Strange Tradesby Paul Di Filippo
Revolving around the inescapable process of earning a living, these 11 stories present a welcome and refreshing change of pace from more typical science fiction. Speculating about future lifestyles and how to function as a member of the new global economy, these tales emphasize the moral and spiritual dimensions of employment and examine the practical and ethical
Revolving around the inescapable process of earning a living, these 11 stories present a welcome and refreshing change of pace from more typical science fiction. Speculating about future lifestyles and how to function as a member of the new global economy, these tales emphasize the moral and spiritual dimensions of employment and examine the practical and ethical quandaries that possible future occupations may provide. Though written primarily about jobs, careers, and professions, these narratives are filled with suspense and adventure, romance, and laughter.
- Golden Gryphon Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1 ED
- Product dimensions:
- 5.90(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)
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By Paul Di Filippo
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2001 Paul Di Filippo
All rights reserved.
"Kid Charlemagne" owes its existence to my long-standing love affair with J. G. Ballard's Vermilion Sands. The Hesperides, my insular resort (I had in mind California's Catalina Island), was meant to replicate the decadent territory so fascinatingly explored by Ballard during the sixties. In this homage, I was also preceded by Michael Coney, Ed Bryant and Lee Killough, all of whom have worked similar venues. (A theme anthology in the making!) I wrote two sequels to "Kid," neither of which sold. And of course, this story marked one of my first shameless co-optings of the title of a great pop song into another medium.
The Hesperides. how far away and unreal those islands seem now. A place out of time, cushioned and insulated by wealth, where the whims of the rich collided with the unpredictable passions of their playthings—and the lesser of those two forces gave way, with results often merely ludicrous, but sometimes all too tragic.
The Hesperides. Sun, money, tailored bodies, hot and violent emotions, whispers in the night. It all runs together in my memory now, a blurred spectrum like those caused by the oil slicks from the hydrofoils in the Bay, shifting, mutable, impossible to grasp. A moiré on the silk covering a woman's haunch.
A few incidents stand out starkly, though. And these are the ones I would most forget.
The Hesperides. Once I called them home.
Behind the bar in La Pomme d'Or, I counted bottles. Scotch, tequila, vodka, retsina (hard to acquire since the coup in Greece), a nauseating peach liqueur which was all the rage that year. Whenever I found I was running low on a particular item, I would key in an order code and quantity on the submicro hanging from my belt. Eventually, I'd squirt the whole order over the fiber-optic line to the mainland. With luck, the shipment would arrive on tomorrow morning's 'foil.
The big windows onto the veranda were deopaqued. Morning sunlight poured in, giving the interior of La Pomme an oddly wholesome look. With the bi-O-lites off, the air empty of smoke and perfume, the nuglass chairs resting upside down atop the ceramic tables, the stage bare, my club looked innocent and untainted, holding no hint of the sordid dramas enacted there nightly.
I liked it best at this brief hour, but the night came all too quickly.
When I reached the middle of the bar, I flicked on the radio to catch the news.
"—murder. In other news, a delegation of ASEAN diplomats will ride an ESA Hermes shuttle to an orbital meeting with President Kennedy, who is occupying the High Frontier White House this month. The delegation is hoping to spur an investigation into the recent tragedy in Singapore. On a lighter note, fashion followers will be glad to hear—"
I filtered out the unimportant babble as I continued the count.
My head must have been below the bar when he walked in. I always left the door open in the morning so the salt-freighted breeze could wash the stale indoor smells away, although I didn't start business till one.
In any case, when I popped up, I found myself confronting him.
He was a slim fellow of twenty-two, or thereabouts—young enough to be my son. His features were very delicate, yet with nothing androgynous or feminine about them: simply finely chiseled. His skin was the color of a polished chestnut; his eyes, a luminous blue. He wore a patched and salt-stained khaki shirt and denim cutoffs. Across his chest ran a bandolier, holding something concealed against his back.
My eyes lingered for a moment on his throat as I tried to puzzle out what sort of necklace he wore, so tightly clasped. Then I realized it was no piece of jewelry, but rather a scar, a pale cicatrix stretching nearly from ear to ear.
For some reason the sight of the scar so threw me, marring as it did his otherwise classic appearance, that I grew flustered, as if I were the intruder. This boy—appearing so unexpectedly, like Pan stepping from behind a shrub too small to conceal him—struck a series of notes in me, the totality of which I couldn't immediately grasp. To compensate, I shot my hand forward with rather more energy than was appropriate.
"Hello," I said.
He took my hand. His was calloused from manual work; his grip, firm.
"Hello," he replied.
His voice was another shock. I had expected something youthful and dulcet, in keeping with his looks. But instead, from that violated throat came a boozy, raspy, seemingly whiskey- seasoned growl. I immediately thought of Dylan in his prime, thirty-odd years ago, then added another whole layer of Tom Waits scratchiness. The effect was jarring, but not unpleasant to hear.
