A FANTASY FOR TECHNOPHILES
By Emma Bull
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1991 Emma Bull
All rights reserved.
Page of Swords
Crowley: The earthy part of air, the fixation of the volatile, the materialization of idea. Subtlety in material things, cleverness in managing practical affairs, especially if they are controversial.
Gray: A brown-haired, brown-eyed boy or girl. Possible understanding or knowledge of diplomacy, messages, or spying. Watch out for the unforeseen.
THE STOCK EXCHANGE
The room was dark. The room was always dark, because it had no windows; it ought not to have meant anything. But the way the shadows hung like drapery around the desk; the way the crook-necked lamp cast its measured oval of light on the polished rosewood; the way the silence lay on the room, unbroken by the hiss of a gas mantle; the way the faint, faint smell of petroleum and electricity, like the odor of wealth itself, rose up from everywhere — these things gave the darkness meaning. Nothing in that room was incidental.
The customer sat behind his desk, in a chair so tall and wide it could have hidden two bodyguards. He leaned away from the light, and it from him. Maybe he'd read somewhere that hiding one's face made for psychological advantage in business transactions. He was welcome to think so. He already had the only real advantage: money. All the rest was costume and props.
The merchandise was contained in a flat metal box half again as long as a hand, which had once been white. I put it on the edge of the desk, just outside the pool of light. Then I laid one finger on it and pushed, so that it skidded across the shining wood and stopped in front of him.
His hands came up from under the desk and settled on either side of the box. Then the left one rose again, touched the metal, spread flat on it.
"The one I asked for?" he said. They were the first words out of his mouth since his door had opened and let me in.
"Look at it."
He scrabbled a little at the catch, his self-control momentarily breached. One hinge stuck, complaining; then the box opened with a tic, and a broken speck of metal skittered over the rosewood. Inside was another box, plastic. It was mostly deep blue, with a color photo reproduced on it, and the title. He was familiar with the design, I knew. I'd brought him others like it, but with different photos, different titles. He opened the second box to reveal the videocassette. He touched the label as if it might be fragile. "Singin' in the Rain," he said, and I could hear his satisfaction — self-satisfaction, really. He closed the inside box, and the outside. His hands returned to their guard positions, flat on the desk with the tape between them, like brackets in an equation.
"Do the contents match the label?" His voice was strong now, the voice that ordered that room and everything outside it.
"And is it really the original, or did you make a copy to sell me?"
At that, I reached out, laid the same single finger on the metal box, and slid it back across the desk to me. His hands curved like little cats rising and stretching. But they didn't reach after the box. He knew the Deal.
"You can look for it somewhere else," I said politely, "if you aren't comfortable buying from me."
His mouth, perhaps, had gone dry. I liked to think so.
We stayed like that for a moment. He might have been considering sending me away, but I doubted it. I had been searching for this one, at his request, for six months.
Finally he pulled a narrow leather bag into the light and spread it open. He shook the contents into his hand and lined them up, and made sure I saw that the bag was now empty. That was insulting, but not as insulting as his questions. Ten bright, round bits of gold he laid out between us, each with a nice portrait in the center, lovely examples of the coin-making art. Two hundred dollars hard, precisely what he had promised. Such a memory on that man.
I turned the line of coins into a stack with one hand and passed the box across the desk with the other. I looked at the top coin, then smiled across the barrier of light toward his face. "Remarkable likeness," I said. I made the money disappear, and hoped he'd noticed; it was a response to his showing me there was nothing left in the leather bag to steal.
"Another commission," he said, as if I had asked for one and he was weighing the prospect. He needed this little dance to keep from himself the knowledge that he needed me. "This'll be a hard one."
"The last one wasn't exactly lying around like gravel."
He picked up the box that held Singin' in the Rain, and turned it over and over in his hands. At last, he said, "I want the Horsemen movie."
I laughed, which I hadn't meant to do. "No."
"Because I've never seen it, that's why not. If anyone in the City would have seen it, I would, and I haven't."
"So you think it doesn't exist." There was chilly disbelief in his voice.
"I know the folklore. That some poor bastard made a sci-fi-B-movie in which psychic Special Forces soldiers took over the minds of evil brown dictators and won the war in South America. And that some folks who wore dark glasses in the nighttime arrived at his house, asked him urgent questions, and took him into custody. I've never heard if they let him out. I've never heard that the thing got video release. I've never even heard it proved that it was released, period. File the whole story next to Hitchhikers, Comma, Vanishing."
There was a silence, in which I decided he was trying to figure out what that meant. If he asked, I was going to tell him to look it up.
"You sound as if you don't believe in the Horsemen."
