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Dinner at Deviant's Palace
By Tim Powers
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 Tim Powers
All rights reserved.
Crouched way up at the top of the wall in the rusty bed of the Rocking Truck, Modesto tugged his jacket more tightly across his chest, pushed back his hat and squinted around at the city. At the moment there was no one in particular that it would be lucrative to watch for, but just to keep in practice the boy liked to climb up here and keep track of the comings and goings in general. Below him to his left was the South Gate area, not quite its usual crowded self because of the recent rain, and beyond that to the southeast—the direction that was nearly always downwind—he could see the ragged shacks and black mud lanes of Dogtown, canopied by the snarls of smoke rising from the eternal fires in its trash-filled trenches.
The boy clambered over the collapsed cab to sit on the hood and look north. The broken-backed truck, as immovable as the age-rounded concrete wall it straddled, didn't shift under him; nor had it ever moved in the memory of anyone now living.
The towers made ragged brushstrokes of black down the gray northern sky, and at the skeletal top of the Crocker Tower he could see bright orange pinpricks that he knew were torches; the night watch was coming on duty early, and Modesto knew that their various spyglasses would be turned to the east, watching for any sign of the army that was rumored to be approaching from San Berdoo. And though even Modesto couldn't see them from here, he knew that out beyond the north farms there were armed men on horseback patrolling the Golden State Freeway from the Berdoo Freeway in the north to the Pomona in the south.
Thirty feet below his perch he noticed a grotesque vehicle moving south down Fig Street toward him, and with a grin half-admiring and half-contemptuous he identified it as the carriage of Greg Rivas, the famous pelican gunner. Like most kids his age, Modesto considered gunning a slightly embarrassing historical curiosity, conjuring up implausible images of one's parents when they were young and foolish.... Modesto was far more interested in the more defined and consistent rhythms of Scrap, and the new dances like Scrapping, Gimpscrew and the Bugwalk.
With a creaking of axles and an altered pace in the clopping of the horses' hooves, the vehicle turned west onto Woolshirt Boulevard, and Modesto knew Rivas was just arriving early for his nightly gig at Spink's.
Bored, the boy turned his attention back to the thrillingly ominous lights in the Crocker Tower.
The carriage was an old but painstakingly polished Chevrolet body mounted on a flat wooden wagon drawn by two horses, and though the late afternoon rain drabbed the colors and made the streamers droop, it was by far the grandest vehicle out on Woolshirt Boulevard. Old superstitions about rain being poisonous had kept the usual street crowd indoors today, though, and only two boys emerged from a recessed doorway and scampered up to cry, somewhat mechanically, "Rivas! Hooray, it's Gregorio Rivas!"
Rivas pushed aside the beaded curtain that hung in place of the long gone door, stepped out onto the flat surface of the wagon and, squinting in the light drizzle, braced himself there as his driver snapped the reins and drew the vehicle to a squeaking halt in front of the building that was their destination.
Like most of the structures that stood along the north to south midcity line, this one was a well-preserved shell of old concrete with neat sections of woodwork filling the gaps where plate glass had once fabulously stretched across yards and yards of space. The building was three stories high and, again typically for this area, the wall at the top, now decorated with a profusion of spikes and ornaments and sun-faded flags, was jaggedly uneven with an ancient fracture. Over the doorway strips of metal and colored glass had been nailed to spell out, in letters a foot tall, SPINKS.
"Here," Rivas called to the boys, "never mind it today, no one's around. Anyway, I think I need a couple of new prompters—lately the goddamn parrots sound more enthusiastic than you guys."
As if to illustrate his point, one of the parrots nesting in the top of the nearest palm tree called down, "Rivas! Rivas!"
"Hooray!" added another one from a tree farther up the street.
"Hear that?" Rivas demanded as he reached back inside the car for his hat and his vinyl pelican case. "I think it's because they work free, just for the art of it." He put on his hat, glanced around below him for unpuddled pavement, spotted an area and leaped to it.
"We don't, though, man," one of the boys pointed out cheerily. Both of them held out their palms.
"Mercenary little mules," Rivas muttered. He dug a couple of small white cards out of his vest pocket and gave one to each boy. "There's a jigger apiece, and you should be ashamed to take so much."
"You bet we are, man." The pair dashed back to their sheltered doorway.
Rivas paused under the restaurant's awning to set his antique hat at the proper angle and comb his fingers through his dark Van Dyke beard. Finally he pushed open the swinging doors and strode inside.
A moment later, though, he was pursing his lips irritably, for his careful entrance had been wasted—the chandeliers, which had been lowered after the lunch crowd, still sat on the floor unlit, and the room was so dim that if it weren't for the faint smells of stale beer and old grease the place could have been mistaken for a between-services church.
"Damn it," he yelped, stubbing his toe against the edge of one of the chandeliers and awkwardly hopping over it, "where are you, Mojo? How come these things aren't lit yet?"
"It's early yet, Greg," came a voice from the kitchen. "I'll get to 'em."
