Dinner at deviants palac.., p.9
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       Dinner at Deviant's Palace, p.9

           Tim Powers
 

  Square sunken areas with truncated metal pillars in them seemed to confirm his guess that this had once been some sort of garage, but there were indications too that it had seen other uses not quite as long ago. Several cots and stretchers, their fabric spiderweb-frail after all the desiccating years, were tumbled in the corners, and when Rivas crouched down on the littered floor, hoping to find a weapon, he picked up a tiny squat bottle with a rubber diaphragm instead of a lid. The diaphragm broke to dry bits when he touched it, and whatever fluid the bottle had once contained was long gone.

  The unoiled-axle cries of homeward-bound parrots were ringing in the sky faintly—though very loud when, every now and then, a half dozen of the busily flapping green and orange birds would pass over the street in front of the garage—and the shadows were lengthening and the light outside was turning apricot when Nigel scuffed away with a roll of twine and a bag full of old jewelry and aluminum cans to set up some intruder alarms.

  “Do you generally sleep in the wagon?” Rivas asked Lollypop.

  “Yeah,” said the old man as he tossed some cloth bags to the pavement and then jumped down from the driver’s bench. “The girls inside the cabin, Nigel and me on deck.” He sat down and opened the bags and began pulling out heavy waxed-paper packages. “Hope you like pork,” he said. “Oh,” he added, looking up, “and hitchhikers sleep off the wagon.”

  “Makes sense,” said Rivas, who’d hoped for that answer. “I think while there’s still some light I’ll check for snakes and scorpions.”

  “Probably a good idea,” the old man allowed.

  Rivas wandered deeper into the building, looking around again for something that could serve as a reliable weapon. The inland detour had been a bit of luck for him, but he knew this was about as far east as his companions would be going—from here they’d begin to bear back west, toward the bay and away from Irvine. He’d have to find out tonight if Uri was in the wagon, for if she wasn’t, he’d have to get moving south.

  Against one wall an ancient engine block and an equally ancient bed frame seemed to have formed the seed of a particularly convoluted litter pile, and he walked over to it and noisily wrenched some things away: an old chair, a teevee box, the hood of a car, a refrigerator shell so rust-eaten that he could spin it away one-handed….

  He was exposing a sign stencil-painted on the bricks of the wall—he could already see the word “AVAILABLE”—so he pulled over a set of metal shelves, making a hellish clatter and sending a million little glass rectangles tinkling out across the concrete floor. He could read the sign now.

  CD GUARANTEED SAFE FOOD AVAILABLE HERE_________

  There was still chalk dust in the pits in the brick surfaces over the stenciled line, but the only legible notation in that spot seemed to be the last applied, and it was scratched in as if with the point of a knife:

  nevermore

  Rivas looked over his shoulder at Lollypop, who had gathered wood for a fire and was laying pieces of pork out onto a metal grate. The old graffitist spoke too soon, he thought.

  At last he found something that looked possible—it was a whippy length of flat aluminum with a heavy, rusted bolt at one end, and he slipped it up his sleeve so that the bolt was nestled in his armpit and the end of the strip was just concealed by his cuff. And, just as carefully, he was rehearsing in his head a word he didn’t know the meaning of, but which he had heard many times: sevatividam, pronounced gutturally with the tongue against the edges of the teeth on the t and d.

  “I guess there’s nothing gonna bite me,” he said, ambling back toward the wagon in the wide doorway. He noticed that his hands were visibly shaking, so he added, “You guys got any liquor?”

  “Sure, a fifth of Currency up under the driver’s bench,” said Lollypop. “A cup, too. Don’t take more’n one cupful.”

  Rivas opened his mouth to voice the response that had become automatic with him over the years, but then he just nodded. “Okay.” He climbed up to the bench, and as he reached under it for the bottle and cup he risked whispering, “Uri?” hoarsely at the floor. There was no reply, and he filled the cup, re-corked and replaced the bottle, and then managed to climb back down without spilling a drop or banging his thumb.