The population of the Hesperides was small and stable and exclusive enough so that one could come to know everyone—barring the ever-changing horde of daytrippers, of course. Even the few transients at our small hotel had no anonymity. This man, with his boyish attractions and anomalous voice, would have caused a sensation among our bored citizens—men and women alike—and I would surely have heard of him within hours of his arrival. I could only assume that he was a daytripper, if an atypical one, and that the morning ferry had arrived early.
"Just got here?" I asked.
"Nope. I swam in last night."
I stared at him hard. The California coast was a mile and half of choppy water away.
He must have read my disbelief. Stepping back from the bar (I spotted his bare, gnarly feet), he unslung the object on his back. I recognized it for a musikit covered in a waterproof sheath. (Two decades ago, the components of that kit would have filled a room.)
"This is all I own," he said. "It's not heavy enough to slow me down."
I chose to believe his unwavering blue gaze.
"Where'd you sleep?"
"On the beach."
So much for our vaunted private security force. The island's homeowners would have a dozen kinds of fit if they ever learned how easily this kid had invaded their precious enclave. Perhaps I could tweak Deatherage somehow with this.
"Well," I said for lack of a better comment. "You need something to eat?"
He smiled. It was a hundred watts. "Only secondarily. What I really want is a job." He nodded toward the stage.
I thought about it. I had had no one booked for the past week, relying on autosynthesized stuff and satellite-beamed performances. I could sense that my patrons were growing bored, preferring the glamour of live musicians as a background for their assignations and spats.
"Where have you played before?"
"Just Mexico. Where I grew up."
Immediately, I got nervous. I couldn't afford to hire an illegal and lose my license if caught.
The boy—so damn good at sensing my thoughts—dug in the pocket of his tattered shorts. He handed me his ID, gritty with sand. The holo that leaped out from the plastic card was his. I flexed the card to reveal his status; it turned bright green, proclaiming him a citizen. His name was given as Charlie Maine.
"My father was an American," he said with his ingenuous smile. "My mother was from Mexico City. We had to stay south for a long time, till my dad died. Then I came north."
I gave him back his card. Somewhere in our short conversation, I had decided to take a chance on him. No doubt there was a selfish undercurrent to my thoughts, imagining how he would draw the rich and lonely widows in.
"You've got a job," I said, and we shook once more. "How do you like to be billed for publicity?"
White, white teeth flashed. "Kid Charlemagne."
I smiled for the first time in a long while. "Cute." Memories turned over, roiled, and one floated to the surface. "Hey, wasn't there a song once—"
"Steely Dan," he said. "From the '70s. My father used to play it all the time."
He wasn't smiling anymore, and neither was I.
We both knew it was a very sad song.
On the night I introduced the two of them, I wore a linen suit the color of a mummy's cerements, a raw, unbleached beige. Men's suits that year had no lapels, and so my signature flower—a black carnation—was pinned above my heart.
The interior of La Pomme was dark, save for the soft blue- green phosphorescence provided by the bi-O-lites on each table, and those in a line down the bar. I always thought the whole effect was one of an undersea grotto, lit by the slow fires of the drowned men and women who sat as if on coral thrones, more lively than corpses, yet no more feeling.
Full fathom five thy father lies....
The veranda windows were two huge slabs of ebony. By the closed door stood one of Deatherage's men, solicitous bouncer and ruffled-feather-smoother, looking uncomfortable in his suit.
I circulated among my patrons, attending to their frivolous, often only subtly implied desires. As usual, I hated myself for fawning over them. But there was little in the world at that time which I felt capable of doing, and the unassuming niche I had carved for myself here offered a certain contemptible security.
Charlie had yet to appear for his first set. Only the third night of his playing, and already attendance was up. As I had speculated, many of the islands' sad and predatory older women, and not a few of the men, were drawn to him, as if he released some pheromone of youth and potency. At a single table, I spotted Laura Ellis, Simone Riedesel, and Marguerite Englander: the full set of immaculately coiffed, well-preserved Fates, each with enameled nails long and sharp enough to snip threads.
Back at the bar, I savored my usual mineral water with a twist of lemon, and waited for Charlie to appear.
Exactly at midnight the Kid materialized onstage, lit by a single spotlight. Seated on a tall stool, he had his bare feet twisted in the rungs. He wore a white shirt of mine that bloused loosely on him and his old blue shorts. The long flat case of his musikit—like his namesake's broadsword—was balanced on his lap.
The Kid began to play.
Like some beautifully plumaged bird with a raucous yet arresting call, Charlie sang. He knew plenty of old songs that were guaranteed to touch places in us antiques that we had deemed dead—his father's legacy, I suppose. He sang the newest tunes heard daily on the radio with a freshness akin to the then-popular singer, Stella Fusion. And every tenth number or so, there would come an original piece—haunting mixes of Caribbean, Mexican, and American rhythms, carrying elusively poetic images.
When he finished, the applause was real and tremendous.
Above the clapping, from the table nearest me, I heard a bitter voice say, "The bloody little kaffir sings like a black crow." A sharp bark of laughter answered.
I looked to see who had spoken and shattered the magic.
Seated together were Koos van Staaden, his daughter, Christina, and Henrik Blauvelt.