Sometimes I feel a profound, crippling sense of loss for something I never had: the world, as it once was. I felt it then. "Of course I believe in the Horsemen. I just don't believe that someone had the bad luck to make a movie about them."
"You're turning down the job?"
I shook my head. "I'll look. I've been looking for years. But I'm not going to find it. Not now. If it had ever existed, do you really think there'd be a copy left unburnt?"
"Five hundred," he said.
I raised my eyebrows. "A thousand, hard. Be glad I don't ask for the hand of your firstborn and half your kingdom."
"No one'd give you a thousand for a goddamn movie."
"Then if I find it, no one will get it."
Long, expensive-sounding silence. "If you find it," he said finally, rustily, "bring it to me."
I smiled, and stifled the impulse to bow. We had not agreed on a price; but we'd agreed that his figure and mine marked the borders of a country we were willing to skirmish in later, if the need arose.
He opened one of his desk drawers, dropped Singin' in the Rain into it, closed and locked it. As sometimes happens when a great deal of money changes owners in an atmosphere of bare tolerance, he suddenly turned hearty. He gestured toward a lower corner of the room and said, "Down there, some people call two hundred in gold a fortune, son. What do you plan to do with it all?"
I smiled; if he couldn't see it, he would still hear it in my voice. "Oh," I said, "I thought I'd treat myself to breakfast."
And that should have been the end of it; but it may be that I don't think clearly with a fortune in my inside pocket. "Have you seen it?" I asked him.
He was startled enough to get in the way of the light. It made him squint, his eyes lost in pasty white flesh. "Pardon?"
"Singin' in the Rain. Have you seen it?" Dancing over sofas, hanging from lampposts, piling furniture on the speech tutor. Did he have a secret passion for foolery?
"Then how do you know you want it?"
His answer was all in his face, scornful and baffled at once. Money makes me ask stupid questions. He wanted it, of course, because someone else didn't have it.
"Debbie Reynolds dies in the end," I told him.
Five minutes later I was in an elevator rumbling down from the top of the tallest building in the City, with more money than I'd ever carried in my life, literally surrounded by wealth and power. And I was mostly sick and frightened with it. When I got outside, onto the street, to anyplace that had ever been touched by sunlight, I would be all right.
I went past the guard desk, nodded at the man who sat behind it, and tried, as I went out the door, not to look as if I was rushing. I turned right, into the cheerful morning pandemonium of the mall market, and the tight prickling between my shoulders went away.
I'd done a good job, I decided on reflection. That building, that office, that customer, always made me feel claustrophobic and small, but I'd kept my mind on the Deal, and it had gone as I'd meant it to. I might have sounded a little like Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, but there were worse roles.
I bought eggs and peppers and a few ounces of crumbly cheese at three different stalls, and took them all to a grill cart and had the proprietor turn them into an omelette.
After breakfast I would hail a bicycle cab and pay for the long, long ride to the western outskirts of the City, where a culture-vulture knew of a sealed-up basement holding the remains of a video production business. It would be, by my standards, a perfect day.
But it had chaos hidden in it. Cancers start that way: a cell or two, mutated, dividing, a secret for weeks or months until suddenly the transformation announces itself, and the whole organism quails in the face of it. The cells mutated that day, though I knew nothing about it for weeks.
Waite: Inertia, sleep, lethargy, petrifaction, somnambulism, hope destroyed.
Gray: Stagnation. Failure of revolution or other forms of violent change.
Crowley: Transformation and the logical development of existing conditions thwarted. His magical weapon is the pain of the obligation. His magical power is necromancy.
GONNA GO DOWNTOWN
I came up on my back in the dirt. The sun was hot on the front of me, but the ground under my body was cool. I'd been there a while, then. A white-blue glaring summer sky made my eyes water. My mouth felt like a tomb from some culture where they bury your servants with you.
I turned my head reluctantly, and found the river flats around me, deserted, smelling like dead fish and damp wood. Far away, across the baked mud and spilled cured concrete, a bridge crew worked. I could hear the cadence shout, faintly, and the crash as the weight came down to drive the piles.
I rolled half over and tried to decide how I was. This time, all I felt was a sore and swelling bruise on the side of my face. I remembered where I must have got it: in the street in back of Tet Offensive, where I'd gone for spicy mock duck and gotten two Charlies petites instead. The last thing I recalled clearly was one of the boss girls doing a snap kick, watching her heel come at me out of the dark. Probably about then that I went down.
Since the only lasting damage I'd taken was something I could remember, I must not have been into any nasty things during downtime. How long had it been? And what had I missed?
When I stood up, I had to revise the damage report. My skull was the Holy Sepulcher of hangovers. Oh, I must have been into some nasty things, indeed. I hoped I'd had fun. By the time I got to the street along the Bank, it was enough to make me sick.
