Tales from the Fire Zone, Part Two
This issue we continue a rather strange journey with author Jonathan Maberry as we explore Tales from the Fire Zone, a mainstream thriller in which the adult effects of child abuse are presented with no punches pulled. Tales from the Fire Zone, ventures into the fractured mental landscape of abuse survivor Jim Smith and journeys with him from the world in which he was forced to live by one monstrous parent into the reality he chooses to create for himself. It is a novel of psychological and spiritual awakening, set in a world where anything — literally anything — is possible.
Tales from the Fire Zone was originally written as a play and was produced twice in Philadelphia in 1984 and ‘85; and later dramatized for the radio in ‘86. It has a strong and devoted cult following and has now been fully realized as a novel.
Buckle your seatbelts… this is going to be a bumpy ride.
A BRIEF INTERRUPTION IN SERVICE PLEASE STAND BY
( 1 )
“Oh…shit!” Heart snarled as he struggled to sit up in bed. “God damn you, Sin!” he yelled at the top of his voice. There was no answer except for the twittering of birds in the trees outside the window; his curse echoed faintly in the room for several seconds before fading into silence.
Okay…wait a minute, he thought as he realized that there were birds in a tree outside of a window. He knew he had to think about that for a minute. Birds. Tree. Window. He tried to compute this based on what sketchy information he had, and mostly got an error message. Surely this could not be his own window, because the only thing outside the window of his cheesy little apartment was a narrow alley and then the brick wall of the paper goods store next door; and besides, he didn’t have curtains, frilly or otherwise. But having established that it wasn’t his own window left him no where to go with that line of thought.
He fisted his eyes until they were clear then he peered around at the room. It sure as hell wasn’t his room, either; nor was it a room he recognized. The decor was persuasively female, from the chintz covers on the chairs to the frilly floral-patterned curtains to the color-scheme that tended toward soft creams and yellows and pale golds. Atop an ornate dresser a tall vase of fresh-cut wildflowers stood amid a cluster of atomizers, nostrums and feminine geegaws. The room was quiet, the atmosphere muted by the soft light filtering in through blinds and curtains. The bed was large, soft and covered with a huge patchwork quilt made from hundreds of brightly-patterned cloths.
“Okay,” he said, trying to sound reasonable. He lifted the cover and looked down, confirming that he was naked. He said, “Okay,” again.
The bedroom was rather large and high-ceilinged, airy and cheerful, but he was in no way cheered by it. Growling, he flung back the covers and swung his legs out of the bed, muttering something about getting to the bottom of something or other as he stood up with great forcefulness and determination.
And fell flat on his face.
( 2 )
He lay there for about five minutes, staring at the carpet from a dust-mote’s eye view, feeling the roughness of the thick fibers as they imprinted patterns into his cheek. Having failed so badly at springing to his feet, he made no other attempt to move.
“Fine,” he said. “That’s just fine.”
( 3 )
When he could finally organize the motor functions to manage simple tasks, he rolled over onto his back, sat up, and with the help of the bed, got slowly and shakily to his feet. Clutching the bedpost, he stood for a while and mentally explored the wreckage of his nervous system. Last night’s booze had soaked into his mental motherboard and all the circuits for balance and stability were definitely blown. His head throbbed like the Seven Dwarves were swinging pick-axes in his skull. Moss seemed to be growing on his tongue.
Something old and sick had crawled into his stomach and had died there. His hair hurt, his skin was twitching and all his teeth felt loose. Aside from that, there were so many separate spots of pain that he felt like he had gone fifteen rounds with a youthful Muhammad Ali.
Heart took a tentative step away from the bed, found that it was a poor choice of actions, and sagged back, sitting down on the mattress with a bouncy thump that stirred a witch’s brew in his belly. He let out such a huge lungful of air that he sounded like he was deflating.
“Oh yes,” he said softly. “Hangovers. I remember those.”
The chatter of the birds now sounded like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and despite his love of animals, at that moment he would have gleefully unloaded a shotgun at them.
“Maybe I’ll just lay down so the pieces of my head won’t keep falling off.” He said it aloud because thinking it made his brain hurt. He lay back slowly, and it did feel better, but even the scrape of the linen against his cheek felt harsh and sounded painfully loud.
Still, he lay there for quite a while. At times, when the drum roll in his head quieted to a minor tapping, he attempted to make some sense of things, and came to the conclusion that things didn’t make much sense.
He tried to remember what had happened last night, but a lot of the details were either fuzzy or completely gone. None of the events he could recall should have logically ended with him in someone else’s bed. There were whole chapters missing. If he had awakened in a gutter, or in a cardboard box in a greasy alley, then that might make some sense; but this was a big, comfy bed. A woman’s bed to be precise. He was certain that he had not gone home with anyone, had not made love with anyone; and as he had awakened alone in this neatly arranged bed, his assumption was that he was in some unknown woman’s guest room. Perhaps he had consigned some Good Samaritan to her couch while he snored away the drunken hours in their bed –but whose bed? Surely not Kamala’s. As womanly as she was, the room was too soft and ordinary for her. He expected her bedroom to be filled with dark woods and crystals and the kind of art that provoked and challenged both mind and eye; not like the paintings on these walls, which pretty much just sat there and looked mildly attractive without actually saying anything. Poster store stuff, framed with conservative taste but no imagination.
So, if not Kamala Jane’s place –then whose?
Heart tried to remember everyone he had met last night. The names came first, and then hazy images of their faces: Xander the cabbie, the wise old caretaker Caster Bootey, luscious Sweet Sidne, the Bishop and Europa, Childe, Jellicho, Centerlok, Brutal John, Snakedancer, Oswald Four. Mister Sin.
The bedroom certainly didn’t seem to fit any of them. Sure as hell not Mister Sin. Heart tried to conjure an image of Brutal John in this room, and chuckled despite the pain it caused.
The light through the window had changed and he noticed through slitted eyes that it looked more like afternoon sun than morning sun.
“What did you do to me, Sin?” he asked the slanting rays; and then lapsed into a reverie. Just who or what was Mister Sin? Outside of the fact that Sin seemed to be a significant –or, perhaps the significant– authority figure in the Fire Zone, he had no clue as to the man’s nature. Who was he?
No useful extrapolation of that insight presented itself so he tried another question.
What was the Fire Zone?
“I have no clue,” he said aloud; his voice sounded strange in the empty room.
Okay, he asked himself, then if you don’t know where it is or what it is…then do you really believe it exists at all? He lay for a while and wondered about that, feeling uncomfortable with the concept yet unable to dismiss it out of hand. The whole Fire Zone experience seemed absurd now that it was daylight and he was in someone’s cozy bedroom. Considering that he had been in a serious fight last night and had taken at least one solid shot in the head, after which everything seemed to go to hell. After that blow, everything –
-every perception and memory—was suspect. This could all be the product of serious head trauma. There was some cold comfort in the thought that this might be the result of injury, or even of coma; it allowed everything that had happened to him to be suspect without having to actually fear it. This bedroom might actually belong to one of the dancers at Eyeful’s. Maybe one of them had taken him home and let him sleep it off.
That was an idea he could work with, though it didn’t explain the hangover; unless it wasn’t a booze hangover. Most of the girls at the club did one kind of recreational drug or another. Maybe whomever had put him up had given him one of mother’s little helpers and that was what was still mucking about in his system.
Yeah, he liked that thought.
The Fire Zone. The name echoed in his head, refusing to be so easily consigned to illusion, and the junkie dancer with a heart of gold theory seemed to crack at little at the edges.
“Okay, then what do we do now?” he said aloud. How about getting out of this here bed?
“Not just yet, old son. Let’s not be hasty.”
He thought back to last night and tried to identify the exact point at which his memories switched-off. It was after Mister Sin’s dramatic arrival because he had vivid memories of the man’s return, and fragments of conversations floated in and out of his recall. Something about…Oh, yes, he thought, something about not being allowed to reach the Fire Zone. Something about how it could have been prevented. What had Sin said?
He fished for it, then came up with: Oh, yeah, something about there being a long and short answer, and the short answer was that my coming had been foreseen.
But…by whom? And why? Moreover –to what end?
None of those answers seemed to be lurking in any dusty corner of his hung-over brain. The questions, though, floated there, goading him with their importance.
Your coming here was foreseen, Sin had said. Something that is foreseen can be prevented. Just as it can be actualized.
He licked dry lips with a tongue that felt like an old towel. What the hell have I gotten myself into?
Who are you, Mister Sin? Why does everyone seem to love you? Why the adoration and the excitement when you showed up? They treated you like royalty. No…like a God. Or a rock star; though I don’t think you’re either of those things. So, what the hell are you? What’s with the Noh mask and the gangster trenchcoat and hat? And those eyes….
What kind of eyes were they? They were a lot like the Bishop’s, but older-looking and…stronger somehow.
Who are you, Mister Sin? Why does everybody love you? Heart’s mind trembled.
Why do I want to love you, too?
He listened to that thought and was afraid of it. It accessed parts of his emotions that he did not dare to touch. And yet.
He turned his face away from the whiteness of the ceiling, so similar to the whiteness of Mister Sin’s Noh mask.
Who the hell are you, Mister Sin?
For a long time he lay there and stared at the insipid paintings on the bedroom wall.
It was thirst that eventually made him stir; and managed to get out of bed at last, moving with octogenarian slowness. Having managed to stand, he rewarded himself by merely staying where he was for a while; then he tottered carefully toward a door that looked promising and which, indeed, opened into a bathroom. The bathroom was even frillier, and the peppy floral print on the shower curtain hurt his eyes. On the toilet tank there was a white-painted wicker basket of those decorative but otherwise useless little guest soaps that people gave to maiden aunts. There was a new, unused toothbrush lying atop a basin next to a tube of toothpaste. Heart snatched the glass from the rack, turned on the tap and kept drinking cupfuls until he felt bloated. Leaning on the edge of the sink he stared at his image in the mirror.
“Oh, Christ,” he complained as an old man’s unshaven, baggy-eyed, green-tinted and uncombed face leered blearily back at him. “Well, you’re a peach,” he told himself. He dragged his fingers through his hair by way of a comb, but it did nothing to improve the view. “You asshole,” he said to the reflection; the reflection did not rebut the observation.
Heart spent twenty minutes in there. He used the toothbrush and scrubbed his teeth until his gums bled, drank more water, nearly fell asleep on the toilet, and then lumbered into the shower and boiled himself like a knockwurst under the hottest spray he could bear. Stepping out of the shower he stood for a moment and stretched, arching his back and reaching upward with his arms, sighing out a long breath amid the creaks and pops of his joints. Then he used his towel to wipe an arc of condensation from the mirror and again stared at his face. It was less of a ruin, but still fell short of expectations.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” he asked himself. He leaned there for quite a while, staring at his features, looking deeply into the troubled sea-blue of his own eyes.
Nothing will ever be the same again. That insight from last night flitted once more through his thoughts, but now he doubted the truth of it. Maybe he could go back and put his life back together again. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as he had thought. Maybe there were no cops searching for him. Maybe there was no great big Jim Smith manhunt going on as he’d imagined when he’d fled Eyeful’s Stopless Go-Go. Maybe Terry wasn’t dead; maybe he’d just been knocked out and was okay now.
His own face in the mirror mocked him.
He’s not okay, you asshole. He’s not ever going to be okay, and you damn well know it.
“Shut up,” Heart said to his reflection.
He’s never going to be okay, pal, and you know why? “Shut up.”
You want to know why? “Shut the fuck up!”
‘Cause he’s fucking dead! That’s why.
“Leave me alone—.”
Dead as a fucking doornail. Dead as shit. Dead as your own father—. “SHUT UP!” he snarled and suddenly punched the mirror into a thousand shrieking pieces with a single fast, vicious blow of his knotted right fist. Glass fragments flew like sparks, the medicine cabinet’s door buckled inward; bottles and tubes cracked and shattered. Heart reeled back from the moment of impact, watching in horror as the mirror fragments tinkled into the basin and onto the floor; watching as the door sagged down, supported only by its one remaining and mutilated hinge. One of the interior glass shelves had broken and all the smashed contents crashed down on the shelf below on tumbled out and down onto the sink, the facet, into the toilet, onto the floor. He looked down at his clenched right fist and saw the glitter of glass sprouting like cactus needles from a dozen small cuts; he watched as blood welled and rolled in shaky lines between his fingers and along all the contours of his hand. Fat red drops hung pendulously from the knuckles and dripped to the floor to join the general mess.
From each of the scattered bits of mirror fragments on the floor his own reflection stared up at him with a hundred different warpings of his expression. There was pain and shock, horror and wry amusement, indifference and anger, passion and ennui, blind rage and calculating coldness, intelligence and stupidity, calm awareness and horrified insight, gentleness and cruelty, lust and… And something else. Something Heart could not read and in no way wanted to understand. He raised his hand to break the contact with that other thing, that other emotion, and caught sight of it again in the pieces of mirror that still clung to the medicine chest door.
His perception sharpened as he realized that this was not a reflection of his own face, and the emotion it showed was not his own. This offered no relief, just a deepening of his horror. The face reflected in the broken spear-points of mirror on the sagging door was similar to his own, but had been chiseled with a less delicate hand: blunter, heavier, harder, older. The eyes were a dark blue, shades darker than Heart’s stormy sea-blue; and this face had no beard. The mouth of the reflection was smiling a wet smile, and the tongue repeatedly tasted the spit on those lips.
It was the grinning, evil face of the Mechanic.
Heart’s mouth went as dry as dust. He closed his eyes and opened them, trying to chase the image away by refocusing, but it persisted. As he knew it would.
“You’re a lie,” Heart said without emphasis.
Am I? the Mechanic seemed to ask, though the wet lips did not actually move. “You’re not me. I’m not you”
That’s what you’d like to think, boy. “I’ll never be you.”
Dream on, boy. Dream on. The voice of the Mechanic rang painfully in his brain.
Heart’s lips curled into a snarl as his fists clenched tighter. The needles of glass screamed into the nerve endings. “I’ll never be like you!”
You already are. “No!”
Tell that to that poor dumb shit at the bar. What was his name? Terry? Yeah.
Terry. ‘Course, now his name don’t mean shit ‘cause he’s fucking dead! “Shut up.”
You think what you did to him makes you any different than me? Fuck! You’ve got a lot to learn about how things work, boy.
“It wasn’t the same. It’s not the same. What you did to me was…” He shook his head in disgust. “What I did to him was self-defense.”
Keep telling yourself that. “It’s not the same thing.” Sure as shit is.
“You’re a fucking liar!”
Yeah, well maybe I am, but that don’t change the facts, boy.
“What I did to him was bad –no question– but it was self-defense. It was nothing like what you did to me, you sick fuck.”
Had the same passion, though, didn’t it? Heart didn’t answer. Couldn’t.
Didn’t it? Bet you had that little tingle down in your balls when you hit him, didn’t you? Bet you were hard as a goddamn rock when you were beating the piss outta him.
Don’t tell me you didn’t feel like you wanted to come in your shorts when you felt his teeth break, when you saw his nose go splat like a cherry tomato, when you busted-in his friggin’ ribs. Don’t lie to me, boy. Just tell me that you didn’t feel like you was on top of the world when you realized that he was your bitch and yours to do with as you damn well pleased.
Don’t even try to lie to me, boy. “No,” Heart hissed.
Don’t be lying to me. “No!”
You lie to me, boy, and we’re going to have to have one of our little talks. You know
I don’t take no back-talk from pussy-asses like you. “NO!”
Oh, yeah, one of those special talks, down in the cellar. You remember the cellar, don’t you, boy? Remember all the fun things we did down there?
Heart bellowed with inarticulate rage and punched the door again, this time with all of the hate-filled muscles in arm and shoulders. He punched the face into glittering dust, the voice into shattered silence. He punched again and again, screaming as he did so, bellowing his rage as he shattered the rest of the glass and tore the metal and smashed everything left inside the medicine chest.
“GOD DAMN YOU!” he screamed as the chest broke from the wall and crashed down in a tangled and twisted mass onto the sink’s edge and then all the way down to smash onto the floor at his feet. “God damn you to Hell, you sick fuck!”
The tears came then. They boiled up and burst out of him, propelled by sobs so deep that they sent knives of pain through his chest and stabbed him through the heart. He reeled back, panting, naked, covered with splashes of make-up and shampoo, toothpaste and eau de toilet, blood and fragments of glass. His back slammed against the edge of the door-frame and he sagged down, sliding slowly to the floor. He drew his knees up and buried his face in his bleeding hands.
And wept for his sanity, and for his soul.
He wept for twenty minutes.
The tears flowed down his flushed face, his big shoulders shook, and the sobs ripped loose all the wiring in his heart.
No one came to investigate the sounds of violence from his assault on the medicine chest; no one inquired about the sound of sobs from the assaults on his soul. In the bedroom, the sun shifted and the alternating strips of light and shadow thrown by the blinds swept across the doorway to the bathroom, caging Indigo Heart in bars of fire and darkness.
“God help me…” was all he was able to say; but he said it over and over again.
( 1 )
Darkness was shepherding the sunlight over the horizon when Indigo Heart finally got up off the bathroom floor.
The tears had slowed and finally stopped, but they left silvery streaks across his face. His chest hurt from crying, and his right hand was a burning ball of agony. It took several minutes of searching through the detritus of his rage to find tweezers and to use them to pluck each tiny sliver of glass from the ground-beef of his knuckles. It was finicky work, and it hurt. He fished for towels in another closet, found some, and used half the stack to cover the glass on the floor. He stepped back into the shower and turned the water on full, cranking up the heat to a searing blast in which he stood for a long, long time.
The tears kept wanting to come back, making his chest hitch every once in a while, but he refused to cry; he was so fucking tired of crying. For year’s he’d kept all that sort of thing in check behind the facade of masculine demeanor, but lately –since coming to the Fire Zone– something had dynamited the dam and the tears kept flooding out. He hated it.
He also felt like he wanted to throw up, but he knew that wouldn’t rid him of the sickness that was churning in his soul. As he showered he kept his eyes shut for fear of catching sight of the Mechanic in the polished surfaces of the faucet and knobs.
Life’s too short to spend so much of it on your knees.
That observation floated back through his memory and he told it to go fuck itself. He scrubbed and scrubbed, trying to wash it all away.
After scrubbing, he stood with hands braced against the wall of the shower stall like he was about to be frisked and let the hot water scourge him. When the water began to cool, he switched it off and reached for the last of the towels. In the cupboard under the sink he found alcohol, gauze pads and tape, and he dressed his right hand as best he could with his shaky, clumsy left. Then, stepping lightly on the towel-shrouded debris, he made his way carefully out of the bathroom.
Night was coming and that thought was the first thing to comfort him since he’d awakened. He wanted the night to enfold him, to hide him, to protect him.
He found his clothes folded neatly on a hope chest and he dressed quickly, disturbed by his feelings of vulnerability and, though the clothes were no suit of armor, they made him feel less profoundly naked.
He sat down to tie his shoes and stopped halfway through the left one, leaning his forearms on his knees, staring out at the middle distance and inward into the vast chasm which had opened in his soul. His lips formed the word, Refugee. The refugee Indigo
The face of the Mechanic leaned forward –just for a split second– from the shadows in his mind, smiling with his wet lips. Heart muttered: “I’ll never be like you.” His voice was low and feral. “I never was, and I never will be.”
The Mechanic said nothing this time, but his mocking smile was eloquent as he faded back into darkness.
Heart spoke again, this time without realizing it and heard only the echo of it: “Mister Sin….” He spoke it again, deliberately, “Mister Sin,” and found comfort in the sound of it, like a charm against evil.
Gradually, slowly, the internal darkness began to recede, inch by grudging inch. Abruptly and sneakily the interior slide show began again, flashing images out of
Pandora’s Box, one after the other: his teenage girlfriend Helen, laughing. Helen after the rape, shocked to a ghostly white and smelling of the Mechanic’s cigarettes and car grease. Helen, older, still alive but dead inside. The Mechanic, with his wet lips and his hands and his inventive cruelties and humiliations. Terry and the jeering crowd at Eyeful’s. A dozen other faces. His hiding places at home. He saw the face of Sensei Johnson, frowning with disapproval and disappointment.
“Mister Sin,” he said urgently, and as if the name truly was a talisman against evil the slide show stopped and Pandora’s Box slid away into the shadows.
The effect jolted Heart, who sat on the chair blinking in surprise. Then, he gratefully bowed his head and did nothing for a couple of minutes but breathe. Every other breath or so he silently mouthed Sin’s name.
Then he finished tying his laces and stood up and this time the room did not reel in a sickening sway. “Well, that’s something,” he said, accepting crumbs.
The next problem to address was the mess in the bathroom. There was only forty- one dollars left in his wallet, but he fished-out the spare blank check he carried for emergencies, and wrote it out for three hundred and sixty-five, the amount remaining in his account. He hoped it would be enough with some left over to soothe the nerves of whomever had to find this mess and clean it up.
Check in hand, he carefully opened the bedroom door and stepped out into the hall. There were other closed doors on the upstairs landing, facing his open doorway in a blocky semi-circle around the top of the stairway. He went to each one of them and listened, but heard nothing. He even quietly knocked on a couple, but there was no answer. Silently, he drifted down the carpeted stairs to the first floor, and peered into a nicely furnished sitting room. It was empty, but there were logs chucking comfortably in a large stone fireplace, several overstuffed chairs, a couple of occasional tables and lots of knickknacks.
Decorative plates hung on wire racks mounted on the walls. A bored looking marmalade tabby lay sprawled by the fire.
“Hey, Puss, where’s the lady of the house?”
The cat gave him a long, slow appraising look, seemed to shrug, and began licking its crotch.
“Point taken,” Heart said and wandered through the rest of the downstairs, which consisted of a dining room, kitchen and laundry room. In a kitchen closet he found a broom and dustpan and took these upstairs and did a passable job cleaning the bathroom. From the debris he selected a lipstick and wrote: Sorry! on the wall where the medicine chest had hung, then went downstairs and opened the front door. The evening breeze brought the faintest strains of music.
No, he corrected himself…it was the sound of the Music.
He listened. Yes. It grew stronger as he stood there, seeming to swell with the blossoming of night. The cat stopped licking himself and looked up, staring with large green cat eyes, first at him and then at the window.
Behind him, the cat murmured a soft meow.
“Yes, indeed,” Heart agreed and looked back into the living room, searching for a likely spot to place the check, saw a clock on the mantle and caught the edge of the check under it. “Sorry,” he said aloud, as if the room could record his apology for later playback, and then added: “Thanks.”
He bent and scratched the cat’s head, and then left.
( 2 )
The outside of the house looked like any other house on any other street. The number plate screwed onto the door said 777, and there was a mat which assured any visitor that they would be welcome.
“Truly weird,” he said to the house.
The Music was stronger outside, the melody drifting like tendrils of incense from the speakers mounted on every light post. He looked to his left and the street stretched down, curved around, and vanished in a haze of trees and shadows; looking right, the street rose up a steep hill toward the distant glow of neon light.
“Ah-ha,” he said. He turned to his right and headed up the hill, back to the Fire
DOWN AT THE CROSSROADS
“I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above, have mercy now, save poor Bob if you please”
“Am I in heaven here or am I in hell at the crossroads I am standing…” Hold On
“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”
( 1 )
When he had started out from the house his pace was careful, even tentative, but as he drew nearer to the Music and the movement up the hill, his feet found untapped reserves of spring and bounce. It worried him, in a vague sort of way, that he could so quickly go from the depths of despair –as he had been in the ransacked bathroom– to this moderately upbeat expectancy; it niggled at him that there must be something flawed in him if he could move so freely in and out of extreme moods like despair, rage and delight; but he didn’t know how to assess the problem or even to approach it mentally. He was mortally afraid to try because every time his mind wandered back to the problem the image of Pandora’s Box grew sharper; and so each time he beat a hasty retreat into the shallower waters of surface awareness.
A hearse went rolling by him, painted like an ice-cream truck and bearing the logo: Emperor’s Ice Cream. Wearing a crisp white shirt and a billed cap, the driver gave Heart a ghoulish and hungry grin. Heart responded with a cheery wave, which made the driver laugh out loud as he rounded the corner.
Two children ran by pulling behind them the strings to kites, but as Heart turned to look up, all he could see were the long white lines trailing all the way up into the star-littered darkness of the night. If there were kites up there they were either invisible or too high to be seen, and Heart fancied that the children had the stars themselves on the ends of their strings. He watched them run and listened to the innocent joy of their laughter, and he laughed, too. Then his laughter faded into a bittersweet note, and he wondered what it must feel like to be that young and that free.
Two blocks later he came to the first of the shops, a candy store. Heart bought himself a bag of spun-sugar flying saucers, the kind with the little candy beads rattling around inside. They reminded him of the candy he used to buy with the money he made from mowing his Grammy’s lawn when he was a kid. He popped a pale blue one in his mouth and let it dissolve slowly on his tongue, savoring the old and familiar sweetness.
Thinking about Grammy MacDougall brought images of her strongly to his mind. She had been a tiny thing, less than five feet tall, with a wrinkled face that had been pretty in her youth in Europe, but which time and care had molded instead into a mask of strength rather than of beauty. According to the rest of the family, Grammy had been spooky, even crazy: she read tea-leaves and palms and tarot cards, and she and her cat, Sweet William, had both been born on Halloween –which young Jim Smith thought was about the coolest thing on the planet, even if no one else did. Everyone else just though she was weird, or a little crazy, and perhaps she was a little off, but young Jim loved her for who she was and what she was, she was just the right flavor of weird.
Grammy had been born in the last century –another point on her coolness scale– so she’d been very old when Heart had been a boy; and she’d grown up in Europe and could speak half a dozen different languages. She’d lived through World War I in France, had moved for a brief time to Scotland where she married a six-and-a-half-foot tall string bean named Jack MacDougall, and moved with him to America. Despite her Scottish husband and Scottish last name, her accent was French-German, and during the paranoid days of World War II she had been looked down on as some species of ‘Kraut’ or ‘Jerry’. She had endured scorn and insults from the neighbors, and endured ignorance and verbal abuse at home from Big Jack MacDougall, whose inability to hold a job revealed him to be bitter and laconic, and –young Jim suspected– a drinker and a hitter as well. So, Grammy had learned to withdraw into herself, to lose herself in old books and older rituals. Where they real? Was she as psychic as everyone thought? Heart had no idea, not then or now; but to the young boy he had been then, Grammy had been magical indeed. Magical and wonderful, and the only source of genuine love and affection he’d known. He always sought her out, concocting reasons for walking the two miles to her house –to mow the lawn, carry grocery bags, rake the leaves– just so he could share her warmth, to be sheltered by her, and to learn from her. Grammy had always had some secret to tell him, some magical insight to share. Like how the furry coat of a caterpillar could predict the severity of the coming winter; or how by counting the spaces between the chirp of the crickets you could tell the temperature; or how you could calculate the distance a storm was from your house by counting the seconds between the flash of lightning and the crack of the thunder. She told him of the healing powers of tea, and how to make a dog laugh by scratching its muzzle in a certain way. She taught him how to stand in the forest and sense its energy; and how to look for the special colors of twilight and use them to cast a fortune for tomorrow’s luck -which, incidentally, always came out right. Grammy had told him that sitting in silence could teach a person a lot, sometimes even more than reading a book would do; but she also gave him lots of books to read. He kept most of the books at her house because his parents resented his reading and often made him destroy a book — tearing the pages out one by one– as a punishment for some minor infraction of the ‘House Rules’, rules which grew in number and absurdity with every passing week. Jim’s parents told him that his reading so much was just his way of ‘trying to get above himself”. Jim secretly thought that was absolutely right, but he didn’t think they would ever understand the difference between the way they meant the accusation and the way he interpreted it.
The flying saucer dissolved and Heart crunched the little sugar pellets.
A couple of souped-up cars roared by him, heading up the hill. Overhead a dirigible floated like a vast whale in the night sky, its ribbed sides flashing with a neon message advertising the imminent Tortureship concert.
Heart thought about the secrets he and Grammy had shared, and about the secrets they hadn’t shared. Looking back, Heart was sure that her own home life –with the moody Big Jack– was in many ways as rough as his own, and that the subliminal knowledge of this shared hurt was what had originally bonded them. But it was not something they ever directly talked about. Back then those things just weren’t discussed, especially between a grandmother and grandson. The closest they had ever come to talking about it, in fact, had been a July night when he was eleven. He had come over to her house to cut the grass –which hadn’t really needed cutting– and to seek shelter. She had seen his black eye and the angry purple welt across the bridge of his nose and had made some offhand remark about boys and roughhouse sports, then led him into the kitchen and had him hold a dish-towel full of ice cubes against his face while she made a poultice from oil of arnica. While he sat there on the red-vinyl-covered kitchen chair, holding the ice against his face, trying not to cry, trying to act nonchalant, she had come over and sat close, holding his free hand and spoke quietly to him.
“Jimmy,” she’d said in her soft European accent, “a lot of people get hurt, you know that?”
He’d hesitated, but had nodded; though her opening remark had filled him with a dread that she was going to ask him what had really happened to him.
“Some people get hurt more than others. You understand?” He’d nodded again.
“Sometimes it’s the way life is that these people get hurt a lot, get hurt over and over again. Life can be cruel, sometimes,” she’d said. “Crueler sometimes to certain people.”
He had shifted the towel so that it covered both his eyes because he didn’t want her to see what he might be hiding in his eyes.
She went on, her voice barely rising above a whisper, almost blended with the soft, steady bubbling hiss from a pot of turkey soup that was cooking on the stove. “I guess I’m one of those people, Jimmy; and I guess you are, too.” She smoothed his tousled hair with a liver-spotted hand. “I’ve survived wars and…other things, and for a while it seemed that no matter where I moved to, there was something else happening, something else that hurt me, or hurt the ones I loved.”
Behind the towel he closed both of his eyes.
“There were times I didn’t think I could survive it. There were times when it seemed like the hurt was just so big and so strong that it was going to fall on me and crush me, like a building falling down on me, burying me under all that weight.” She paused and he could hear her clear her throat. “Still…I did survive it, Jimmy. All those years, and with all the things that have happened: the World Wars, the deaths in the family, losing two of my own children –your Uncle Michael and your Aunt Violet, who both died long before you were born– and so much else.” She stopped again, and Jimmy thought he heard her throat give a little hitch as she repeated: “So much else,” but she cleared her throat again and went on. “With all the things that have happened I managed to get through it all, because I discovered a secret.”
Very slowly and cautiously young Jim had moved the towel away from his unblacked eye and peered past the bulging fistful of ice-cubes at her seamed face. Her eyes were waiting for his gaze, and they were dark and intense.
“A secret,” she said again, dropping her voice even lower to lure him into a closer attention. “Do you want to know what it was? Do you want to know how I survived all of those terrible things?”
It took more strength and more courage for Jim to say “Yes” than had ever been demanded of him in all his young life, because by admitting that he wanted to know he was tacitly admitting that there was a reason for his needing to know. Even then, at eleven years of age, he knew that.
Grammy had nodded, smiling sadly. “What I did was to make a place in my mind where I could put all the memories of those things, kind of like a scrapbook into which I would paste the pictures of the bad times.”
“A scrapbook?” he’d asked tentatively.
She’d nodded again. “Or a box, or even a closet. It doesn’t matter. It’s just a place in your mind where memories can be stored. For me it was a scrapbook. When something bad would happen, I’d take the memory of it –however fresh or old that memory was– and paste it into the scrapbook. I’d imagine myself doing it, too. I’d close my eyes and in my mind I’d see my hands taking the book down from the shelf, opening it, taking the ‘snapshot’ and the pot of glue. I’d brush the glue onto the back and paste it down onto the page. I always saw the scrapbook as having large, black pages of some rough paper, like construction paper but not as smooth. I’d fix the picture down nice and firm and then,” she paused, her eyes boring into his, “then I’d close the book and put the scrapbook back on its shelf.”
“And the memory?”
“It would still be there, but to me it wouldn’t be in my mind –it would be in the scrapbook, safely glued to the rough, black pages, hidden by the heavy leather-bound covers, hidden away on a high shelf. Out of sight.”
“Out of sight, out of mind?” he said, quoting one of her favorite catch phrases.
Her eyes glistened with tears, but they remained unspilled. She nodded carefully, as if afraid to tip them over the edges of the dam.
“What happens when the scrapbook gets full, Grammy?” he’d asked.