Van Staaden and his daughter were refugees, having fled South Africa—or rather, to use its official name, Azania—six years ago when that aching, tortured country finally erupted. Van Staaden had been Administrator of the Transvaal at the time. During his tenure, he had apparently accumulated quite a fortune, most of which he had managed to transfer abroad prior to the revolution. He and Christina, I knew, had caught one of the last flights out of Jo'burg. Maria, his wife, had been at their country home that week. No doubt her scattered bones were bleached the color of my suit by now.
Spiteful gossip maintained that on the walls of van Staaden's house hung relics of his homeland, among which was a sjambok, its business end tipped with flakes of brown. I couldn't quite credit even van Staaden with such an offense.
Blauvelt, a burly fellow countryman, had been an expatriate in England when the government fell. Nowadays, he acted as Christina's companion.
Like so many wealthy dissolutes without goals, they had ended up in the Hesperides.
I watched van Staaden warily as the patter of applause faded. If he continued to voice his drunken racial slurs, I'd have to sic Deatherage's man on him. I had plenty of HUB patrons richer than he whom I had no wish to offend.
As it was, his daughter intervened.
"Quiet, Father," she said firmly. "I think he sings very well."
Her grip on his arm seemed to drain all belligerence from him. Across his riven face, his love for his daughter warred with his hate. Finally, he raised his glass to his lips and drank deeply, a tired and defeated old relic.
I studied the strange tableau they presented. Van Staaden was a cranelike figure with a stubble of white hair and a sharp nose. Blauvelt was a beefy man in his thirties, with a dandy's mannerisms ill-suited to his heavy body. Christina—well, Christina, I thought then, no more fitted in visually with those two than a nun in a rogue's gallery, or Circe amid her swine.
She was a willowy, small-breasted woman with hair the color and fineness of platinum threads, styled in bangs across her brow and feathered down the back of her long neck. Her nose was tiny, her lips always hidden by jet lip-gloss. Tonight, she wore lilac pants and top, with white sandals. Like half the women in the club, she had a small lifegem affixed at the base of her throat, which fluxed in time with her pulse.
The whole potentially ugly scene was over in seconds, much shorter than I have taken to describe it. Charlie had vanished from the stage, and the club buzzed anew with meaningless talk.
Ten minutes later, I felt a gentle tug at my elbow as I mingled.
I turned to face Christina van Staaden.
"I know you overheard my father's tactless comment, Mr. Holloway," she said. "I'd like to apologize for him. You will make the proper allowances for his situation, I hope."
I nodded without expressing my real opinion. It was something I had grown quite good at.
"Wonderful," she said. "It's all forgotten, then. By the way, I really do feel that Kid Charlemagne is a most exciting performer. I wasn't just sticking up for him out of sympathy. In fact, I was wondering if I could possibly meet him."
She paused for a moment. Then, as if it possessed the utmost importance, she said, "I understand he's from Mexico."
Again, I nodded without comment, neither confirming nor denying. I was trapped in her eyes.
Once a friend brought me a piece of olivine from Hawaii. Formed in a volcano's heart, the gem was like translucent jade, hard and impenetrable, with fascinating depths.
Christina's eyes were two shards of olivine.
I thought about her request. I neither liked nor disliked the woman at this point. Yet I felt indebted to her for defusing her father. And of course, she could always approach Charlie on her own if I didn't introduce her.
But why try to dissect my motives at this late date?
"Okay," I said. "Let's go now."
Backstage, I knocked on the door to Charlie's small dressing room. There was no answer, so we went in.
We found Charlie reading. He pored intently over a paperback I had given him. It was the '95 edition of Ballard's Vermilion Sands, with the Ralph Steadman cover.
"Charlie," I said. He looked up.
Sky met sea.
Something snapped closed in the air between them.
"Christina van Staaden," I said.
But neither heard me.
The next morning, I sat at a table in the empty room still pulsing with the ghosts of last night's events, figuring accounts. A shadow fell across the screen of the submicro.
Across from me stood Leon Deatherage, head of Hesperides security, having arrived in his usual silence.
I filed my useless reckoning of gains and losses and flicked the machine off. "Sit down, Leon, and save your energy for evildoers."
Deatherage lifted a heavy transparent chair off the table with one hand and deftly set it upright. He dropped down into it with a grace that surprised me in such a big man. From his pocket he took a pack of Camel vegerettes. He lit one, puffed briefly, and made a face.
"Five goddamn years, and I still can't stand these. My only consolation is that I helped to nail the bastards."
Before becoming head of the islands' security, Deatherage had worked for the L.A. police force. He had been part of the team responsible for capturing the domestic eco-terrorists who had released the tailored tobacco mosaic virus that had ended all cultivation of that crop. The Sierra Club never recovered from the revelation that the conspirators had solicited and received funding from them.
Excerpted from Strange Trades by Paul Di Filippo. Copyright © 2001 Paul Di Filippo. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Paul Di Filippo is the author of Ciphers, Joe’s Liver, The Steampunk Trilogy, Lost Pages, and Ribofunk. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
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