some presently forgotten purpose in being here made him reluctantly resume the quasi-ceremonial pace. He surreptitiously touched his wrist and was reassured to feel his knife strapped there as usual. Okay, he thought, I’ll play this scene up to, but not including, the point of receiving the sacrament. This seems to be the Cerritos Stadium, and from my old birdy days I remember where the kitchen exit is; with surprise, speed and my knife, I should be able to be out of here and into the hills within two minutes.

  The white-robed figure of the jaybush had been walking toward the center of the field at a slightly quicker pace than the tightening ring of communicants, and just before shoulder to shoulder contact caused the ring to stop shrinking he slipped between a couple of them and then made his way to the very center. For ten long soundless seconds he scrutinized the nervously eager people in the ring.

  Then, “Kneel,” he said, in a voice like concrete blocks rubbed together.

  Everyone in the stadium did, with a rustling and thudding that seemed loud in the silence. Rivas squinted up at the jaybush, and the man’s robe shone so in the afternoon sun that the sky looked darkened to purple behind him. The man looked around the congregation again, then slowly crossed to stand in front of a young girl six places away to Rivas’s right.

  “Merge with the Lord,” the jaybush said, then reached out and touched her forehead.

  She oomphed as if she’d been punched in the belly, and a moment later she was rolling on the damp ground outside the circle.

  And suddenly it all came back to Rivas: Barrows hiring him to perform the redemption of Urania, the nightmare he’d had about her, and his own alarming susceptibility to this predatory religion.

  Let me out of here, he thought, instinctively reaching into his sleeve for the knife; if the plain recruitment tricks can make a grinning zombie of me so easily, what would a dose of the sacrament do?

  But you can’t run, he realized a moment later—not without blowing your hard-won earnest-new-boy cover and wrecking your chance of finding Urania.

  But I can’t take the sacrament sober either, he thought desperately. His heart was pounding in his coldly hollow-chest, and when he darted a glance to his right he saw that there were now only two people to be disposed of before it was his own turn. He noticed that he was whimpering deep in his throat, and with some difficulty he forced himself to stop it.

  “Merge with the Lord,” said the jaybush, touching the forehead of the boy who was next in line. The boy slumped limply to the ground, and Rivas heard his jaw clack shut as his face hit the dirt.

  Rivas dug up inside his sleeve and tugged slightly on the knife grip so that an inch of blade was free of the sheath, and then he pressed the nail of his thumb up against the bottom edge. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

  “Merge with the Lord.” Gasp, Thud.

  As he heard the jaybush’s boots scuff to directly in front of him, Rivas exhaled…

  …and then drove his thumb up against the blade edge, which split the nail and grated against the bone. The pain was a bright, hot flare that brought a metallic taste to his mouth, and he forced his mind to cling to the agony and focus on it to the exclusion of everything else.

  He didn’t even hear the jaybush say, “Merge with the Lord.”

  There was a silent, stunning impact and then he was falling through an abyss so frigid that what lived and moved here—and he knew something did—partook of an animation below freezing, as he’d read that liquid helium was said by the ancients to begin to crawl at temperatures approaching absolute zero; his own warmth was being violently wrung out of him, but more kept on coursing into him through his left hand—specifically through his thumb.

  He was being stretched both toward the bottomless cold and toward the heat, and though he sensed a tearing in himself, in his mind, he willed himself to move in the direction of the heat; then he seemed to be rushing upward, though whatever had been on the other side of the rip in his soul had now broken free of him and, alive but separate, was pacing him. It became more distant and soon he wasn’t aware of it anymore, nor of the sentience in the black cold below.

  What he was aware of was an aching hip and pebbly, damp dirt against his cheek. He sat up and looked around—the jaybush was gone, though the crowd around the field’s periphery was still out there, and all of them were still kneeling; then he let his gaze fall onto his fellow communicants.

  Only a couple had regained, or kept, consciousness, and they were blinking around stupidly like people lately roused from sodden sleep. Most were still stretched out on the dirt, several of them twitching, the rest limp and conceivably dead. Of the ones near enough to see closely, quite a few were bleeding from injuries sustained during falls or fits; his gashed thumb probably wouldn’t excite any comment.