Before she could answer him, the phone had rung, and the conversation was broken, never to be repaired, the issue never to be addressed again. It was his father calling, demanding that he get his ass home because he still had chores to do.
Still, the concept had lodged in him like an arrow, its point buried deep and the shaft quivering from the impact. He thought about it all the way home, and he thought about it while he lay in bed that night trying to get to sleep with his eye and his nose hurting. He thought about it the next day on the way to school. He thought about it the next night when his father had taken him down into the cellar for one of their ‘special talks’.
He thought and he thought and he thought.
He did not create a scrapbook in his mind; nor did he envision a closet full of shelves onto which he could display his horrors. Instead he shoved them all into a box. A big, strong box; a box made of heavy wood banded with studded iron and locked with a thick chain closed with a powerful padlock. Coincidentally, his English class had begun reading a book on Mythology that year, and on page two hundred and four there was a story about a woman named Pandora….
Standing there with the sweet sugar melting on his tongue, Indigo Heart sighed as he thought back to those days, and he let his mind run through it, remembering the process he had employed to construct the Box, to set the chains in place and fasten the lock; and he thought of how he had begun to fill the Box with all the horrors he had seen or had endured. All the beatings –and worse things– inflicted on him by the Mechanic… the devastating hurt he had suffered when Helen had been raped… the deeper and almost crippling harm he’d endured some years later when he met her on the street and she couldn’t even talk to him. The hurt he had sustained by being unable to help her in any way. As the Box filled, his life emptied; and even after he was grown -long after the death of the Mechanic- he still drifted aimless thorough time, haunting his own life, a ghost dragging with him the ungainly weight of Pandora’s Box. It became a convenient place to store any emotion or experience that challenged or disturbed him.
For years the Box had once been such a safe place to store life’s uglier things, but now it lurked like a ticking bomb. He wondered what else Grammy would have told him about storing away the horrors if that phone had not rung. He wondered if she would have told him how to empty the monsters from Pandora’s Box, but she died a few years later and she had never broached the subject again. Nor had he, and he regretted it nearly ever day since.
Not for the first time he wished he could talk with her again, just for half an hour. There was so much he still wanted to know, needed to know; and long ago Pandora’s Box
had ceased to be a guard dog protecting him from the monsters, but had transformed into a grinning, gibbering monkey that clung to his back, whispering foul things in his ears and weighing him down until sometimes he felt like he shambled through whole days on his bloody knees.
He fished in the bag and found another UFO, a pink one, and popped it in his mouth as he stopped by another store, his attention caught by the wares on display on the window. There were scores of ornate silver and gold picture frames. A pang touched his heart as he realized that he had no pictures of Grammy. Not a single one. Nor had he much in the way of photos of anyone else. What few friends he had managed to make over the years were as much loners as he was, and none of them were the type to mug before a camera. In the last few years he had cultivated no real friendships at all –merely ‘people he knew’: a kind of safe and disposable acquaintanceship that required no work at all and cost nothing in emotional coin. But Grammy…he would love to have a photo of her, as a talisman perhaps, or a reminder of another person who had survived the same battlefield. A link to a kindred soul so he wouldn’t feel as completely and utterly alone.
The display window had wave after wave of frames, each one filled with the smiling face of an old lady. No old men, he noticed, no families, no babies; just old ladies.
Intrigued, Heart entered the store, liking the sound of the tinkling bell over the door. The saleswoman was as old as the grannies in the photos, and she had a macramé shawl draped around her stooped shoulders. Her hair was as white as February snow and she had large blue eyes the color of ripe blueberries. She was plump and cute and she had the kind of smile that would have disarmed a charging rhinoceros and made it sit down for tea and a croissant.
“Good evening,” she said in a voice lightly accented with French. “How may I help you today?”
“Well, I…” and Heart realized that he didn’t know why he had come into the store or what he wanted. He looked around at the shelves and tables, all of which were cluttered with thousands upon thousands of pictures in frames of every description, from porcelain to bone to old wood to new wood to metal to acrylic. Some of the frames were heavy with ornamentation, some were simple and unadorned; but all of them contained pictures of old women, most of whom were smiling. “Wow. Lots of frames,” he said, aware of how lame that sounded.
The woman smiled and nodded as if she’d heard this five thousand times, but she remained genial and patient. “Is there someone you’re looking for?”
“I don’t know, maybe just a…,” and then his voice trailed off as he realized what she’d said. She hadn’t said ‘something’, but ‘someone’. “Er….”
“Perhaps this,” she said, brushing her fingers lightly along the edge of a small heart- shaped silver frame. “It’s old, but it’s quite lovely.” She handed the frame to Heart, who stood looking at it for long seconds, his own fingers tracing the vines and roses that formed the filigree crusted around the glass, though there was no picture in the frame. He looked around, and as far as he could tell it was the only frame in the whole store without a picture.
The saleslady smiled at him. “I’m sure you’ll find something appropriate to put in there.” Heart looked at her, then down at the frame, then he nodded.
“Something,” he murmured. “Yes…something….”
( 2 )
Outside, the little silver frame still held gingerly in his big hands, he stood looking up at the picture window, at what was painted on the glass.
THE GRANNY STORE
He shook his head slowly and put the frame back into the small paper bag before tucking it into a pocket. He was still shaking his head as he walked away, going further up the hill. Behind him night had closed over the residential street, obscuring it totally from view as if it had no true existence at night; but ahead of him the darkness had ignited the Fire Zone into full blaze.
( 3 )
Heart passed a huge park thick with tall trees under which shadows lived and moved. At the center of the park a massive bonfire blazed, licking at the shadows with long tongues of yellow and orange. Shapes capered and danced around the fire’s edge, indistinct in the distance, but to Heart they didn’t look even vaguely human.
He hurried on. The tiny silver frame was a strangely comforting weight in his right front pants pocket, and he touched it occasionally, an absent-minded gesture inspired by some feeling or need buried deep beneath his conscious awareness.
As he walked he wondered where he was in relation to Unlovely’s, and felt within him a need –no, a hunger— to go there, to immerse himself in the energy of that club, to share in the freedom of its wild abandon. He had no clue why, at least not consciously, but nevertheless he felt compelled to go there. Soon. Now! He wanted to see the people he’d met last night. Jellicho and Snakedancer. Oswald Four in his glass booth. He wanted to find Kamala Jane again.
And Mister Sin.
Shoes slapping briskly on the pavement, he moved on, and as he walked he looked up at the street lamps. Each was a different shape: some were intricate metal grids, some were multicolored Tiffany; some were boxy and plain, and some incredibly ornate; some glowed quietly and some blazed like braziers. No two were alike except that below each lamp a large speaker was mounted, spilling out the Music like water to wash the streets of the Fire Zone with beautiful energy.
A man dressed in a werewolf mask ran past him, a clutch of brightly-colored balloons trailing above and behind him on long strings. Two children ran with him, their faces also hidden by wolf masks, and all three were laughing.
Heart paused in front of the display window for IT’S TO DIE, a trendy clothing store, but the window was dark. A banner was draped across the inside of the glass advertising a sale on funerary clothes. Heart cupped his hands and peered inside: there were suits of armor and suits of common rag cloth, elaborate gowns and simple shifts. A stand displayed Cruel Shoes, and another held dozens of Strangler’s Scarves arranged according to length and color. Shoelaces of dog hide were hung by a poster advertising the latest fashions from Tyre and Mesopotamia. Despite the store being closed, robot mannequins moved jerkily in the window, their long car coats flapping open to reveal real skin and hair beneath. Their eyes flashed at Heart, and one of them gave him a slow, sexy wink.
He stood quickly back and took a breath.
He moved away from the store and passed an alleyway in the mouth of which a naked couple wrangled away on a pile of hastily shed clothing. A bomb could have gone off next to them and they would not have noticed.
“Oh, the times they are a changin’,” Heart mused.
A brown cat cut across his path and performed a graceful leap into a trashcan. The sounds of its foraging were lost as the Music from the street-lamp-mounted speakers began to swell. Heart passed another open alleyway, this one larger and blocked by a disorderly row of battered cans. A hobo lay sprawled in a nest of rags and newspapers, his back propped against a standpipe and his bent knees drawn up to his chest. Atop one knee perched a plump gray rat and the old man was feeding him scraps of a Bic Mac.
Heart shook his head and moved on, always on, up the hill.
( 4 )
From a doorway across the street, Owen Minor the Wolverine watched Indigo Heart make his way up the hill.
“Good evening, Mr. Heart,” Minor whispered to himself. “Are we ready to begin tonight’s edition of This Is Your Strife?” He chuckled. A low, rasping, nasty little chuckle;
the kind that made dogs tuck their tails between their legs and slink away, casting nervous looks over their hunched shoulders. “Night’s young, kiddo, and there’s so much to do.” His tongue snaked out from between his white teeth and moistened his lips. “Yessirree- bob. There’s just so much to do, and only so many hours in the night.”
Minor lit a cigarette and puffed it slowly, watching as Heart browsed in a bookstore window.
In a voice that was not his own, he said: “Oh boy, here it comes. Yes, indeed, here it comes.” Blue smoked curled upward from the glowing end of the cigarette.
He pointed a long index finger at Heart and dropped his thumb like the hammer of a pistol. “Pow!” he said.
( 5 )
Heart paused and absently slapped his pockets looking for cigarettes and then remembered he’d quit months ago. Odd, but he hadn’t even wanted one until now. “Hmph,” he grunted and was about to move on when he heard a sound that froze the blood in his veins. It was a low, beastly growl; and it came from directly behind him.
Heart straightened, instantly tense, and turned around very, very slowly, his hand straying toward his armpit where a gun used to hang, but that was something else he’d given up –given up years ago in fact– but the reflex was still there, triggered by real fear.
His fingers found nothing and he completed the turn empty-handed but on the balls of his feet, poised to run.
Then all thoughts of gun and cigarettes and ornate picture frame and lacerated hand and everything else just winked out of his brain, leaving behind only a jarring, icy, and empty awareness of the moment. He forgot everything else; he even forgot to breathe because there were no dancers behind him, no revelers, no laughing children, no swiftly moving cars. There were no neon lights, no hoboes with pet rats, no color-swept avenue. There was no Music.
There was no Fire Zone at all.
He was somewhere else entirely, and this place was absolutely alien to him: cold and foreign and threatening, and it was shrouded in a terrible, tomblike silence. The buildings that squatted on either side of the narrow, crooked street were dark and ugly –some decorated with creaking signs written in a language he didn’t know and couldn’t identify. The streets were cobblestoned and glistening with dampness; huge banks of shadows were piled-up against the darkened houses and shuttered stores. In the air there was the cloying stink of peat and wood smoke.
“This is not possible,” he said aloud. He was, of course, wrong.
The low snarl confirmed it.
Then he saw it, and he knew that his life was balanced on a knife-edge, and the edge was about to draw blood. There was movement off to his left and he realized that the whole bank of shadows clustered beneath the overhang of a cutlery store was not shadow at all. The whole mass of it moved.
“Oh, Jesus…”he breathed. “Oh, sweet Jesus….”
He stumbled backward, moving away in shocked, jerky steps as if he’d forgotten how to move his feet. The thing moved forward, too, keeping pace with his retreat. One huge paw reached out of the shadows and slapped down in a patch of cold moonlight. It was all black fur and gleaming claws.
“No…” Heart gasped, then his throat seized shut.
Then the creature itself moved out of the shadows. It was not a dog, that much was instantly clear, nor a wolf, either. Not even the legends of werewolves hinted at what this monster might be. Jaws parted and saliva hung in long streamers from curving yellow fangs, the smallest of which was at least six inches long. Muscles bunched and rolled under the thick pelt; devil ears rose in tall, tufted points as the thing’s face wrinkled into a terrifying snarl of pure animal hate.
Heart stood frozen for a moment, and then the creature let out a roar, a bellow of rage and hunger and lust that literally tore the throat out of the night; the force of it knocking Heart back several steps. Across the street glass shattered, and the echo of it beat through Heart’s brain like artillery fire.
The roar galvanized him.
“Fuck this!” he yelled, and spinning, ran as fast as he could, as fast as if his life depended on it, for surely it did.
Behind him, the beast roared again, and then its claws struck fire from the cobblestones as it lunged in pursuit.
Heart ran as fast as he could, but the beast ran faster.
It devoured the distance between them at a terrible speed. The ground shuddered at each footfall, doors and windows rattled on either side of the street as the beast thundered over the cobblestones. Some of the heavy use-worn paving blocks cracked and splintered under its fearful tread, and sparks danced up around the beast’s hocks as it ran. Ahead of Heart a wooden lamppost split with a crack and fell over, smashing to the ground in a spray of glittering glass fragments. A heavy sign snapped free from its chains and fell to the stones with a thunderous crash inches behind Heart’s heels.
The monster pursued, shaking the whole street. A tree shattered and fell right across Heart’s path. The world was never meant to bear the weight of such an abomination as this, and every rock and stone and piece of wood cried out in horror at its presence and its passage.
Heart vaulted the fallen tree and ran. He wasted no time in screaming; he just ran. The beast ran after.
Heart could feel the creature closing, could feel the vibrations from its ponderous footfalls tremble up his own legs. Hot splashes of saliva splattered against his back, searing him through his clothes; breath like the exhaust from an open furnace roasted his back.
Heart dug down into whatever reserves of strength he possessed and ran faster.
Ahead the street ended at a low wall of crumbling brick and plaster overgrown with dead and blackened vines, and Heart ran for it at full tilt, leapt outward and upward, caught a thick vine near the top and scrambled up like a monkey racing away from a lion. He belly-flopped onto the top of the wall and was swinging his feet over when the creature struck the timeworn stone with the force of a freight train. The wall buckled inward, collapsing from under Heart’s scrabbling limbs, but even then he clawed desperately forward, grabbing at the shifting stones and writhing vines and sometimes at empty air.
The wall crumbled under him, and he could feel the monster lunging up to catch him as he fell; but with one hand Heart grabbed another vine and with one foot he pushed out against the wall and suddenly he was moving forward again, upward and away from the snapping jaws of the beast. The top section of the wall, caught in a vagary of reverberation, was bowing away from the point of impact, and Heart surged forward like a surfer bellying a board, riding the tumbling wall like a wave. He risked a single glance backward and saw with horror that the monster was leaping up at him, long forelegs outstretched, claws splayed in the harsh white moonlight, trying to catch him and drag him back. Heart twisted away, ducking under the swipe of one paw and nearly under the other
–but one talon flicked at him and dug a deep cut into his cheek, ripping effortlessly through flesh and muscle, cutting him nearly to the bone.
Indigo Heart screamed as blood boiled up out of the wound and searing pain exploded in every nerve in his face. He hurled himself over the wall and fell hard, dropping into the shadows beyond, out of reach for the moment but in no way safe. He landed hard, the jolt cutting off his scream and knocking a harsh grunt of pain out of him. Dust and cracked pieces of stone rained down on him, and he rolled painfully onto his back and looked up, expecting the worst. And finding it. The wall —the remaining sections of it– were slowly bending inward, folding under its own weight, bowing as if acknowledging its own defeat, leaning downward toward him. He could hear the grunts of effort as the beast threw its bulk against the barrier –and then there was a sound like a pistol shot as something within the wall, perhaps the last remaining reinforcing rod, snapped and a moment later the whole wall was falling inward, gathering speed as it came thundering down to smash him like a bug, propelled by the impossible weight of the monster.
“Oh shit!” he yelled and rolled away as a ton of stone crashed down on the spot where he’d fallen. Dust plumed up and the sound of the impact rolled outward in heavy waves, washing all the way down the street. Heart spun around and rose to a runner’s crouch, poised on fingertips and toes, ready to run. Blood was hot on his face and it ran in rivulets down his throat. His mangled right hand throbbed horribly.
He remained there for a moment, frozen at the sight of his enemy. It stood atop the mound of broken stone; the moonlight striking cold sparks from the silvery tips of its black fur. It rose up onto its back legs, becoming a black silhouette, impossibly powerful against the shocked face of the moon. Dripping jaws gaped wide and eyes flared with an unholy red as it reared up to its full height. The creature’s muzzle wrinkled and its jaws worked as it forced a single human word through its monstrous throat, and it bent low and whispered in a voice both harsh and soft:
“Mine…!” hissed the werewolf in a voice that was dreadfully familiar.
A scream of protest burned its way out of Heart’s chest, flaring up through the structure in his throat, exploding out past his gritted teeth: “NOOOOOOO!”
He closed his eyes, knowing this was the moment of his death, and with a last, desperate gesture of fury and denial and anger, he swung both of his balled fists forward, hammering outward and upward with all of his strength and his fear and his rage….
….and struck the neat brick wall beside the entrance to IT’S TO DIE.
The pain in his fists jolted his eyes open and he stared unbelievingly. Around him the lights of the Fire Zone burned in a hundred shades of wild color; the street dancers leapt and turned in the air; the revelers laughed and strolled and kissed and talked, and all around him the Zone was in full burn.
Indigo Heart stood there, staring, for a long, long time. Worms of ice marched up and down his spine; he shivered as if he were standing in the icy blast of a chill wind that nobody else on the street could feel.
“No,” he said softly.
It hadn’t happened, he thought wildly. All of it was just…just what? An illusion? A conjurer’s trick?
He reached up and touched his cheek, then looked at his fingers. The neon lights of the avenue sparkled on the bright red wetness on his fingertips. With his other hand he brushed dust and bits of old dead vine from his hair and clothes.
“My…God,” he said. “Oh my God.”
He didn’t know what else to say, or to think; and he had no idea what to do next.
He just stood there, watched the movement of the Fire Zone, and felt the terror and panic rising in him like an uncontrollable wave.
( 1 )
Elsewhere in the Fire Zone….
( 2 )
Destroyer stood back from the canvas and he was a perfect study in total disgust. From the defeated slouch of his shoulders to the self-defiant turn of his hip to the white- knuckled clutch of his fist around the handle of the palette knife he was a man who reeked of angry despair. He tilted his head this way and that, trying to find an angle from which the painting looked like it possessed intensity and passion rather than desperation and confusion. The colors and movements he saw looked inflicted rather than wrought.
The artist snorted and flung the palette onto a paint-speckled table but kept the knife clutched in his fist, fingering its edge, wondering if there were more constructive uses for it. Such as hacking and slashing the canvas while laughing maniacally. The thought had some appeal.
“Portrait of a man who could use my help.”
The voice was rich, cultured, well-modulated and familiar, and it caused Destroyer to spin with a smile forming on his lips. He was not at all surprised to see Doctor Velocity seated comfortably on the studio couch. All the doors and windows were shut and locked, but those things rarely bothered the doctor.
Destroyer’s smile blossomed, his first of the day.
The artist greatly admired Doctor Velocity –as a work of art among all the other reasons. That the doctor was the coolest of the cool was obvious to everyone in the Zone; even the ash of his slim French cigarette was correctly long and would not fall until his hand happened to pass idly over an ashtray. For some reason his cigarettes seemed to perfume a room rather than pollute it. Doctor Velocity was so cool that he didn’t even need to be good looking, but just to be that much cooler he was devastatingly handsome. His eyes were dark green and his complexion tanned to a golden brown; his teeth were white as starlight and his hair a flawless black, cut short and swept back from his face. He had high cheekbones, a strong but not overpowering jawbone and a patrician nose; he had full lips and a high, clear forehead with gently arching brows. Velocity was a tall man, a fact evident even while seated: he had long, strong limbs, thick wrists, big hands, and sensitive fingers.
In contrast to Destroyer’s paint-smeared smock and corduroys, Velocity was composed in a cool summer-weight white suit of some rough weave, a coral shirt and hand- painted tie which blended white and coral with a dozen other sea colors in a lovely, misty pattern.
He was smiling at just the correct angle.
“Well, you’re a welcome intrusion, Vee,” confessed Destroyer, tossing the knife onto that table. He pulled up a stool and perched on it like a frustrated vulture, breathing out a long and dispirited sigh. “I thought you’d be at Unlovely’s tonight. Isn’t Tortureship debuting their new operetta?”
“Not ‘til later; though, yes, I am going.” The doctor merely shrugged. He nodded to the canvas. “The colors won’t come?” he asked.
“Oh, it’s far worse than that,” Destroyer said, sneering at the canvas as if were a mirror reflecting his own image. “I think I’ve completely used up what little talent I ever possessed.”
“Oh, come now…” Velocity’s smile lit up the room. “There’s no one living who deserves the right to clean your brushes.”
Destroyer snorted. “If that’s the case, then God help the art world.” “I’m sure it’s not that bad.”
“Vee, right now I don’t think I could put red paint on a barn. God, it’s devastating.” He shook his head. Destroyer had a narrow face with a wide, generous mouth, a thin hooked Roman nose, and black eyes buried in deep wells. When he was in the flush of his passion he was exotic, intense, even beautiful, but his disillusionment cast his face into ugliness; and he knew it. “Ahh…I don’t know what’s wrong with me these days.”
“I thought you were painting your heart out last night.” “Who told you that?”
“Yeah, well, that was last night, and when you’re painting, last night is a million years ago. Last night might not even have existed. Painting is so right now.” He shrugged. “Besides, Oswald played Fire Dreams last night. And when it was done I turned off the radio and put on the CD and played it about a dozen times straight. I mean, of course I could paint. ”
“Ah. And tonight?”
“Tonight I’m back where I was before I heard Dreams.” “Which is where?”
“Which is nowhere. Absolutely nowhere.” He rubbed his eyes, then stared down at the colorful speckles and smears on his fingers. “The paint feels dead, inert. I mean, I can apply it to the canvas, but I can’t breathe any life into it. Christ, Vee, if this keeps up I going to spend my retirement at one of those little booths on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, doing insipid sketches of ugly tourists for ten dollars a pop.”
“I think it’s me. I mean…there’s something just…I don’t know…lacking in me.” “Such as inspiration?”
“No, it’s more than that. I mean, I know what I want to paint, I can even see it in my mind, but there’s some kind of short-circuit between mind and hand. I can’t seem to generate the emotional drive necessary to transfer what I see to the canvas. It’s like I have something plugging up my emotions. Somebody’s torn out all my wiring.”
“Ah. So, I can assume your affair with Aztec is over?”
Destroyer gave him a bleak stare. “Dead is the word you’re looking for. He walked out on me last week.”
“May I ask why?”
“Oh, it’s the same old story with him: one day it’s men, the next it’s women. I mean, I’m liberal, I can understand being bi-curious, or even bisexual, but the man is just plain screwed-up. He doesn’t know what he wants. I swear, it’ll be sheepdogs one of these days.”
Velocity chuckled and reached over to pat Destroyer’s shoulder.
The artist said, “The boy’s hurt me so many times I could actually qualify for handicapped plates.”
“There are other lovers, m’man. Maybe you might want to go out hunting in safer territory for a while. I mean, just until the wounds heal.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s what Kamala’s been telling me.” “She’s often right about such things. Wise lady.”
“I know. If I was straight, Vee, let me tell you….”
“I think you would have to stand in a long, long line.” “Yeah. Maybe I’ll just paint her. Again.”
“That’d be nice.” Velocity took a slow drag on his cigarette. It smelled like incense. “What about doing some cruising? You know, get back in touch with your roots, so to speak.”
“Oh, hell, I can always pick up some tender young thing. I’m popular enough to have a different guy up here every night of the week, but it wouldn’t be the same; and let’s face it, Vee, I’ve both been there and done that. No, it’s Aztec I want. He may be an infuriating, annoying, contrary little son of a bitch, but I want him.” His eyes met Velocity’s and the doctor could see the sparkle of unspilled tears. “I think I love him. Or, maybe I used to. Or something.”
Velocity stubbed out his cigarette. “Love,” he said with a Gallic shrug, “is never easy.”
Destroyer looked at him. “What are you saying? That you’ve been jilted?” “Everyone has.”
The artist gave him a wan smile. “I can’t imagine you losing a love.” He said it the same way someone would say they couldn’t imagine a cup of water filling the Grand Canyon.
“Oh, hell, Des, I have my scars, too.” “Mmmph. You hide yours pretty well.”
“Hide them?” Velocity pursed his lips and gave Destroyer a small shake of his head. “Not really. I guess I’ve just found my own rhythms and methods for dealing with them. It’s more or less a job requirement for me…my patients are more comfortable if I’m not bleeding all over them.”
“Yeah, well. For my own part, I feel like I’m bleeding all over the floor.
Unfortunately, I can’t seem to bleed this emotional gore onto the canvas.” “And how well you phrase it.”
Destroyer almost managed a smile as he rubbed his eyes again; his palms left small, faint smears of blue on his cheeks, like the ghosts of musty tears. “It’s funny, Vee, how all this works, how emotion inspires or derails the creative process. I mean, I’m enough of an artist to function according to pure technique. I know structure and balance, light and shadow; I can mix paint and shade it to suggest emotion or mood –all of that is pure technique. It’s the spark inside, the deep, burning fire that makes you want to paint, and makes you want to paint something no one has ever painted before, something no one has ever seen. That’s art! That’s what real art is all about, to take a knife to one’s veins and bleed all over the canvas, to breathe onto it, to stir the paint with tears, to weep and rail and rage at each new smear of paint as it’s applied. The canvas should cringe, should tremble at your touch. When the process is over you don’t just sign your name and step back –you have to wrench yourself away from it and stagger back breathlessly, aware of how close you came to losing yourself entirely within the painting. When you’re finished what remains is something that’s not just alive, but immortal! Something whose energy is so strong that it must exist and must survive.”
Velocity’s eyes searched the artist’s face for long seconds. “And that’s what you’ve lost?”
Destroyer nodded wretchedly.
“Tell me, Des, that painting I have in my study –the view of the ocean as seen from atop the Ivory Tower? Didn’t you paint that after Aztec left you the first time?” “Yes.”
“Can’t you summon those same feelings? Isn’t this the same thing?”
“No, no, no, it’s totally different. When he left me the first time it was the Great Tragedy. You know what I mean: when you’re sure you’ve lost the love of your life, and you stagger around clutching your heart like there was a knife was stuck in it, telling absolutely everyone how your life is over, et cetera, et cetera. That’s when the whole world burns down to just your life. You’re writhing in the flames, and you’re so in the moment that you are positive no one else could possibly understand because no one else has ever loved so well and lost so much. Your heart feels like it’s bursting with unrequited love, your arms ache to deliver unused embraces, your mouth is swollen with unshared kisses.” He gave Velocity a sharp glance, catching the doctor’s smile. “Oh, yes, it’s to laugh. Such drama.”
“And this time? It’s different because there is nothing novel about the pain and the drama is trite because it’s a rerun?”
“My God, you do understand after all.” Velocity just spread his hands.
The artist grinned and shook his head. “I even halfway believe he’ll come back to me.”
“Which would do what to your creative juices?”
“Well…probably not turn them into elixir vitae,” Destroyer admitted with a sigh.
“More likely turn them into Kool Aid, or something equally banal. Life has taken on that bland taste of the expected, and one does not savor the predictable tastes of ordinary things. You don’t close your eyes while you explore the taste of a glass of tap water.”
“So, I guess what I’m experiencing, Vee, is that deadly emotional plateau where there are no real highs or lows anymore.”
“And you would relish either?”
“Certainly! Relish them; embrace them with every fiber of my being. Intense pain is as much an artistic stimulant as exultation. At this point getting violently mugged would give me something to paint about.”
“Ah,” murmured Doctor Velocity. He was smiling as he flicked away an imaginary piece of something from his immaculately trousered knee. Leaning back in his chair he crossed his legs and cocked his head to one side, lips pursed, considering.
Destroyer looked at him. “What?” “Oh…just a thought.”
“Well…I was just thinking….” He let his voice trail off into a smirk, watching as Destroyer slid forward until he clung to the very edge of his chair. “I was just thinking,” he repeated, “of something which would be nice to have –I mean, if such a thing were possible.”
“This is purely hypothetical, you understand; but imagine what it would be like if you could collect the essence of spent lives and used incarnations, boil away everything but the emotions –all emotions, no matter how aberrant or mundane– and then contain this distillate into something like a pill. Think about it! It would be a roller-coaster ride of love, hate, agony, ecstasy, humiliation, triumph, degradation, exultation, boredom, excitement, sudden awareness, sexual discovery, first love, love lost: all of it! A pill such as that would catapult your mind through a lifetime’s emotions in, let’s say for the sake of argument, three or four hours; and leave you with the emotional echoes that would have your senses tingling for days, possibly weeks. What a rush that would be.”
Destroyer came to point like a good bird-dog, but soon sagged down with a heavy sigh. “Yes,” he said, flapping a hand in despair, “it would be wonderful, it would solve everything! It would be so traumatic and overwhelming that it would sweep away any lingering ennui or apathy. But,” he said sadly, “it’s impossible, or at least improbable; and certainly no help to me.”
“Mm, but think if it could be done! Think of it, my dear Destroyer –the ultimate trip. Not a head trip, mind you, but a heart trip!”
“I am despairing enough, Vee, without longing for something like that. You’re asking a drowning man to imagine a luxurious lifeboat.”
Doctor Velocity relented and sat back, again brushing invisible specks from his pants leg. “Forgive me, Des, I was just thinking out loud. I was thinking that if such a pill existed,” he murmured, “it might look something like…this.” He held up a single small pill
between thumb and forefinger. It sparkled like a bright blue sapphire.
Destroyer took in his next breath with a gasp. “No–!”
“Oh, yes, my friend,” Velocity said, grinning a bright and conspiratorial grin. “Yes indeed.”
The artist licked his lips and made small tentative movements with his hands as if he were about to pounce on Velocity to wrest the tablet away from him. He very nearly drooled.
With a charming smile, Doctor Velocity bent close. “Open your mouth and close your eyes,” he coaxed. The artist complied at once, sticking out his tongue; his paint- splattered hands were shaking with the palsy of great excitement. Velocity placed the sparkling blue pill on Destroyer’s tongue.
“Just hold it in your mouth. Don’t chew it, and for God’s sake don’t swallow it whole. Just let it dissolve.”
Destroyer closed his mouth. His whole body was trembling with excitement and expectation.
It took exactly nine seconds for the effect to hit.
Destroyer’s eyes snapped wide and he stared with the goggle-eyed intensity of a person who was not seeing a single iota of his surroundings. Those eyes jumped and twitched as amazing vistas opened up within his mind. His mouth hung slack, his hands danced and wriggled in his lap as the first waves slammed into his mind and through his heart. He was not aware of Velocity as the doctor stood and smoothed down his clothes. Destroyer was looking into another kind of universe, and nothing of this exterior world existed. Destroyer would not have noticed if Velocity had stripped naked and done a samba across the room. Bombs could have gone off around him and not added one twitch to the waves of spasms that were shaking him.
Smiling, the doctor walked to the door and opened it. He watched the artist tremble and shake as year upon year of emotions surged over him with incalculable rapidity.
“The ultimate speed,” he said, “courtesy of Doctor Velocity.”
Being far too cool to watch any more of it, he left before the secondary waves of one- eared Vincent’s life’s emotions crashed down on the soul of the artist.
( 3 )
The Traveler came walking.
He’d lost his name somewhere back down the road, and never bothered going back to find it. It didn’t matter anyway, because everywhere he went he made up a new name. Most people called him Walker, which seemed to fit; some called him Diogenes or Bellerophon or Mr. Smith, and though he had used those names at least once, he wasn’t any of those men. Mister Sin called him Inconnu, and the Bishop called him Xenos –and both of those names fit him very well. The Lady Eyes called him Outcast, but that just a private joke between them. For his part, any name that seemed to fit the place or the moment or the mood was fine with him, but he didn’t own the names any more than they defined him.
He was a walker, a traveling man, like walking jazz -improvised and a little weird.
Never the same twice.
At his heels walked the ugliest mutt anyone had ever seen: he was big, lumpy, misshapen and walked with his head low but his eyes open. The dog’s name was Critter, and his disposition was as nasty as his pugged face.
The Traveler had eyes the color of northern ice and curly brown hair that was sewn with silver threads. His beard was more gray than brown and there were scars on his face and hands. He wore a cracked and faded bomber jacket that had seen better years. He wore bluejeans that had faded to misty blue, and boots that had been broken in over thousands of long-legged miles. His mouth was hard, but it knew how to smile, and he had laugh lines around his eyes.
Behind him the road curved away into the misty darkness; ahead of him it stretched on toward a faint but growing light –a light that became brighter with each footfall as the Traveler made his way, step by step, home toward the Fire Zone. Home, to where he was expected, to where some work was waiting for him to do.
