Dinner at deviants palac.., p.8
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       Dinner at Deviant's Palace, p.8

           Tim Powers
 

  Curious in spite of himself, he limped stiffly back across the roof to the coping and stared at the mast, which was much closer now, perhaps only a mile away. It was rocking back and forth, and sinking and rising, much more than could be caused by the surface of the bay, and at last Rivas realized that the mast must be attached to a wagon that was moving down the uneven bay side roads.

  He watched it until he was pretty sure where it would pass, and then he hurried down the fire escape to wait for it, not sure yet whether he meant to hitch a ride, steal a horse, or just satisfy his curiosity about the vehicle. When he got to street level he hid behind a clump of bougainvillea, confident that the bush and the remaining traces of fog made him invisible.

  If he hadn’t heard the clopping of hooves first, he might have thought he’d miscalculated his position and was down on the bay shore, for the vehicle that soon appeared out of the fog, first as a shadowy silhouette and then with proximity gaining detail and color, was more boat than wagon in spite of the four horses pulling it. A wide hull flared like an up-blown skirt above the axles, with cowls around the wheels, and the pole that projected up from the front of the cabin was indeed a mast; from his hiding place Rivas could see the horizontal boom stretching away behind, over the roof of the cabin.

  The cabin itself was a wooden shed as compact and solid as a Jaybird recruiting wagon, and Rivas thought he could guess what business these early morning travelers were in. His suspicion became virtual certainty when the vehicle approached close enough for him to see the freshly splintered and dented spots along the hull, and a couple of broken ropes that swung in the air and flicked an occasional drop of dew from their fog-wet, frayed ends.

  As Rivas mentally put together a cover story that might make him seem to be a useful hitchhiker, he squinted now at the men themselves, who were slouched on the high driver’s bench, which was shielded at the rear and the sides by sheets of aluminum so frequently dented that they now had a uniformly hammered look. The men seemed to have fared about as well as their boat-wagon: they too were battered but evidently still functioning. The wagon was close now, and would pass him if he waited much longer.

  Rivas took a deep breath, crossed his fingers and then stepped out from behind his bush. “Good morning,” he said cheerfully.

  The driver snapped the reins and pulled a brake lever, and the wail of the brake shoes echoed away up and down the street as the wagon ground to a halt, the mast swaying overhead.

  “What do you want,” the other man said, looking down without enthusiasm at Rivas. “We don’t pick up hitchhikers.” A bowler hat sat loosely on top of a blood-speckled turbanlike bandage, and under it his tanned face was so lean and pinched that it was hard to imagine him ever having eaten a decent meal, or even ever having smiled.

  “Too risky,” jovially agreed the driver, a white-haired old man wearing a baseball cap and overalls. Like his companion, he too wore several bandages.

  Rivas smiled at them. “I was just wondering if you ran into the same gang of Jaybirds that jumped me last night. I managed to run clear, but they got my wagon and all my… stock.”

  The old man stared down at him. “Stock,” he said thoughtfully.

  “What, uh, do you gentlemen deal in?” Rivas inquired, his eyebrows high.

  After a pause in which he glanced cautiously around at the nearby buildings, the old man said, “We’re redeemers, son.”

  His partner nodded absently.

  And I know what sort, thought Rivas. “Ah,” he said. “Commendable. I’m a… pharmacist, myself.”

  “You’re a Blood dealer,” said the old man.

  “And you’re pimps,” said Rivas affably.

  After another pause, the old man nodded. “Correct, son. And yes, it was a gang of Jaybirds—those damn shepherds, resenting us cutting a few ewes out of their flock. They get all your Blood?”

  “All I had with me. And my horse and wagon. I’m lucky I still have my head.”

  “Ah. Too bad. Blood’s the only thing that’ll quiet ’em down when they’ve got the birdy fits.”

  “Yeah.” Hence my story, thought Rivas. “You know Ratty Frazee?”

  “Sure,” said the lean man. “You know he’s dead?”

  “I heard something about it. What happened?”

  “Some damn redeemer.”

  “One of the out for hire redeemers,” the old man clarified. “They say it was Greg Rivas, snatching some girl for her parents. You knew Frazee?”

