Dinner at deviants palac.., p.7
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       Dinner at Deviant's Palace, p.7

           Tim Powers
 

  He remembered how he had come to discover this special property of music, and of Peter and the Wolf in particular.

  In the hills north of the Seal Beach Desolate the Jaybird band he was with had followed a column of smoke until they found, broken up and still burning and scattered across one of the little dry riverbeds, the remains of a Santa Anan merchant caravan. The raiders, whoever they’d been—probably the self-styled modern hooters, who had to ride weirdly customized bicycles instead of the fabled motorcycles ridden by their historical namesakes but did still carry the dreaded hooter swords, painstakingly slotted to produce a loud hooting when whirled in the air at high speed—had taken everything of particular value, but the Jaybirds had lots of time and would be content with meager pickings. They rooted and scrabbled patiently among the blood-spattered wreckage, and came away with a modest haul of metal pieces and wire… but Rivas came across a pelican, miraculously unbroken.

  And so for a few minutes the nineteen-year-old Rivas forgot the ruin around him and treated the sprawled corpses to a few of the old melodies he’d learned from his father; and the calculatedly uneven rhythms that he eventually evolved into gunning startled the carrion birds overhead and made them circle a little higher.

  The other members of his band somehow didn’t guess that he’d owned and played one before, and assumed that his modest proficiency was a miracle. Rivas had let them think, it, and that evening when they’d returned to the nest he had set about writing new, pious lyrics to accompany the handful of tunes he knew how to play.

  A month or so later a circuit-riding jaybush had passed through to administer the communion, and Rivas had selflessly offered to forego the joy of receiving the sacrament in order that the event might be graced with music. The jaybush had had no particular objection, and proceeded with the ceremony while Rivas sawed and plucked his way through Blue Moon, Can’t Always Get What You Want, and other traditional favorites—and he played them at a fairly traditional tempo—but something happened when he wearied of that sort of thing and began to do an emphatically gunned rendition of Peter and the Wolf.

  At the first bouncing notes the jaybush had paused, and as the tune continued the man’s eyes had unfocused and his outstretched hand had fallen limp to his side. Rivas had of course noticed it, though he didn’t suspect that his music was the cause, and glancing around he saw that all the far-gones had ceased their usual speaking-in-tongues background rumble and were also inert. The jaybush snapped out of it and resumed working his way down the line as soon as the tune came to an end, and the far-gones started up their eerily synchronized jabbering again, and young Rivas thoughtfully put his instrument away for the evening.

  In the next couple of weeks he’d managed to prove to himself that that tune, when rendered at a gunning tempo, did reduce the very deteriorated communicants from near to total unconsciousness, and when the next circuit-riding jaybush passed through, Rivas found an opportunity to verify the effect with him, too.

  From then on it had been his secret last-ditch defense against the sacrament, and in later years, after his stay in Venice and his eventual return to Ellay, it became the trade secret that made him the best redeemer in the business.

  But, he reminded himself worriedly as he sat now in the lightless little room, now they’re down on music. Is that just for the sake of deprivation, or are they onto my trick?

  After a long time in the dark he heard footsteps in the corridor and saw a wavering line of yellow light appear and brighten under the door, and then the bolt rattled and snapped back and the door was pulled open. The jaybush stood in the doorway with a flaring torch in his left hand, looking like some Old Testament prophet with his robe and wild white beard, and for a few seconds he just stood there—presumably staring at Rivas, though his face was in shadow down to his prominent cheekbones and it was hard to be sure. Rivas took the opportunity to glance around the room. Some stringy webs in the corners implied big spiders, but his chair was the only piece of furniture.

  “A great privilege is yours,” the jaybush grated.

  “Yes, sir,” said Rivas, trying to sound eager. “I mean, father. Or whatever. I’m just glad you all think I’m worthy of it.”

  The white-robed figure stepped into the room and, reaching out to the left, fitted the butt of the torch into an old can that had been nailed to the wall. Now the long right arm lifted, with the pointer finger extended like the stinger of some oversized insect.