( 4 )
Drunken Tom Judge was propped against an old orange crate, the wood just slightly more stained and weather-beaten than the man. By his right hip was a bottle of champagne laced with absinthe that Sin had sent him last night; in a Shop-Rite bag was a lovely bottle of 15-year old Balvanie scotch that the Bishop had brought him. Sometimes Butter Joe brought him candy bars and books of crossword puzzles; and on Sunday nights Sister Scorpion would come and sing sad, sweet songs. All five of them had identical silver eyes.
Tom Judge shared his alley with flies and roaches and seven giggling rat-faced shadows. Then shadows were crouched around him in the dirty gloom, and their eyes were big and round and luminous, with pupils as shiny as polished chips of coal. Their bodies were indistinct, mere suggestions of shapes, but their comical faces protruded into the soiled yellow lamplight, and the lamp’s glow made their long whiskers sparkle like strands of silver wire.
On Tom’s knees perched Dan Vile, who appeared to be no more than a nearly amorphous mound of shadows, and Tom fed him a small scrap of tuna from his sandwich.
Dan didn’t want it or need it, but ate it anyway to be polite. Dan Vile was, occasionally, polite.
“So, tell me about the Bishop,” said Tom. His face was unshaven and when he smiled his white teeth gleamed like a searchlight through the whiskery gray of his face.
“What’re you asking me for?” asked Dan. “He was just here last night, whyn’t you just ask him yourself?”
“Because the Bishop never talks about himself. Well…not about important, secret things.”
“Maybe he don’t trust you,” suggested Dan Vile, still chewing on the fish. He didn’t like the oily taste of the tuna, but swallowed it anyway.
“No reason he should.”
In the darkness, two shadows giggled in harmony, the Mayhem Sisters. They did everything together.
Dan Vile said, “The Bishop ain’t doing too much right now, actually. Last week? Sure. But now that Sin’s back on the block he’s gonna be laying low. I mean, let’s face it: he raised particular hell while the Man was dead, but now’s he’s back, the Bishop knows he has to mind his manners.”
“Which is good,” observed Donny the Vorp, another of the shadows.
Dan looked over his shoulder at him. As shadows went, Donny wasn’t prime choice, at least as far as Dan Vile was the judge. “Since when do you have anything to say about the Bishop?” Dan asked.
“Since whenever I want to.” “Oh, yeah?”
“Who told you that?”
“Nobody told me. I told myself.”
“Then you better stop listening to fools.”
“Boys, boys,” Tom scolded. “Let’s not start all that again.”
Donny the Vorp stuck out a three-and-a-half foot tongue, unrolling it like a fire- hose; Dan immediately lunged at it and tried to bite it, but Donny reeled it quickly back in.
“Look,” said Tom hastily, trying to prevent an outbreak, “just tell me what’s happening these days. I feel so out of touch.”
“Well,” Dan Vile said, casting an evil look at Donny from the corner of his eye, “there’s some stuff happening, I guess.”
“Stuff!” agreed the Mayhem Sisters. “Like what?”
“Well, I guess you heard about the new boy?” “Who’s that?”
“New Refugee,” said Yum-Yum from behind Donny. “Oh, really?” said Tom. “What’s his name?”
“Umm…wait a minnit,” said Dan, snapping his claws like fingers, “it’s right on the tip of my tongue….”
“Blue Liver,” said Skeetchy.
“No, you nitwit,” countered Yum-Yum, “it’s Aquamarine Colon.” “Uh-uh,” argued Lisperworm, “it’s Sapphire Spleen.”
“Will the whole buncha you idiots just shut the heck up!” roared Dan Vile. “Great goats!” The six other shadows quieted –though they still fidgeted and murmured to themselves– and Dan said to Tom: “The guy’s name is Indigo Heart.” He turned and shot Skeetchy a withering look. “Blue Liver! For the love of little goons!”
“Well, I thought it was something like that,” sulked Skeetchy.
“Yeah, well there’s your problem: you tried to think. That’s like a guy with no arms trying to lift weights.”
Skeetchy made a rude noise then lapsed into a petulant silence; the Mayhem Sisters clucked at him soothingly.
To Tom Judge, Dan said, “Yeah, so this new clown breezes into town last night in the back of the Red Rocket. No freakin’ clue at all where he is or which way’s up. Kinda funny…in a sad, pathetic I’m-a-big-loser sort of way.”
“You say he’s a Runner?”
“Refugee, I think. Has this look on his face like he just got rogered by a moose, and keeps tripping in and out of different things. Doesn’t really know what’s what.”
“Who’s his patron?”
Dan just shrugged. “Dunno…but get this: he faced the Music on the dance floor at Torquemada’s and rode it all the way to the last note. Very cool thing for someone to do, considering he’s a stumblebum right outta Stone.”
“At Torquies, huh? Not too shabby.” “Shabby,” agreed the Mayhem Sisters.
“And the Bishop. How’d he take it?”
“I dunno,” Dan admitted. “He called this kid up to his dome, but then just let him go. I thought something cool was gonna happen, but then he just let him go.”
“You think the Bishop’s suddenly gone soft?” Tom asked, smiling.
“Oh, heck no. Still, if he’s playing something close to the vest, it’s so close even I can’t read his cards.”
“Sneaky bastard, the Bishop,” said Donny the Vorp.
“Stick a sock in it, cheesehead,” snapped Dan, but it was automatic comment with no powder in it.
“I don’t think I’d have wanted to face the Music my first time at Torquies,” Tom Judge mused, and he toasted the thought with a long pull on the champagne. “I’d have gone to Cafe Vortex maybe.”
“Or Unlovely’s,” suggested Lisperworm. “Or Sunnybrook Farm,” opined Yum-Yum. “Or—.”
“Shut up the buncha yas!” growled Dan Vile. “Who cares where you’dve faced the freakin’ Music, ‘cause you never had to face the freakin’ Music so what does it freakin’ well matter?”
“I was just saying,” Lisperworm began, but Dan stared him down.
“So,” Tom said, “what’s up with this guy Heart? Think he’ll be a player?”
Dan gave an elaborately casual shrug of his glossy black shoulders. “Who knows?
But I can tell you this: the kid’s got weird karma. You should see his aura –shoots off
sparks. Kinda cool,” he said reflectively, “but weird for a Refugee. You usually don’t see that kind of thing on someone new to the Zone.”
“I’ve seen it before,” said Tom, pursing his lips, “but only a couple of times.” “Yeah? On who?”
“Remember when Gestable Tribe first came to the Zone?” “Well…yeah, there was that.”
“Kamala Jane, too. Her aura always looks like that.”
“Yeah, but she was born here in the Zone, whaddya expect?”
“Mm, true,” admitted Tom, nodding. “Indigo Heart…” Tom tasted the name, examining it for flavor and nuance. He cocked an eye at Dan. “What else did this guy do?”
Dan Vile told him about everything that had happened last night and tonight, and about other things that had happened long ago. By the time he was finished, Tom Judge was nodding.
“Ah,” he said. “Well, that explains it, then.” “Uh…” said Donny the Vorp. “It does?”
“Oh yes. Tell me, Dan, when he faced that beast just a few minutes ago, do you think he had any idea what it was?”
“Oh, heck no. He thought it was a werewolf or something goofy like that.” “A werewolf?”
“Or something.” “But not his own…?”
“Him? No,” Dan said, shaking his head vigorously, “no way. This boy may be sharp in some ways, but in others he’s got his head in a fishbag. Kinda sad, really.”
“Yes,” agreed Tom, “it is. Especially since he’s more of a danger to himself than…” “Which is what I was thinking.”
“Me, too,” said Donny the Vorp. “Stick a sock in it, dope-o,” said Dan.
“Tell him about the ship!” chirped the Mayhem Sisters. “Tell him about what happened on the ship!”
Dan wheeled on them. “Shut your cake-holes! That hasn’t even happened yet.” Ignoring that comment, Tom said, “Do you think Sin is playing this boy?” “Sin?” Dan turned back to face Tom, coughed into his paw, then shrugged. “For
once I really don’t know what the Big Guy is doing. He’s gotten even cagier since he was dead. I can tell you this factoid, though.”
“Last night, after Heart got himself carried out of Unlovely’s by Centerlok and Butter Joe, I saw Sin nodding his head together with Owen Minor.”
“The Wolverine?” Tom seemed both faintly surprised and faintly alarmed. “Uh huh.”
“Wolverine,” chimed the Mayhem Sisters, and this time Dan did not chastise them. “Well, well, well,” said Tom thoughtfully. “I thought I knew Sin well enough.” “Nobody knows what goes on behind the mask,” observed Dan. “I mean…maybe
Eyes and Caster Bootey, but nobody else.” “The Mystery Man,” said Lisperworm.
“The Unknown Stranger,” said Skeetchy. “The—.”
“Shut up!” cried Dan. “Will you guys just please shut up!” They shut up, but Yum-Yum tittered into his paw.
“Tell me something, Dan,” said Tom Judge, “why do you pretend that you don’t
Dan looked at him, then examined his shadowy paws. “No clue whatcher talkin’ about.”
“Aw, c’mon, Tom,” Dan complained. “Don’t push me. You know I’m not supposed to talk about this stuff.” The other rat-faced shadows shifted nervously.
“Dan, Dan, Dan….”
“You want me to get inta trouble? Cripes! I got in Dutch with her Ladyship enough times already.”
“Dutch,” agreed the Mayhem Sisters, then added: “Double-Dutch.” “How would she even find out?”
Dan just looked at him.
“Okay, okay,” Tom said, conceding that point; then he nibbled the last bit of his tuna sandwich as he thought about it. “Okay, how’s this? What if I tell you what I think, and you just nod if I get anywhere near the mark. There’s no harm in that, right? I mean, it wouldn’t be like you actually told me.”
Dan Vile’s eyes twinkled as he and Drunken Tom shared a long look. “Well…” he said at length. “Eyes didn’t say nothin’ about that….”
Tom gave him a grin, and began talking. He talked long into the evening and, every once in a while Dan Vile would give him a quick, furtive –but decisive– nod.
( 5 )
Kamala Jane stood on the balcony that led off from her bedroom and stared out over the Fire Zone. The street was twenty stories below her, spread out in moving lines of headlight white and taillight red, tinted here and there by a dozen shades of neon light.
Vibrant Othertone Music rose up from the streets like smoke and blended with the subtle and moody sounds of Suicide Blues drifting through the open French doors, creating an atmosphere of excitement with overtones of wildness and undertones of danger.
She wore a dressing gown of the thinnest mint-green silk, patterned with embroidered cherry blossoms, and it clung seductively to her shoulders and breasts and hips and flapped with abandon around her thighs. Behind her, the apartment was cast into cool candle-lit shadows, the stillness disturbed only every once in a while when one of her cats stretched or rolled over. Most of the time there were a dozen cats living with her, sometimes more, seldom fewer. They came and went of their own accord, and she never imposed names on them as she assumed they had their own, and she respected their privacy. One of the cats, a marmalade cat with tabby markings on his sides and a belly as white as cotton, sat on the edge of the rail and watched her as she watched the street.
The cat’s eyes were remarkably expressive, appearing to possess a great depth of understanding as they watched the look of troubled concern form and break and reform over and over again on Kamala’s face.
The cat meowed very softly, a plaintive, almost inquisitive sound, and it brought Kamala out of her reverie in such a way that she was suddenly aware of her own knitted brow and frowning lips. The frown changed quickly into a rueful little smile and she reached out and drew a line through the fur of the cat’s chest with a long fingernail. The cat immediately began to purr as loud as a tractor engine.
A breeze climbed up over the edge of the rail and both woman and cat turned and sniffed it. The cat meowed again, but this time there was a different note in its voice: caution, perhaps unease. Kamala Jane felt it, too. There was blood on the breeze, and it filled her senses with the flavor of violence. She turned and looked to the West, toward Mystery Street as another gust of the freshening breeze reached her. There was definitely blood on the wind. Blood, and tears.
“Indigo…” she said, only half-aware that she had spoken the name of the man she had met only last night.
( 6 )
Indigo Heart felt like his heart was breaking. Or, perhaps, his mind.
He stood at the corner of Mystery and Enigma, holding a wad of bloody tissue to the gash on his cheek, and tried hard –indeed, very hard– to keep the lid of Pandora’s Box closed.
Yet millimeter by millimeter, despite all of the exertions of his heart and mind, of his need and will, of his fear and desperation, the lid was rising. Demon claws were already trying to scrabble over the edge and out from under the lid, and he could hear the roar of the Beast as it screamed his name.
“Help me,” he whispered. Not for the first time. “Please help me,” he prayed, but he did not believe that any ears heard him but his own.
Within his soul, the lid of Pandora’s Box creaked.
( 1 )
The bleeding gradually stopped. He used tissues and spit to dab his face clean. The Music played a hard, demanding song about love and misfortune, but all he heard was the beat, which tapped with insistent fingers against his breastbone. It took him a long time to still his breathing, to keep his heart from hammering as persistently as the song’s frenetic drumming. Sweeping down from the rooftops came a cool breeze that chilled the sweat on his face and sent icy tingles along his lower spine. A snatch of poetry echoed through his mind:
“Now it is winter in my soul; and I am sore afraid that these cold and indifferent winds
will wither all of the green things growing there.”
“Yeah,” he said aloud, “no shit.”
A tall woman in a long fawn-colored coat came along the street; here eyes alight with some inner delight. She stopped in front of Heart, looking into his eyes; her smile faded slightly, becoming kindly and concerned. “You’ve hurt yourself,” she said.
“Not quite.” His voice more bitter and choppy than he’d intended. “I didn’t do this to myself.”
“Yes,” she said, touching his cheek with cool fingers, “you did.”
He didn’t know what to say to that. The woman was older than he was, perhaps in her middle forties, with windswept tangles of chestnut hair falling loosely around her good shoulders. “My name is Bethy Holprett,” she said, and the name gave Heart’s memory an elusive tickle like the wings of a hummingbird.
“Umm, Heart. Indigo Heart.”
“You were at Unlovely’s last night,” she said, nodding. “I’m sorry, I didn’t notice you.”
“You were with Mister Sin.”
He paused. “For a little while, yeah.”
“Then you should go back there, Mr. Heart; you should share his light again.” She paused for a moment and her eyes glittered. “If you can.”
“I want to, but….” He faltered, unsure where he was going to go with that. He licked his lips and said: “Listen, could you…could you tell me who Mister Sin is?”
“Don’t you know?” “No, not really.”
Bethy considered for a moment then shook her head. “No. I’m sorry.” “No, meaning you don’t know, or no meaning you won’t tell me.” “No, meaning I don’t think my answer would make sense to you.” “Oh, Christ…”
“Because it would be different than your answer,” she said quickly, trying to reassure him. She touched his arm. “I don’t know what answer you need.”
“All I need is to know who he is.”
Bethy gave him a quizzical smile. “Is that really all you need?”
Heart opened his mouth, thought better of it, and then snapped it shut. He fingered his lacerated cheek. “I’ve been going through some stuff lately. Stuff I don’t understand. I’m really, really confused, and I would like for someone, anyone to please help me. Can
you help me?”
“I already have, Mr. Heart.” “Huh?”
“I told you what you should do.”
“What? Go back to Unlovely’s to see Mister Sin?” “Yes. That’s what you need to do right now.” ‘‘That won’t help answer my….’’
She bent forward, stretched up to kiss him on his torn cheek then bent closer still and whispered in his ear. “Just go. Find Mister Sin, be among the Invited, and listen to the Music. That’s what you need to do right now, Mr. Heart. That’s all you need to do.” She
paused, and then added. “For right now.” “How do you know what I need?”
She shrugged. “Because you are not the first person to stand here and ask these same questions.”
He stared at her, then snapped his fingers. “Bethy Holprett!” he said. “Now I recognize that name! Xander said that you were the one who formed that band — Tortureship.”
His eyes widened as the rest of the data popped into his brain. Jesus…you’re the one who wrote Fire Dreams….”
The faintest smile drifted like mist across her lips, and Heart saw both pleasure and a wistful sadness. “That was a long, long time ago, Mr. Heart.”
“But if you wrote that, then you have to….” “To understand?” she finished.
“Yes,” he said, and in that moment he understood a little of what she had been trying to tell him. Because you are not the first person to stand here and ask these same
“We’re all travelers on the road, Mr. Heart. Each of us on our own road, to be sure, but…” and again the faint smile came and went on her full lips, “sometimes –even if it’s just for a moment or two, or a mile or two– we walk the same road that others have walked.”
“I don’t really know what road I’m on.” “I know. It’s okay not to know.”
He snorted, but smiled.
“Do you ever listen to the Blues, Mr. Heart?”
“Sure. I’ve always loved the Blues. The way my life has gone, I guess that makes sense.”
“Then you should know about walking a dark road and coming to the Crossroads.” Heart nodded. “Is that where I am now? The Crossroads? Is that what the Fire
“The Fire Zone is many things. There are a lot of roads to here, and a lot of roads going away, and here and there they do cross. The point I was trying to make is that I guess it’d be safe to say that you are about to find the Crossroads, Mr. Heart.” She leaned on the word the, giving it a lot of weight. “Crossroads are tricky places.”
“Yeah, I guess it’s tough to figure out which road to take,” he began but from the small shake of her head he realized that he’d missed her point.
“It’s more a matter of who you ask for directions along the way,” she said.
He grinned. “In the old stories they say that Robert Johnson met the Devil at the Crossroads.”
The seriousness of her eyes made his grin falter. “And look how he ended up.”
He had nothing to say to that. Bethy smiled again, took his hand and gave it a comforting pat. Leaning close, she whispered, “There are dragons on the night wind, Mr. Heart. Can you hear them calling your name?”
With that, she released his hand, turned and walked quickly away.
“Okay,” he said quietly, watching her go. “That was weird, but at least this time I didn’t get my ass kicked. Makes a nice change, I suppose.”
Far down the street Bethy had reached the corner. She paused and looked back at Heart; he waved to her, but she either didn’t see it, or chose not to acknowledge it. With a swirl of coat flaps she rounded the corner and was gone.
He slapped his pockets to make sure he still had the small heart-shaped picture frame. It was there and, despite his adventures, the glass was unbroken. The paper sack of sugar UFO’s was crumpled, though, and all of the little flying saucers were crushed. He sighed and tossed the sack into a trashcan as he headed once more up the hill toward the light.
( 2 )
Across the street and a little behind him, Owen Minor the Wolverine loitered in the doorway to Pugsley’s Human Sushi Bar. He was picking his teeth with a mint-flavored toothpick and occasionally whistling an old Rolling Stone song. Spitting out the toothpick, he began walking, and as he walked, he sang in a low, soft, sweet tenor: “…been around for a long, long time…”
( 3 )
Rounding a couple of corners, Xander headed back to Mystery Street in search of Indigo Heart. He cut through Despair Terrace and Misery Court, where most of the Sharks lived, ran along two blocks of Hunger Street, turned left on Enigma Lane and then left again onto Mystery. Heart was no longer on the corner. Idling at the corner, Xander peered up the long hill and saw Heart’s retreating back nearly up to the next cross street. He made the left and tooled up the hill, staying far enough back so that Heart would not hear the throaty rumble of the Red Rocket.
Something caught his eye and he turned and saw another figure walking in the same direction, moving with caution so as not to be seen.
“Well, well,” Xander said through a haze of cigar smoke. He eased to a stop and watched as Owen Minor tailed Heart up the length of Mystery Street.
“By the pricking of my thumb,” he murmured, and let the rest hang.
( 4 )
Heart sensed someone behind him and he turned sharply, hands coming up as fists, jaw setting in an expression that was half-grimace half-challenging sneer.
There were no monsters this time, no apparitions of the Mechanic. Just a man and a dog. The pair of them coming out of the gloom of a darkened side street, their bodies silhouetted against the meager glow of a small street light. The man walked with a steady, deliberate gait, his shoulders swinging comfortably. He walked silently, but the dog’s nails went clickity-click on the concrete.
Was this the source of danger? Heart wondered, but he stood his ground, waiting for the man and dog to approach. As the man came closer Heart at first thought that he recognized him –the features were so familiar– but the closer he came the more he decided that the didn’t. Just a funny feeling, like déjà vu.
When the stranger was ten feet away, Heart said, “Good evening.”
The man slowed to a stop and gave Heart a very quick up-and-down with flat, unreadable eyes that were as pale as ice. In the unemotional way the man did it the gesture did not seem rude, just careful; an automatic appraisal from a man used to making quick judgments.
Gesturing to the dog, Heart said, “He’s a big one.” As lame comments went, it walked with a definite limp.
“What breed is he?” “A lot of ‘em.”
“Ah. Does he bite?” he asked, extending his hand, palm out.
“Been known to,” said the stranger, and added: “More often than not.” Heart took his hand back.
They looked at each other. The conversation stalled. Eventually it was the stranger who picked up the ball. “You from around here?”
“Me? No,” Heart admitted with a nervous little laugh. “I’m new. And you?” ‘‘Been away.”
“For very long?”
The stranger took out a handkerchief and wiped his nose. His pale eyes twinkled in the lamplight. “Yeah. A bit. But I’m looking forward to loitering around here for a while.” Beside him, the dog sat down and looked away up the street, ignoring Heart completely.
He sighed a doggy sigh.
“Look,” Heart said, “I’m heading up the hill to a place called Unlovely’s, ever heard of it?”
The man’s mouth twitched. “Yeah, I’ve been there.”
“Would you like to join me? You look like you could use a drink as much as I could.
“Oh…what about the dog.” “Yeah, he could use one, too.”
Heart smiled and extended his hand again, this time to the stranger. “My name’s Indigo Heart.” The stranger took the proffered hand and gave it a shake. His grip was dry and as hard as a vise. On the index finger of his hand he wore a simple red ring that flashed like fire in the streetlight. Heart saw it and felt his stomach tighten. He’s an Invited, he thought. I knew it!
“Name’s Walker,” said the Traveler. “Just Walker?”
“Well, I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Walker.” “Just Walker.”
“Okay…Pleased to meet you, Walker.” “Mutual.”
Heart laughed. “You don’t say much, do you?”
“Sometimes,” he answered, thought about it for a moment, then added, “And sometimes not.” He looked self-conscious for a moment and actually opened his mouth wide, stretching his lips and sucking in a long breath, blowing out his cheeks as he exhaled. “It’s funny,” he said, “but sometimes I go so long without talking to another person that I kind of lose the knack.”
Heart looked at him for a moment, not knowing what to say to that. Even though the conversation was stilted and awkward, Heart felt a friendly and companionable attraction for this Invited stranger and his ugly dog. The feeling was almost familial; and somehow he sensed that he was safe in their company. The memory of the werewolf –be it hallucination or whatever– seemed to fade in their presence. He stole another glance at the dog, which looked fierce enough to scare off any number of paternal ghosts or werewolves. That thought was so absurd that a girlish titter escaped his lips. Jesus, Heart, he told himself, you’re a fruitcake.
“Shall we?” asked the Traveler, gesturing up the hill.
“Christ, yes! I need to soak my nerves in some good bourbon.”
“You know, the comforting effects of booze are largely psychosomatic.” “Yeah? So?
The Traveler grinned. “Good point.”
Side by side, they started up the hill; and with another sigh the dog got up and followed.
“What’s the dog’s name?” “Critter,” said the Traveler. “You name him that?”
“No. Came with it. Seems appropriate, though. Couldn’t think of anything better.” Critter looked at them and belched.
“So,” Heart said as they walked, “you say you’ve been to the Fire Zone before?” “Uh huh.”
“Do you pretty much know the way things work around here?”
“I’m not sure anybody really does,” said The Traveler with a laugh. “But I can navigate, if that’s what you mean.”
“Why? Did you have a question about it?”
“I guess I do. I’m guide of looking for a guide, if that makes any sense.”
“Yeah, it makes sense. But I gotta be up front with you,” said the Traveler, “you know about the Invited? Well, we had to earn our invitations.” He raised his hand and wiggled his ring finger. “This didn’t come out of a Cracker Jacks box. So, if you go asking one of the Invited to explain it all, to unlock all the mysteries, you’re probably either going to get stonewalled or get answers that take cryptic to a whole new level.”
Heart stopped and looked at him, smiling.
“You know, that’s the first straight answer I’ve gotten since I’ve been here. If someone had told me that up front I’d have been a lot less confused.
Walker nodded. “Yeah well, you have to know who to ask.”
“So, does that mean that if I ask you direct questions you’ll stonewall me, too?”
Grinning, Walker said, “Indigo, you are going to hate the way I have to answer that question.”
“Okay, if you ask me I may have to stonewall you.”
“’Have to’?” “Yep. “
“But…why? I mean…when I came here last night I was pretty seriously fucked up.
Anyone could spot it, and you Invited apparently could read it –and me– like a book. I had people tell me things about myself they could not possibly have known. And everyone I meet acts like they’re in on some big joke, or some big game, of which I’m the punchline. It gets old pretty fast.”
The Traveler nodded and they started walking again. “All right, let’s start at the beginning here…what do you think is happening?”
“I don’t know.” “Not even a clue?” “Not a one.”
“Well…make a guess.”
“My best guess would be that this is all an illusion of some kind. No, what’s the word I’m looking for? Delusion.”
“As in your mind is playing tricks on you?”
“It’s doing something. Either I’ve gone creatively crazy….” “Always a possibility.”
“…or I’m in a coma (I got hit in the head pretty hard last night)…” “Also a possibility.”
“Or I’m dreaming.”
“And can’t wake up?” The Traveler shook his head. “If you’ll take the word of one of your delusional characters, I can say with a fair degree of certainty that you are not dreaming. I have some, um, experience with dreams and this isn’t one of those.”
“But you think that psychotic delusion or coma are better possibilities?”
“Sure. Not good possibilities, but better ones.” They paused at a corner and let a line of motorcycles pass. Each of the bikers wore a leather jacket with a stylized cyclone on the back. The leader gave Walker a sober nod, which the Traveler returned. They crossed the street. “Delusion,” he said when the engine roars had faded, “is the most reasonable of the two because, hey, let’s face it, Indigo, you’re kind of a headcase.”
Heart gave him a sharp glance.
“Come one, think about it…here you are asking a total stranger to explain the workings of the universe. I mean…how sane is that?”
“Felt like the thing to do at the time.”
Walker laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “Yeah, and what do you think about that? I mean how does your version of logic hold up to the fact that you are asking a person who may be a figment of your delusional mind to explain your own psychotic imaginings?”
“Yeah, there’s that.”
“So, do you have one possibility where you think this might all be real?”
They walked for half a block before Heart answered. “Maybe a small one, but there’s a problem with that line of thought. Actually a couple of problems.”
“No matter how much I might try to accept that all this stuff is real, I just couldn’t buy the whole package. I mean, okay, Caster Bootey and Kamala Jane and Jellicho –hell, even Brutal John– could kind of be real, providing my perceptions are temporarily warped. As far as Mister Sin…the jury’s still out. But nothing is going to make me believe the…thing I tussled with last was just a warped perception.” He touched his cheek and shook his head. The joviality had leaked out of his voice and the hand probing the gash trembled. “Some part of it had to be real…but at the same time it wasn’t real.”
“Yeah, I can see your point. I don’t believe those were entirely real, either.” Heart gripped the Traveler’s shoulder. “But they felt so real!”
The Traveler’s icy eyes considered Heart for a long time, then he placed his hand over Heart’s. “Yeah, I know.” To himself he said, “I remember,” but Heart didn’t hear that.
“So I don’t know if I can risk believing in any of this…not if it means having to accept the whole package.”
“Isn’t life like that, though?”
“Not mine!” Heart snapped and pulled his hand back. Critter snorted and broke wind very loudly.
“Pardon the dog,” said the Traveler. “His manners suck.”
Heart looked down at the dog, who stared back with an amazingly ugly face, and then Heart abruptly squatted down and wrapped his arms around the mutt and pulled him into a fierce hug. The Traveler almost moved to stop him, but didn’t, and stepped a half pace back, his face registering mild surprise. Critter looked startled for a moment, then indignant, then angry, and then he closed his eyes and wagged his crooked stump of a tale.
Holding the dog, nuzzling the creature’s wrinkled muzzle with his own nose and not looking at the Traveler, Heart said, “My life’s always been really, um,…difficult. I feel like everything inside of me is either unused and still in storage…or overused and broken.”
Very gently, Walker said, “So, why don’t you tell me your story, Mr. Heart.” Heart glanced up. “It would take too much of your time. ”
The Traveler gave a short, dry laugh. “Believe me, brother, what I got lots of is time.”
“And I don’t think you’d find it very interesting. “Mind if I be the judge of that?”
Heart ruffled the wrinkles on the dog’s head and stood up, his knees popping a little. “Okay. But wouldn’t a long sad tale of woe be best told over a tall glass of something?”
“My brother, I’m of your way of thinking entirely.” “Maybe we can do a quid pro quo thing.”
“What do you want in trade?”
“I want to know about the Fire Zone…so maybe you can tell me what you can…without transgressing whatever code of secrecy you Invited have?”
“Well, it’s more like informal guidelines…but, sure. I’m into tit-for-tat if it involves a drink.”
“Or two,” Heart agreed.
“Or five,” Walker said. The Traveler tapped Heart’s shoulder and pointed with his chin. Heart looked. A block away Unlovely’s loomed like the gates of paradise.
( 1 )
Inside it was the madness that is always Unlovely’s. If the Fire Zone has a heart, then it beats in that tower of light and song. Ten thousand pulses throbbed in time with a raucous Prissy Pink tune; ten thousand bodies twisted, turned, stomped, and leapt to the pounding beat. The song was a huge, nameless instrumental something that snarled out of the monstrous speakers and assaulted the crowds with bloodthirsty ferocity.
Just inside the door, Heart and the Traveler stood and stared, absorbing the deliciously unbalanced ambiance of Unlovely’s.
“Doesn’t all the noise bother the dog?” Heart asked. “He’s heard worse.”
“No, I mean the volume, how loud it is…all these lights…?”
The Traveler just shrugged and didn’t answer. For his part, Critter was sitting upright, watching the dancers with close attention.
A vast dark shape suddenly blotted out most of the view and Heart looked up into the face of Greysmonger, one of the pinstriped bouncers. The man’s vest and shirt bulged in taut lines over his massive chest and arms. “You got tickets?” he growled.
Heart said, “Um…tickets?”
“He’s with me, Grey,” said the Traveler. “Put it on my tab.”
The bouncer merely nodded and backed away, watching Heart the way a department store dick watches a shoplifter.
“Tickets?” Heart asked again.
“For the concert tonight, Tortureship is playing. They’ve been away on tour and tonight’s their first gig here in the Zone for a long, long time. Supposed to be quite an event.”
“Yeah, right, that deejay, Oswald Four mentioned it last night. Want to hear a cool coincidence? Just before I ran into you, I met the woman who used to front that band.”
Walker gave him a quick sidelong glance. “Bethy? You met Bethy Holprett tonight?”
“Yeah. You know her?” There were small winds blowing around in the Traveler’s eyes. Those same winds rippled the corners of his mouth into choppy fragments of a smile. “Yeah. I know her. We used to run in the same pack, once upon a time.”
“She wrote that song, Fire Dreams.”
“I heard the song on the radio last night. Incredible.” “Yep.”
“So they’re pretty big, I assume? Tortureship, I mean.” “No one’s bigger,” Walker agreed.
A figure moved out of the shadows between two pillars and angled to intercept them. Naked, lithe, muscular, painted like a King Cobra, the man swaggered toward them with serpentine grace. Heart recognized him as the danseur who had touched him briefly last night while he was dancing with Kamala Jane –just before Mister Sin had arrived. Heart thought that the man’s name was Snakedancer, but he had no idea how he knew that. What was it the man had said?
In dance there is life. Even for you.
Heart felt an echo of the ache in his chest he’d felt at that moment, an ache like his heart had been broken; or, perhaps, like someone had touched an already open wound in his heart. Then the man had told him to dance.
Dance for your very soul, Indigo Heart. And he had danced.
Now Snakedancer moved sinuously up to them, smiling a great and knowing smile at the Traveler, who stepped toward him and embraced him. Heart stood uncomfortably by while the two men hugged and pounded each other enthusiastically on the back. The Traveler held the danseur at arm’s length and appraised him.
“Why you slithery old reptile! How the hell are you?”