  Rivas shrugged. “Did some business with him.”

  The two men up on the bench seemed to relax a little. The lean man took his hat off and peered into it. “Where do you go for more Blood?” he asked, apparently addressing the hat.

  “I’ve got some stashed in a sewer outside Hunningten Town.” Rivas guessed that this pair had at least a couple of girls in their wagon—the Jaybirds wouldn’t have sling-shotted the vehicle so savagely otherwise, and the fact that these two were alive was proof that the Jaybird shepherds hadn’t caught up with them—and hijacked Jaybird girls were nearly always routed to Hunningten Town and then by sea up to Venice, because the pacifying Blood was so plentiful there. Perhaps the main complaint the average prostitute runner had about the universe was the fact that female communicants, unlike the less readily saleable males, never did reach the placid, tractable far-gone stage, and in order to be used had to be regularly tranquilized with doses of Blood.

  The lean man put his hat back on. “Hunningten’s on our way.”

  “Yeah, you can ride there with us if you like,” the old man said.

  “Thanks,” said Rivas, climbing over the wheel cowl… a bit awkwardly because of his mangled thumb. “I’ll pay for the ride when we get there.”

  “Sit by me,” the old man added. “Nigel will sit in the roof behind.”

  “I’d be cautious too,” acknowledged Rivas as he settled himself on the bench Nigel had just vacated. The last of the fog had drifted away down the bay and he savored the smell of eucalyptus on the warming air as the old man flicked the reins and the wagon lurched into motion.

  “If you need to re-stock,” the old man said, “you could sail north to Venice with us too—can always use an extra pair of hands on a boat, and I think this old barge needs some patching up this time. I think the shepherds messed up the keel hinge, and half the line’s shot.”

  “Sure, sounds good,” said Rivas, though reflecting inwardly that no power on earth could ever get him to enter Venice from its seaward side, where the most altered of the city’s denizens limped, hopped and swam about on unimaginable errands in the canals of poisonous Inglewood… on the narrow, ever-shifting beaches whose mulitcolored sand was sown with lumps of fused glass and occasional ancient but undecaying bone fragments… and even in the very shadow of the structure known as Deviant’s Palace.

  Though in his years in Venice Rivas had prided himself on being a particularly wild, nothing-to-lose young man, boating by moonlight down canals sane people shunned even at noon and participating in several foolish duels, he had taken care never to venture within blocks of Deviant’s Palace. But the stories he’d heard about the place still colored his nightmares: stories of fantastic towers and spires that threw dark stains on the sky, so that even at noon stars could be seen twinkling around the warped rib-cage architecture of its upper levels; of nonhuman forms glimpsed weeping in its remoter windows; of what creatures were sometimes found dying in the canals that entered the place through high arches, and what things these creatures some times said; of wooden gargoyles writhing in splintery agony on rainy nights and crying out in voices recognized by passersby as those of departed friends…. The place was supposed to be more a nightclub than anything else, and Rivas remembered one young lady who, after he’d impatiently broken off their romance even more quickly than he’d instigated it, had tearfully told him that she was going to get a waitress job at Deviant’s Palace. He had never permitted himself to believe that she might really have done it, in spite of the evenin
g when a walruslike thing that a gang of fishermen had netted and dragged to shore and were butchering by torchlight rolled its eyes at him and with its expiring breath pronounced the pet name she’d always called him….

  The boat-wagon rattled on southward along the old streets, putting on a little more speed as the sun came up and let the old man see where the potholes and washouts were. For the first half hour of the ride Rivas didn’t ask about the girls his companions had rustled, for he didn’t want to seem too interested in their business; but the thought that Uri might be in the wagon right below him made him unable to consider anything else, and finally forced him to speak. “How many have you got?” he asked with feigned casualness, jerking his wounded thumb downwards.

  “Four,” the old man said. “Or maybe it’s three now. Nigel overthumps them sometimes.”

  “Vermin,” commented Nigel from behind.

  “Nigel doesn’t care for ladies.”

  “’Specially birdy ones,” Nigel explained.

  “I see,” said Rivas, nodding.