I'd had thirty bucks in paper, but my pockets were empty now. If the boss girls hadn't gotten it, then it had paid for whatever had left its residue in my head. I wished I knew what it was. Not that I could resolve never to consume any more. Sooner or later I'd go down again, shut out of my own mind, and all the resolving I'd ever done would be as useful as a dome light in a casket.
The next plunge down would be number five. The first time, I'd thought it was something I'd eaten, or drunk, or otherwise consumed. The second time, I'd wondered if it was someone else's malice, the coup n'âme. By the third, it had occurred to me that it might be all mine. The effect of my colorful origin, arrived at last to rectify a long-neglected error. But if that was so, why wasn't it coming closer to killing me?
I sat on the wall by the road, shivering in the sun. Suddenly I could imagine all the things my body might do when I wasn't there to stop it, and I felt so vile they might as well have happened. Maybe they had; they just hadn't left marks. I thought about a future full of blank spaces, and knew I couldn't bear it. If that was the future, I had to escape it.
The obvious method came to mind, despair's favorite offspring. It came so sharp to the front of my brain, so clear and desirable, that I made a quick little noise about it. I was down off the wall and headed for the Deeps before I could think about what I was running (figuratively) from. The human animal, when hurting, prefers to go to ground in its own burrow.
In parts of town, I could have sat on the curb and held out my hand, and after a while, if I looked pitiful enough, I would have the money to pay for a bicycle cab. There were still people in the world who were superstitious about beggars, after all, and if bruised, dirty, and disoriented couldn't elicit pity, then what was superstition for? But the Bank was lousy panhandling territory. People there lived by the Deal, like everyone else. They lived well by it, however, and that affected their judgment. Even if they once knew the First Law of Conservation of Deals — that there are never enough to go around — they'd let it slip their minds. So they drove past in their co-op's car, or trotted by under the twisted trees, led by dogs that ate as much as I did, and assumed when they saw me that I didn't do as much to earn my food as the dog.
Once, even in a place like the Bank, you could hold your hand out in a certain way, and people would understand that you needed transportation. They'd stop their private cars and let you ride in them, without asking anything in return. Unnatural, but true. I'd seen it in movies. But that was a long time ago. I staggered on, the dogs barked, and their owners made what they thought were imperceptible movements toward one pocket or another. I wasn't worried; I didn't think even a shot of ammonia in my eyes could make me feel worse.
By the time I got to Seven Corners market, the whole world seemed to flash colors in rhythm with my heartbeat. The flapping shutter of my headache kept time, too. Seven Corners has never been a good place for my preferred sort of marketing: it's food, clothing, housewares, and the kind of services that go with those, mostly. So I didn't much mind having to make my way through it with my eyes squinted three-quarters shut. It occurred to me, dimly, that I might have more than a hangover.
The weight of the sun finally brought me to a ragged halt at the market's edge. I stood under an awning, supporting myself by propping my hip against a table, and pretended to be thoughtful about a tray of tomatillos. The next stall over had crates of live poultry, and the noise and smell were unlovely. A black woman with a serpent scarred from cheek to cheek over the bridge of her nose traded the vendor a bottle of homebrew for a white rooster; the vendor popped a little sack over the bird's head, tied its feet together, and ran a loop of string through its bonds for a carrying handle. The woman walked away, swinging a rooster too dismayed to struggle. It gets worse, I wanted to tell him, thinking of his new owner's scar.
I was waiting, I realized, for my wits to disappear into darkness. As if it would happen when I was ready for it. There would be some consolation in knowing what it was. Brain tumor, bad food, the heat? The heat would kill cactus. Perspiration was trickling out of my hairline, warm as the air, too warm to be doing its job.
The poultry dealer had a pair of doves in a wicker cage, velvety gray and sullen. Doves in paintings were never sullen. They seemed, in fact, to have managed a permanent state of exaltation, like the mindless fluttering ones around a chalice in ... Sherrea's ... cards.
I stood clouted with revelation amid the produce. I wanted knowledge. Sherrea claimed to call it up out of a seventy-eight-card deck. I didn't believe in the cards, but I might, if pressed, admit to uncertainty about Sher. A little mind reading, with tarot as its rationalization — however she explained it to herself, she might locate my missing memories. If she was a mind reader, if the memories were there, if there was any help in them. But I had to try.
The brown grandmotherly woman who sold the tomatillos was shooting ungrandmotherly narrow-eyed looks at me, so I turned to move on. But I missed my step and stumbled against one of her awning poles, rocking the whole canvas roof, and she shouted something about mi madre. That made me laugh. The sun hit me over the head with its hammer when I came out of the shade, and I stopped laughing. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Bone Dance by Emma Bull. Copyright © 1991 Emma Bull. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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