“Better than you,” grinned Snakedancer. “And far, far better looking.”
“Well, that wouldn’t take much.” They beamed at each other. Critter, against all expectations, began wagging his crooked tail like an excited puppy. He sidled up to Snakedancer, who bent and stroked the dog’s scarred hide, calling him ‘pretty baby’ and ‘little boy’.
“Are you just getting back?” he said to the Traveler.
“Uh-huh. Came in ten minutes ago, and I’ve already picked up some flotsam,” he said lightly, jerking his head toward Heart.
“So I see.” Snakedancer straightened and nodded to Heart. He stood with that deceptively sloppy pose particular to superb dancers: the apparent slouch, the slump of muscular shoulders, the indifferent hip-shot stance, and yet his feet assuming fifth-position with unconscious precision. “How are we today, Mr. Heart? Recovered from last night’s adventures?”
“Well…maybe from last night’s, but I’m having a hard time getting a handle on tonight’s fun and games.”
Snakedancer flashed him a great smile. “And the night is still so young!”
Heart grunted and absently touched his gashed face, mumbling something to himself. Aloud he said, “Is Mister Sin here?”
“This early? Oh, lord, no!” “What about Kamala Jane?” “Alas no.”
“Oooo…three strikes and you’re out, Mr. Heart. But we do have some lovely parting gifts….” Snakedancer chuckled at his own joke and the Traveler punched him lightly on the arm.
“Behave yourself,” Walker laughed.
Heart sighed. “You think they’ll be here for the show?”
Snakedancer winked at the Traveler. “Anything’s possible.” He laughed again and clapped Walker on the shoulder. “God, I’ve missed you, and your stories. I guess we all have. Just the other night I was at the Dwarf with Polyfun and he was saying how much he wanted to hear a Traveler’s Tale. A lot of people have been talking about you. Bethy, of course, and Centerlok. Morlok, Brutal John…quite a few others. I fear you’ll be swamped with requests.”
“It’s okay. I’ve been on the road so long I’d be happy to lose myself in the crowd, share a few anecdotes. Maybe get paralytic drunk with some of my old cronies while I’m at it.”
Snakedancer licked his lips. “Tell me, Footloose, have you been away anywhere, ah, interesting?”
“Here and there. You know me.”
“Mmm,” Snakedancer murmured, eyes twinkling. “So, its just homesickness that brings you back?”
“That,” said the Traveler, “and other things.” He shot a quick but significant glance in Heart’s direction, which Snakedancer caught and Heart did not. “There’re a couple of matters that apparently require my attention. I got a long distance call and here I am.”
“Mister Sin will be delighted to see you.”
“Same for me, though he and I ran into each other a little while back.” “Really? Where? In Stone?”
“Mm-hm. Long story, though, and kind of weird. Tell you later. Hey, how’s your daughter doing? I guess she’s pretty-near full-grown now.”
“Bethelby? She’s an absolute peach, and yes, she’s quite grown-up.” “She still dance?”
“She does. Europa says she takes after me, but I think she favors her mother, in more than just looks. Her dancing style is more eclectic than mine, but I guess you can see the classical postures if you look fast.” Pride glimmered in his eyes. “You should see her now. She could be Theda’s twin.”
The Traveler looked as wistful as Snakedancer. “Ah, yes. Theda.” He shook his head in fond, sad remembrance. “What a woman she was.”
Snakedancer nodded, and Heart saw that his eyes were glistening. “She was the best dancer, the best woman –the finest person– I’ve ever known. I see her lights burning in Bethelby. Everyone does.”
“Wow…I can’t believe grown up already. Is she around tonight?”
“She’ll be around by show-time, I presume, but this early in the night she favors the Vortex.”
The Traveler shrugged. “Younger crowd over there.”
The danseur made a face. “Ug…too many Sharks for my taste.” “Hey, how long till the show starts?”
“Oh, you have plenty of time, at least a couple of hours. You know how fashionably late Sweet Sidne likes to be.”
“Yeah. God –she’s another one I remember more as a kid than a grown-up.” “Well, you will stay away for years at a time. It’s your own fault. Children do grow up.”
“I guess,” the Traveler said, and for a moment his voice held a flavor of sadness. “Do you want to join the fray?” Snakedancer asked, jerking his thumb over his broad shoulder toward the busy dance floor.
“Normally yes, but right now I’m gonna track down some Scotch, and my friend here is buying the first round.”
Heart nodded, using this break to reinsert himself into the conversation. “Yeah.
Welcome to join us.”
“Oh, no, thanks anyway. Oswald’s been very naughty with his choice of songs tonight, and if I’m not on the floor God only knows what’ll happen. Sharks and Guppies in a feeding frenzy, I expect.”
“Well, we’ll leave you to it,” said the Traveler, shaking his hand again. “Try and stop by later.”
“I’ll be there.” Snakedancer turned to go but paused and looked into Heart’s eyes. “For your very soul, Mr. Heart,” he murmured and then turned completely away, took a couple of steps, paused to indulge in a very long and passionate kiss with a petite red- haired woman in an electric blue sari, and then flung himself bodily into the press. The dancers howled with delight.
The Traveler touched him lightly on the arm. “Let’s go find that drink, shall we?”
They headed on toward the bar with the dog in tow. In the time it took them to reach it, Heart estimated that at least fifty people stopped the Traveler to shake his hand, kiss him, and embrace him. The Traveler knew them all by name and it made Heart wonder what it was that gave the man his celebrity. He heard at least a dozen of the people request a Traveler’s Tale and Heart wondered what those might be. He assumed they didn’t involve boring slide shows of the Grand Canyon or holiday snaps of Niagara Falls.
“You’re one popular son of a bitch,” he said as the Traveler disentangled himself from the latest group.
“Who,” his companion asked innocently, “me?”
They reached the bar at last, and Heart suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. Seated there on an ornate high-backed stool, cool in a dark blue lightweight suit, was the Bishop. He noticed Heart and raised his glass in a playful, mocking salute.
( 2 )
Revulsion and something like panic rose up in Heart and he wanted to bolt. Images of the danger he’d faced on the dance floor at Torquemada’s lunged at the interior walls of his mind; the Music around him seemed suddenly to warp into something harsher, more malevolent, like the Music that had nearly killed him in the Bishop’s club. Even the lights above and around him seemed to sharpen into needlepoints of icy blue and hot red and they jabbed at his crawling flesh. Though the Bishop himself had not directly attacked Heart, nor in fact showed him anything but a bourgeois courtesy, Heart knew in his soul that it was the Bishop’s will that had shaped Torquemada’s and that being inside the club was like being inside the man’s dark soul.
Ignorant of Heart’s reaction, the Traveler stepped up to the bar twenty feet from where the Bishop sat. He pounded the hardwood surface of the bar with his palm and yelled: “Barkeep! A flagon of your best!”
Brutal John loomed above him like a cliff wall. “God, they’ll let any kind of riffraff into this joint.”
“Brutal Jonathan!” the Traveler cried. “Are you still poisoning the Invited on the secret orders of Owen Minor?”
The bartender gave his best attempt at a chuckle. “Guy’s gotta make a buck somehow.” They shook hands warmly, and Brutal John said, “How the hell are you?”
“Older, slower, and thirsty, otherwise I can’t complain. And you? Still your amiable, cheerful self?”
“Yeah, I’m everybody’s best friend.” He nodded at the dog. “Still got the mutt, I see.”
“Wait a minute, I got something he might want.” He reached below the bar, came up with a hefty beef bone, and handed it over. Critter lunged at it and took it down noisily with him to the floor. He scrunched his way into a crevice between bar and floor and began gnawing noisily and happily on the bone, ignoring the rest of the world.
“Do I even want to know why you have a raw beef bone under the bar?” the Traveler asked.
“No,” said Brutal John, “you don’t. So, what can I get for you?”
“Scotch: tall, old, and neat. Find something you have to blow the dust off and that’ll do.”
“No sweat.” He made a slight gesture with his head toward Heart, who stood nearby, still looking down the bar at the Bishop. “Something for your pet monkey?”
“Mr. Heart?” the Traveler asked.
“Tell your charming friend that I’ll have a Rebel Yell in a tumbler over cracked ice.”
“Do I sense some animosity here?” asked the Traveler.
“No,” said Brutal John. “Heart and I are the best of friends.” “Yeah,” Heart agreed. “He’s like a brother to me.”
“It’s heartwarming to see,” said the Traveler.
A shadow fell across the bar and both Heart and the Traveler looked up to see the Bishop standing there in his dark suit and black gloves. A token in the shape of an eclipsed sun was pinned to his left lapel and a tiny post earring shaped like a G-clef gleamed in his left earlobe.
“Well, well, well,” said the Traveler, turning toward him and holding his arms wide to embrace the man; the Bishop entered the span of those arms and they held onto each other with the fierce passion of great old friends too long apart; showing, perhaps, a deeper affection even than Walker had displayed for Snakedancer. Heart watched, amazed.
During his brief experience with the Bishop he had the thought the man was warm as a reptile despite his hedonistic surroundings; and yet here he was, greeting an old friend with as much apparently genuine warmth as Heart had ever seen demonstrated. It confused him, and adding to his discomfort was Walker’s obvious love for the Bishop. Heart wondered what such a powerful fraternal friendship would feel like, and he searched himself for anything in his own emotional past that was similar, but came up dry.
Seeing the depth of friendship demonstrated in front of him colored the Bishop differently in his mind, too, made him a trifle more human, a bit more of a complete person and less of a type.
“Dear, dear me,” said the Bishop as they finally stood apart and measured each other with their stares. “You are a sight for very sore eyes. You know, just this afternoon I told Europa that there was something in the air…though I didn’t know what it was. And here you are.”
Walker’s eyes twinkled. “So, you and Europa, huh? Still together? I’d figured that for one of your flings.”
“Not at all. She and I have become quite like an old married couple.” He smiled with warmth. “She’s quite an extraordinary woman.”
The Traveler nodded. “No argument there.” He looked around. “She here somewhere?”
“Alas no; she’s having a small event at her House of Perfections. She’ll be devastated that she missed you. I hope you’re not going to flit off after the concert…?”
“Nah, I’ll be around for a little while.”
“Oh really?” Again a significant look passed between the Traveler and one of his friends; though Heart caught it this time he didn’t know what it meant, which was fine because he had just about given up trying to make sense of most of what he perceived, or thought he perceived.
“So,” Walker was saying, “Europa’s going to miss the concert, too?” “Unfortunately; but really Othertone was never quite her thing. She’s more of a
suicide blues aficionado. Al Skorpion and all that stuff. Not even Tortureship could lure her away from her guests.”
“I see you weren’t invited to her little party.”
“I begged off. I’ve been waiting for this concert for some time. It’s just a shame Europa couldn’t be persuaded to join me.”
“Maybe I’ll drift by and see her later.”
“She would absolutely love it, and please, don’t announce yourself first. Just show up the way you like to do. The thrill will do her good.” The Bishop looked past the Traveler, and the warmth of his smile dwindled to coolness. “Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Heart?”
“Not a God damn thing,” Heart said.
The Traveler touched the Bishop’s arm. “He’s with me.”
“Oh, really?” He dragged it out and soaked the word with venom. “How fascinating. Are we slumming?”
“Now, now, let’s be civil,” the Traveler soothed. “Besides, if you want to talk about slumming, what the hell are you doing in here of all places? I would have thought you wouldn’t be caught dead, or even seriously wounded, in Unlovely’s.”
“Ah, touché; and you’re right, Xenos. I am unkind.” He considered Heart for a moment, drew a deep breath and let it out as a sigh, then gave a short, dry laugh. “Mr. Heart, accept my apologies. I am often vulgar –it’s something of a hobby with me– please do forgive.”
“Sure,” Heart said neutrally. “Whatever.”
“Oh, you look so upset and it’s all my fault.” He offered his gloved right hand. “Pax, Mr. Heart. Tonight is a special night, a night for celebration not for conflict.”
“Hear, hear,” agreed the Traveler softly.
Heart looked at the hand, making sure it wasn’t holding a knife. Very tentatively he took the hand and shook it. A tiny ripple of cold energy flickered up and down his arm at the moment of contact, and Heart almost jerked his hand away. He saw the wicked amusement in the Bishop’s eyes and knew the effect was intentional. Bastard, he thought, then set his mouth into a hard grin and squeezed the Bishop’s hand like a sausage. Even so, the laughter in the Bishop’s silvery eyes bubbled out of his smiling mouth and he disengaged his hand, offering Heart the smallest of bows in acknowledgment of the point — not of Heart’s machismo handshake, but at Heart’s perception of the static shock.
Somehow it mattered that Heart had felt it and chose not to openly react to it. A subtle point that was very nearly –but not completely– lost on Heart.
Brutal John appeared, and nodded to the Bishop. “Sir?”
“Another glass of spring water, John, Please. The Monte Chelleine will do.”
They sat on the high-backed stools, and Heart listened as Walker and the Bishop chatted about people and places and events shared long ago. Despite the crowds Heart felt alone and adrift, apart even from his new drinking companion. He had hoped to snag a corner table and grill Walker like a steak, getting all of the juice about the Fire Zone he could get; but instead he stood apart and impotently listened to things he didn’t understand. Heart recognized a few of the names they bandied back and forth: Oswald Four, Caster Bootey, Xander, Sweet Sidne; and others tickled at him as if he should know them: Owen Minor the Wolverine, Doctor Velocity, Hurulan, Centerlok, the White Mariah. They talked about places with bizarre and exotic names –Sunnybrook Farm, Pugsley’s Human Sushi Bar, Tommy Echo’s Sound Store, The Hotel Gershwin, the House of Perfections– and he wondered if these were places in the Fire Zone, or in Stone –or somewhere else entirely, somewhere beyond his mind’s ability to grasp.
For just a moment it occurred to him that he was beginning to think in the patois of the Fire Zone. Words like Stone and Sharks and Invited all flowed through his thoughts with ease, not requiring any pause for definition. Already he thought of his old world — Stone– as a place to which he no longer belonged. It was just a place now, not his home; and yet the Fire Zone was not his home either. At least, not yet, he thought with such a buried part of his mind that he was almost unaware that he’d thought it.
“Hey, hold the fort for me for a few seconds,” said the Traveler to Heart, breaking his reverie. Without waiting for a reply he moved off down the bar to huddle with a couple
of people Heart did not know. That left Heart and the Bishop together. They both found interesting things to do like swirling the liquid in their drink glasses, picking nonexistent lint off their sleeves, and whistling along with the Music; anything which did not involve any active interaction with one another.
After a while Heart began watching the crowd, picking out faces that were familiar from last night’s dancing melee, even if he couldn’t put names to many of them. He saw Snakedancer move through the crowds, and wherever he went, the performance abilities of the dancers around him jumped an order of magnitude. The current song was had a kind of quasi-disco beat but was married with a medieval rhythm structure, and Heart watched how the Music moved its way through each of the dancers.
Dance for your very soul, Indigo Heart.
He looked around for Kamala Jane, and did not find her. “Kamala,” he said softly, tasting the syllables of her name. “Yes, Indigo?”
He whipped his head around fast enough to hurt his neck muscles –and there she was, just inches away, smiling and holding a glass of white wine. His breath caught in his throat. Good God, she was beautiful! More beautiful than he remembered and his memory was vivid. Her eyes were bright with party excitement, and her face seemed to radiate light and life; each of the topaz gemstones in her flawless skin sparkled with reflected laser light, burning like small suns in her heavenly flesh. She wore a silky, filmy something that seemed to float around her thighs and torso like a multicolored vapor.
What he intended to say was something like: “Why, Kamala, it’s great to see you.” What he managed to say, after choking and sputtering, was: “Kam. Uh. La?”
Her smile at his discomfiture was radiant. “Good evening, Indigo,” she said, “and how are you this evening?”
Heart gurgled, his mouth making gasping fish shapes.
“‘Tongue-tied’ is the phrase you’re looking for,” said the Bishop dryly.
Heart glared fiery death at him and then busied himself with an attempt at a polite bow. “You look beautiful tonight,” he said, finally forcing the words past the lump in his throat.
“Why, thank you. I looked for you last night. Where’d you go?” “I…ah…had to leave. Suddenly.”
“You should have said goodbye.”
“You’re right, I should have. But,” he said, fumbling to make himself sound casual, “I guess I had too much to drink last night and it kind of caught up with me all at once.
One minute I was talking with Mister Sin and then next thing I know I’m waking up with the mother of all hangovers.” That’s at least a version of the truth, he thought wryly.
“Well,” she said, “I’m glad you came back tonight.” Then his face clouded. “Oh! You’ve hurt yourself.” Her soft finger brushed his cheek near the gash. Her fingers felt cool on his flushed face. “What happened?”
“I—,” he began, then considered how his story would sound, even to a person in the Fire Zone. Instead he said, “I fell and cut myself. It’s nothing.”
“It’ll leave a scar.” She cocked her head to one side. “It’s shaped like a crescent moon.” A pause. “I think it’s sexy.”
The feeling that those words engendered in his body was extraordinary. At that point he would have let the werewolf -or whatever the hell that thing had been– take off his left arm if it would somehow please Kamala Jane.
Then he had a flash memory that jolted him into an entirely different place. In his mind he was suddenly back on the street near where Xander’s car had left him when he had first gotten to the Zone last night. His inner eye once more looked at the darkened store window that had reflected an image of himself that was not quite himself, an image of perhaps some future self: This version of himself looked both older and younger –older in
the wisdom in his sea-blue eyes, younger in the strength of his smile. His beard was longer
and trimmed differently; and this Jim had a crescent-shaped scar high on his right cheek.
The look in Kamala’s eyes showed that his face was betraying his inner turmoil. “What’s wrong?”
“Wrong? Oh. Uh…nothing. I guess someone just walked over my grave.” “You okay?”
“Yeah,” he said, as the image slowly retreated into darkness again. Even so, its message was powerful. At least in some ways he was transforming, or perhaps evolving, into another version of himself. Partly that frightened him, partly it filled him with the first flicker of hope he’d felt in a good long while.
“Now I wonder what that smile means,” she said slowly. He refocused on her. “Mmm, wouldn’t you like to know?”
“Maybe,” she said playfully, then pursed her lips, “and maybe not.”
Without knowing he was going to speak, he blurted: “Say, Kamala, would you like to dance?”
“Yes.” She said it without a pause. His heart jumped up and down in his chest like a happy puppy.
They drifted over to the dance-floor and they danced for nearly an hour, moving together through fast Othertone, hectic Sunk Punk, moody Ultra fusion and bizarrely discordant Demitrend songs, each played by bands with outrageous names like The Fabulous Z-Men, Maxell Watercress and the Hard-Drive, the Lightriders, the Merciless Machine Men, and Sunflower Soup. Some of the songs were fast and frenetic and Heart felt himself caught up in the live-wire energy of the whole mass of dancers; and a few songs were calmer and during these he drew closer to Kamala Jane and shared what he believed was the beginnings of a connection of their individual energies. Her body felt lithe, soft, and strong when he held her for a slow dance by Peggy Thatcher and the House of Commons, and she smelled of wildflowers and sunshine. They moved together, her body moving with his in a harmonious rhythm, her stomach against his loins, her breasts against his chest, her breath on his throat. Never in his life had he been more thoroughly aware of a woman and all her womanly parts than he was during the length of that song. From the texture of her gleaming coal-black hair to the play of her muscles under his palm and fingers to the curve of her cheek where it swept in a graceful line down to jaw line and from there to an elegant throat. He knew his face was flushed red and hoped she would think it was from the exertions of the dancing.
They moved together in a private circle, quiet within the muted vocals of the song, touched once in a while by a wandering beam of ghostly blue light.
“This feels wonderful,” he said, and then bit down on his tongue because he hadn’t meant to say it aloud. She merely murmured an agreement and snuggled a little into the nook formed by his chin and chest. The dance, perversely, came to an end and by mutual consent they began walking toward the bar. Afterward Heart could not explain to himself why he felt either so bold or so comfortable that he risked taking her hand as they walked, but he did it. Kamala, let her hand be held, and even gave his a reassuring squeeze.
At the bar, the Traveler had returned and when she saw him Kamala laughed with sudden delight, dropped Heart’s hand, and flew into the arms of the weather-beaten nomad. They hugged, kissed, laughed, and jabbered at each other a mile a minute. Trailing behind her, Heart felt a flash of envy that he instantly knew was both possessive and stupid, but he felt it nonetheless.
Walker, Kamala and the Bishop lapsed into a deep conversation about some party they had all been at years ago. The Traveler kept making references to some calamity with an ice sculpture of a swan and the more he mentioned it, the more Kamala laughed. She was nearly hysterical, and even the Bishop was laughing and shaking his head and slapping the bar with a gloved hand. Heart let himself zone out of the conversation and stood at the fringes of their group, staring at the legions of dancers who were gyrating to a new song a Dead Rock singer named Kid Elroy who was channeling the spirit of Frank Zappa.
“Isn’t that right, Mr. Heart?”
The question jolted him and he realized that Walker, Kamala and the Bishop were all looking at him. His mind replayed the question, but all he could grasp was that the Bishop had said something. “I’m sorry, come again?”
“I was telling Xenos here about your little tête-à-tête with the Music.” “You mean at your place?”
“Yeah,” Heart agreed, “it was a pip. Next to having root canal without Novocain, I can’t think of a jollier time.”
Walker burst out laughing, and even the Bishop chuckled. “Oh, Mr. Heart,” the Bishop said, “you are a card.” Even Kamala smiled, though her lips were stretched in a gentler line than the Bishop’s.
“A card? Which one? Joker?” More laughter, but this time even Heart grinned, though grudgingly and briefly.
“I can imagine,” said Walker, “that you had no clue at all about what was happening to you.”
“Not then,” Heart said, “and not now.”
“It can get pretty confusing the first couple of times,” offered Kamala. “My first time there I had Bethelby with me, and Snakedancer came in halfway through the first song.”
“That’s an unfair advantage,” said the Bishop. “Tough,” she said with a grin.
“I could have used a chaperone,” Heart admitted.
“You still got through,” Kamala said. “That’s really something.” When he made a face she said, “No, seriously…you should be proud of yourself?”
“For what? For dancing to a weird song?”
Both the Traveler and the Bishop stared at him for long seconds, their laughter failing and their smiles fading. “Oh dear,” said the Bishop, “he’s done it again.” He sighed.
Kamala looked down into the glass of wine she held. The Traveler merely looked surprised and perhaps a little dismayed. He said: “Come on now…surely you realize how significant an event that was.”
“Significant? In what way?”
“In a fundamental way. I mean…it tells so much about you.”
“Maybe it tells you something, friend, but it tells me exactly zilch,” Heart snapped, his irritation flaring suddenly. “What it tells me is that this whole place is fucked in the head and no one knows what’s going on. You see, I was starting to think that it’s just me who’s screwy, but no, uh-uh, it’s pretty clear that this whole Fire Zone thing is just a confusing and pointless madhouse. Nothing makes sense, and all the clever cryptic statements and innuendoes in the world can’t make it make sense.”
“Are you done ranting?” asked the Bishop dryly.
“Oh, no, I’m just getting started. You haven’t seen ranting yet.” “Spare me, then,” the Bishop said.
“Indigo,” said Kamala, touching his arm. Her eyes searched his face. “Please.”
To the Traveler, the Bishop said, “You know, I’ve just come to the opinion that yesterday was a pure fluke. They do happen, even here. He faced the Music and got lucky, that’s all.”
“You’re being unfair,” Kamala said, maintaining her light grip on Heart’s arm. Walker’s gaze was fixed on Heart, and the light in his dark eyes was calculating, shrewd. He shook his head. “No, no that’s not the way it was,” he said to the Bishop. “Kamala’s right. If it had happened at Cafe Vortex, or here, then maybe I’d agree with you, but not at your place. The energy mix is just too strong there for anyone to just surf through, and you know it.” To Heart he said, “Okay, I think I can see a little bit of what your problem is, and I also think I can do a little bit of something to help you figure things out.”
“You’re serious,” Heart said, his voice heavy with skepticism and challenge. “Very.”
Heart snorted. “Walker, I’ve been trying since early last night to get a straight answer out of someone, and all I get is misdirection. Smoke and mirrors may entertain the masses, but on me it’s wearing a little thin.” He took a heavy knock of bourbon. “So, o’ wise Yoda, what are you going to tell me that’s going to make all of this make sense.”
“Well, first, I never said I’d make it all make sense. It’s your life, you have to figure some of it out for yourself.”
“I know that!”
“Do you? I wonder.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” “Indigo…” Kamala said with soft warning.
“I mean,” said the Traveler, “that I wonder how much of your life you have actually tried to figure out?”
Heart opened his mouth, but behind his eyes the lid to Pandora’s Box creaked threateningly. He shut his mouth again, and the Traveler, looking deeply into his eyes, nodded. Kamala moved a few inches closer to him, establishing a protective closeness.
“Yes,” Walker said, meeting Heart’s eyes. “I know.”
Heart licked his lips. “What is it you want to tell me?” he said hoarsely. “What do I have to do to try and get some answers?”
“All you have to do,” the Traveler said, “is turn around.”
“Turn…? What is that supposed to mean? Is that some existential riddle?” “No, it’s a suggestion. Just turn around.”
“Spiritually, physically or mentally?”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Heart!” Walker said and, reaching out gripped him by the shoulders and spun his body one hundred and eighty degrees.
“What the hell are you…?” Heart demanded, and then whatever else he was going to say burned to ashes on his tongue as he stared at the person who was standing behind him.
“Hello, Indigo,” said Mister Sin.
( 1 )
When Jimmy was twelve…
The other kid was bigger, faster and stronger. He had longer reach, far more experience, a stinging left jab and a right hand that hit like a Cruise missile. He could kick like a mule with both legs and getting through his blocks was like negotiating a minefield. Jimmy felt like he was fighting four guys at once.
Both boys were soaked in sweat. The dojo wasn’t air-conditioned and the air was heavy with the musk of sweat from the five previous matches, but Jimmy felt like his nose was clogged with the odor from his own fear.
They moved together in a cumbersome and uneven dance, the other kid –Diego— pivoting in a slow circle as Jimmy tried to flank him. Jimmy lumbered first to Diego’s right and then to his left and back again, panting heavily, blinking at the stinging sweat in his eyes, gasping for air through a mouth filled with old burlap.
“Keep your hands up,” Mike O’Hanlon cautioned. He’d been saying it on average every ten seconds of the fight. The fight had been going on now for about a thousand years, and Jimmy was as tired of hearing the comment as he was of getting hit because his arms were too sore and heavy to keep up in the correct guard position.
Diego darted in and scored again, a stiff fingertip jab to Jimmy’s chest that burned like a needle.
“Point,” the referee said tiredly. Like Mike, he’d been saying that far too often, though rarely when Jimmy himself launched a kick or punch.
Jimmy just wanted the match to be over. He knew he wasn’t going to win. He couldn’t win. Diego was a brown belt and the fifth-ranked contender for the Juniors League title. Jimmy wasn’t even an also-ran. He hadn’t won a single match, not in class and not in a tournament. He knew that some of the guys joked around that he was a training dummy, one of those stuffed scarecrow figures that students used to practice strikes and kicks. A dummy that got hit a lot and never ever hit back.
Well, Jimmy did hit back, and sometimes he even scored a point. But those points were rare, and some of them were even given to him by the more charitable students.
“Keep your hands up.”
Jimmy raised his hands, which certainly had dropped to waist level, but it was like lifting fifty-pound dumbbells.
“One more point and done,” said Sensei Johnson. He was kneeling on one side of the room with a dozen other black-belt assistants flanking him. Mike stood at one corner of the fighting square that was taped out on the floor. The referee stood at the opposite corner. Nobody was smiling, not even Diego.
“Yoshi!” the ref called, restarting the action after the brief pause taken after the scoring of a point. Diego shifted in and faked high with a ridge hand and then threw a straight front kick. Jimmy slipped the kick, but only just and counter-punched with a one- two pair of jabs that were slow enough to show everyone how tired he was. Diego didn’t
bother to block the punches, he just shifted away from them and chased Jimmy with a series of sliding roundhouse kicks that drove him to the far end of the square. Feeling trapped, Jimmy leapt to one side as Diego shifted from the snap-legged roundhouse kicks to a powerful side thrust kick. It crunched into Jimmy’s midsection and folded him in half.
“Point and match!” the ref said, but Mike brushed past him and caught Jimmy as he sagged to his knees. The boy’s face was turning purple and his eyes were bugging out of his head.
“Take a deep breath, kiddo. No…relax your chest, don’t tighten. That’s it…just breathe.” He raised Jimmy to his feet and helped him to the side where all the other orange belts knelt. No one said a word as Jimmy sank down onto his knees and tried to assume a formal posture. His color was bad and sweat pooled under his eyes like tears, his breathing sounded like wind blowing through a crack in an old fence.
“Sempai,” called Johnson. “Hai!”
“Hai!” Mike ordered the class to bow to Sensei Johnson, and then let them go.
They hurried out of the room toward the showers. Diego lingered for a moment, staring at the smaller boy, his face bright with exertion but troubled as well. Mike jerked his head in the direction of the locker room and the boy bowed and left leaving only Jimmy remained behind with the two instructors.
“For…forgot…” wheezed Jimmy.
“What’s that?” Mike asked, massaging the kid’s shoulders and back, encouraging the spasming muscles to relax.
“Forgot…to dance like a…butterfly.” He managed a weak rare grin. “Got swatted.” “Diego’s a bit out of your class.”
“No kid…I…I mean, osu!”
Sensei came over and knelt on one knee, his dark eyes as penetrating as always. “You did well.”
Jimmy forced a laugh. “I got murdered.”
“Losing isn’t the point, James.” He always called him James. Jimmy looked at him.
“You stood your ground,” said Sensei. “You fought back.” “I didn’t stand a chance with him. He’s too good.” “You’re not listening to Sensei,” Mike said softly.
Jimmy glanced at him and then back to Johnson. Sensei said. “I want you to hear me, James. This is important.”
The boy nodded.
“Diego is bigger, faster, stronger and older than you. He’s the best fighter among the lower-ranked colored belts, and he’s going to be a very fine black belt if he continues to train the way he has been.”
Jimmy nodded, but he knew all this.
“You are not the best fighter in the class. Even though you’re big for your age, you aren’t in his weight class. You can’t match him for strength and aren’t as fast.”
“Hai,” Jimmy said.
“So, why did I ask you to spar with him?”
Jimmy just shook his head, then remembered his etiquette and said, “I don’t know, Sensei.”
“Think about it,” Mike said.
He did think about it, but shook his head again. “I really don’t know, Sensei.”
A muscle bunched and relaxed at the corner of Sensei’s jaw. He said, “Have I ever asked you to spar anyone your own age?”
“Have I ever asked you spar anyone your own size?” “Iye, Sensei.”
“Haven’t you ever wondered why?”
In truth he had not. Her just did what he was told, fought who he was asked to fight, and took his lumps without complaint. He was used to getting hit by someone bigger and stronger anyway. Compared to what he got at home, this was nothing.
He said, “Iye, Sensei.”
“Right now, James, you could probably beat someone your own age and size.” “I’m not that good…”
“Don’t interrupt Sensei,” Mike admonished gently.
He tried to remember the Japanese for it, but couldn’t so he just said, “Sorry, Sensei.”
Johnson nodded, and continued. “You could take someone your own age and size…not because you are a great fighter. You’re not. Not because you have fast hands and feet. You don’t. Overall, your skills are barely adequate for your rank, which I believe I have mentioned a few times.”
“The reason I say you could win a fight against a kid your own age is because when you get hit you don’t cry, you don’t complain, you don’t even flinch. And, do you know what else you don’t do?”
“Win?” Jimmy asked. “No…you don’t stop.”
“That’s a big one, kiddo,” Mike agreed. “You don’t stop…and you don’t ever give up. You just keep fighting.”
Jimmy knelt there facing the two instructors and let the words echo in the room and in his head.
( 2 )
“Jesus Christ!” Heart cried. He was jolted by Sin’s sudden appearance and jumped involuntarily backward against Walker’s palms.
“Not quite,” Sin said. His white Noh mask shone like the sun.
“So it would seem.”
Heart tried to meet Sin’s level stare, but those silver eyes were too hot and they saw too much and Heart’s own eyes wavered and fell away.
“I’ve been looking for you,” he said softly. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you.” In a private tone, Sin said, “We will talk, Indigo, but later.”