  Jesus, he thought, what a pair. If I can think of a way to work them ill before I ditch them, I’ll do it. And if Uri’s in this wagon, I’ll kill them. And if Uri’s in here and dead, I’ll…

  He turned away as if to look at the inland countryside, for he feared that his amiable smile was turning into some less reassuring expression. Several tumbleweeds were rolling across a field parallel to the wagon like skeletons of some spherical species; and as the things crested a grassy rise and spun free in the air for a moment Rivas thought he saw a faint rosy shadow or stain on one of them… but the old man was speaking again and Rivas had to turn and face him.

  “My name’s Lollypop,” the old man said.

  Given ten tries, thought Rivas, I think I might have guessed that. “I’m Pogo Possum,” he said on the spur of the moment, it being a pretty safe bet that neither of these fellows would be well read. “You been in this… trade long?”

  “Since the sixth year of the last Ace, Nigel and me both. We were around when young Jaybush first appeared and started recruiting followers. Hell, I used to live in Irvine, in a house that’s behind the white walls today—or was, I guess, until the big explosion in the last year of that Ace.”

  Rivas nodded. The rumors of the midnight flash and deafening roar behind the white walls—and speculations that Jaybush himself had died in the blast, for he subsequently went into cloistered seclusion in the Holy City—had shaken the whole structure of the faith, and Rivas, at the age of twenty-one, had taken advantage of the confusion and quietly left the Jaybirds and fled to Venice.

  “Did you ever see Norton Jaybush?” Rivas asked.

  “Oh hell yes, in those days before he retired into his damned city he was everywhere.” Lollypop shook his head wonderingly. “Can’t really blame people for following him, you know? That man was hard to beat. Still is, I suppose, just doesn’t have to prove it anymore. Yeah, I seen him make a dead man get up and walk around and talk to his family—and I mean dead, this guy was bloated up and stinking.”

  “Trees bent over when he walked by, like bowing,” said Nigel. “We seen it.”

  “It wasn’t any big thing at all for a hundred birds at once to circle around over his head neat as the rim of a dish, like a big damn whirling halo, and not a peep out of one of ’em.”

  My rival for Uri’s devotion, thought Rivas uneasily. And one time father figure of my own, too; though luckily only through the jaybushes, the surrogates, the representatives of him. I probably wouldn’t have had the—the what? Strength of character? Certainty of my identity?—to leave the faith if I’d been dealing with Mister Messiah Jaybush himself. And I’d never have dared to disobey him so directly by going straight to Venice as soon as I ditched the faith. Jaybush had nothing but condemnations for that sinful place.

  He was startled then by a quick, rhythmic thumping from inside the wagon under him, and it wasn’t until Nigel, at the rear of the roof, pounded his fist on the wood and yelled, “Save it, slut—they gonna teach you a new dance,” that Rivas realized what the noise had been. One of the girls was evidently having doubts, losing a little of her confidence that the world was in Jaybush’s hands and all was well; for the peculiar running-in-place, arm-waving activity known as Sanctified Dancing was the recommended means to clear the mind of uncomfortable thoughts. Like speaking in tongues, it had never held any attraction for Rivas.

  He knew it couldn’t be Uri—this would be only her third day in the faith, and she wouldn’t have been taught Sanctified Dancing yet—but if she actually was in this wagon he wondered what she was making of the spectacle. Often, he recalled, it was kind of scary when someone erupted into it, stamping and waving and gasping, eyes generally screwed tight shut, and it had to be scarier still when it started happening in a dim confinement and you didn’t even know what it was.

  He remembered being with her once when her cat dragged itself into the yard, its hind legs useless because of a broken back. Rivas and Uri had been breathlessly rolling around in the grass behind a toolshed in the Barrows yard, and when Uri leaped up and ran to the struggling cat, her eyes were still a little unfocused, her lips swollen—and then when she’d tried to pick it up, the cat had screeched and spun in the grass and Uri had lurched back with bright drops of blood already rolling down her slashed fingers and pattering onto the grass.