  Rivas puckered his lips and began whistling Peter and the Wolf.

  The arm remained up, the feet kept moving and the finger stayed pointing at him.

  He whistled a few more notes, more shrilly, and then kicked the chair over backward and rolled to his feet behind it, not even caring if he roused some spiders.

  Another robed figure came into view behind the jaybush and laid a restraining hand on the old man’s shoulder. The jaybush stepped back, turned and left the room. Rivas heard his steps receding away up the corridor as the by now familiar shepherd entered the room, smiling and holding a pistol trained at Rivas’s stomach.

  Though frightened, Rivas was a little surprised that the man would use so awkward and unreliable a weapon—antique pistols refitted to shoot spring-propelled poison darts were a trendy item among the high society ladies in the city, but the darts frequently got fouled up in the barrel and at the best of times had nearly no range nor accuracy. Rivas tensed, and calculated how he would jump.

  “He’s deaf,” the shepherd remarked. He cocked the gun and raised it. “Now, no hard feelings, but we don’t care if you’re McAn or Bailey or Rivas or just some creep trying to kidnap his wife away from us. We can’t have you around.”

  “Oh Jesus, mister, don’t shoot me,” quavered Rivas, falling forward onto one knee and snaking his left hand up into his right sleeve—and then from the half-kneeling position he lunged strongly upward, whipping the knife free and driving it at the shepherd’s chest.

  The pistol exploded beside his ear as he came up and a hot lash ripped his shoulder a moment before he slammed heavily against the shepherd. Together they thudded into the wall and rebounded, knocking the torch loose and spattering both of them with scalding wax, and then Rivas had spun away in the sudden darkness, lost his footing and tumbled to the floor. He heard the shepherd lurch forward, collide with the chair and go over it and then fall thrashing and gasping in the corner.

  Christ, thought Rivas frantically as he slapped the floor around himself for the lost knife, the goddamn gun shoots bullets, he shot me, he’s probably aiming it at the noise I’m making right now, where’s the goddamn knife….

  All his muscles were tensed in useless anticipation of the next bullet, and even after he heard the harsh exhalation from the corner and the staccato knocking of one of the shepherd’s boots against the wall and floor, and realized what it meant, it took him nearly a full minute to relax enough even to get to his feet.

  Live ammunition, he marveled. Where on earth can he have got it? I thought it all went stale half a century ago.

  After a while he stopped panting. The torch had gone out when it fell, and the room was illuminated only dimly by the light that filtered down the hall, but after some peering he saw his knife on the floor and picked it up. It was slippery with warm blood. He shoved it back into its sheath, promising himself he’d clean it later.

  He took a deep breath, tried not to pay attention to the hollow feeling in his belly and the sudden sweat on his face, and then he forced himself to walk around the fallen chair, get down on his knees, and grope for the pistol.

  He thought his eyes would become accustomed to the dimness, but somehow as the minutes went by he could see even less than before. The shepherd’s death spasm had left his corpse smelling very bad, and when Rivas’s fumbling search forced him to move the body he had no idea what his hands were getting wet with. Webs stretched and tore under his fingers in the darkness, and his thumb had started bleeding again, slicking everything he touched, and the dead body s
eemed to have gotten huge, so that Rivas could hardly move without bumping into an arm or a leg… or maybe it had, spiderlike itself, grown more limbs in the dark… or maybe there was more than one corpse in here, maybe there were dozens, all over the floor, behind him, getting silently to their feet, wide-eyed in the dark, reaching for him with cooling hands….

  A spider or something tapped across his hand, but instead of exploding in a scream Rivas imploded into a sort of mentally crystallized state. His jaws were clenched together so hard that his whole head hurt, and his knees were helping push against his lower jaw, both kneecaps jammed under his chin and his arms wound tightly around his shins.

  Hang on, he thought dimly, just hold it all in, maintain stasis, until Jaybush can take the whole thing away. Don’t want agitation, motion, stuff, people… come soon, take it all away from me.