Heart’s eyes flicked back up and there must have been panic or pleading in them, because Sin patted his shoulder. “Don’t worry, child, we will talk.” Then he raised his voice
and looked past Heart. “But right at this moment I have to stand and be in awe of this glorious presence that fills our humble world with light.”
“Yeah,” snorted the Traveler, “you have to be talkin’ about Kamala here and not me.”
“Not at all! I am standing in the glow of one of the Fire Zone‘s brightest lights.” “Oh, please,” Walker said, but he was grinning from ear to ear. He came and Sin drew him into his arms holding him as tenderly as a father holds a beloved child.
Watching this, Heart once again felt excluded by a demonstration of simple tenderness for which he had no real point of personal reference. Never once in his life had anyone, least of all his father, held him as tenderly as that. He shrank back against the bar and slurped bourbon from the glass he held in his trembling hand.
Holding both of the Traveler’s shoulders and regarding him soberly, Sin said, “We have much to talk about, Inconnu. Much and much.”
“Yes, indeed,” agreed the Traveler, who apparently accepted Inconnu as a name as easily as he had accepted ‘Xenos’ from the Bishop. It made Heart wonder just who the hell he really was. Then he thought that even if he knew, he probably wouldn’t understand.
He drank more whiskey.
Releasing Walker, Sin turned and kissed Kamala Jane lightly on both cheeks, then stepped back and regarded the fifth member of their quartet. Heart stood by and watched the confrontation between the Bishop and Mister Sin, and again he was struck by the startling similarity of their silvery eyes and the palpable energy they both projected. Yet, seen at closer quarters, he could also see the differences: if the Bishop was charismatic, then Sin was positively compelling; if the Bishop projected strength and confidence, then Sin seemed to define power and assurance in absolute terms. It seemed to Heart that the Bishop was the darkness between the stars –cold and remote and yet touched by light– where Sin was the fire of the stars themselves. He thought that, then cringed at such a fanciful and poetic a concept. Still, that concept would not fade from his mind.
The Bishop, who had taken a seat while Heart and the Traveler were engaged in their discourse, now rose to his feet, and he stood foursquare in front of Sin, a flavor of challenge suggested in the set of his shoulders and the thrust of his jaw. For his part, Sin was relaxed, apparently passive, at ease with both his surroundings and with the confrontation. Gradually and gracefully, Sin raised his hand and extended it toward his rival.
“As per the rules of our old game, my dear Bishop, let me congratulate you on your victory.” He paused, and with the slightest hint of irony added, “However temporary.”
The Bishop regarded Sin’s proffered hand with cool, hooded eyes. His face seemed stern, almost angry, and the air between the two of them crackled with a static charge.
Heart could feel the hairs on his arms writhe, and he was positive the scent faintly perfuming the air was ozone. Then the Bishop’s full lips curled into a rueful and admiring smile and he took the extended hand, meeting glove with glove. They shook firmly, and briefly, then their hands fell away.
“This is a night for celebration,” said Sin, “not for conflict.” “Yes, I seem to have made that point already once this evening.” “So let’s have a truce. No games between us, just for tonight.”
The Bishop considered for a while, and then gave a brief nod. “Very well, though you are spoiling the opportunity for some genuine fun. Still…still, I can see your point. A white flag until the concert.”
“Until after the concert.”
The Bishop sighed. “Oh, very well. Until after the concert. Come on, then,” he said, “let me buy you a drink. What are you having?”
“A Sorrow, I think.”
Turning toward the bar, the Bishop had only to nod to Brutal John, who had been watching the tableau along with the others. The bartender’s hands were already busy building the blood-red drink, mixing champagne, Chambord and tears in a tall, slender glass. He handed it to the Bishop who presented it with a mock flourish to Mister Sin, who bowed.
Fishwife, one of the bouncers, brought over Sin’s special chair and he sat; the others settled onto the high-backed stools round him: Kamala sat near him, Walker and Heart stood to his right, and the Bishop resumed his seat on Sin’s left, as seemed most appropriate. A few other Invited washed up against them like a gentle tide, forming as much a shelter from the rest of the crowd as they formed an audience.
“First,” announced Sin, “let’s have a toast. It has been far too many years since his fire burned here in the Zone, though I daresay we’ve all heard rumors and echoes, and how many of us have whiled away a cold winter night recalling Traveler’s Tales over a glass of wine at the Crippled Dwarf?” There were general nods, even from the Bishop. “My friends, I say you: Inconnu!” Everyone, even Heart, raised their glasses toward the Traveler, and there were cheers and laughs and the closest hands pounded him on the back. Everyone drank, and Brutal John was there to refill the glasses. As he had last night, Heart tried to see how Sin managed to sip his drink through the unbroken surface of his Noh mask, but the Traveler’s shoulder blocked his view.
The Traveler was smiling and shaking his head good-naturedly. “You do turn a pretty phrase, Sin ol’ buddy,” he said. To the gathered revelers he said, “To tell you the truth, as much as I love the road, it is good to be here.” He paused, then added with weight and significance: “To be home.”
This resulted in more cheers and applause and more backslapping. Heart hoped the man had a strong back for all the pounding he was getting. When things had finally settled down, Sin asked: “So what have you been doing, and where have you been?”
The Traveler shrugged. “Most recently I was in the Broken Lands.” Several people nodded at that, and the Traveler, unhelpfully did not explain for Heart’s benefit what that meant. “Before that, I was in Singapore. Jeez, what a place.”
“What on Earth were you doing there?” asked the Bishop, who had become profoundly bored of travel many years before.
“Believe it or not I was in a drinking contest.” “You’re kidding,” said Heart.
“What kind of drinking contest?” asked Sin. “And with whom?” “Yes, and what were the stakes?” added the Bishop.
“Well, some day I’ll tell you the whole story of how I came to be in China Charlie’s Famous New York Bar in Singapore, but that’s too long a tale for tonight. Remind me sometime.”
“Count on it,” the Bishop said.
“Well, the way it turned out, I was in an argument with this guy from Sydney on exotic drinks. The guy had been giving the bartender a hard time about just exactly how a Rare Mullens should be made.”
“‘Rare Mullens’?” asked Heart.
“Yeah, you probably never heard of it.”
Sin said, “It’s a bastard version of a Tom Collins made with single-malt Scotch.” “And,” said the Bishop, “lime juice, of all things.”
“Never heard of it,” said Heart.
“God,” said Kamala, “it sounds disgusting.”
“It is,” said Sin, the Bishop and Walker in unison.
“Anyway,” continued The Traveler, “it was turning into one of those macho pissing contests where neither one of us could back down because there were so many people watching. Yeah, yeah, don’t say it, Sin, yes, I do have my moments of being a male stereotype, especially when I’d been drinking Kowloon Boilermakers all night.”
Heart murmured, “Kowloon….”
“Tsings-tao beer and rice whiskey,” the Bishop said automatically. “Yikes.”
“Well, finally we got the bartender into it,” Walker said, “and he told us we were both wrong. Naturally we told him he was full of bees wax and—.”
“You told a Singapore bartender he was full of bees wax?” marveled Sin.
“Well, not in those words,” the Traveler said with a wave of his hand. “One tends to use the vernacular particular to the environment. Besides, there is a lady present, and it occurs to me I’ve already been too free with my colloquialisms.”
“Oh, please….” Kamala said, rolling her eyes. “I appreciate the courtesy, but I’m a big girl now, and I have heard rough language before.”
The Traveler looked at her. “If I told you that you’ll always be a little girl to me, would I wind up in an Emergency Ward?”
“Faster than it would take Brutal John to mix a gin and tonic.”
“Ah.” He grinned and gave a little wistful sigh. “Time does seem to flow too fast sometimes. Where was I?”
“You were defending my shell-like ears from harsh language.”
“Yeah,” agreed Heart, “and you’d just told this bartender that he was full of shit.” “Bees wax,” the Bishop corrected dryly.
“Six of one,” said the Traveler. “So he challenges us to a contest.” “Oh, really?” said the Bishop, brightening
“Yeah, he swore that there was no drink on Earth he couldn’t make. He said that if we could stump him, then he’d eat our bar tabs.”
“What if he won?”
“We’d have to scrub the entire bar from kitchen to toilet.”
“In a Singapore bar no less,” Sin observed dryly. “What fun that would be.” The Traveler gave him a sour look. “Yeah, and what fun it turned out to be.” “You mean you lost?” gaped the Bishop.
“I did indeed, though for my own sense of pride I want to tell you that it took six hours and more alcohol than I thought it was possible for a man to drink.”
“Good Lord,” said Sin.
“So, you ran out of challenges for the bartender?” asked Heart.
“Not just that, when we came up dry, he countered with one of his own, kind of a double-or nothing deal.”
The Bishop said, “One that neither of you knew?” “One that no one in the bar knew.”
“How can you be sure that he didn’t just make it up on the spot?” asked Sin. “Because the bastard had it in a book of rare drinks, which he showed us.” “Ye Gods.”
“What was the drink?” the Bishop wanted to know. “Well, it was—”
“Wait a minute, wait a minute” Heart interrupted, and they all looked at him. “This is pretty cool, so why don’t we try it out on Godzilla over there?” he said, nodding toward Brutal John, who was polishing a goblet and apparently staring off into space. “He’s supposed to be a mixology hotshot, isn’t he?”
They marveled at him, grins breaking out. The Bishop said, “Heart, I take back some of the things I’ve said about you behind your back. That’s a wonderful idea.”
Nodding agreement, the Traveler said, “No way John’ll know this one. I mean, I’ve been everywhere and I never heard of it.” He looked eminently pleased.
“John knows every drink ever made,” said Kamala Jane. “He won’t know this one,” Walker insisted.
“It’s worth a try,” said Sin, nodding.
“But, shouldn’t there be some sort of wager on this?” suggested Heart. Walker looked at him with interest. “Such as?”
“Well,” said Sin, considering, “if you win, I’ll procure for you a vial of elixir vitae from Bète, to take with you on the road.” “Excellent! What if I lose?”
“A story,” offered the Bishop. “If you lose you’ll have to give us one of your stories.
A particularly juicy one, too. Is that agreeable to everyone?”
They all nodded, even Heart, who did not yet know the value of a Traveler’s Tale. Walker raised his eyebrows at the Master. “Sin?”
He nodded as well. “An excellent bargain.” He eyed Walker shrewdly. “You actually think this is one John won’t know?”
“It’ll leave him gasping.” “You’re sure?”
“This is the quintessence of exotic drinks.” “I’ll bet he knows it,” said Kamala.
“Well, we’ll see.”
Sin nodded. “It’s decided then.” He signaled for Brutal John, who broke out of his reverie and wandered down toward them.
“What’s up, Boss?”
“John,” Sin began, “our wandering friend here thinks he has discovered a truly unique and exotic drink. He has wagered with us that you won’t know this singular concoction.”
Brutal John snorted back a laugh. “Dude, what do the words ‘as if’ do for you?” “Now don’t get too cocky, big guy,” said Walker.
“A drink I don’t know?” “Yep.”
“Yeah, and Snakedancer needs cha-cha lessons.” But he shrugged his massive shoulders. “Sure, I’m in.”
“Good man,” said the Bishop and told him the stakes. The bartender nodded his approval.
The Traveler stood up and placed both hands on the polished rail of the bar. He cleared his throat. “Okay, here goes, and it comes with a little back-story. In Tibet there is a small inn, huddled against the side of a remote mountain. The stream that runs by the inn begins somewhere high in the mountains, a place known only to a handful of pilgrims.
Now, the water from this stream is remarkably pure and naturally sparkling, and it’s so cold that you could burn your tongue on it. Beside the stream grow these small trees that produce a fruit found nowhere else on earth. The fruit can be fermented into a liquor and, when mixed with water from the stream, it becomes a golden liqueur of remarkable potency and indescribable taste. It’s called a—.”
“–A Lama’s Passion,” said Brutal John smugly. “Coming right up.”
The Traveler –and everyone else– stared at the bartender with a variety of expressions from shocked astonishment to frank disbelief as the bartender whipped out a pitcher of water and a small vial of amber liquid, measured and mixed the two, and served it in a plain ceramic cup.
“Uh….” said the Traveler.
Brutal John nudged the drink toward him. “Strictly speaking,” he said, “it’s a Lama’s Passion only when served in an undecorated temple mug. Add Tabasco sauce and a dash of bitters,” he continued offhandedly, “and what you have is a Corrupt Abbott. With a dash of absinthe it’s a Transcendental Nightmare.”
‘Uh,” the Traveler reiterated, then summed up his argument with: “Er….”
He turned helplessly to the Bishop who was laughing with big, soundless spasms and hanging onto Kamala’s shoulder. Sin was shaking his lowered head and chuckling quietly. Heart stood there, grinning and likewise shaking his head.
The Traveler snapped his mouth shut, thought about it for a moment, then said, “I may have to kill you, John.”
‘‘You are welcome to try.”
“I’ve been carrying that damned recipe with me for fifteen thousand miles, waiting for the opportunity to spring it on you.”
“Life can be a bitch sometimes,” the bartender said, unsympathetically, then he wandered down the length of the bar, whistling in time to the Music.
“He’s amazing,” said Kamala Jane, but she said it as if that were par for the course with him.
“Arrrggh!” gurgled the Traveler.
“I know the feeling,” said the Bishop. “Once, in a fit of pique, I invented a drink on the spot, making up a bizarre combination of ingredients in my head and plucking a fanciful name out of the blue, and dared Brutal John to make based solely on its name. He did.”
“I really may have to kill him,” the Traveler said again.
“Well, thoughts of murder aside,” said Sin, “I believe you owe us a story.”
“A Traveler’s Tale!” said the Bishop, dabbing at tears of mirth that had gathered in the corners of his silvery eyes. “Don’t you dare cheat us.”
“All right, all right, you miserable bastards,” he said, grinning. “What kind of tale do you want?”
“What have you got?” asked Heart.
The Traveler looked at him for a long, considering moment. “Let’s see. I could tell you about my voyage down the Amazon with a dead man for company, which, believe it or not, is actually pretty funny. Or, I could tell you about being hunted by Yeti for seven days and nights. Or the time I….”
“‘Yeti’?” Heart said. “You mean, like abominable snowmen?”
“Well, not really all that abominable. Kind of cuddly-looking, in a fierce, man- eating predatory sort of way. Or, we could talk about when I—”
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Heart interrupted, “I’m still stuck on this Yeti thing.”
“What about it?”
“I mean, are you talking a real Yeti?”
“Quite a few of them, but yes. Very real, and very foul-tempered, too. They stink, too.”
“Oh,” said Heart, “so these aren’t real stories, they’re made-up. Tall tales –that sort of thing?”
“Indigo,” said Kamala, “why do you keep interrupting him?” “What do you mean?” asked the Traveler.
“Yes, what is your problem, Mr. Heart?” asked the Bishop in irritation. “I’m just trying to understand what we’re talking about here.”
Mister Sin turned toward him. “We’re talking about tales of lnconnu’s adventures, Mr. Heart. What other tales do you think he would tell us?”
“But…not real tales.”
Walker nudged the Bishop, asking sotto voce, “Is he, like, slow or something?”
“Second night in the Zone,” the Bishop said simply. “You understand.” “Oh, right.”
“Wait a minute,” Heart began again, but Sin silenced him with a quick glance. “Hush, Indigo,” said Sin, “let him talk.”
“What other stories do we have on offer?” asked the Bishop.
“WeIl…there’s the one about the crystal city I found beneath the Mojave desert; or the tussle I had with Nazi vampires in New Jersey. No, wait, Sin, you were in at the end of that one, weren’t you?”
“Myself, Xander and Brutal John.”
“Right, so we’ll skip that one. Um, there was the time I took a voyage on a space ship, a kind of tramp cargo ship called the Whore of Babylon. Or, the time I was trapped in an underground military installation –place called the Vault– that was over-run with soldiers whose DNA had been spliced with that of a cockroach. That was fun, let me tell you. There’s the story about how Ghost and I played detectives and went looking for his girlfriend, Liz. Lots of John Woo gunplay and gratuitous sex in that one. Or, how about the time I helped recover the Spear of Longinus for Caster Bootey? Didn’t he use it to make a broom handle? Or, that little story about the two old ladies who keep the Holy Grail on their mantle and keep it filled with daisies. Do you want a funny story? ‘Cause I could tell you about Dingus O’Reilly and the lisping Leprechaun. If you want something on a grand scale, I could tell you a very weird story about Spiral Smile and the Fête of All Mankind. Brutal John was in that one, too, but that was way back when he was he was called Jasper the Whisperer.” He paused, thinking. “We could talk about Captain Cheron and my days as first mate on the Singapore Sling –that’s pretty recent, and it ties into my drinking contest. Something sad? There was the time Xander and I went looking for his sister.
Something philosophic? There’s a good story in the ride I took with Little Mo through Medieval Europe. Pick a topic.”
“Actually,” said Heart, “I’d kind of like to hear a true story, something you actually did.”
Walker looked at him, puzzled.
“Indigo, please…” Kamala said under her breath, embarrassed for him.
“I mean like a travelogue of some of the places you’ve really been to the things you’ve really done.”
The Traveler’s smile was quizzical. “Heart, what do you think I’ve been talking about?”
“Oh, come on—.”
“Look into my eyes, Dude, and tell me if they haven’t seen all those things, and more. Shit, Indy, these eyes have seen things that would make you cry for your mama.”
“There’s nothing on earth that could make me do that,” Heart said coldly.
The Traveler was about to respond but caught a tiny shake of Sin’s head. Instead he said, “I don’t need to make up stories. Life’s way too bizarre to require fiction…well, my life anyway.”
“Look,” said Heart, “I’m not trying to offend you.”
“No offense taken, kid. It’d take more than your disbelief to tick me off. Hell, I’ve been called a liar more times than you’ve had hot dinners.
“But you still insist you’re on the level.”
“Like I said, the world’s too strange a place to need to make things up.” “Even so, I find it a bit hard to swallow….”
“Caster wept!” cried the Bishop in exasperation. “What does it take to get you to believe?”
Heart shrugged. “Proof?”
“Proof is relative,” said Kamala. She was clearly annoyed now, her arms folded in irritation across her chest.
“Could you prove you woke up in your own house yesterday?” said the Bishop. “Could you prove you went to your job? Could you even prove you had your little encounter with the three men at that sad excuse for a bar you worked at?”
“Dammit! How the hell do you people know about that?” Heart demanded, panic rising in him and bringing anger with it.
“Oh, what does it matter? The point I am making is that no one can prove anything without some sort of videotape or eyewitnesses. Even then tapes can be altered and witnesses are notoriously unreliable.”
Heart stepped close. “No, you don’t get off the hook that easily. I want to know how you know about what happened in the bar yesterday.”
“And I’m not going to tell you,” snapped the Bishop, “now sit down while you still can.”
Heart took another half step, but the Traveler stopped him with a light touch on his chest. “Jesus, kid, your energies are so out of whack right now that I’m amazed you can even stand up.”
“Don’t you start in on me, too.”
“Indigo,” said Sin with the faintest hint of steel in his velvety voice. “Please, sit down.” He met Heart’s baleful stare and was unmoved by it. “Remember, this is a night for celebration, not for confrontation. Sit.” He gestured to the stool, and after a long, long time, Heart climbed back onto it, fuming visibly. Sin bent close. “Now listen to me. Since you came here last night, Indigo, you have seen wonders. Not commonplace spectacles, but true wonders. You crossed Boundary Street, Indigo, you encountered the Music. My God, you met Caster Bootey…in the flesh! Do you understand anything at all? Is it possible that you have no conception of what is happening around you, and to you? Surely you must accept that there are forces at work here that are powerful and rare, forces that are both overt and subtle. You are a leaf caught in a storm, or between storms I should say, and everything must seem strange to you. Many things are strange, and many of these things have nothing to do with you and do not require your belief or acceptance to exist, lnconnu’s tales among the rest.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“More germane to the point, Indigo, what are you willing to hear?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Sin leaned back in his chair and traced the molded lines of the lips on his flawless white Noh mask. “You cannot be as numb and as dense as you pretend. No one so obtuse could ever have found the Fire Zone.
“I didn’t find it,” Heart insisted. “It found me.”
“Which is exactly the same thing. The Zone would not have drawn you to it if you were as closed-minded as you want everyone to believe you are.”
“I’m not closed-minded.”
“Oh, brother,” said Kamala and turned away to get her wineglass refilled. Heart felt the pang of her disapproval, but he could not extricate himself from the drama even though it was of his own making…and he knew it. That fanned his anger hotter, but he clamped
his mouth shut so that he wouldn’t say anything that he could not take back, or do any damage he could not repair –if that damage had not already been done. Kamala’s back looked as straight and stiff as a rake handle.
The Bishop snorted and the Traveler sighed and folded his arms. Sin clucked his tongue in mild reproof. “Let’s catalog what has happened to you –and don’t you dare emote at me for knowing things I shouldn’t be able to know. If you possess even a jot of insight you will understand that I know what I choose to know.” He waited for Heart to rebut this, but he did not. Sin nodded with faint approval. “Twenty-four hours ago,” and here he paused to look at a silver wristwatch, “to the minute, actually, you were embroiled in a fight with three drunken fools. This is what you did for a living, up until last night: you defended so-called ‘exotic’ dancers from sexist idiots, you tossed drunks out into the street, and you were, essentially, a thug.”
“So I’ve been called. What’s your point?”
“Don’t you find that kind of a waste of your life?”
“Of course I do,” he snapped. “But maybe I couldn’t afford to go to college, and I don’t have any other salable skills other than the fact that I’m tough and I can fight.
Besides, the money’s good and….”
“Do you enjoy beating the hell out of people?” “Hell, no! Those idiots deserve what they get.”
“Who are you?” asked Walker. “The Masked Avenger?” “I don’t start the fights.”
“No,” said Sin, “but you revel in them.” “The hell I do.”
“Isn’t that what happened last night?” “No it was not!”
‘‘That you enjoyed the beating you were giving those men.” “You’re full of shit.”
“Especially the last one, Indigo. The big one. Terry, I think his name was. The one who looked like—.”
Sin tilted his head to appraise Heart. “Denying it does not make it a lie, Indigo.” Heart said nothing; he stood there and fidgeted, fists balled at his sides. “Oh, poor child,” Sin said, but it was said kindly and in no way mocking. “Who is it you were really fighting last night?”
“What do you mean? You seem to know everything already.”
“Yes, I do,” Sin said softly, “but do you?” “What?”
“Do you know what happened last night?” “Of course, I was there.”
“No,” Sin said, shaking his head. “No, I don’t think you were. I think when you were fighting that last man, you were somewhere else entirely. Or, perhaps, some when else.”
“I don’t understand what you’re getting at.”
“Indigo, a child could understand what I’m getting at. Why do you try so hard to pretend that you don’t?”
“You’re just trying to confuse me.”
“Hardly. I think you’ve managed to do that to yourself.”
Heart looked around at the others, but the Bishop was silently sipping his spring water, watching and waiting; the Traveler was leaning back against the bar, absently rubbing Critter’s haunch with his heel. In an aside to the Bishop, said so quietly that no one else could hear, the Traveler said, “Fixing this boy is going to really take some work.”
The Bishop gave him a warm smile and laid his hand on Walker’s shoulder. The other Invited stood around like store mannequins, saying nothing, watching with unreadable eyes.
“Now, shall we continue with our catalog?” said Sin. “Go ahead, you seem to be enjoying this.”
“Do I? How strange it would be if that were true. In any case, what happened next?
You had your confrontation with the three men –and particularly with the one man, Terry– and then ran out into the storm. Why did you do that?”
“You know why?”
“Because you killed the man?”
“What was I supposed to do? Wait around to be arrested?”
“I may not be a doctor of law, Indigo, but I would think that with scores of witnesses to a three-on-one attack, your act of self-defense would surely be considered justified, even imperative. The men were armed, were they not.”
“Yeah, with bottles and such.” “And a knife, I believe.”
“Knife? Nobody had a knife that I saw.”
“Mm,” was Sin’s only response to that, but he shot a quick, subtle look to the Traveler, who merely nodded. “Nevertheless, you were unarmed?”
“Bouncers aren’t allowed to carry weapons.
“So an unarmed man faces three armed drunks in a violent attack. The fact that you survived the encounter bespeaks a great deal of physical skill.”
“Even I’m impressed,” murmured the Bishop. “Sort of.”
“The fact that you killed one is, naturally, unfortunate,” observed Sin. “Violent death is always ugly.”
“But sometimes necessary,” added the Traveler.
Mister Sin inclined his head to acknowledge the point. “In rare cases. In other cases it is even unavoidable.”
“The cops might see it differently,” Heart insisted.
“They would probably arrest you and question you, and question the witnesses, and there would probably be some sort of hearing, and then you would be released without being charged and the whole thing would have been labeled as self-defense, a justifiable — though unfortunate– homicide.”
“Don’t be too sure.”
“For God’s sake, Indigo, stop trying to dance around it. What you did was simple self-defense.”
“It’s more complicated than that.”
“Ah!” Sin held up his finger. “Indeed it is, but not in the way you want us to think.
Not in the way, I might add, that you want yourself to think.”
“That’s supposed to make sense?”
“It is. You see, Indigo, the reason for your flight out into the storm was not because you expected to be arrested and punished for what you did, but because you think you committed an entirely different crime. A crime so heinous that you could not bear to be in the presence of its apparent evidence, and so, in blind panic, you fled.”
Silence crouched around Heart like a pack of wolves. He said, “What crime?” “You think that by killing that man, and by reveling in the passion of violence, that
you were becoming someone else.” He paused and those silver eyes burned holes in Heart’s mind. Sin reached out and touched his arm. “Indigo, you are not your father.”
Heart shoved his arm away and staggered back, but Sin rose and caught him again, this time in a grip Heart could not shake off. It was like being held fast in concrete.
Sin pulled him close and Heart was compelled to move toward the man, and try as he might to turn away, to not listen, he was likewise compelled to hear.
“Indigo,” Sin said again, “you are not your father.”
Heart glared at him, and in the polished silver surfaces of Sin’s eyes he could see reflected the face of the Mechanic, wet lips trembling with a horrible expectation.
“God damn it, Sin, leave me alone! Why are you doing this?” Sin held him, held him fast for nearly a full minute; his burning eyes never wavered, but Heart could only stand to look into those eyes for a few seconds. He could not bear either the distorted image of the Mechanic, or the projection of awareness that burned like twin laser beams.
Gradually, Sin relaxed his grip and let Heart stand free.
“Indigo…” Kamala said softly, but he didn’t look at her, or at anyone except Sin, at whom he directed his rage like the burning beam of a laser.
“You’re a fucking bastard, Sin.”
“Abusing me won’t engage my sympathy to your campaign of self-destruction, or win my support for your self-loathing. If you want to wage a hate war against yourself, Indigo, you will have to do so with an army of one; no one else is rallying to that flag.”
“That’s bullshit, and you know it. I’ve been attacked over and over again since I’ve been in this godforsaken place.”
“Oh, don’t act so innocent. You know what I mean. First there was the Music at his club,” Heart snapped, stabbing a finger at the Bishop, who contrived to look bored, “then there was something I could only describe as a werewolf….”
“Really? How singular.”
“What, you’re saying you don’t know about it?” Sin was silent. “I thought as much,” Heart sneered. “It was probably you who sicced that hairy reject from a horror movie on me.”
“Why would I do that?” This time Heart was silent, so Sin continued, reiterating his earlier question: “Indigo, why would I want to harm you in any way?”
“Well somebody damn well is!”
Sin’s level stare was eloquent, and he said, “Yes, I dare say somebody is; but I am truly amazed that you don’t know who it is.”
Kamala stepped close to Heart, forcing his awareness to shift from Sin to her. She stared up into his face, her eyes searching his, but she said nothing. Even so he felt her, felt
her energy and her emotion and it washed up against him like gentle ocean waves, powerful and inexorable and totally without malice.
After a few moments, Heart threw up his hands. “Awww — fuck it! Let’s just drop it for now, okay?”
“It’s your life, Indigo,” Sin said mildly. “I suppose it’s your call.” He turned and went back to his chair, and gradually, the others settled back into postures more appropriate to a convivial evening out. A quiet haze of conversation grew around them. Only Heart lingered in the spotlight of the drama, still locked into the forced awareness of Kamala Jane.
“Indigo,” she said softly, “you’re only hurting yourself.” “They don’t understand. None of you do.”
“Oh, don’t be obtuse, of course we understand. Do you think we’re all stupid?”
“What makes you think your problems are so damned hard to understand? Like I said last night, Indigo, you are not the only person who has been in crisis. A lot of people like you make it to the Fire Zone; a lot of the Invited were once just like you. Can’t you get it? That they do understand because they’d been where you are now?”
“Just listen for once in your life, try and listen. God, with you it’s hard to tell whether your ego is too vast or too small. Either way it closes you off.”
“Skip the psychotherapy, okay?”
“Indigo, neither my friends nor I want to hurt you. If anything, we would like very much to help you. You should be flattered that people like Mister Sin and the Traveler are even bothering with you. A lot of people go to great lengths to secure their patronage, and here you are fighting them every step of the way when they are generously offering their help.”
The heat of his stare burned lower and he turned away, not looking anywhere specific except not into her eyes. He could see Pandora’s Box reflected there and he did not want to look at that. “Can we just drop it?” he asked hoarsely. “I’m sorry for getting all pissy, but, please, can we just drop it?”
She sighed heavily, a mingled sound of frustration, disgust and perhaps some sympathy –but not as much of the latter as there had been a few minutes earlier. The difference was tremendously dispiriting.
He managed to get Brutal John to refill his drink and when he turned back from the bar, Kamala Jane had drifted a few feet apart and was deep in conversation with
Centerlok, her back stiff. Heart sighed, sipped, and listened to the ambient noise, moving as unobtrusively as possible back to his vacant stool.
Walker closed on him as he sat down, and said: “You okay there, Champ?”
“Yeah. Peachy.” Then, after a moment, he forced his voice to sound normal. “Look, I’m sorry for jumping on you like that. Things have been very weird for me lately.”
“No sweat. I’m not in the mood to tell a tale anyway. Maybe later, or tomorrow –so you kind of bailed me out.”
“What about your stories? You really want me to believe they’re on the level? Yeti’s and time travel and stuff?”
“Dude, you seem like a nice chap, but I’m not going to lose sleep if you don’t believe me. You will if you want to and you won’t if you don’t. It’s as simple as that. Personally, I don’t really care what you or anyone thinks.”
“But…it’s a lot to swallow, you have to admit.”
“And the Fire Zone isn’t? You seem to accept that it’s real, and that means you must accept the things that happen here. Some of them are far weirder than anything in my stories of the road.”
Walker smiled. “Yeah, well, I guess it’s easier to believe in the Zone when you’re here, it’s like constantly being high. You can accept polka-dotted lobsters and flying elephants if you’re high enough.”
“The Fire Zone isn’t a drug, though.”
“Not as such, but the level of perceptual distortion is about the same.” He chuckled. “The difference is the polka-dotted lobsters you meet here can actually bite you on the ass.”
“You know,” Heart said, “the reason I’m taking most of what happens in the Fire Zone in some sort of stride is that I don’t know if I actually believe in anything.”
“What do you mean?” Walker asked and then caught himself. “Oh, yeah. You could be in a coma or delusional, right?”
Walker looked at Sin, who shrugged. The Traveler said, “Sure. Anything’s possible.”
“So, if I think this is all happening in my head, then it’s easy to just accept it.” “The primary flaw in your argument,” Sin said mildly, “is that you keep getting
upset when I –or anyone else– tries to probe too deeply into what makes you tick. If you were just blithely accepting all of this as a coma-induced dream, then why lose your temper? What would be the point, beyond mere dramatics? I mean, why lose your temper at something that references your own mind and your own history? Tell me, Indigo, if we sprang from your unconscious, why would you react in defense of our probing?”
“Are you trying to confuse me again?”
“Not at all. You don’t need my help with that.” Sin turned away and began speaking quietly with the Bishop in a language Heart could not recognize.
The Traveler chuckled. “Look, Indy, take it slow for the rest of the night. We have a pretty cool gig about to start, so just put all your worries in that old kit bag and smile, boy, smile.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah…”
“Besides, I know the drill, too. I’ve been down a lot of bad roads, and you may choose not to believe me, but I’ve walked the same kind of road as you when I was a kid.