Rivas picked his way around the wooden wheels of the chandeliers to the bar, lifted the hinged section and stepped behind it. By touch he found the stack of clean glasses, and then the big room echoed with the clicking of the pump as he impatiently worked the handle to prime the beer tap.
"There's a bottle of Currency Barrows open," called Mojo from the kitchen.
The edges of Rivas's mouth curled down in a sort of inverted smile. "The beer's fine," he said in a carefully casual voice. He opened the tap and let the stream of cool beer begin filling his glass.
Old Mojo lurched ponderously out of the kitchen carrying a flickering oil lamp, and he crouched over the nearest chandelier to light the candles on it. "That's right," he said absently, "you're not crazy about the Barrows stuff, are you?"
"I'm a beer and whiskey man," said Rivas lightly. "Fandango or the twins here yet?"
"Yeah, Fandango is—them's some of his drums on the stage there. He went for the rest."
There was a shuffling and banging from the direction of the back hall just then, and a voice called, "That you, Greg? Help me with these, will you?"
"Whatever I can carry in one hand, Tommy." Tucking the pelican case under his arm and sipping the beer as he went, Rivas groped his way to the back hall, relieved the puffing Fandango of one of his smaller drums and led the way back across the already somewhat brighter room to the stage.
Fandango put his drums down carefully and wiped sweat from his chubby face. "Whew," he said, leaning against the raised stage. "Spink was askin' me this morning when you'd be in," he remarked in a confiding tone.
Rivas put down the drum he'd been carrying and then glanced at the younger man. "So?"
"Well, I don't know, but he seemed mad."
"How could you tell? He probably sleeps with that smile on."
"He said he wanted to talk to you about something." Fandango avoided looking at Rivas by concentrating on tightening a drumhead screw. "Uh, maybe about that girl."
"Who, that Hammond creature?" Rivas frowned, uneasily aware that Fandango had been seeing the girl first, and had introduced her to him. "Listen, she turned out to be crazy."
"They all do, to hear you tell it."
"Well, most of them are crazy," Rivas snapped as he climbed up onto the stage. "I can't help that." He untied the knots that held the vinyl case closed, flipped up the lid and lifted the instrument out.
Though not even quite two feet long, it was said to be the finest in Ellay, its neck carved of mahogany with copper wire frets and polished copper pennies for pegs, and its body a smoothly laminated half sphere of various woods, waxed and polished to a glassy sheen. The horsehair bow was clipped to the back of the neck, and in profile the instrument did look something like a pelican's head, the body being the jowly pouch and the long neck the beak.
He put the case on the stage floor, sat down on a stool with the pelican across his knees, and plucked out a quick, nearly atonal gun riff; then he swung it up to his shoulder, unclipped the bow and skated it experimentally across the strings, producing a melancholy chord.
Satisfied, he laid the instrument back in the open case and put the bow down beside it. He picked up his glass of beer. "Anyway," he said after taking a sip, "Spink wouldn't be bothered about any such crap. Hell, this is the eleventh year of the Seventh Ace—all that chastity and everlasting fidelity stuff left by the Dogtown gate before you and I were born."
As was very often the case, especially lately, Fandango couldn't tell whether Rivas was being sincere or bitterly ironic, so he let the subject drop and set about arranging the drum stands around his own stool.
"Say," he ventured quietly a few minutes later, "who's the guy by the window?"
Mojo had got several of the chandeliers lit by now, and the kitchen corner of the room glowed brightly enough to show a heavy-set man sitting at a table just to the right of the streetside window. Rivas stared at him for a moment, unable to tell in that uncertain light whether or not the man was looking his way, or was even awake; then he shrugged. "Jaybush knows."
"And he ain't tellin'," Fandango agreed. "Say, is it still gonna be mostly gunning tonight? I've been practicing some newer songs, some of these bugwalk numbers, and it seems to me—"
Rivas drained his beer. "Catch!" he called, and tossed the glass in a high, spinning parabola toward Mojo, who looked up wearily, clanged his lamp down and caught the glass before it could hit the floor.
"Goddammit, Greg ..." he muttered, getting to his feet and shambling toward the bar.
"Yeah," said Rivas, frowning slightly as he watched the old man's progress, "it'll be gunning. They don't pay to hear Rivas doing bugwalk." No, he thought. For that you want those savage kids coming out of the southeast end of town—Dogtown—the kids who rely on the ferocity of their voices and ragtag instruments to make up for their lack of musical skill. "Why?"
"I still can't get the hang of the beat on it," Fandango complained. "If you'd just let me bang away in the same time as what you're playin', or even the time of what you're singin', I could handle it, but this third and fourth layer stuff, all at different paces but having to touch the peaks and bottoms together..."
"We're going to gun," Rivas said firmly.
After a few moments, "Are you gonna do 'Drinking Alone'?" Fandango persisted. "It's the hardest."
"Christ, Tommy," said Rivas impatiently, "this is your job. Yes, I'm going to do that song. If you don't want to learn the whole trade, you may as well grow a beard and beg out on the street."
"Well, sure, Greg, except—"
"Think I moved back here from Venice working like that?"
"Damn right. Maybe we'd better go through it now, before the show, to give you some practice."