  But he hadn’t backed far enough away from it all, and he knew he was lying on his side on the floor like a knocked-over barrel, and that his elbow was in agony. He released the grip of his hands, and his knees fell away from his chin and he coughed.

  Alarm quickly replaced the crystalline stasis as he struggled to his feet. There was more light in the corridor outside, as if approaching torches were only a corner or two away, and voices were getting louder. He reeled to the doorway and hurried down the corridor in the direction away from the light.

  He wished he’d found the pistol, but he was fairly confident that he could find the kitchen—and the kitchen exit!—from here.

  An hour later he was crouched on the shaded balcony of a half-collapsed apartment building a few miles south of the stadium, wishing he hadn’t lost the pint of whiskey, which he’d brought along as much for its disinfectant properties as for its relaxing ones. Though his bullet-furrowed shoulder had stopped bleeding, it was hot and aching, and he was afraid that it—or maybe his thumb—had got infected and was responsible for his present feverish dizziness.

  You can’t get sick now, he told himself angrily, you’ve got to decide with a clear head what to do. I’m blown with the Jaybirds, Sister Sue’s band, anyway, and all my supplies are gone. What any smart redemptionist would do at this point is go home, refund half the client’s advance, apologize and recommend a colleague; especially a redemptionist who has every reason to believe he’s begun losing his mind.

  But they’ve got Urania. If I’m not willing to risk it for her, then what am I saving it for?

  He stood up, flexing his hot, throbbing shoulder against the weight it seemed to have on it. The only thing I can do, he thought bleakly, is to move much further southeast, along the shore of the Long Beach Channel and into the Seal Beach Desolate—assume the worst, that Urania is being taken directly toward the Holy City in Irvine, get well ahead of her and then slowly try to work my way back northwestward without letting any Jaybird group get past me unobserved.

  The realization that it was a nearly impossible task didn’t make him change his mind about attempting it.

  Rivas sighed, plodded out of the shade to the end of the tilted balcony and was about to climb back down the outward-leaning stairs, when out of the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of his shadow on the stucco wall.

  And then despite his dizziness he had instantly vaulted over the rail with a hoarse yell of fear, and he landed heavily on his side but forced himself to go rolling and somersaulting across the yard, scraping against walls and grinding his wounded shoulder across the dirt… for in blurry silhouette against the wall he had seen an as-yet-only-tenuous shape crouched on his shoulder, the shadow of a thing still mostly transparent but clearly man-shaped.

  After a few frantic, spasmodic seconds Rivas scrambled to his feet, wheezing, and peered around fearfully behind him, afraid the dislodged thing might still be near enough to pounce on him and reattach itself.

  Then he saw it, a dozen feet away. Its ectoplasmic substance had been torn and crumpled in Rivas’s slithering progress across the yard, but it was hunching itself up into a crouch, and though it was as hard to get a good look at as a jellyfish in clear water, Rivas could see the thing’s faintly pink-tinged face curl in an idiot grin.

  He was desperately trying to remember what he’d heard—and naively scoffed at!—about the creatures known as hemogoblins: that they were mostly commonly encountered in the southern hills, and started out as almost invisible cellophanelike bags that drifted through the air until they could attach themselves to an open wound; they expanded and took on human shape and a reddish color as they ingested more and more of the blood of their host, until finally the host expired and the vitalized hemogoblin was able to walk around and hunt rather than just fly randomly, like a dandelion seed, on the wind. He’d even heard stories of them speaking.

  The indistinct anthropoid shape started toward him, and he scooped up a handful of dirt and lashed it at the thing. The dirt tore through it like shrapnel, but in a few seconds it had re-knit itself and was grinning at him again.

  It began hissing, in bursts, and then it whispered, “Rivas.”

  “Get the hell away from me,” he told it in a voice shrilled by tension.

  “Need little blood,” the thing pointed out.

  Rivas pulled loose his clotted knife and tossed it onto the dirt. The move reminded him of tossing a crust of bread to a stray dog to keep it from following you. “Take that first,” he said unsteadily. “I’ll wait right here until you’re done with it.” He’d seen a gravelly stretch a few yards to his right, and as soon as the thing began to suck the knife he planned to dive over there and then just keep flinging handfuls of rocks until the thing was so shredded and scattered that it wouldn’t ever be able to pull itself back together.