Same path, different scenery. So, yeah, I do understand. A lot of people understand. On some level, you probably do, too.” He finished his drink. “Want a dollar’s worth of advice?”
“Try giving yourself a break.” Heart snorted.
“Like I said, tonight’s a special event. Just for tonight, let the night be what it wants to be.”
“What if I can’t?”
The Traveler shrugged. “Then buckle yourself in and ride with it. Either way, Dude, it should be pretty interesting.”
“Like that old Chinese curse? ‘May you live in interesting times’? Like that?” “I guess we’ll see. Depends on how weird your karma is.”
“At a guess,” Heart said, “I think it’s probably completely bizarre.” “It is, and you should thank your lucky stars for that.”
Heart stared at him. “That’s a strange thing to say. What do you mean?”
If the Traveler was going to answer him, then the reply was cut off by the sudden flickering of all the house lights and the taped blare of imperial trumpets.
“Ah,” said Sin. “It’s starting.”
The house lights dimmed to half as all heads turned to watch. Above the crowd, the laser turrets grew dark and still; Oswald cut the sub-floor twinklers and the room was cast into still and ghostly shadows of pale blue-white. The only sound was the rustle of clothes and the scuff of shoes on the Lucite floor as the thousands of dancers gathered around a bandstand that was central to the whole, massive room. The bandstand was nothing more than a few thousand square feet of roped off nothing, but all eyes were drawn to it. There were no instruments, no amps, no mikes: just the deck raised only a few feet above the main floor, bordered by a plain rope barrier. Greysmonger, Fishwife and two other bouncers stood opposite each other at the four corners of the cleared space, arms folded, legs braced wide. They had traded in their fedoras and pinstriped zoot suits for nankeen trousers, blousy white shirts and red sashes. Each wore a crimson headscarf, and each had a flintlock pistol thrust through their waist sashes. Likewise, each held a broad-bladed cutlass, the flats of blades resting across their shoulders, the basket hilts gripped lightly in the fists of their crossed arms.
Heart looked at Walker, who was staring forward with rapt anticipation; Kamala was standing just behind Heart, though he wasn’t aware of it, and the lumpy Centerlok was next to her, his normally lugubrious face alight with anticipation. Sin was composed and relaxed beside them, but no less alert; next to him the Bishop was tracing the lines of his own smiling lips with a gloved forefinger.
Gradually the rustling of the bodies settled and stilled, and a full silence descended over the room. It held for a long minute, but as the seconds ticked by the silence became filled with a charged expectation. Suddenly there was a column of intense blue light, a laser as thin as a child’s finger. It stabbed upward through the floor at the exact center of the bandstand. The crowd gasped at the abruptness and intensity of the light, then stilled again as the beam grew more solid until it became absolutely opaque. Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, the beam thickened, not widening into a conical spotlight, but swelling outward as a uniform tube of coherent light. Heart looked up but he could not see the ceiling at all; nor could he see any prism on the floor that might have generated the light. Overhead he saw a vigorous splash of stars scattered generously across the overhead darkness, as if someone had torn away the entire roof and exposed the inside of Unlovely’s to the arms of the galaxy. The beam of laser light cut upward, seemingly, into the very stars themselves.
Heart bent close to Walker and whispered in his ear. “Great special effects.” Walker didn’t even look at him, but said, “What special effects?”
“Uh…” Heart said, but a sound cut him off. It was soft at first, but riveting all the same: a stirring note, somewhere near A-flat, but not quite true. Subtle and soothing, it filled the room like sonic incense, drifting gradually to each set of listening ears. Different people seemed to notice it at different times –the slower perceptions catching it only when it swelled slightly and jumped an octave. The cylinder of light grew brighter –not as if the actual illumination were more intense, but as if the laser itself was taking on a denser cohesiveness, like energy attempting to emulate the density of matter.
The note filled the room as the beam swelled, the blue radiance washing all other colors from Unlovely’s. The column of light was as thick as a tree trunk now, and even across thirty yards of distance, Heart could hear the thrum energy where the laser burned through more of the floor.
“Jesus…” Heart breathed and Walker lightly kicked him and mimed a: Shhhh! The beam changed. In its precise center a second laser appeared a spear of dark, swirling red, as red as freshly welling blood. It spiraled not up but down through the blue beam, looking like neon light seen through smoke, and little splinters of it flickered away into the harsher blue light and were atomized. A sizzling sound like a swarm of agitated bees filled the air, and Heart felt the hair on his arms twitching. Serpents of blue-white electricity writhed across the floor toward the crowd; some of the Guppies shied back, the Sharks looked scared and confused, but the Invited stood their ground, even when the electric snakes twisted their way up their legs.
The explosion caught everyone off guard. Except, perhaps, Mister Sin.
The beam of bright red light swelled within the blue column and when they both occupied equal space, the mingled tower of purple laser light stood for one full second, seething with power, and then it blew itself apart with a deafening crash of real thunder and a blinding discharge of splintering energy that knocked the whole crowd back a couple of paces. The reverberations of it rolled back and forth over the heads of the crowd like the echoes of distant artillery.
The world existed in a dark and silent dimension for a handful of shocked moments.
Then, he was there.
Lit by a small splash of light, Oswald Four was standing precisely where the laser column had stood.
He was smiling.
He was all in white: skin, clothes, hair and hat. Only his lips grinned redly at the audience; and the flat black lenses of his wraparound shades regarded his flock with dark humor. He leaned with both hands on a walking stick, and his loose suit rippled in the breath of a wind that blew only across the dance floor and nowhere else.
“Hi, kids,” he said, “miss me?”
There was renewed thunder, but this time it was applause. Oswald let it wash back and forth for a while then waved it to silence. “Now’s the time, children.” He waited until there was full quiet, and everyone strained to hear his silky whisper. “Now’s the moment.” His S’s were sibilant and silky.
He lifted one thin hand and a skeletal finger pointed up away to the heavens. Lightning flashed between the stars.
“Nothing you have ever seen before tonight will matter,” murmured Oswald Four. “Nothing you have ever heard is significant. Not now. Not after tonight.” He paused and his grin was unearthly. “Not anymore.”
His lips peeled back to reveal a bright barracuda’s smile: white face framing red lips framing white teeth.
His finger moved and traced a slow line across the brim of his Panama hat.
“Do you think you’ve seen the ultimate in musical performances?” he asked sweetly.
His mouth became a dismissing sneer. “You’ve seen nothing! Mummery and strutting.”
He turned slowly and faced another section of the crowd. “Do you think you’ve heard the Music at its very best?” he demanded. “You’ve heard nothing! Noise!”
He wheeled and crouched, pointing with his cane. “Do you think you’ve experienced the most profound magic of the Fire Zone?” he mocked. “You’ve merely slept and dreamed faint dreams!”
Slowly Oswald Four straightened. He snapped his fingers and he was instantly bathed in rich white light. “Do you think you have ever imagined what the Music could be when the gods themselves take up their instruments and play?”
He didn’t answer his own question, but merely shook his head in sad, mocking denial.
“My children, my friends,” he purred, “my beloved flock. I give you the next phase, the next Age of the Music!” He paused and ten thousand chests held breath and ten thousand hearts pounded. “Tonight we will all bear witness to the return of….” he drew it out and the crowd leaned forward, clinging to the sound of his voice, “Tortureship!”
His maniacal laughter rose even above the sound of ten thousand pairs of clapping hands.
“On percussion…I give you: Hero!”
Oswald Four drew thunder from the sky and threw it against the floor of the bandstand. It struck just left of center with a detonation that shattered the silence: a huge, single burst which was then fragmented down into dozens of smaller explosions of tympanis and bass drums, the gunfire roll of snares, the machine-gun-bursts of logs and bongos, the shattered-glass tinkling of bells and xylophones, and the final disruptive crash of a temple bell. Lasers mounted on pillars fired, and the beams of blue, red, and green light cut back and forth across the bandstand, clashing with bursts of mingled colors –and wherever the beams met they created, molecule by molecule, the sprawling drum-kit of Hero. A huge central station of virtual drum-pads hovered near a full jazz kit, banked on the left by resonant breakables and on the right by logs and tubes and bars and bells; a massive temple gong appeared behind the kit, supported by a lattice-work of glossy black anodized bars. In the last chop-chop of digitized laser creation, the control seat was filled with the gaunt, angular form of the Tortureship drummer. Like a skeleton sheathed in old wax paper, Hero hunched over his kit, his crossed bandoleers gleamed in the light, ivory- handled pistols slung low on his narrow hips, drumsticks clutched like knives in his knobby fists. He surveyed the audience from beneath the brim of his Pampas hat, pom-poms bouncing and dancing as he turned his head this way and that.
The audience went wild with applause, and Heart found himself pounding his hands together, too.
“On guitar,” Oswald Four yelled above the din, “I give you Catgut Johnny Mac–
VEEEEEEEEE!” Four lasers cut in from ground level and sliced back and forth, forming a four-sided box of solid white light that throbbed with raw energy. Tendrils of electricity licked out at the crowds, sparks danced in the air like fireflies. The lasers burned back and forth until they reached more than six feet in the air and then stopped, but the white oblong box they had formed remained. Immediately one laser reversed and began chopping back and forth, carving and gouging pieces out of one side of the box; chunks of light flickered away over the heads of the crowd and exploded into harmless showers of fireworks. As the laser cut its way down, it defined a shape in mid-air: a burning twelve- string guitar made from pure light. The second side began chopping down as soon as the first was finished, spitting off pieces of itself until it revealed an electric bass guitar, fused in a right-angle by its tip to the base of the twelve-string’s body. The third laser cut and slashed downward until it became a glowing six-string electric with a body like a headsman’s ax, likewise fused in the same manner to the bass. Then the fourth sizzled away to reveal a blues-tuned acoustic. Each of the guitars was fused at the top to the next going clockwise, and at the bottom with the instrument behind it, forming the four sides of a cage. They hung in the air with no visible means of support other than their own flaring energies. Oswald Four whirled and threw a bolt of lightning at the guitars, and the bolt arced over them and then plunged down inside the cage, exploding on impact with the floor. Thick smoke shot-through with red tongues of flame roiled up but dissipated quickly revealing the lean, tall figure of Catgut Johnny MacVee, all leather and denim and studs, rebellious hair hanging across his pallid face. He turned slowly as if unaware of the crowd’s wild applause, fingering each of the four guitars; then he raised his head and favored the masses with his killer’s grin. He bent and kissed each guitar, and as his lips touched them, they were transformed from coherent light into metal and wood and steel and fiberglass.
“On keyboards,” Oswald screamed through the cries and colliding hands, “J’Accuse!”
Two panels opened in the floor and a pair of pulsing laser cannons rose, rearing their ugly heads above the deck, nozzles facing one another across thirty feet of empty air. Heart gasped as the cannons fired, the beams precisely focused to collide in the middle ground. A huge ball of burning energy and superheated gasses grew out of the contact point of the two impacting beams, and as the cannons poured more power into their beams, the ball of energy grew larger, swelling like a miniature supernova until it dominated the whole thirty-foot span. It throbbed once, like the beating heart of a newborn god, throbbed again, and then it exploded. The cannons were vaporized, the crowd driven back, and as the flash passed, a gleaming central keyboard was revealed. It squatted there, exuding power, the keys shining like grinning teeth, the cables and wires glittering. Several smaller laser cannons rose up from the floor and as each one fired a single searing burst, another piece of machinery became manifest: a massive digital sampler, synthesizer controls, touch-pads crammed with dials and buttons, a computer monitor, equalizers and modulators. A carousel device appeared next, fashioned from a dozen separate and unique keyboards and all built onto a structure like a riverboat sternwheel: piano, organ, harpsichord, effects board, and on and on, revolving to lift each keyboard up to the crowd’s inspection and then turning to lift another and another. A sophisticated and alien computer rose like a slender rower from the floor, and as it reached full height panels opened and hydraulics hissed as a keyboard opened like the pages of a book. Oswald Four stretched out his hand and mimed playing the notes of a standard scale. With each movement of his fingers a key on the effects keyboard depressed itself, producing a single, unadorned note. When the first note was played a skeleton suddenly appeared within the cluster of machinery; with the second it was clothed in organs, the third sheathed it in muscles, the fourth in a network of nerves, the fifth in flesh, the sixth pumped it full of blood, and the seventh wrapped black barrister’s robes around it. The eighth key gave it life.
J’Accuse drew in a deep breath amid the sudden thunder of renewed applause.
“From the soul of light,” bellowed Oswald Four, “to the heart of darkness…Sweet Sidne!”
He held his left hand out and a beam of black light appeared, punching upward through the floor and vanishing into the eternal darkness overhead; he held out his right hand and instantly there was a beam of white light likewise puncturing the dark skies above Unlovely’s. The two columns of light rose above Oswald, towering into infinity like the pillars of heaven. He laughed like a lunatic and held his hands over his head, letting the cane fall away to evaporate into sparks. He held his hands high and wide and then clapped them together once. It was the sound of a world exploding, or perhaps being born. The floor shook, a few guppies screamed. Indigo Heart spilled his bourbon down the front of his shirt and when he looked around for a bar towel, he saw that Kamala was standing right behind him. Even in the midst of all this wonder and excitement he wanted to say something to her, to soothe the tensions between them, but she gave him a measured half a smile and handed him a paper napkin, then she focused her entire attention on the bandstand. Reluctantly, Heart turned back and rejoined the experience.
Oswald clapped his hands again and the pillar of black light bled away revealing the figure of a woman, or the negative of a woman: lines and curves and structure, width and height; but it was too intensely dark for any true appearance of depth, like a shadow cast on a wall.
Oswald clapped a third time and the pillar of white light bled away revealing the figure of a woman, or the burning representation of one. Lines and curves and structure, width and height; but it was too intensely bright to perceive any details.
Oswald clapped his hands once more and the positive and negative images came to life with spasmodic jerks. They stood upright, moving like mannequins brought to life.
They turned to face each other and with perfect, mechanical synchronization they began to move past Oswald Four toward one another. With each step their bodies moved with less of the machinelike jerkiness and more of a human sinuousness. The very air around them shimmered with distortions, and tongues of electricity licked once more at the fringes of the crowd. The revelers all tensed and edged back, fearing the collision of positive and negative energy –or matter and antimatter– that seemed imminent as the figures drew closer, step by step, to their opposites. Oswald clapped again and Hero, J’Accuse and Catgut Johnny MacVee all began to play, their instruments exploding with incredible sounds, their performance in perfect sync. A panel hissed open on the floor and a platform rose up, revealing dozen back-up singers dressed in sparkling jewels and flowing rags of brightly colored silk. Their voices joined in a sudden note, the opening of a droning chant, and as the positive and negative figures moved their note swelled, becoming flushed with power, rising to meet the decibel level of the guitars, the plain note forming a weirdly appropriate counterpoint to Catgut’s complex fingering, and it filled the spaces between Hero’s drum shots.
The black and white figures stopped a bare yard apart, regarding each other with featureless faces, frozen in identical poses.
The black one raised her hand and held it palm outward; the white one raised her hand and held it palm outward, hovering in the shimmering air barely an inch apart.
Lightning danced from the fingertips of one to the fingertips of the other.
Oswald clapped his hands a fifth and final time and instantly the outstretched white hands lunged forward.
There was a brilliant flash of mingled light: black and white and black and white and black and white….
Then a single piercing final detonation. Dozens of people fell or collapsed back into the arms of those behind them. Glasses shattered on the bar; cracks appeared on the floor and spread outward in a jagged spider’s web. Above the dance floor, stars exploded, worlds caught fire.
Then there was a sudden, deep and profound stillness. A silence so powerful that it left everyone in postures of shock, chests clutched tight around gasped-in lungfuls of air. Ten thousand pairs of eyes stared in frank astonishment, watching as the smoke of the explosion cleared.
She stood there, her long legs caressed by the fading tendrils of smoke, her chest heaving, sweat glistening on her face and shoulders. She stood there and looked at the gathered thousands.
Hair black as a magpie’s wings; her skin white as arctic snow. Lambent eyes flashed green fire; full red lips smiled a seductive smile. Skintight green leather sheathed her from breasts to thighs, and a gleaming silver guitar was slung like a machine-gun from one shoulder.
Sweet Sidne smiled at the crowd. And the crowd went wild.
( 1 )
Sweet Sidne held her arms out, hands wide, as the waves of applause rolled toward her and over her, and over the rest of the band, washing all of Tortureship with abject adoration. With a wicked little laugh, Oswald Four vanished in a puff of smoke. The singer snapped her fingers and a small port opened in the floor allowing a slender metal pole to rise, bringing the microphone up to within kissing distance of her smiling lips. She licked those lips with a pink tongue-tip.
“Well now,” she murmured in her soft Southern voice, “are ya’ll here to see li’l ol’ me?”The audience laughed, some nervously. Indigo Heart exhaled the breath that had been boiling in his lungs since the band had first begun to take the stage. He laughed, too, and mopped perspiration from his face, remembering dancing with her last night at Torquemada’s. Then he shot a glance at Kamala Jane and felt an inexplicable and silly flash of guilt, as if remembering the erotic urges he had felt while dancing with Sweet Sidne would offend Kamala. It made no sense, but the feeling persisted until J’Accuse tinkled some notes on a keyboard to quiet the crowd. There was a hungry, craving silence as everyone pressed forward to attend Sweet Sidne.
“I don’t know what ya’ll were expecting,” she said with a smile as unassuming as any Georgia Miss, “but this ain’t it.” Mischief danced in her dark eyes. With one hand she stroked the long neck of her guitar, her fingernails scratching along the strings, sending a caterwauling shriek through the speakers. “We want to do something a little different tonight,” she said. “It may start a little slow, but ya’ll just hang in there.” That smile was totally disarming. Sweet Sidne turned away from the crowd and faced the band. “You boys ready?” They nodded gravely. “Ladies?” she asked of the choir, and they nodded as well.
She looked over her shoulder at the crowd, a coquettish gesture that was both mocking and incredibly provocative. “Ya’ll ready?”
The crowd cheered.
She turned back to face the band again, and stood there for a moment, adjusting the hang of her guitar on its sling. Then without the pause of a single additional second, she punched her right fist up toward heaven. Hero slammed his sticks down on the snare with tremendous force and the impact sent shock waves slamming out into the crowd. There were gasps and cries. Hero launched into a furious drum roll that started harshly and quickly gathered force and muscle; he elbowed a gong and the deep, booming roll turned into a sound like the crash of a heavy ocean wave. The rolling echo eased for the smallest part of a second, then turned and gathered power again, rising upward to a higher crest of pure impacting sound before crashing down once again. He kicked down on the base drums and sent another percussive wave smashing down on the crowd, and with this third wave the house-lights dimmed to an ominous red –the livid blood red of a storm gathering at dawn. Another wave crashed through the crimson air, and Heart swore he could feel the sting of cold salt water on his face. He brushed his hand across his cheeks and it came away wet.
“What the hell…?” he muttered, and as he said this a little salty trickle wormed its way between his lips and onto his tongue. His heart began pounding with the insistent rhythm of the drums.
Another, larger wave of sound hit and the crowd staggered backward as if a real wave had struck them. They skittered against one another, clawing for balance as the undertow from Catgut Johnny’s heavy electric bass pulled them forward again. Between the pounding of the drums and the inexorable pull of the deep bass, the crowd was buffeted and tossed on a sea of pure sound.
Sweet Sidne laughed and punched her other fist toward the sky. Lightning burned and arced between her upraised fists as if they were electrodes. J’Accuse flicked his fingers across a keyboard and the synthesizers cried with the plaintive calls of lonely gulls.
Another stroke of his keys suggested the angry squeal of terns racing for their rookery before a stormy tide.
Heart felt the floor tilt under his feet, first this way and then that, heeling over as if he were standing on the deck of a storm-tossed ship. His excitement bordered on real terror. Already his shirt was pasted to his chest with salt water; his hair was whipped by winds that seemed to blow outward from the speakers. He turned to the others, and though they had likewise been splashed with water, the stiff winds did not seem to be tossing them. Sin lounged back against his chair, and his eyes were alight; the Bishop was applauding.
The Traveler stood wide-legged, arms folded across his chest, laughing and nodding. The Bishop, sensing Heart was looking at him, raised his fist and licked salt water from the knuckles of his gloved hand. Kamala only glanced briefly at him, but her face was unreadable.
Something whisked passed Heart and he dodged involuntarily to one side –then gaped as he saw a seagull. The gull wheeled and squawked before vanishing in a sparkle of dusty neon vapor.
The roar of the waves grew rapidly louder, they became far more violent as Catgut Johnny switched from the bass to his electric blues guitar and sent up a searing riff. The notes were spaced, stilted, less a musical progression than sliced-off pieces of screaming voices. Wails and cries and laments and shrieks, agonized bellows and screams and screeches all filled the air, howling at the crowd from the speakers like the terrified ululations of the drowning damned.
Above it all rose the mocking laughter of Sweet Sidne.
She stroked the neck of her guitar and the audience beheld her in all her dark majesty. Tentacles of boiling steam rose from the floor and fought in the air above her like titanic serpents. The great, vast leviathan of sound that was the Music towered above her, but it was clearly in thrall to the gorgeous demon that was Sweet Sidne.
With maddening slowness, she took a silver guitar pick from her décolletage. She stroked the pick across her lower lip as she surveyed the effect of the Music on the crowd.
“Now,” she murmured, and somehow Heart heard her over the crash of waves, the cries of the ghostly gulls and the wails of the damned. “Here it comes,” she whispered. “Oh, boy, here it comes….”
Those words stabbed Heart in the gut and he suddenly felt that he was in deadly danger. He wanted to turn, to run, to flee this madness, but—
Sweet Sidne strummed the pick down, once.
Suddenly there it was: the Tortureship! Twenty thousand tons of it, rising from the steaming darkness, cresting a foaming wave and lunging at the audience. Amid the screams and panicked scuffle of feet, it drove at them, a juggernaut of otherworldly force. As the jagged bowsprit ripped upward above the crowd, the crimson light struck bloody splinters from the halberd-bladed sweeps that were thrust through the row of gunports from the bobstay piece all the way along to the keel. Three twisted masts sagged away from their lines, gory tatters of sails flapping behind them. The great mainsail hung in shreds, the ragged un-sheeted corners flapping in a stiff icy wind. The jibsail slouched and rippled lifelessly on its stays, and a corpse hung from the lofty foretopgallant yard. Shattered and shot-holed lifeboats swung on frayed lines, and as the ship reared above Heart, he could see splashes of blood all along the taffrail and down along the hull, the weed-covered copper bottom painted with arterial sprays of gore. The ship plunged, and Heart could see that the wheel was held in the dead hand of a corpse lashed to it with several turns of a hairy rough hemp; the corpse’s jaw sagged open and the wail of a doomed soul rose into the wind where it was whipped away by the insistent guitars.
Impossibly, the ship hung there in the air, filling the vastness of Unlovely’s with its fell presence. Fierce winds blew through its rigging, waves slapped against its hull –waves which originated from thin air and vanished almost instantly into nothingness. The Tortureship rose and fell on the chop of an invisible but heavy sea, and time and again it seemed to lunge toward Heart, who shrank back against the bar, shielding his face with his arm and he screamed with the thousands of other Runners and Refugees, Sharks and Guppies. The Invited –if he could have taken a moment away from his shock and terror to observe them– were stunned, but they did not fear this apparition.
The ship rose through the hellish glow, rising ponderously and slowly, but with grim inexorability, as if nothing –not even death– could stop it from sailing on down the river Styx to Hell itself. In the few gunports that had not been converted to the use of the long sweeps, the black mouths of twenty-four pounder canons gaped at the crowd. Once more the ship turned toward Heart’s side of the bar, and he was driven back by a wave of force and nearly knocked to his knees. As it passed again, he could see ghostly white faces leering at him through ragged shot holes punched through the ship’s wooden skin. The ship passed again, and Heart wheeled to watch it go. On the stern, just below the smashed-in gallery windows, a man was crucified by spikes driven into both feet and one hand; the unpinned hand, trailing blood from where it had ripped from the spike, beckoned to Heart.
Heart froze in place and in time, stilled to immobility by the sheer horror. The crucified man was himself.
The familiar –and yet horrific– face turned toward him as the ship rose higher and higher into the darkness of the starlit sky.
“NO!” The cry was ripped out of some deep part of Heart’s soul.
The crucified man laughed. As Heart looked again, the dying man was not his own battered body but the powerful, laughing image of the Mechanic. He laughed with the voice
of a thousand madmen, a horrible and rending cacophony of humorless, mocking mirth. “Damn you!” cried Heart, unmindful of the other people around him. “God Damn
you to Hell!”
The Mechanic laughed louder, then whispered: “Too late!” The whisper came warm and wet against Heart’s left ear. Heart screamed and whirled and the Mechanic was there behind him, his greasy clothes smeared with blood, his face grinning around torn lips and broken teeth, his head sagging to one side on a loose and shattered neck. Heart balled his fists, ready to strike out, but the Mechanic moved with lightning speed: he lunged forward, palms outstretched and shoved Heart backward, laughing a mad, hateful laugh as he did so.
Heart was propelled backward, his heels skidding as he flailed his arms; he flailed his arms as he fought for balance, and lost. Winds and salt spray lashed at him and he fell backward toward the bar rail, falling toward the Bishop and Walker and Sin….
He never struck them, nor did he collide with the bar rail.
He fell, and continued to fall. The crimson glow of Unlovely’s burned itself into blackness as he fell.
And fell. And fell….
In desperation he reached out to try and grab Mister Sin’s arm… but instead his grasping, desperate hand closed around the dripping deck rail…of the Tortureship.
( 2 )
Beneath him the ship bucked as a heavy roller smacked it abaft the beam; the bowsprit trembled and somewhere a yard cracked as the heavy, sodden sail swung dangerously loose on slack stays. Heart lost his grip of the rail, fell to the deck and slid fifteen yards on the wet planking. A wave lunged up higher than the deck and dropped hundreds of gallons of water on him, pinning him down and soaking him to the bone.
Heart ended his slide right at the edge of the broken section of taffrail, once more reached out and desperately caught hold of a section of splintered wood, but the action was only just in time. His head and shoulders hung out through the break in the rail and he looked down in horror. Below him was nothing but cold water and death. There was no sign of Unlovely’s.
He was lost in the Music, trapped aboard the Tortureship, with a dead man at the wheel and the ship heading into the teeth of a murderous storm.
( 1 )
Indigo Heart spent the next few minutes screaming. Fear and rage and outrage and indignation and sheer, mindless terror combined within him to form a choir of total panic, the various internal voices harmonized into a single, nearly continuous scream which rose into the wind and became part of the grander chorus of the damned.
In grim company with the ghosts of the doomed, Indigo Heart sailed on aboard the Tortureship into the vastness of the storm.
( 2 )
When his throat was burned to a whisper and his muscles near to failure with the sustained effort of spasmodic tension, Heart collapsed onto the wet deck, his right hand still locked in a death grip around the shattered rail. He spent several long minutes cursing Mister Sin, the Bishop, Walker and everyone else he had ever met to everlasting burning Hell.
Then, weeping and weak, he passed into darkness.
As he slept, eyes watched him. Hidden eyes, eyes he would not have seen even if he had been awake and alert. There were several pairs of eyes watching him. One pair was dark and as deep as space; one pair was aswirl with complex greens and blues and purples. Another pair of eyes were misty sea blue; and one pair of eyes burned with an infernal red, exuding real heat. Two pairs of the eyes watching him were a strange silvery color, like globes of platinum.
They watched him as he slept, saw the hitch and jerk of his chest as he labored to breathe beneath the crushing weight of shock; saw the sparkle of tears on his slack cheeks.
The eyes watched, and the watchers waited for the game to begin.
( 1 )
When Jim Smith was thirteen….
Diego came in like a freight train, all mass and muscle and speed. He lashed out with two blindingly fast backfists and as Jimmy tried to dodge away, Diego chased him with a sliding side thrust. Jimmy felt the kick connect, but he was already moving away from it and the kick did little more than push him back. Instantly Diego dropped the kicking leg and leapt after Jimmy with a jumping side snap.
The kick missed Jimmy’s ribs but smashed into his hip, driving him further back and down. The boy felt himself collapsing and knew that if he went down wrong he’d bash his head on the floor. The thin mats on the dojo floor were little protection against a hard drop, so Jimmy tucked his chin down, slapped the floor to break his fall. Diego rushed him and tried to stamp down, a technique he’d used on Jimmy three times before in other matches. It was one of a thousand techniques Diego had used successfully on Jimmy over the last five years.
This time Jimmy saw the stamp coming and even as he hit the ground he swept his right leg around in as vicious a roundhouse kick as he could manage, catching Diego right above the ankle on the stamping leg. Diego’s foot was swept violently to one side and the force of his stamp couple with the sudden and total removal of his support sent him crashing to the ground. He did not fall as well as he should –his only flaw was his breakfall skills. He fell hard and the hard mats slammed the air out of his lungs. Jimmy rolled over and chopped him on the back of the neck, once, twice…
Jimmy’s hand froze even as his arm chambered for the third chop.
“Point, match!” Now the whole room froze. Jimmy and Diego lay sprawled on the floor, still locked into the moment between the second and third strike, unmoving.
Diego stared with wide-eyed astonishment at the referee, then turned slowly to face Jimmy. His swarthy face glowered at Jimmy while they disentangled themselves and got slowly and carefully to their feet.
“Bow,” ordered the referee curtly, and they faced each other and bowed. Diego’s face was a harsh mask as they bent toward one another in the ritual salute. Then they turned and bowed to the referee and then to Sensei Johnson and Mike O’Hanlon, who were kneeling with the other black belts. Mike was smiling, his gargoyle face beaming with pleasure; beside him, Sensei was nodding, a faint smile on his lips.
“Osu!” was all Sensei said. An acknowledgment. The other students in the class applauded, and it was the very first time Jimmy had ever basked in the approval given to a winner. He felt strange. Mike dismissed the class and everyone rose and scattered.
Jimmy turned back to Diego. The older boy’s face was stern and serious and he stared at Jimmy for a long time.
“Look, man,” Jimmy said, “I’m sorry. I just got lucky. I know it was a cheap shot and all…”
Diego stepped closer, looming above Jimmy. He looked down at the younger boy. “No it wasn’t,” he said, his face still hard. Then he held his hand out, palm up.
Jimmy stared at it for a long five count, then numbly slapped him five and took five in return. Diego had a half smirk on his face as he turned and headed for the locker room.
Across the room, Sensei watched the interplay while pretending he was straightening items on the class shrine. His eyes followed Diego as he stalked toward the locker room, and he nodded approval; then he turned back to where Jimmy still stood in frank amazement. “Osu,” he murmured.
( 2 )
He woke to the sound of the Music.
Lifting his head was like jacking up a truck, but somehow he found both the strength and the will to do it. He pried open one cautious eye and peered about.
The debris-littered deck of the ship stretched away for several yards, but waves were no longer leaping up and crashing down on the planking. The pools of water on the deck eddied back and forth with the roll –a much gentler roll– of the ship; occasionally thin streamers of dirty water made their way to the rails and into the scuppers. Sunlight beat down on the deck, steam rose in shimmering waves from the damp wood, and there was the lazy plop-plop of water dripping from the rigging. Heart squinted up and saw a patchwork of blue skies and puffy white clouds, and when he turned toward he sun he saw the faintest bittersweet frown of a rainbow stretching toward the horizon.
He lay there, aching in every part of his body, and listened to the Music. It was so faint, so uncertain that it might have been the wind in the rigging or the song of the water hissing past the bow; and the more he strained to hear it the more elusive it became until, finally, it was gone. Only the soft moan of the wind lingered above the ambient creak of the ship as it rolled on the swell. In the distance he heard the faint cry of a gull, a sound so desperately lonely that once more he felt the burn of tears in his one opened eye.
Heart squeezed open his other eye and slowly, painfully sat up. His body felt like he’d spent a few hours in the tumbler of an industrial dryer.
“Man, I’m getting to hate this shit.”
Neither the salty breeze nor the sunny sky answered him.
Heart stood, bracing his legs wide to cope with the mild roll of the ship, not for fear of the ship’s movement knocking him off balance, but in acknowledgment of the dizziness that swirled around in his sick head. After a few moments he turned and leaned on the broken rail, peering out and down into the green water that humped and swelled along the side. Again he thought he could hear the echo of the Music, but once more it flitted elusively away. For a brief, insane moment, Heart readied himself to plunge over the rail and down into the swirling, foam-flecked water. Take a chance, he thought wildly. Maybe
that’s really Unlovely’s down there, and all of this is just another fucking illusion. Just a
fever dream. Maybe….