  Rivas had put the animal out of its agony with a shovel, and then tried to comfort the appalled and weeping Uri. What had shocked her, he remembered now, was not the blood everywhere, nor even the pain of the several deep scratches she’d gotten, but the abruptness of it; the way grotesque, horrible violence had appeared in their midst with no warning, as if a chunk of icy iron had plummeted out of the cloudless summer sky.

  For several miles the boat-wagon rattled along peacefully, while the day grew warmer; at one point a flicker of motion above the verdant ruins ahead caught Rivas’s eye… and his belly went cold a moment later when he saw that it was one of the big-as-your-fist punch-bees looping toward them out of the high branches of a carob tree, the rattling buzz of its six-inch wings audible even a couple of hundred feet away. He’d seen a man hit by one of them once, knocked right off his feet by the impact and dead before he hit the ground because of the three-inch stinger driven right up to the bug’s rear end in his eye.

  Rivas was about to jump off the wagon and run when he heard a twang behind him and felt the air beside his right ear thrum like a plucked rope, and a split second later the punch-bee exploded with a wet smack and was suddenly just spray and bits of meat spatting onto the pavement and iridescent shards of wing spinning away like glassy leaves.

  Very slowly Rivas turned around on the bench. Nigel, sitting astride the boom, was fitting a second pebble into his wrist-brace slingshot, and then he put the weapon back in his bowler hat and put the hat on his head. He met Rivas’s gaze with eyes as cold and incurious as marbles.

  “Good with that thing, Nigel is,” observed Lollypop.

  “Yes,” Rivas agreed, re-evaluating his chances of disabling these boys soon and getting a look at the girls in the wagon.

  As the wagon went rolling past the carob tree Rivas breathed through his mouth, for the air was sharp with the metallic smell of the killed bee.

  Several hundred yards behind, the tumbleweed caught against a metal post from which still hung a few curly strands of a barbed wire barrier that, a century ago, had apparently blocked the whole street. The bush heeled around to a stop. A pinkly translucent head disattached itself from the twiggy ball and blinked around, then snuffed the air. A smile stretched its face like a breath stretches a smoke ring, and a pink arm less substantial than a snakeskin reached down and with some difficulty freed the bush from the barbed wire. The head and arm were retracted again as the tumbleweed began to roll, resuming its interrupted southward course.

  Late in the afternoon Lollypop left the at least somewhat maintained succession of bayshore roads and turned east up one of the o
ld highways that mounted inland through the band of jungle and into the dry hills beyond.

  “Why the shift?” asked Rivas, watching the water move around from the starboard side to the stern, and then begin to recede.

  “There’s a big damned army been moving up the coast last couple of days,” said Lollypop. “Supposed to have come south overland, sacked Santa Ana and Westminster, and now they’re heading toward the bay, along the shore and in boats, burning everything in their way.”

  Rivas remembered the fires he’d seen on Long Beach Island last night. They’re at the mouth of the bay now, he thought. “Huh. Who are they supposed to be?”

  The old man didn’t answer until he’d guided the horses around a dangerously undercut-looking section of pavement. “Well,” he said, relaxing when they were past it, “we were in Hunningten Town a couple of days ago, and people were saying it was an army from way up north, like San Berdoo.” He shrugged. “I guess it’s possible.”

  “Huh.” Rivas leaned back, absently enjoying the coolness on the right side of his face where the sun had been shining on it all day. So, he thought, Ellay’s got soldiers patrolling her western and northern borders, and here comes San Berdoo up from below. I wonder if the Berdoo boys really think they can take her by surprise. Maybe they can. Nearly all the traffic across the Inglewood Desolate is of fairly furtive, untalkative types—Jaybirds, hooters, pimps like my pals here. Maybe they can, at that.

  The girls were getting restless by the time Lollypop parked the wagon in a garagelike structure with a roof high enough to let the mast in, and Rivas was trying to hear their voices, for he was sure he’d recognize Uri’s, even after thirteen years. During the long afternoon he’d considered and reluctantly dismissed the idea of asking to see the captives, even on the pretext of suffering a sudden fit of lust; a genuine Blood dealer would know better than to ask, and suspicion seemed easily kindled in his two traveling companions. The voices fell to muttering when the wagon stopped, though, so Rivas hopped down and looked around the big echoing chamber.

 

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