  The old man had got the fire going and Rivas sat down on the concrete floor near it and with some trepidation took his first sip of Currency Barrows since the night thirteen years ago when he’d done his imitation of a barking dog.

  He was a little disappointed that it didn’t bring back any memories. It was just a mouthful of hard liquor, a bit perfumy and biting, without the clean grain taste of whiskey. Oh well, he told himself; better than gin. He relaxed and, having given up on feeling dramatic about it, set about enjoying, it simply for its alcohol content.

  “How is it?” Lollypop enquired.

  “Root of all evil,” said Rivas with a satisfied smile. Wouldn’t Mojo be surprised, he thought, to see me knocking this stuff back.

  And what, he forced himself to wonder, is Mojo doing right at this moment, do you suppose? Drawing infrequent beers and making frequent apologies for the absence of the legendary Venetian pelicanist? Or hopping and sweating to fill the drink orders of the huge crowd attracted by some new performer? No, Steve couldn’t have got someone else yet.

  Rivas rolled another sip of the brandy around on his tongue—he was beginning to get used to it—and wondered if he’d ever stand on the stage at Spink’s again. He closed his eyes and tried to visualize the place—the high ceilinged room with the bar on the far side and the doors to the left, the lamps, the tables, the strings of dusty paper dolls way up there higher even than the chandeliers…. He wished now that he’d taken the time to really look at those strings of little figures holding hands and touching toes. He’d always been curious about them, even before he’d learned that they were the last work of some genius sculptor—Noah Almondine, Rivas seemed to remember his name was—who lost his mind and killed himself in the last year of the Sixth Ace. Rivas had never been able to keep straight the names of all the genius painters and poets and doctors and engineers—and even politicians, for the Sixth Ace was supposed to have been the best Ellay had had since Sandoval himself—who crowded into prominence when Rivas was about seventeen, and then all wound up leaving by the Dogtown gate at about the same time the Sixth Ace was assassinated. Though there weren’t ever any musicians in that crowd, Rivas thought, and thanks be to Jaybush for the lack of competition.

  All too soon the distant rattling and clanging was replaced by the scuff of Nigel’s returning footsteps. Rivas put down the cup and got up into a crouch, his heart pounding, and frowned dubiously at the pork to explain the move.

  Nigel walked into view from around the corner.

  “How long have you guys been carrying this pork around?” Rivas asked, trying not to talk too fast or too shrilly. “It looks a little old to me, yes man, little bit old. Don’t need, what, worms, do we, hey? Why, I knew a guy ate some old pork one time, and listen, worms woulda been a blessing to him; he’d ’a’ begged you for ’em, compared to what he got. He came down with—”

  Nigel was close enough now, and looking annoyed rather than suspicious at this jabbering.

  “—sevatividam—”

  As Rivas had hoped, the captive girls instantly began shrieking when they heard those five syllables and Nigel, startled by the sudden din, spun toward the wagon.

  Rivas sprang up out of his crouch, whipping the length of metal from his sleeve in one motion and whirling it around and back, over his head; when his right foot hit the pavement he was moving at running speed, and though Nigel looked back in real alarm when he heard it, Rivas was already upon him, and with all the strength of his arm and momentum of his rush Rivas lashed the heavy bolt directly into the bridge of Nigel’s nose. Even as Nigel’s head snapped back and his body folded backward, Rivas let go of the aluminum strip and let himself fall with the body, and as they hit the floor together he snatched Nigel’s hat and when he rolled to his
feet on the far side of the body he was fitting the slingshot into his hand and over his wrist and aiming it at Lollypop, who’d drawn a knife and taken a couple of steps forward.

  The old man skidded to a stop when he saw Rivas draw the pebble back against the increasing resistance nearly to his ear.

  “Drop the knife,” Rivas panted.

  The knife clattered on the floor. “What have you done to Nigel?” the old man moaned.

  “Maybe I overthumped him,” said Rivas, beginning to catch his breath. “Open the cabin.”

  “You’re a Jaybird,” said Lollypop.

  “No. Open the cabin.”

  The old man didn’t move. “That was that speaking in tongues gibberish.”

  “Right. I can kill you and open it myself.”