He let the thought drift away and stood there, gripping the rail, waiting for the blind panic to ebb away.
“No,” he said. “No.” But just what that declaration was in denial of he had no conscious idea.
He stepped away from the rail and looked around the ship. In daylight, under clear and untroubled skies, the ship looked less threatening, it’s fell appearance replaced by one of mere disrepair and neglect, or hard use and loss. He’d been on ships before, even tall ships similar to this one, on cocktail cruises and sightseeing tours out of New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Cape May. Those ships had felt very alive, even if the vitality was the affected verve of holidays and tours; but this one felt quite dead, like a spent battery. There was not even the dull, ominous energy of a tomb about it. He cast around, but all he could sense was…nothing.
It’s all just an illusion, he thought again.
A small wave hit the ship side-on and tendrils of foamy spray reached up and slapped his face in a cold and stinging argument for the reality of the moment.
“This can’t be happening,” he told the morning breeze.
His mind edited that comment into a question: Can this be happening?
Suddenly he threw his head back and yelled into the wind: “This is not happening!” “Oh, but it is, my dear Heart,” said a voice borne to his ears on the shoulders of the wind.
Heart whirled, but even as he did so he knew that there was no one behind him. No one anywhere on the quarterdeck; and when he looked up, there was no one on the poop. Not that he had expected there to be. He did not believe that there was anyone at all aboard the ship. So where had the voice come from? Had there even been a voice?
“Who are you?” he asked the wind.
The breeze blew past him, and there was a flash of heat in it. “Oh…just a nodding acquaintance.”
The voice seemed to always be coming from behind him, but whenever he turned there was nothing there.
“Why are you doing this to me?” Heart demanded.
“Now…why do you think?” the voice responded in a silken, almost playful whisper. “I don’t fucking know, you asshole! What the hell have I ever done to you? Why are you trying to hurt me? What have I ever done to hurt you?”
“Oh, Dude, you are so off base it’s actually funny. Sonny-boy, you couldn’t hurt me if you had a nuclear bomb. Jeez, what an idea.” The laughter of Heart’s unseen antagonist filled the air.
“Then why are you doing this?”
“I’m surprised you don’t know,” said the voice, then as an afterthought added: “Mmm, actually no, I’m not surprised.”
“Why don’t you show yourself?” Heart growled. “Instead of hiding behind some lame-ass magic trick?”
“Oooo, temper, temper.” “Fucking coward.”
Another laugh floated by on the mild breeze. “My dear fellow, are you trying to coerce me into a confrontation?”
“Whatever,” Heart said. “Pussy.”
The laughter came again, stronger and in some indefinable way clearer. Heart turned again toward the bulky capstan. A man sat there, legs crossed, cleaning his nails with a slender silver dagger. Heart stared at him, his mouth working like a fish. He recognized the man, but couldn’t put a name on the face. The man wore a wine-colored velvet shirt over black velvet slacks that clung to his thighs. He wore lots of rings and pendants and four silver hoop earrings in each ear and they glittered through the wild black curls of his hair. His heart-shaped face was handsome in a vague, threatening sort of way, and he had a peculiar smile playing over his lips.
“I know you,” Heart said, taking a threatening step toward him. “I’ve seen you around.”
“And I,” the man answered archly, “have seen you.” “Who are you?”
The little man stood and brushed invisible lint from his immaculate shirt. Rings glittered on every finger and one especially caught Heart’s eye –it was on his left ring finger, and it burned like a band of crimson fire. It was almost too bright for Heart to look at, and he could feel the warmth of its reflection on his face. An Invited? Heart thought, and knew somehow that he was both right and wrong about that.
“Please allow me to introduce myself,” the little man said, “I’m a man of wealth and taste.”
“Oh, very funny.”
“I’ve been around for a long, long t—.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah… I think I remember you now. You were sitting at the end of the bar when I was talking with Jellicho and Kamala Jane. What did Jellicho say your name was?”
“Minor!” Heart snapped his fingers. “You’re Owen Minor.” “Ah, you’ve found me out.”
“He called you the Wolf-man, or something.” “Wolverine.”
“Yeah. What are you on some kind of X-Men gig? Where’re your claws?” “Oh, dear me, I don’t think you’d ever like to see my claws. Heavens no, Mr. Heart.”
Taking another step, Heart said, “So, what the hell’s this all about? Why are you doing all this crap to me?”
“What crap would that be?”
“The werewolf, my father’s ghost, this…stuff,” he waved his hand around. “How the hell are you doing it? What is it? Holograms? Hallucinogens? Some sort of hypnosis?”
“No, I’m never that intentionally alliterative. I’m just screwing around with reality.
Quite simple really. It’s all in the wrists.”
“Okay, don’t tell me how, then, I don’t give a fuck. At least tell me why.”
Owen Minor pursed his lips considering, and made a low Mmmmmmm sound as he thought about it, then said: “Nope. Sorry, can’t do it.”
“Why the hell not?” “It’d spoil the fun.”
“Hate to break this to you, pal, but I’m not having any fun.”
“Uh, no, I meant it would spoil the fun for me. Sorry, I should have made that more clear.”
Heart took another step; he was now almost within range for a quick lunge and grab. He towered head and shoulders over Minor; but if the little man was aware of the imminence of Heart’s threat, he gave no sign of concern.
“Why would it be fun for you to do this to me? What possible enjoyment could there be in torturing someone?”
“Am I torturing you? I hadn’t realized.” “What would you call it?”
“Just some fun and games. “What’s the point of it all?”
Minor brightened. His eyes were a feral red that sparkled as fiercely as the crimson band on his finger. “Ah! Now that really would be telling.”
Heart took a final step forward, his shadow falling across Minor’s chest and face. “Look, you little piss-ant, I’m going to ask you just one more time, and then I’m going to get creative about this.”
“Creative? God, I wish you would.” Minor shook his head. “It really would make things much easier.”
Heart reached for him with the kind of speed you’d never expect in so big a man. His hand darted out and closed around the front of Minor’s velvet shirt. He jerked him forward and bent low until they were nose to nose. “Look, you miserable little prick….”
“You’re going to tell me what’s going on or I’m going to spend the next couple of hours finding new and clever ways of kicking your ass.”
“God, I love macho posturing. It’s so…oh, what’s the word I’m looking for? Hmph, oh well, it’s gone. Brain like a sieve. Anyway,” he said, smiling up into Heart’s scowling face without the slightest hint of fear, “since you are so intent on forcing the answers out of me, let me at least throw you a bone.” He stood on his toes and shifted his head to one side to speak into Heart’s ear. Pitching his voice into a stage whisper he said, “The answer is as plain as the nose on your face.”
He then tweaked Heart’s nose and vanished, literally, in a puff of smoke. The smoke smelled faintly of brimstone, though that bon mot was lost on Heart.
Heart stood there, his fists clenched around emptiness. He held the posture for a good long time. Just standing there. Fuming. Blinking. Breathing. Grinding his teeth.
“Bastard,” he snarled.
Eventually he relaxed his hands and his posture –though not the bunched muscles at the sides of his jaws– and turned around in a slow circle, just to make sure that he was quite alone.
He was. Except for the small China tea-saucer sitting on the edge of a nearby hatch cover. Heart stared at it. It was plain and white, thick and durable like crockery from a roadside diner. On it were two fortune cookies.
He spent a full minute just standing there looking at the cookies before he even reached out to touch them and test their reality. He ran a dry tongue over dryer lips, and then picked up the first cookie. It weighed about what a fortune cookie should weigh. He sniffed it: it smelled of lemons and sugar. He tasted the crenellated edge with the tip of his tongue. All as it should be.
“In for a penny,” he said, trying to sound relaxed and casual despite wanting to scream; and broke it open. The cookie was fresh and broke easily, bringing forth more of the lemony aroma. He sorted through the crumbs and retrieved the little slip of paper.
Unlike regular fortune cookies he’d known, this one was as bright and bloody a red as Owen Minor’s shirt. He unfurled it and read the printed message:
“Wise man say: The Lord helps those who help themselves.”
“Pithy,” Heart muttered. He reached for the second cookie and likewise broke it open. On the same red message paper was the adage:
“Physician, heal thyself.”
“God,” he said aloud, “even the snack food around here is cryptic.” He balled the messages up and had his hand raised to pitch them over the side and into the wind, then stopped, thought better of it, uncrumpled and smoothed the little red slips. He considered it for a few sour moments and then tucked them into his shirt pocket.
He weighed the handful of crumbled cookies, looked out to sea for a long time, and then ate the cookies.
Five minutes later the storm hit again.
( 1 )
The ship shook and slewed around in the suddenly violent water, broaching as the current and the waves and the wind each tried to yank the vessel in different directions. Side-on to the wind, the ship heeled dangerously to starboard; the masts quivered and the ragged drapery of tattered sails, split lines and swinging blocks rattled and flapped overhead. Heart was slammed against the coaming, his back slap-crunching against wet wood; both heels skittered out from under and he went down on his rump with a painful jolt. He looked up just in time to catch a face full of frigid seawater.
That fast he was up, clawing at the coaming and forcing friction out of leather soles and slick decking. The storm was suddenly immense –it was a huge, black monster rearing up out of the South, stretching vast arms of roiling blue-black clouds; it’s roar was the scream of fierce winds that whistled and wined through what rigging still clung precariously to the spars and yards. The monster picked up huge handfuls of the ocean and dropped them on the decks, and Heart had to stagger through the dark green foam-veined waters, pulling himself from handhold to slippery handhold. Within seconds after the storm appeared it had swelled to near hurricane force. Tons of water smashed down on the decks or crunched against the hull, making the ship shudder and moan for any small mercy. There was a sharp CRACK! and Heart stared up in horror as the mizzen broke just above the cross-trees and bowed in defeat toward the deck, dragging with it the mizzen topgallant foresail. The whole mass of deadly cordage and sail thundered down toward Heart, and he threw himself aft, hitting the deck and sliding on his chest all the way to the base of the poop. He crunched into a corner and curled up in a ball, shielding his head in a tight circle of his arms, face buried down on his knees. The wreckage crashed onto the planking an arm’s length from his body, and one of the long lines whipped him, the frayed end lashing him like a cat-o’nine tails. Heart ground his teeth against the pain, refusing to cry out again, angry that the madness of the Fire Zone had wrung so many cries from him already.
Part of Heart’s mind was aware that the sound of the Music –of the band Tortureship’s Music–was alive within the sounds of the storm. The sound of the impact as the topmast struck the deck was the roll of frenzied drums –all basses and tom-toms and tympanis; the snap of lines was the snap of overplayed guitar strings.
Heart pushed himself onto hands and knees, bracing against the cant of the deck, then climbed onto his feet and stumbled forward. There was a strike of 9-chords from an invisible organ and when he turned he saw the cannonballs breaking free of a splintered shot-garland, striking the deck with g-flats and f-sharps. He dodged and leapt to avoid the rolling 24-pound balls. In the boom of the waves and the crash of the thunder he could hear the musical laughter of Owen Minor the Wolverine, the high grating laugh of the Mechanic, and the plaintive wail of the child he had heard yesterday at Unlovely’s –the child who’s voice was filled with terror and pain and humiliation as unspeakable horrors were inflicted on him. The child’s voice was woven with the laughter of Minor and the Mechanic into an unbearably discordant melody line that assaulted his senses and sent him reeling.
“Bastard!” Heart screamed at the storm, but the laughter only increased.
A cannon ball almost clipped his ankle, but he danced away from it, and watched as the shot caromed into another ball and burst. The two iron shells fell to pieces with piano- key tinklings, but Heart reeled back as hissing, writhing snakes –one blood red and the other a poisonous green– emerged from the debris. Each snake was translucent and iridescent like neon tubing brought to a mockery of life by the madness of the Tortureship’s Music and the pernicious will of Owen Minor. Heart crouched, ready to dodge right or left as the snakes slithered toward him. One glowing green snake reared up suddenly before him, and Heart lashed out without thinking, the stiff blade of his open hand smashing into it just below the gaping jaws, and the whole mass of it exploded into a thousand fragments of glass, the neon gas swirling into the stiff breeze. Heart wheeled to his left as the red snake lunged, and again he struck, but this time his strike was a half- second too slow, a few inches too wide, and the snake buried glass fangs deep into the soft wedge of skin between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. The snake’s color flared a bloody red as it injected its venom through Heart’s flesh and directly into his bloodstream.
Heart shrieked in agony and beat the snake against the rail until it, too, shattered into a million glittering fragments.
Clutching his hand to his chest, Heart lost his footing and fell heavily to the deck. The ship yawed and he slid over toward the break in the rail. He was nearly to the gaping hole in the rail before he realized it, and in panic twisted his body and jammed both feet out, catching the splintered wood in a kind of wide, supine stance that kept him aboard. Already the snake’s venom was spreading through him, sending darts of pain stabbing into each nerve, driving long needles of searing agony into heart and liver. He felt a sluggish current of ice trickle through his bowels and he wanted to scream as he was dragged upward into new levels in the tower of pain. Even so, he clamped shut his mouth, holding the next wave of pain inside, defying the venom, defying the storm, denying Minor the satisfaction of hearing him cry out.
The pain was truly exquisite; expanding his understanding of agony into areas he had never supposed existed. It was a level of pain that was all the way past mere hurt, all the way past simple agony. This was pain all the way up into a white-hot silent burn for which there are no adjectives. He probably couldn’t have screamed anyway –the pain was too intense, too comprehensive for even nonspecific articulation.
Heart’s mind went away for a while, departing to that safe island in the eye of the storm where it had to go in order to survive that kind of pain. Had his mind lingered he knew he would have gone insane. Then abruptly eighty gallons of cold seawater slapped him awake, and he sloshed over on his side, still mindful of the necessity of keeping his feet braced. He opened his eyes. It was darker now, later in the day and deeper into the storm. Time had moved onward with unnatural speed.
Holding his mangled right hand close to his chest, he fought his way away from the rail and back onto shaky and uncertain feet. He looked at the hand, tried to flex it, but it felt dead; but deep within the twin punctures –and spreading out from them like a cloud– was a faint luminescence of fiery red. The pain was less now, as if it were fading with the life of the hand. Perhaps with his own life as well. Heart felt sick and feverish.
Numbly, he forced his way along the rail and he stopped to rest with his hip against the capstan. The roll of the ship was less hectic, but each wave the ship rode was longer, steeper, as if the seas were taking deep breaths in order to exhale the shrieking winds of the storm. The sound of the storm was a symphony orchestra of lunatics all fiercely trying to tune up and no one knew the right key. It was rough, discordant and jarring, spoiling clarity of thought.
“This is…fucking…nuts….” he breathed, wheezing the words out past sickness and deep weariness.
Someone –something– chuckled.
Heart froze. The sound of that laugh hadn’t been human –not at all– it had been made up of sharp, short notes plucked on a mistuned guitar. Nor was it a sound from the surrounding storm, but something close, something with him there on the quarterdeck.
Heart made himself turn, and though he was truly too hurt and weary to fight, he raised his left hand into a fist, bent his knees and shifted his weight onto the balls of his feet, the attitude of combat coming much more reflexively than deliberately.
It was not Owen Minor.
It was the Mechanic. No longer an image reflected in mirrors or windows, but real!
Manifested in flesh and bone, reeking of evil.
“Oh boy,” said the Mechanic, his wet lips glistening with rainwater and spit, “oh boy, here it comes. We’re gonna have us some fun now….”
( 2 )
Heart felt his guts turn to icy slush.
“No,” he said, and the sound of it was simple, almost conversational, yet filled with a strange blend of denial and a bleak acceptance, hovering somewhere near the edge of the precipice overlooking defeat.
“How’s it hanging, boy?” grinned the Mechanic. He winked at Heart and pawed at the spit gathered at the corners of his mouth.
“You’re dead,” Heart said.
“Yeah, well, that don’t matter much to me, boy. Won’t matter much to you, either. Dead, alive, don’t mean shit after a while, ‘specially since when it comes right down to it, we’re all a little bit—.”
“Shut the fuck up!”
“Don’t interrupt me, son, or we’ll have to talk about your manners.” “God damn it, why can’t you stay dead?”
The Mechanic shrugged. “Blame yourself for that, boy, don’t blame me.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” Heart said, taking a half step backward. “What are you talking about?”
“You never let me stay dead, what the fuck you think I’m talkin’ about? Christ you’re stupid.”
“God, you always were as dumb as a fuckin’ post, boy. How the hell you could read all those books of yours and still stay so stupid?” He snorted and took a step forward. “Maybe it was the books that made you so fuckin’ stupid. Christ knows I shoulda burned all of ‘em.”
“You burned enough of them, you cocksucker.”
“Yeah,” the Mechanic said with a contented sigh. “That was a whole lotta fun, too.
Making you tear ‘em up, and then burning the pages. Those were good times, boy.” He shook his head, suddenly sobering into a flash of remembered anger. “That was your main problem, you little shithead: you was always trying to get above yourself. Always trying to outdo me and your mom, using all those fancy words, thinking we wouldn’t understand them. Shitheels. Who the hell do you think you were? Or are? I said it before and I’ll say it now, boy –the best part of you ran down my leg.”
“Come to think of it, I shoulda just jerked off that night, saved myself a lot of grief.” “I told you to shut up!”
“But then,” he added philosophically, “I woulda missed a lot of fun. And we did have some fun, didn’t we, boy? You and me…down in the cellar? Remember all those—”
Heart snatched a capstan bar out of the stand and brandished it like a club, taking a threatening step forward. The Mechanic lost his smile, but he was not afraid. If anything, he looked merely annoyed as he looked slowly up at the club and then down at Heart.
“Christ, boy, what are you going to do?” he mocked. “Kill me?”
Heart didn’t –couldn’t– say anything. His mouth was a rictus grin of rage, his teeth grinding together, eyes flaring with hatred.
The Mechanic took a step forward, standing just under the raised weapon. “Put up or shut up, chickenshit. If you’re feeling froggy, then jump, otherwise put that fuckin’ stick down.”
Heart’s hand trembled with the desire to strike. And the desire not to.
“You think you’re some hot shit with all that karate stuff you got into. You think you’re Bruce-fucking-Lee ‘cause you sucker-punched me one day and got away with it. But Iemme tell you something, you arrogant piece of shit,” and the Mechanic stepped even closer, “you never could take me, not on your best day, and no matter what you do, you’re always gonna know that I could take you. Just like I did take you. Over and over and over again.” He grinned a wet grin.
Heart swung the stick.
It struck with the sound of a thousand instruments all striking the same note. The wooden bar crunched into bone, exploding the skin, shattering the skull, seeding the air with red. Heart wrenched it free, showering himself with gore and struck again and again as the Mechanic staggered back in shock and pain and then in terror as the blows rained down. His grinning face broke into a mask of blood, and still Heart beat at him. The Mechanic fell back against the rail, holding his arms up in defense, crying out in fear and agony, but still the blows rained down. Heart was far past the point where he could stop.
Then a huge wave lunged over the rail and battered them apart with thousands of gallons of greasy green water. Heart went flying backward, swept along like a leaf in a river torrent; and the wave completely overwhelmed the Mechanic, obscuring his gory face from view. The torrent carried Heart all the way to the far end of the quarterdeck, and along the way his shoulder struck one after another of the heavy 24-pounder cannons lashed to ringbolts set firmly into the deck. He could feel his muscles being mashed to pulp, feel bone grate as each of the massive, immovable guns conspired with the wave to batter him to a wreck.
At last he slammed into the rail and stopped. The tons of water receded, flooding out into the scuppers and back into the sea, the task of punishment completed.
Indigo Heart lay there, mangled, broken, bleeding from nostrils and ears and mouth.
Above him the storm raged for a long time.
He heard a sound, it penetrated the haze in his fractured skull, and he turned slowly, using dwindling reserves of strength and life to move his head five inches. He saw the companionway that lead belowdecks gaping at him like a black mouth. Standing like a stiff red tongue in that black mouth stood the blood-splattered shape of the Mechanic. His head was a pulped ruin. Blood, bits of bone and gray chunks of brain clung to his shirt and trousers. Strangely, his mouth was undamaged by Heart’s murderous assault.
The mouth smiled at him.
He held the capstan bar that Heart had used to beat him, held it lightly in one hand and tapped the gory end into his other palm. Slowly. Tap—tap—tap.
With sightless eyes in a shattered face, the Mechanic stared at him. The lips, glistening redly, still smiled.
“Wellll…,” he said in a voice that was slurred and distorted –as if the voice somehow acknowledged the traumatic damage to the speech centers of the brain, even if the other motor functions ignored the necessarily fatal injuries. “Well,” he said, “I had something on my mind…” he lifted his free hand and felt around at the top of his head, but there was very little left to feel. “Yeah…I was gonna say something…but I…l guess it slipped my mind. Jeez,” he said in a voice strangely similar to Owen Minor’s. “I don’t know where my head is sometimes.” His voice disintegrated into a high, tittering laugh.
Heart stared at him, gagging at the murdered monster and his silly, sick jokes, cringing at the sound of that awful laughter. He rolled onto his stomach and vomited, and most of what he threw up onto the deck was blood.
Gasping and with fireworks exploding behind his eyes, Heart looked up to see the Mechanic lumbering blindly down into the darkened depths of the ship. He paused when only his shoulders and ruined head were still visible, turned, and said: “When I remember, I’ll get back to you. Then we’ll have us one of our talks. Oh yeah…one of our special talks.” Again his voice disintegrated into the shrill laugh, and for long minutes after that laughter floated up from the dark depths of the ship, mingling at times with the screams of the tortured child, and those sounds echoed in the dark depths of Heart’s soul.
( 1 )
Heart tried to get to his feet, but too much of him was damaged. His left shoulder felt like a haphazard collection of splintered bone and damaged meat; his right hand was glowing a fierce and ugly red; small vapors drifted up from the twin punctures between thumb and index finger.
“Help me!” he begged of the storm, but it scorned his plea with laughing winds.
Wave after wave of nausea hit him and he vomited again, but his stomach was nearly empty and all he spit onto the deck was bile mixed with hatred for the Mechanic, and a gallon of self-loathing. His aching brain cringed as the hinges on Pandora’s Box squealed.
“NO!” he bellowed and heaved against the deck. With a broken shoulder and an infected hand he shoved himself upright. The pain lunged at him and he bit into it, tearing at it, growling, crushing it between clenched teeth as he fought his way onto one hand and both knees, then onto one knee and one foot and finally to both feet.
“DAMN YOU!” he howled at the wind. “GOD DAMN YOU TO HELL!” The wind, indifferent to his curses, blew on into the growing twilight.
Snarling and spitting with fury, Heart lumbered toward the open companionway, determined against all logic to find the Mechanic and finish the job of beating him to a bloody and lifeless pulp. He took about six steps before a massive wave –more of a mountain of water– rose up above the larboard quarter, towering a hundred feet above the ship. Heart stopped, turned, looked up and stared at the towering wall of nearly black seawater.
“Oh, Shit….” was all he managed to say before the tidal wave smashed down on the ship.
( 2 )
When Jim Smith was fourteen….
The girl lived around the corner from Jimmy, in a cluttered row home with three older sisters, two Huskies, a cat and a mother who ran the popcorn stand at the Pennsauken Drive-in, last of the regions drive-in movies. She was a thin girl, but pretty, with dark hair and pale Irish skin and a small scar on her upper lip from where one of the Huskies had nipped her once by accident. She always wore baggy hand-me-down t-shirts and stonewashed jeans and sandals. She liked to listen to Peter Gabriel and Melissa Etheridge and old Leonard Cohen records. She had a mouth that was always smiling, and for as long as he could remember Jimmy had wanted to kiss that mouth.
Her name was Helen. Three times since they had first met in kindergarten Jimmy had saved Helen from being hurt; the fourth time he hadn’t.
Once he shoved her out of the way of a Z-28 that was taking the narrow street she lived on at a nearly sixty miles an hour. Jimmy, then only nine, had been sitting on her stoop reading a Thor comic and waiting for her to come back from getting her mom some cigarettes at the store. Helen had bought a Mad-Libs book and was reading it while strolling absently across the street. She never heard the roar of the car’s engines or Jimmy’s shout, and the first thing she knew of her danger was when Jimmy launched himself like a torpedo at her and slammed her up against a parked Dodge van as the Z swept by with horn blaring but no squeal of brakes. The two of them stayed there, crushed against the van by the force and weight of Jimmy’s rush, listening to the laughter of the teenage boys in the Z as it screeched around the corner.
They had stayed there for longer than was precisely necessary, and after a little while Jimmy became very aware of her, and of the contact they were making. At nine, Jimmy was more aware of these things than most. The awareness of their closeness –and the closeness of diasaster– became suddenly unbearable and they both burst out laughing. They clung to each other, laughing until the tears ran down their cheeks. Every time the laughter began to die down one would look at the other and they’d be off again.
When the laughs finally bubbled down to chuckles and they could breathe, Helen said: “Y’know, Jimmy…I think that’s the first time I ever seen you laugh out loud. It’s cool!”
The observation chilled his laughter into silence and after a moment or two he stepped back from her and looked nervously away up the street. He chose the worst grown-up word he knew and growled: “Bastard!”
Helen thought he was yelling at the guys in the car, but, of course, he was not. The second time it was a truck not a car, and Helen and Jimmy were both twelve.
They had lied to their folks about where they were going and had biked all the way from the squalor of Kensington to the lush green expanse of Juniata. Well, to the golf course and the small patch of woods that separated the course from the back-end of a small hospital.
It didn’t exactly qualify as a forest, but to inner city kids who rarely saw trees unless they were in buckets and decorated with Christmas lights, it was the forest primeval. They had spent the afternoon fishing without bait in the stream. Neither of them could stand to impale a worm on a hook, and neither wanted to hurt a fish. Their hooks were sensibly ignored by the pikes and sunnies, and the afternoon had wandered at a marvelously lazy pace. Sometimes they talked, and sometimes they didn’t, and it was good both ways.
Over the last three years they had both changed. Jimmy had shot up to be the tallest kid in the sixth grade and had already started to shave. His chest and shoulders had gotten beefy from the jujutsu and his voice was just beginning to break. Helen had filled out, too, swelling her shirt with a premature heft of breasts that made Jimmy sweat. He always tried not to look at them, and almost always failed to do so; but when she caught him peeking, she just giggled.
On the way home, they had ridden single file in the narrow strip between parked cars and oncoming traffic following the steel track of the old disused trolley line, with Helen leading and Jimmy following like a bloodhound. Jimmy was nobly trying not to look at her buttocks as she pumped the pedals and Helen was singing a Tears for Fears song at the top of her lungs when her front wheel dropped down into the rail slot and jammed.
Immediately her bike stopped dead, but Helen did not. She pitched forward over the handlebars and tumbled hard to the street. It was only pure chance that gave her body the momentum to tumble around enough so that it was her back that smacked the asphalt and not her head, but even so she landed hard and the air was punched out of her lungs. She lay in a ragdoll sprawl, arms and legs at odd angles, bug-eyed and gasping. A big brown UPS truck rounded the near corner and came forward at top speed, the driver unable to see her because of the angle of the car parked at the corner. By the time he did he was almost on top of her.
Later Jimmy was unable to remember just how he had stopped his own bike, leapt off, scooped her up and rolled between parked cars to the curb before the UPS truck crunched into –and over– her Schwinn. Jimmy’s first coherent memories were those of Helen clinging to him, tears of pain filling her eyes and her mouth making fish shapes as she fought for air; that, and the UPS driver yelling at the two of them for being stupid-ass kids.
Later, after he had helped her to the curb and had bought her a bottle of Coke from the corner store, she had gradually gotten her breath back, but was sore and badly shaken. She’d said: “I don’t think I’ve crashed my bike since I was a little kid. Owww!” She gasped as he began rubbing her bruised back. “It’s funny…it’s you who’s usually getting hurt falling off his bike.”
“Yeah,” he said without humor.
The third time was far less accidental than the first two, and far more violent. They were fourteen; they had finally given in to the inevitable and had begun to date, and had just gotten to the kiss and pet stage. Helen was a virgin and had never gone beyond French kissing with anyone before, and she approached it with a breathless excitement that was as exciting to both of them as it was pure. It would have taken a psychologist and a lawyer to have determined whether Jimmy was technically still a virgin, but with Helen every touch was a sharing not a taking, each exploration of their young flesh was a journey together into a beautiful new country, not a pillaging raid.
On lazy summer afternoons they would take their bikes along the back streets and across avenues and through parking lots until they found a place to be alone. Sometimes it was a fire escape behind a closed theater, sometimes it was in the backyard of a friend who’s family was away for a month, more often than not it was in the small copse of trees between the golf course and the hospital, but wherever it was they settled out of sight of passersby, they dove into their newfound passion. They taught each other how to kiss, and they explored it as a science and an art, discovering that they were good at it and learning from each other’s reactions. They began to touch, slowly and tentatively at first, then with heat and hunger, never going too far, but going a little farther each time. She was letting herself go more and more because she felt safe with him; and he was reveling in what touch and closeness could be like when it was done with love and caring, with sharing and with honesty. They were in different worlds, but the world each was exploring was wonderful and new.
The darkness crossed their landscape on a Thursday in August of that year. Helen had been at the house of an aunt who lived on the far side of the golf course, and they had arranged to meet at their “secret place” in the park after she had finished doing some odd jobs. Jimmy had gotten a late start because his father was on the warpath again and had belted Jimmy a good one for not sweeping the front steps properly. It was the first day of the full moon, and the Mechanic was always worse –less rational and more openly violent-
– around the full moon. Jimmy had endured the ritual beating and had fled the house as soon as he could, clambering painfully on his bike and pedaling hard for the northeast, taking every shortcut he could and cursing his father with practiced vehemence all the while. When he angled off the avenue and onto the side street that came up behind the golf course the grim mask he wore began to melt, revealing a happier smile beneath at the thought of seeing Helen. Aside from all the other wonderful things she was to him, Helen had become the light that shined in his darkness. During the nearly daily beatings and the nightly horrors in the cellar with the Mechanic, when the pain and the degradation and the torment were at their worst, Jimmy had let his mind drift away from his body and had forced his entire mental and emotional focus be an image of Helen, smiling as she always smiled, the light from within her shining out through every pore, chasing back the black shadows in his mind. That same magic worked to heal him after a beating, and as he pedaled deeper into the woods he felt the weight of his father’s hard hands lift from his skin the way cold is washed away by sudden sunlight.
He rounded a corner where the main road veered and the bike path he and Helen had worn into the scrub and angled left, went another eighty yards in a nearly straight line and then took a hairpin that would end at their “secret” place, just a clearing where a blanket could be spread, but as special as a palace bedroom to them. Jimmy made the turn and skidded to a stop as the sunlight vanished behind the roof of trees…and vanished from the day as well.
Helen was there, but she was not waiting with smiles for him. She sat on the edge of their blanket, huddled back against the bole of an old tree. She was not alone. There were two older teenagers there with her. Boys, and they stood above her, both of them looking back over their shoulder at the intrusion.
“Hey!” Jimmy called. “What’s going on?”
“Fuck off, asshole,” said one of them, and they both laughed. He let the bike fall sideways under him as he stepped off of it.
“You okay?” he called to Helen.
She nodded, but her face had a look that Jimmy had seen far too many times in his own mirror. A total, wrenching helplessness, and a certain knowledge that all the power in the world rested in someone else’s hands.
Jimmy took a step closer. He could see that, as promised, Helen had worn the tiny pink shorts and halter top she’d said she’d wear for him. But she didn’t look sexy right now, she looked small and scared and about ten years old.
“What’s going on?” he said again.
The teenagers were both seventeen or eighteen and tall. One of them had the chest and shoulders of a ball player and he glared at Jimmy with little pig eyes; the other was a string bean with a stupid mouth and a sketch of a mustache smudging his upper lip.
Jimmy gut knotted into a cold fist when he noticed that the bigger one’s belt buckle had been undone and his erect penis was a hard ridge against the fabric of his jeans. All the spit in Jimmy’s mouth turned to dust.
The skinny one had a Phillies cap tilted back on his head and buckshot spray of acne on his chin. He took a step toward Jimmy, walking with a white boy’s attempt at a deep-dip ghetto strut. “What the fuck’s it to you?”