  And then he realized that he was still clear-headed—as alert as he ever was, and with his memory and personality intact. This new-found pain defense worked even better than the drunk defense, for though the latter insulated him from the sacrament, it did leave him drunk.

  The thought of drink reminded him of the pint of Malk whiskey concealed behind a flap in his knapsack, and brought him to his feet. He walked across the field to his own Jaybird group, being careful to act dopey and clumsy.

  Sister Sue watched him approach, but the shepherd kept his back turned until Rivas paused a few feet away—then he turned around, and he was holding the pint of whiskey.

  “You recover fast,” the shepherd said.

  Rivas put on a foolish grin and brushed some stray strands of hair off his forehead, leaving a smear of blood over one eyebrow. “Murphy’s still playing in the yard,” he said thickly, “even though Mom told him to come in.” It was the sort of thing people said when recovering from the sacrament.

  “You’re bleeding, Brother Boaz,” said Sister Sue in a concerned tone, at the same time giving the shepherd a hand signal that Rivas didn’t catch.

  “Yeah?” Rivas stared at his split thumb with what he hoped looked like foolish astonishment. “Gee.”

  “Piece of old glass, probably, out there that he fell on,” said the shepherd. “Say, brother, what’s this?” he asked Rivas, holding up the flat bottle.

  Rivas peered at it. “Whiskey,” he said finally. “I think it’s mine.”

  “It was yours.”

  The shepherd let it fall. It didn’t break when it hit the ground, but it did when the man stamped on it. Rivas forced himself not to let his chagrin show.

  “Liquor’s another thing we have to sacrifice,” the shepherd told him. “You’re lucky it was still full, and that the sister here says you were sober when she picked you up this morning. Still, liquor and a musical instrument, both on one novitiate.” He shook his head thoughtfully. “What’s your name again?”

  “Joe Wiley,” said Rivas at random. “Uh, no, sorry, I mean Brother Boaz.”

  “And how old are you?”

  “I… forget.”

  The shepherd nodded, then smiled. “Did you like taking the sacrament?”

  Rivas closed his eyes and inhaled the fumes of the lost whiskey. “Oh, yes sir.”

  “Good, because I’m going to set up a special treat for you. Most people only get to take it once a day at the very most, but we’re going to let you have it twice today, isn’t that great? I think you’ll be able to talk to me more… frankly, afterward. How does that sound?” Before Rivas could answer, the shepherd added, “Oh, and we’ll have you sitting down, so you won’t fall and hurt yourself this time.”

  Rivas widened his eyes. “I’d love it,” he said. Then he whispered, “But won’t everybody else be jealous?”

; “Naw. It’ll be our little secret. Follow me.”

  He led Rivas across the dirt to a door in the stadium wall, and through it and down a dim corridor to a room with a bolt on the outside of the door. “Sorry there’s no window or lamp,” he told Rivas, “but you’ve got the Lord Jaybush watching over you now, so there’s no need to be scared of the dark. There’s a chair in there—find your way to it and sit down.”

  Rivas hesitated. Once again, he thought, I could knife him and run. Easier now than before. But, once again, that would blow my cover.

  Do I really want Urania back this much?

  “Yes,” he sighed, and stepped into the room. The door was instantly slammed shut behind him, the buffet of air pressure letting him know that the room was indeed windowless, and very small, too. A tool storage room once, probably. A moment later he heard the bolt clank solidly home.

  After a bit of cautious shambling and groping, his split thumb collided agonizingly with the promised chair, and he sat down. Okay, he told himself, let’s get one thing straight, there’s no way you’re going to take that damned sacrament again. Don’t even consider worrying about that. I’ll kill the jaybush if I have to… but maybe I can whistle him out, and then sprawl on the floor, so that when he regains consciousness he’ll think he already gave it to me. He pursed his lips and in a simultaneously hesitant and hasty gunning rhythm, whistled the first six notes of Peter and the Wolf—the bright adventurous tune sounding constricted and out of place in these surroundings—and then, satisfied, he sat back to wait.

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