  But when the hemogoblin reached out and touched the bloody knife it instantly became much more clearly visible, and Rivas saw that its face, impossibly, was a perfect caricature of his own; and a moment later he was running away with the boundless energy of absolute panic, his knife and all thought of strategy forgotten.

  When he rolled to a gasping halt five minutes later—having followed the last street of his zigzagging course past the point where, undercut by the bay, it ended in a muddy slope—his panic had thinned out to mere apprehension, and he was able to note with chagrin the mud that now caked his once white clothes.

  He sat up, gingerly rubbing his abraded palms together, and stared back up the slope he’d just cartwheeled down. The black ash band exposed in the soil’s cross section was clearly visible, and he remembered his father saying that it was always about two feet under the surface anywhere one went, so it wasn’t difficult for Rivas to calculate how far he’d tumbled—about twelve feet, he decided. Lucky I didn’t break a leg, he thought as he stood up, suppressing a groan—or my neck.

  It occurred to him that he was hungry, and he stared out across the broad wrinkled face of the water, which was beginning to glitter gold under the late afternoon sun. He was far enough south so that the fresh water of the Ellay River would be fairly well mixed with the sea, and there might be some salt-water fish out there; he wasn’t nearly hungry enough to experiment with the sort of fresh-water specimens that somehow throve in the Inglewood Desolate. But how was he to catch anything?

  Then to the north he saw a sail, and when he squinted at it he recognized the sophisticated rigging the Jaybirds used. All at once thankful for the broad smears of mud on his clothes, he carefully but quickly picked his way along the shoreline until he came to a gap in the bank, a water-cut cleft choked with age-rounded chunks of broken concrete. He clambered up over them, pausing a couple of times to admire the line of decorated tile that ran across one edge of a few of them, and up at street level he shambled toward the clustered, tumbled, vine-hung buildings, hoping at least to find edible vegetation.

  He didn’t seem to be able to keep his mind on the concerns of the moment, though; just as he’d paused to peer at the century-old decorations on the broken stones, he found himself shading his eyes to look up at the rooftops and balconies around him, where n
ow only lizards, birds and the occasional cat sunned themselves, and he was imagining what it would be like to waste an afternoon picnicking up on one of them with Uri on the return trip. He wasn’t considering the odds against his finding her, nor the fact that a lot of hard psychological crowbarring was required to even partially free a person’s mind from the Jaybird template. He finally found an avocado tree and managed to knock down a couple of avocados and then he climbed a fire escape to the top of a three-story building and sat there and stared at the slow sunset while he chewed them up.

  Two distinct lines of smoke stood up from Long Beach Island in the south, and when the sky began to get dark he thought he could glimpse the winking yellow dots of distant fires.

  Chapter Four

  THE NEXT MORNING was cold; fog, like the ghost of stone, had spread another sedimentary layer over the already mostly buried old landscape, so that the building Rivas had taken shelter in stuck up out of the indistinct gray flatness like the last spire of a city reclaimed by desert sand. He stood on the roof with one foot up on the crumbled coping, and as the sun made the fog band glow a ruddier and ruddier pink in the east and then rose above it and began to dispel it, he studied the emerging view and wondered where evening would find him.

  At last he decided that the fog had thinned enough for travel to be practical, and he started to turn toward the fire escape—but he’d caught a suggestion of motion out of the corner of his eye, and he turned back to the landscape that stretched away below his perch.

  A vertical line was slowly moving over the fog far away to his right, which was north, and after he’d stared at it for a few minutes he decided that it was a boat’s mast, and that it was approaching. Nothing in that for me, he thought, and he had again started for the stairs when a thought struck him. How, he wondered, can that mast be approaching so steadily when it seems to carry no sails? The river certainly provides no strong current this far south, and at least when I last passed through these parts any oceanic currents would only be moving the other way on this side of the bay.

 
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