  The old man started toward the wagon. “You’re a redeemer, then.”

  “One of the out for hire ones,” Rivas agreed. He turned slowly to keep the slingshot aimed at the man, but took a couple of steps back and let the rubberized netting go slack for a moment while he crouched and snatched up the knife. He had the knife wedged into his wrist sheath and the pebble drawn back again before the old man could do more than look around.

  As Lollypop turned back toward the wagon Rivas glanced down at Nigel. One eye was wide open and staring up into a darkening corner of the ceiling, the other was nearly closed, and between them was a deep indentation. Rivas’s outstretched arm began to shake, and he wished he was anywhere else on earth.

  Lollypop had climbed up over the wagon’s stern and unbolted the cabin door, and Rivas hurried forward as it swung open. Three girls were standing inside, blinking in the orange firelight; they were smiling uncertainly, evidently still supposing that Rivas’s imitation of a far-gone receiving the sacrament had been genuine.

  He peered closely. None of them was Uri.

  “Step down, girls,” he said with weary gentleness. “You’re free.”

  Their smiles disappeared, but they climbed down and wandered aimlessly toward the fire.

  “Climb in there,” Rivas told Lollypop, “and, carefully, bring the fourth girl forward.”

  The old man disappeared inside the cabin. After a moment he called out, fearfully, “She’s dead.”

  “Bring her forward.”

  “You’ll kill me.”

  Maybe I will, thought Rivas helplessly. But, “Don’t be silly,” he said. “This is just a job to me.”

  There was scuffling and thumping in the darkness, and then he saw a long, dark-haired body rolled to the cabin’s threshold.

  “Let me see her face.”

  Lollypop lifted the head and turned it toward Rivas. It wasn’t Uri.

  Rivas wasn’t aware of how tense he’d been until his shoulders relaxed. “Not the one I’m after,” he told Lollypop. “Get inside and shut the door.”

  There were tears on the old man’s face. “You can’t lock me in here! This cabin’s built tough, I’d starve to death, just shoot me right now—”

  “I’m not going to lock it, relax. I’m just going to pile some stuff in front of the door so I’ll hear it if you come out. The dead girl you can leave in there with you or roll out onto the deck.”

  Lollypop rolled her back inside. “I can’t be alone,” he muttered as he pulled the door closed.

  Rivas let the slingshot go slack and tucked it into his shirt, then ran back into the dark garage, picked up the old bed frame and carried it back to the boat-wagon. He threw it onto the deck, climbed up himself, and leaned it up against the closed cabin door. “There,” he called. “If I’m still around when this falls, I’ll hear it and come back and kill you, okay?”

  The old man was mumbling inside, possibly to the dead girl, but there was no specific reply.

  Rivas let the slingshot go slack and tucked it into his belt, walked around to the driver’s bench and grabbed the bottle of Currency, then hopped down to the floor. During the day’s ride, he had noticed that the harness of the horses was an unusual style, with some sort of hinge and pin arrangement as well as buckles on the harness straps, and a light English saddle on each horse; now he put the bottle down, carefully, and walked up to the front right horse to get a closer look at the harness.

  Each of the pins, he saw, had a ring on the top end; he yanked one out of its hinge and the harness strap fell away. He smiled almost sadly. Ready for anything, you boys were, he thought; Jaybird shepherds, punch-bees, the necessity of having to take to the water… even, I see, for having to abandon your vehicle altogether and proceed on horseback without unbuckling anything. I’ll bet old Lollypop is going to be a little more careful about picking up hitchhikers, though. Rivas yanked out another pin and tried to remember what length he liked stirrup leathers to be.

  “Where’s the jaybush?” came a voice from right behind him, making him jump and gasp.

  He turned to the girl. She was tall, with pale hair; she was silhouetted against the comparative brightness outside, and so he couldn’t see her expression, but, knowing Jaybirds, he didn’t figure there would be much to see anyway. “Sorry, miss,” he said. “There isn’t one anywhere near.” He looked past her. “Where’d the other two go?”

  She shrugged.