Before Fandango could reply, a chair rutched back in the corner and the man at the windowside table stood up and spoke. "Mr. Rivas, I'd like to have a word with you before you start."
Rivas cocked a wary eyebrow at the man. What's this, he wondered, a challenge over some despoiled daughter or wife? Or just a bid for a private party performance? The man was dressed respectably, at least, in a conservative off white flax shirt and trousers and a dark leather Sam Brown belt—in contrast to Rivas's own flamboyant red plastic vest and wide-brimmed hat. "Sure," said Rivas after a pause. "Shoot."
"It's a personal matter. Could we discuss it at the table here, perhaps over a drink?"
Mojo bumbled up to the stage with the refilled beer glass just as the pelicanist hopped down. "Thanks," said Rivas, taking it from him. "And a glass of whatever for the citizen yonder."
Mojo turned toward the stranger, who said, "A shot of that Currency Barrows, please."
Rivas walked over to the man's table, holding the beer in his right hand so that his knife hand was free, and when he got there he hooked back a chair for himself with his foot.
Mojo arrived with the glass of brandy a moment later, set it down in front of the stranger, then stepped back and cleared his throat.
"On my tab, Mojo," said Rivas without taking his eyes off the stranger—who, he noticed, had no hair on his head at all, not even eyebrows or lashes.
"No, I insist," the man said, "and Mr. Rivas's beer, too. How much?"
"Uh ... one ha'pint."
The stranger took a bugshell moneycase from his belt pouch, snapped it open and handed Mojo a one-fifth card. Mojo took it and lurched away.
"Never mind the change," the man called after him.
Mojo slowed to a more comfortable pace. "Thank you, man," he called back in a voice from which he was unable to keep a note of pleased surprise.
"Well?" said Rivas.
The man gave Rivas a distinctly frosty smile. "My name is Joe Montecruz. I'd like to hire your services."
Though still a little puzzled, Rivas relaxed and sat back. "Well, sure. You want a backup band too, or just me? It's twenty fifths a night for me, and for this band it's seven fifths ha'pint extra. If I put together a better group it'd be more, of course. Now I'm booked solid until—"
Montecruz raised a hand. "No no. You misunderstand. It's not in your musical capacity that I wish to hire you."
"Oh." I should have guessed, he told himself. "What, then?" he asked dutifully, just to be certain he was right.
"I want you to perform a redemption."
He'd been right. "Sorry. I'm retired."
Montecruz's not quite friendly smile didn't falter. "I think I can make an offer that will bring you out of retirement."
Rivas shook his head. "Look, I wasn't being coy. I've quit. I make plenty now with the music—and anyway, I'm thirty-one years old. I don't have that kind of reflexes and stamina anymore." Or luck, either, he thought sourly. "And it's been three years since my last one—the country will have changed. It always does."
Montecruz leaned forward. "Rivas," he said quietly, "I'm talking five thousand Ellay fifths."
Rivas raised his eyebrows in genuine respect. "That's handsome," he admitted. "There can't be fifty people in Ellay that can even hope to borrow that much." He took a long sip of beer. "But I'm retired. I just don't want to risk my life and sanity for strangers anymore. There's other redeemers around, though. Hell, five thousand would buy Frake McAn ten times over."
"Is McAn as good as you?"
"Infinitely better, since I don't do it at all now. Thanks for the beer—and now I really should try to show that damn fool drummer what I want." He got to his feet.
"Wait a minute," Montecruz said quickly, holding up a pudgy hand and beginning to look a little less confident. "You're the only guy that ever performed eight redemptions—"
"Six. Two got to the Holy City before I could catch them."
"Okay, six. You've still got the record. The girl's father wants the best, and listen, this won't be as difficult as the others. All you've got to do is locate her, her family will do the kidnap and breaking—"
"Her family can do the whole thing," said Rivas, straightening up. "I'm not kidding about being out of that game. Hire me as a pelicanist or songwriter anytime—they're my only occupations nowadays."
He turned and started back toward the stage, but Montecruz, agile for a fat man, scrambled around the table and caught Rivas's elbow when he'd taken only four paces.
"We'll go ten thousand!" the man hissed.
Exasperated, Rivas turned back to face him. "I told you my answer."
For a couple of seconds Montecruz's face was expressionless, and looked oddly childlike; then, "To sing?" he demanded, his voice shrill with incredulous scorn. "You'd stop saving lives—souls!—to sit in a bar and sing? Oh, but you only did it while you needed the money, isn't that right? And now that you can fiddle for it, everybody else can ... can be gutted and skinned, and it won't disturb your self-satisfaction even as much as a wrinkle in your precious costume would, huh? It must be nice to be the only person worthy of your concern."
A crooked, unmirthful grin had appeared on the pelicanist's face during Montecruz's speech, and when the man had finished, Rivas said, "Why don't you go home and just deal with things you know something about, sport."
He'd spoken quietly, but Mojo and Fandango heard him and looked up in alarm.
Excerpted from Dinner at Deviant's Palace by Tim Powers. Copyright © 1985 Tim Powers. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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