  “Good luck to them.” He went back for the bottle and tucked it into his shirt and then pulled the last pin, freeing the horse from the wagon. “And good luck to you,” he added, wondering if she’d know how to give him a leg up.

  “Where are you going?”

  He looked back at her in exasperation. Why couldn’t she have wandered away with her friends? “South.”

  “South?” she said with sudden eagerness. “To the Regroup Tent?”

  “No, dammit, I—” He paused. Why not? What better cover could he hope for than the role of a Jaybird who’d become separated from his band and was waiting to be caught up with or reassigned? Especially if he was accompanied by an obviously genuine stray Jaybird girl. “I mean yes,” he said.

  “Can we start tonight?” she asked. “I feel terrible being away from everyone.”

  “Yes,” said Rivas, leading his horse around so that he could reach the harness pins on the left front one. “I’d like to get away from this place as soon as possible.”

  The girl glanced around blankly, apparently giving Nigel’s corpse no more attention than she gave the neglected pieces of pork. Obviously home was wherever the Jaybirds were, and every other place was simply a place where they weren’t, only to be passed through and not worth a second look. Rivas had read somewhere that toads could perceive only two categories: a fly, and everything that was not a fly. This girl seemed to have the same sort of two-position attention switch.

  “Since it’s not where everyone is,” he amended wearily. She smiled and nodded, and he went on, “Sure, there’s still enough light for us to cut a couple of miles out from between us and the Regroup Tent.” He handed her the reins to the second horse. “Can you ride?”

  Her smiled disappeared. “Yes,” she said, taking them.

  He realized that it must have been a skill she’d acquired before becoming a Jaybird, during her renounced old life, and that while she was willing to use it to get back into the bosom of the church, she’d take no pride or joy in it.

  “Well,” he said, “if I fall off, come back for me.”

  Without replying the girl hiked her left knee up, got her sandalled foot into the left stirrup, and effortlessly swung up onto the horse; Rivas noticed that her legs, under the coarse cloth robe, were long and graceful. She’d have fetched a good price in Venice, he thought—and I’m glad I saved her from that. And what the hell am I looking at a girl’s legs for when I’m trying to find Uri?

  At his second try Rivas got into the saddle. “Follow me,” he said, and led the way out onto the street.

  When the quiet tick-tock of the hooves had receded away down the street, the garage was silent… but not quite still. The sunlight became redder and dimmer as it slowly advanced across the concrete floor, the remaining two hors
es blinked incuriously from time to time, and a shadow without a body drifted from the street into the garage, hard to see because it was the same color as the twilight glow. It turned like an unhurried underwater swimmer and tensed slightly when it saw the raw pork, but moved eagerly forward when it saw Nigel’s corpse. It lifted its legs in a crouch, and when gravity finally coaxed it down to the floor its insubstantial fingers fluttered over Nigel’s face and hands, trying to find an open wound.

  Then finally the wagon’s cabin door was pushed open, and a bed frame toppled onto the deck with a tremendous crash. The transparent creature, immensely startled, darted away like a minnow, and by the time the snuffling Lollypop had shuffled across the deck and climbed down to the floor, the thing was clinging upside-down to one of the ceiling beams, as tight and still as a pink glass bat.

  The old man sat down beside the body and began haltingly whispering to it while the light crept further into the garage and grew dimmer and the creature on the ceiling beam blinked and rolled its big eyes and one of the Jaybird girls, outside, made a steady clanging racket but no vocal complaint as she tried patiently to extricate herself from one of Nigel’s intruder alarms.

  At last Lollypop picked up Nigel’s body, carried it to the wagon and laid it on the deck. He climbed back aboard, rolled the dead girl out of the cabin and dumped her over the gunwale, and then gently dragged Nigel inside and closed the door behind them.

  Five minutes passed, then the ceiling-clinging thing let go and spread its arms and legs and spiraled down like an autumn leaf and touched down, silently, on the dead girl’s face.

  There was no further motion in the garage; and after a while the Jaybird girl outside got free of the alarm and wandered aimlessly away into the night, and then the silence was unbroken.

 

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