Jimmy ignored him and stared at Helen. “You hurt?” he said, not knowing how else to phrase the question he was terrified to ask; but she shook her head. He felt a flicker of relief.
The beefy guy looked uncertain and flicked his eyes left and right, looking to see if someone else was coming. “Fuck off,” he mumbled.
His skinny friend took a sudden lunge step toward Jimmy, raising a cocked fist, trying to spook him. Jimmy did not so much as flinch. Not because of any warrior’s cool, but because this was his first real confrontation and he was frozen in place. All he could do was try to lick moisture onto his lips.
“Hey, dumbass!” yelled Skinny. “The man tole you to fuck off…so fuck off!” All Jimmy could manage to say was: “She’s my friend.”
Both teenagers cracked up. “Yeah, well she is pretty friendly.”
A part of Jimmy’s mind marveled at how this whole scene –the dialog, the setting, even the faces of the two creeps– was out of a hundred movies and TV shows he’d seen. It was ridiculous and predictable. He could imagine the dialog, cribbed from badguy films; their posturing was ridiculous. And yet the whole thing was totally terrifying.
“C’mon, Helen,” he said. “It’s getting late. We gotta go.”
For a moment it seemed as if Beefy was going to let her go. He watched her get to her feet and grab her backpack, but the second she took a step toward Jimmy, the guy hooked her around the waist with a thick forearm and slammed her back and down onto the blanket. She cried out as she fell and the sound of it jabbed Jimmy in the gut like a knife.
“Leave her alone!” he yelled, stepping forward, reaching out in her direction. Then the skinny guy hit him.
It was a hard, short right cross and it caught Jimmy right across the chin, spinning him halfway around. Beefy and Skinny were both laughing before he’d finished his turn; Helen screamed.
For a moment the tableau froze there, with Jimmy spun around and half bent over, facing away from them, Skinny behind him with his fists still raised, and Beefy standing over Helen, who was sprawling without grace on the blanket. The trees around were filled with the incongruous and happy chatter of the birds.
Jimmy stared into nothingness as a red veil drifted down over his eyes. He heard a tearing sound in his ears and the redness of his vision was punctured with dancing black spots.
He turned around very slowly and he felt his body move as if his mind were somehow detached from it, aware of the movement but not in control of it. Jimmy turned toward Skinny and walked a single step closer. Close enough to be hit. Close enough to smell cigarettes on Skinny’s breath.
Skinny laughed and threw another punch, backing it with muscle and a lot of speed.
Jimmy’s face did not change in any way as he blocked the punch with his left forearm and drove his thumb into Skinny’s left eye socket. Skinny screamed louder than all the birds in the trees and their chatter died away into a shocked silence as he reeled back, pawing at his face. He tripped and fell down, whimpering and crying and screeching. Blood was pouring down his face and bubbling between the fingers clamped over his eye.
There was a second tableau as Beefy and Helen stared first at Skinny and then at Jimmy, the stillness of it broken by a cold voice that escape in a silky murmur from Jimmy’s lips. “Here it comes….oh boy, here it comes….” He spoke as he advanced on Beefy.
“The fuck you think you are, motherfucker?” Beefy snarled and he waded in, swinging a murderous right hook that would have crippled Jimmy if it had landed. It missed by inches as Jimmy leaned back. The lean was half evasion and half a backward tilt so he could kick. His black hightop sneaker flashed out, aiming for the erection still visible through Beefy’s jeans, but missing the mark and crunching instead into his upper thigh.
Even so, the kick jerked Beefy to a stop and turned him halfway around. Jimmy stepped down off the kick and brought up his right hand in a palm-heel strike that landed like a thunderclap on Beefy’s ear. Beefy screamed.
“Here it comes,” Jimmy mumbled, driving forward with a second palm. “Oh boy, here it comes.”
He grabbed Beefy by the hair with both hands and held his head down as he brought up his knee. Beefy’s nose exploded into red pulp and all the bone went out of his knees. He dropped down into a huddled mess on the edge of the blanket. Jimmy kicked him savagely in the ribs and then spun around as Skinny came tottering toward him. The other boy’s eye was intact, but the edge of the socket had been ripped open by Jimmy’s thumbnail and his face was a red mask.
“I’ll fuckin’ kill you, you fuckin’ fuck!” he screeched. He swung a punch and Jimmy kicked him in the balls. Skinny dropped down beside Beefy, both of them curled into fetal positions.
Jimmy stood over them, his face an ugly, sneering mask. “You fucking pussies,” he said in a voice that was not at all his own. His hands knotted into fists and he raised them above Beefy’s kidneys. “Here it comes…oh boy, here it—.”
Helen’s voice hit him so hard he staggered back, smashing empty air with his fists and losing balance so that he collapsed onto his knees.
The crunching pain of landing knees-first on a stone shattered the red veil over his eyes. The brightness returned, and the sounds of the birds.
And the sobs of the two teenagers.
Helen’s hands were on him suddenly, pulling him, holding him. She was crying; and then he was, too.
“Let’s go! Come on! NOW!” She pulled him up and they staggered to their bikes and fled, leaving behind the blanket, her backpack, and the two teenagers. They didn’t stop pedaling until they were miles away. Finally Helen lead him to a parking lot and they circled around behind a closed store. They dropped their bikes and flew into each other’s arms and wept hysterically.
All the time he clung to her, feeling her heart pounding against his chest, he said her name over and over and over again, the fear of what might have happened –what almost had happened— to her still horribly real in his mind. The thought of her going through what he went through down in the cellar was beyond his capacity to bear. Saying her name over and over again was like a prayer.
Deep in darkness of his soul he felt a different kind of dread, a terror that was even more real. In his head he heard the echoes of his voice during the fight. “Oh boy…here it comes….”
It had been his own voice, but it was the chant of the Mechanic.
In the black void of his head, his inner voice cried: “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” in a single, long, unbroken plea.
That was the third time he had kept Helen from harm. It was as if something was reaching out of the dark for her and only the sheer chance of Jimmy’s being there had fended it off. The next time the darkness reached for her, just months from that sunny and dreadful afternoon, it would take her; and that last time Jimmy would arrive far too late.
( 3 )
He awoke into piercing white light and the gritty press of sand against his cheek. Something light but rough was covering his face and he whipped it away with a cry of disgust thinking it was a shipboard rat or cockroach. He squeezed his eyes open and watched the object flutter away. It was only a straw Panama hat with a bright floral band; a gentle breeze caught it and tumbled it away down the sun-washed beach.
Heart stared, trying to mold his mind around those concepts. Beach. Sunshine?
He watched as the hat danced among rows of beach chairs and chaise-lounges. A child caught the hat, stuck a fishhook it the brim and then threw it high into the air; the breeze caught it and sailed it high into the gentle blue sky where it joined a dozen other flying hats.
Slowly, Heart sat up. His left shoulder hurt abominably, and his right hand was completely dead. The weird red light, which had begun at the point of the neon snake’s bite, had infused his arm all the way to the elbow with a glowing poison that shone through his skin as if it were glass. He could see the neon vapors swirled inside his forearm, stirred by the movement of his blood. He clutched his damaged arm around his poisoned hand and without the use of either got clumsily to his feet. His clothes were sodden with salt water, vomit and blood. Strands of seaweed clung to his thighs and a twist of sea oats was tangled up in his left shoelace.
What the hell is going on? he wondered, but even thinking made his head hurt.
Dazed and confused he began staggering down the beach toward the rows of sunbathers. Overhead gulls wheeled and dipped into the flawless blue of what appeared to be a late morning sky. Out to sea a handful of small boats tacked and wore in the warm, gentle breeze. Nothing had ever seemed more totally alien to Heart than this lovely scene, and somehow it filled him with horror. He felt like a monster come crawling out of the sea, a Creature from the Black Lagoon in expensive clothes and hand-sewn shoes; but the real defining horror of his nature showed through the broken-pane windows of his eyes as he stared at this scene of peace and beauty. He believed that nothing of beauty remained within his soul, and peace was a concept from another world, another reality. He doubted he could have even provided a definition for that word.
Inside of his mind, the hinges on Pandora’s Box trembled and the whole thing shook as if whatever was inside was ready to burst out, snapping chains, tearing the wood apart and blowing out the rivets like bullets from a gun.
He was thirty feet from the first row of chairs when he spotted her, and immediately her name sprang to his lips.
“Kamala…?” he said and he felt the smile, so alien to him now, beginning to form.
She sat in a striped lounger engrossed in a Mariama Ba novel. She wore the bottom half of a microscopic electric blue bikini; the bra was folded on top of a canvas beach-bag next to her chair. Her dark skin was lustrous with fine oils and the line of topazes around her throat burned like tiny droplets of molten lava. She wore a pair of oversized sunglasses the same color as her bikini. No makeup, and no jewelry other than the jewels in her skin and the red ring that seemed to seethe with flames on her left hand. A tall vodka and tonic was melting quietly beside her next to half a package of Giovanni’s breadsticks.
“Kamala…” he whispered, quickening his pace until he was almost running.
She turned toward him, cocking an ear as if she’d heard someone distantly calling her name, but her lovely eyes looked right through him and down the empty length of beach behind. Heart slowed to a stumbling walk as she frowned briefly and returned to her novel.
“Kamala!” Heart said again, his voice strident with need, but she appeared not to hear. He came and stood over her, but although he was between her and the sun he cast no shadow across her, blocked none of her light. On impulse he reached for her with his one working hand –the glowing, poisoned one– and touched her shoulder. Kamala Jane shivered suddenly, someone walking over her grave, but she did not look at him. She turned the page and continued reading.
“Kamala, please,” he begged. “Hear me.”
“Hey, Kamala!” called a voice, and both Heart and Kamala Jane turned to see Jellicho marching up the beach toward them, water running in rivulets down his lean body.
“How’s the water?” Kamala asked. “Jellicho!” Heart called.
“Cold. Damn near froze my kajungees off.” “Jellicho! It’s me!”
“Well,” she said, “I’m glad I was smart enough to stay here, then,”
“Couple dolphins out there, though. Morlok was swimming with them. Or, maybe, they were swimming with him. Hard to tell.” Jellicho walked right toward Heart and perhaps he would have walked right through him –an idea that scared him green– but Heart lumbered out of the way. He couldn’t handle that occurrence, not on top of everything else. Jellicho walked past Heart, bent and snatched a towel from his chair and stood dabbing water from his chest.
Standing more or less between Jellicho and Kamala Jane and yet maddeningly invisible to them, Heart wracked his mind for ideas. As he stood there, staring at the two of them, it occurred to him that there was something subtly odd about them. They were too bright, too… Too what? he wondered, then it hit him. They were just slightly insubstantial.
He bent close to Kamala –aware of her beauty and her near nakedness in a way that made him feel incredibly grubby– and peered at her. He had to squint to see past the brightness; a brightness he had first thought reflected from her glistening skin, but which he now saw was emanating from within her. Heart could feel the salt-caked hairs on his head trying to stand up. She seemed almost transparent. No, he corrected himself, not almost –she was transparent, but only just. The oil on her skin nearly obscured the truth of it, but as he bent even closer he realized he could see right through her. Not into her body –he couldn’t see her internal organs or bones– but all the way through her, as if she were a densely coherent light projection, a hologram of fantastic realism, but still not quite real.
“Jesus Christ….” he breathed, suddenly afraid that this was not even really her, that it was a sham, a conjuring trick designed to nudge him further out onto the ledge of despair. He felt angry at the cruelty of it: to give him just a brief oasis in the murderous desert of events and situations that his life had become, only to snatch away the reality of it.
He felt cheated, and cynically thought about how typical it was to have the lie deflate the hope.
“I really have to get out more during the Burn,” Jellicho was saying. “The Zone’s so happening at night that I sometimes forget to dive into the daytime.”
“It’s quieter,” Kamala agreed distractedly, turning a page.
Heart gasped as his reawakening awareness detected another unnerving fact. Their voices were the soft vibrations of subtly played organ keys. Synthesized sounds, not really voices at all.
With his poisoned hand Heart grabbed Jellicho’s arm and was shocked to find that it was a substantial mass beneath his fingers. With a grunt of effort he hauled the Candyman around to face him. Jellicho whirled, then shoved himself back, dropping into a fighting crouch. His face was alight with fear and surprise, but also with anger and cunning.
“Jellicho! Listen to me!” Heart yelled.
“Jellie?” Kamala gasped, tossing her book aside and sitting up quickly. “What is it?
“Damn it! Can’t you see me?”
Jellicho looked around, wary, ready. “Something…attacked me,” he said softly, eyes narrowed.
“Attacked you? Here?” She smiled, amused at the thought of something attacking them in the Zone. But Jellicho didn’t share her smile and she asked “How? Was it a bug or something?”
“I’m right here!” Heart jumped up and down.
“No…it’s weird. I could feel a hand grab my arm…and then nothing.” Heart reached forward and grabbed Jellicho’s arm again.
“Fight it!” Kamala warned, but Jellicho was already channeling energies. He lashed out with will and force and Heart felt himself being lifted, propelled backward as if by a hurricane wind. There was no pain, just a complete repulsion. He flew thirty feet backwards and landed in the surf with a great splash. He landed with the grace and poise of a harpooned walrus, swallowed a quart of salt water and went into a coughing fit that lasted half a minute. It took another minute to thrash and splash his way out of the water and back up onto the beach, coughing still, spitting water, cursing a blue streak. He walked face-forward into the force of Jellicho’s will and rebounded back into the water. The sound of the impact was a major chord, and his splashings were piano-tinklings in A-minor.
“There’s something there, Jellie,” Kamala said. “It’s in the water.”
“Yeah,” said the Candyman, “I can hear it, I can see the splashes, but I can’t see it.
He flicked a glance at Kamala Jane. “Keep your own guard up.”
“I’m ready,” she said mildly, but her eyes were like steel as she removed the sunglasses and rose from her chair.
Heart got to his feet again. His broken shoulder hurt more than he could express, but he tried to articulate it with a long string of incendiary curses.
“God damn it, Jellicho, don’t do this to me!” he roared, and he lashed out at the invisible wall with his glowing red fist, striking it with all of his frustration and need.
It gave. Only a foot, but it did give.
Jellicho blinked in surprise and took a half step backward, then his face took on a sly and adversarial cast. “Nice try, whoever –or whatever– the hell you are. As the prophet once said: Kiss my ass!” Then he laid more of his will into the repulsion and Heart found himself in a soggy, sandy tangle of seaweed seventy-five feet further down the beach.
He sat up spit out a mouthful of sand.
When he managed to sort out the various functions of legs and his one moderately useful arm, climbed back to his feet, and walked back down the beach, Jellicho and Kamala Jane were gone. Chairs, drinks, towels and all. Gone. Only a scuffle of disturbed sand remained to mark where they had been.
“No!” he cried, but not even the gulls could hear him.
He spun and stormed off up the beach toward the other sunbathers, none of who appeared to have noticed the brief and fruitless confrontation. As he walked he became gradually aware of a new sound coming from behind him, off in the far distance. It was rhythmic but not musical, and it pounded and echoed like distant gunfire, and Heart turned, expecting to see the Tortureship firing broadsides in the distance. But the sea was empty. Even the little sailboats were gone; and in the sky all he could see were the gulls the whiteness of whose wings seemed to define purity. Turning to look made his shoulder hurt worse, so he faced front and kept trudging through the hot, dry sand.
He stopped by the first chair and saw that the occupant was Centerlok, one of the Invited who had been at the bar last night. An ugly, blocky man wearing old sweats and reading a copy of Shapeshifter Monthly.
“Can you help me?” Heart asked.
The man licked a fingertip, used the moistened finger to turn the page, and kept reading.
The pounding in the sky grew louder.
Heart moved on. He stopped by a chaise-lounge in which sprawled Long Wilson and he tried to force the fellow to notice him. The bony Invited just kept stuffing Oreo cookies in his mouth and watching the breakers roll and crash. Once he broke his routine to reach down and shoo away a sun-drowsy fly.
Second by second the pounding grew louder. Already it was beginning to hurt Heart’s ears. He turned again, but still there was nothing there in either sea or sky, even the gulls had contrived to vanish. None of the Invited strung out along the beach seemed to be aware of the noise –no more than they were aware of his disheveled presence.
Heart moved on. He tried to make Snakedancer react to him, and though the dance master seemed to be marginally aware of some kind of presence, he addressed it by wading out into the waves and disappearing eel-like into the deep, vanishing with hardly a ripple and not reappearing at all.
Now the pounding had escalated to concussive force. Heart could feel his chest throbbing painfully with each new detonation. His injured shoulder pulsed as joltingly as if each new blast of sound were a fist punching into it. Heart moved from person to person, yelling at them, kicking sand at them, but no one saw him. He, and his pain, were invisible; he was alone with it despite the crowd of people. That, also, seemed to be one of the many patterns that formed the disjointed tapestry of his life. He even tried to shake some reaction out of Brutal John, but the mountainous bartender, upon noticing some unseen pest, flicked him away with a grunt and a sneer. Heart landed in a tangle of weeds by a low dune, and Brutal John went back to reading love poetry to China Black, who lay languorously against his side.
The explosions ceased for a moment, and Heart gasped, feeling his pulse race wildly in the sudden, jarring silence. He raised his head and cried out for someone, anyone to hear him, but just as his plea left his mouth the words were smashed to fragments by the return of the sonic blasts. Heart knelt in the weeds and smashed his poisoned hand into the sand. Over and over again in unconscious time to the pounding. The explosions grew louder and then jumped a whole order of magnitude, knocking him flat with a force wave that hit him like a freight train. The sounds were like whipcracks magnified ten thousand times; even the wavetops trembled.
Heart spun and stared up into the sky. A lone gull flapped toward him. Its slender white wings rose gracefully and then snapped down, catching the air.
Heart watched in expectant horror as the wings rose again. CRACK!
The sound punched Heart down against the sand. CRACK!
The sky-pounder was directly over him now. CRACK!
Heart felt blood start from his nose, tasted it hot and salty in his mouth and in the back of his throat. His vision blurred, or perhaps the force of each impact was making the whole world tremble and vibrate.
Then the detonations blasted open a door of awareness somewhere in his mind. His eyes snapped wide, his chest froze for a moment in mid-inhale, then he gasped the rest of the air in and held it. His bulging eyes blinked several times as his mouth parted and his jaw sagged.
Before his eyes the sea had begun to change!
It was no long just breeze-tossed water, no longer merely frothing waves, but each ripple, each bubble, each little fleck of foam was changing somehow, taking on thousands of tiny splinters of color, and to Heart’s shock-rattled brain each color presented itself with amazing individuality and completeness. His senses reeled at the sudden and magnificent beauty of it all even as the sky-pounder beat the world to fragments around him. Where the water had been green and blue, now green and blue were inadequate; now there were
greens upon greens upon greens, blues upon blues upon blues. There was sea green and bottle green and Kelly green and hunter green and grass green and olive green and leaf green and sour-apple green and mold green and from there through a thousand other shades he could not name. There were a hundred shades of aquamarine that linked the greens to the blues, and beyond those, Heart saw sky blue and azure blue and cobalt blue and baby blue and cerulean blue and midnight blue and twilight blue-purple and ice blue and indigo blue and too many others for his senses to accept. On the undersides of the waves there were subtle shades of grays and purples, even hints of a score of reds. Bubbles swirled prismatically, blending and discharging colors, and as the waves rolled back from the sand there was revealed a myriad of brown tones: gold and yellow and ecru and fallow and lemon and saffron and bronze and seal-brown and mahogany and….
Heart was gasping from the sheer incredible beauty of it, a beauty so unexpected and yet so vast and profound that it wrung tears from his staring eyes. He knelt there in the weeds with small wavelets composed from a symphony of colors washing against his knees.
Above him, the sky-pounder was moving away, thundering itself off into the distance, troubling someone else’s sky with its monstrous noise. Heart barely noticed, his whole mind was entranced by the colors, and he knelt there, unmindful of his own pain, lost in beauty as the colors mingled and ran and grew so intense that they actually seemed to vibrate. He felt like he was able to see color for the very first time in his life, truly see them, all the way down to the microscopic– perhaps even molecular– level.
Heart stretched his hand out toward the variegated ocean, and then he stopped and looked at his hand. The smile fled away from his face.
“No….” The denial was torn out of him in a hoarse whisper. “My God…no!”
His hand was still hand-shaped, but it was something totally alien to him. The skin was a glassy sheath fitted around swirling vapors that were a bloody, deadly scarlet, flecked here and there with wine-red and brick red and roseate. The hairs on his arm were little titian wires, standing stiff as if alive with electrical current. Heart looked down at his other hand, the one hanging from the limp arm of his broken shoulder. It was a perfect match and it glowed a hellish red. He looked further down. His legs were rubicund columns supporting a crimson body. The tattered trousers, shirt and vest were as coal-red as the rest of him.
There was no pain anymore. Not in his shoulder, or his face, or anywhere in his body. This wasn’t about pain, not physical pain at any rate.
He knelt there and looked at the omni-chromatic madness and couldn’t make up his mind whether to marvel at its beauty of retreat into whimpering denial and madness.
Silence –sudden and complete– startled him and he looked up. The sky-pounder was gone. The whole beach, in fact, was deserted. The sun had moved, too, edging over toward the west, reaching out with long red-gold arms toward the horizon.
He whispered a denial as fervently as a prayer. “This can’t be happening….” A voice calmly asked, “Why not?”
Even before he turned, Heart knew who it was. Even with the words distorted by their musical incarnation in this warped reality, he knew. He raised his head, turned, and faced Mister Sin. The Master was a study in whiteness. His hat was snow and snap- brimmed, his big trenchcoat was faded ivory a shade darker than off-white. His gloves were the precise color and softness of a snow owl’s breast. Bone-colored shoes were evident beneath the cuffs of milky trousers. And the mask. Sin’s Noh mask was alabaster perfection offset by the molten intensity of his silver eyes.
“Sin!” Heart cried. “Thank God!”
“Well, thank someone anyway,” Sin drawled. He cocked his head and appraised the wreck of Indigo Heart. “Dear Indigo, what have you gotten yourself into? But…l see you are no longer quite indigo, Indigo.”
Heart got to his feet and tottered forward, nearly collapsing against Sin, catching the bigger man’s sleeves in glowing hands. The light that emanated from Heart’s body was reflected on Sin’s garments, and it looked as if Heart’s blood had spilled onto him. “Sin…help me! Can you see me?”
“Yes, I can see you.” Sin stroked his hair gently. “Poor Indigo. Life is so hard on you, isn’t it? It’s all so unfair, isn’t it?”
“Help me! Please, help me. Some guy named Owen Minor is killing me.”
“Is he indeed?”
“Can’t you see? Can’t you see!” He held up his hands before Sin. “Look what he’s done to me.”
“And what has he done?” “Can’t you see?”
“Mm, I can see that reality has been jerked and twisted around a bit.” He chuckled as he looked around. “I love what you’ve done with the place.”
“I’m dying here and you’re making jokes!” “Well, first off, dear boy, you are not dying.”
“The poison….” “It isn’t fatal.”
“How do you know!” “I know.”
“But look what it’s done!”
“What has it done, Indigo? Why don’t you tell me.” “Look for yourself—.”
“No, Indigo,” Sin said sharply, like a teacher bringing a distracted student back to the problem on the board, “I want you to explain it to me.”
Heart shoved himself away from Sin and stood there, staring at him with anger and exasperation. “If I could fucking explain it then I would probably fucking understand it, wouldn’t I?”
“Yes, there is a chance that one might lead to the other. So, tell me, Indigo, have you tried to explain it?”
“Of course I ha—.”
“No, listen to me,” Sin snapped, holding up a silencing finger. “This is important.” He waited until Heart closed his fiery red mouth –though Heart’s eyes seethed with anger. “The question is a vital one, and I’m going to ask it again: have you tried to explain this to yourself?”
“Explain what? Which part of it? The poison, the snakes, the ship– what?” “All of it, Indigo. It’s all part of the same riddle.”
“But there’s so much stuff happening! How can I figure it all out?”
If Sin’s mask did not have plastic lips he would have been pursing them in judicious disapproval; as it was he clicked his tongue a few times, a reproving tch-tch-tch sound. “Let me frame this another way,” he said with forced patience. “Since last night you’ve encountered one bizarre event after another. You’ve met -admittedly– some pretty fabulous people, and I use the word fabulous with precision. You’ve fought for your life several times. This is all ground we’ve covered before, but to sum up: as far as you can tell, you have suddenly stepped into a world that is either surreal or supernatural. So,” Sin said softly, “have you tried to figure out what is happening?”
“Of course I have, but it doesn’t make sense.”
Sin clicked his tongue again. “No, Indigo, I think you are lying to me and, far more importantly, to yourself.”
“Lying about what?” Heart was instantly indignant.
“About trying to understand. Or, perhaps, about wanting to understand.” “Of course I want to understand.”
“Then tell me what do you think is going on.”
“I don’t know!”
“ ‘I don’t know’ is too easy and foolish an answer. Be specific.” “How can I be specific—?”
Sin’s eyes showed their impatience. “Indigo, you sometimes try very hard to act like a fool. You’re so practiced at it that you are often convincing; but you are not a fool. I know quite a lot about you and –no, don’t you dare interrupt me with any of your histrionics!– and I know that you are smart, generally decent, largely self-educated, enormously frustrated, and even, dare I say it, honorable. But you are also damaged, and that damage has you terrified of any kind of true self-exploration. I’ve been watching this since last night, and I’ve been taking note of how you focus on some part of a person’s questions and get all hot and bothered about it as a way of deflecting conversation away from any topic that might lead you into your own mind.”
Sin’s eyes twinkled. “You use anger and belligerence as a shield, you deny any statement or argument that might provide you with a clue necessary for understanding.”
“I do not!”
“If this wasn’t so serious, Indigo, that answer would be funny.”
Heart thought about it and measured out a tiny sliver of a humorless smile. “Yeah, hard-de-har-har.”
Sin shook his head. “My dear friend, if only you would love yourself enough to take the risk.”
“Take what risk? What are you talking about?” “To open the box, of course.”
Heart actually took a step backward. “What are you talking about? What…box?” “Why, Pandora’s Box, of course” Sin said mildly. “Isn’t that what you have always called it? I mean, when you can actually make yourself think about it.”
Heart’s knees turned to jelly and buckled down onto them; he looked down at his glowing red hands but he said nothing.
“If you want to survive all of this, Indigo, then you have to open the box.”
Heart merely shook his head. “Christ! You don’t know what you’re asking. You have no idea what that would mean.”
“If you want to understand it,” Sin added with soft urgency, “then you’re going to have to want to open the box.” He paused. “Nothing you have ever done has been as important, and nothing you can ever do will matter as much.”
Heart raised his head and his face was streaked with tears that ran like lines of molten lava. “Matter to whom?”
“To yourself, Indigo.”
Lowering his head again, Heart shook it in denial. “No, you’re wrong. It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.” He sobbed into his hands. “I don’t matter.”
Sin stood above him and a gentle sea breeze stirred the flaps of his coat. “Child,” he said, “that is the most terrible thing you could ever say.” He knelt and took Heart’s hands, but the weeping man did not -indeed, could not– look up. “To say that you don’t matter — to believe it– is to cast a terrible spell on your own life. If black magic exists, then that is its darkest sorcery. Look at you…” he touched Heart’s face. “Tell me, Indigo, what have you become?”
“A freak!” Heart snarled, then again, more softly: “A freak. A…monster.”
“Why?” “Look at me!”
“Yes, I see. I see that you’re different.” “I’m a freak!”
“No, you are different. That’s all.”
Heart held his hands out. “I’m a freak….” His voice was nearly broken.
Sin hooked a finger under Heart’s chin and lifted it until they were face to face.
Heart tried to flinch away from Sin’s implacable stare, but he lacked that kind of power.
Sin said, “I am going to tell you a simple fact that is nevertheless a great and powerful truth. What you are –your shape and mass and color and substance, your reactions and moods and humors and furies– is the result of how you have been made, how you have been shaped by life. This is the curse and burden, yes, and even sometimes the beauty, of the human culture: to be shaped by those in whose spheres we travel. Sometimes this shape we wear is truly lovely, as with Kamala Jane, who has been shaped by beautiful and loving hands into a nearly perfect representation of beauty; sometimes the shape we wear is less appealing. Many of the beautiful people you have met in these last two days have in the past worn masks a lot less appealing than the ones they currently wear. And here,” he said softly, “look at the mask you wear. A blood-red mask of guilt. Tell me, Indigo, of what are you so guilty that you need to wear such a mask?”
“A snake bit me…”
“Tell me….who made the snake?” “My…my….”
Heart closed his eyes. Tears leaked out from under the lashes.
Sin sighed. “Oh, my poor child. How lost you are.” He released Heart’s chin and stepped away, walking a few yards down the beach. Around him the world was composed of magnificent color. He held his arms up to it in reverential acknowledgment, and turned back to Heart.
“Could a freak do all this?” “W..what?” Heart stammered.
“Could a man with broken hands shape a world like this? Could a mind filled only with ugliness realize such beauty?”
“Yes, you do,” Sin said. “But you refuse to accept that you do. So be it.” He sighed again and let his arms flap down. “So be it. “ He adjusted his gloves and stared out to sea for a long time, then said softly, “The game continues.”
There was a moment of intense white light that blinded Heart, and when he opened his eyes again, he was alone on the beach. The demons in Pandora’s Box were throwing their weight against the chains with renewed fury.
( 1 )
Heart stood ankle-deep in the breakers and looked far out to sea. He could see the reflection of his own fiery body reflected like burning phosphorescence on the wavetops. His tears had stopped and he stood for a long, long time thinking about what Mister Sin had said to him. He had to force himself to think about it because his mind cringed at confronting any part of it. Denial had always been so much safer, or, at least had offered the illusion of safety. Now, doubt chewed at him like a pack of rats.
He knows, he thought wretchedly. He knows about Pandora’s Box.
The wind from the sea was warm, but there was a hint of evening coolness in it. The sun had rolled further across the blue dome of the sky and in the east the colors were darkening into rich purples. There was no red to the coming sunset, as if all the heat from that color had been captured within his own body.
He looked at his glowing hands and, in a strange way, marveled at them: his skin appeared to be made of glass, though it felt like skin to him. The neon gasses inside swirled visibly as if stirred by small, hot winds, but he did not feel them. The hands felt like hands, the arms to which they were attached felt like arms. His trunk, legs, and feet all felt as they should. It was only their outward appearance that truly seemed changed. He rubbed his
hands together, feeling the familiar rasp of skin and calluses, the contours of bone and tendon and muscle –all feeling as they should feel. (It occurred to him, more as an interesting novelty if nothing else, that since he had been transformed into a living neon tube the cuts on his knuckles from smashing the bathroom mirror had gone away completely.) If his eyes were closed he knew he would not even be able to tell the difference. Thinking that, he closed his eyes and continued touching hand to hand, and certainly everything felt normal. He was himself, inside and out, in every way except in how he actually looked, as if it were in some kind of bizarre disguise.
Something –some important truth– suddenly went skittering past the front of his brain. He lunged at it, tried to grab it…but it was gone. He replayed his last few thoughts as if they were recorded on tape hoping that they held a clue as to what insight had just wriggled out of his grasp.
I am the same, inside and out, in every way except in how I look.
It’s like I’m wearing a disguise.
Heart stood on the edge of the sea and held onto that, knowing either by intellect or instinct that this was important. Perhaps terribly important.
That was something else Sin had said. Heart kept his eyes pressed shut as he tried to recall the exact words.
I am going to tell you a simple fact that is nevertheless a great and powerful truth.
What you are –your shape and mass and color and substance, your reactions and moods
and humors and furies– is the result of how you have been made, how you have been
shaped by life. This is the curse and burden, yes and even sometimes the beauty, of the
human culture: to be shaped by those in whose spheres we travel. Sometimes this shape we
wear is truly lovely, as with Kamala Jane, who has been shaped by beautiful hands into
beauty; sometimes the shape we wear is less appealing. Many of the beautiful people you
have met in these last two days have in the past worn masks a lot less appealing than the
ones they currently wear. And here, look at the mask you wear. A blood-red mask of guilt.
Tell me, Indigo, of what are you so guilty that you need to wear such a mask?
He opened his eyes. The waves frothed around his ankles, splashing him as high as the knees and his own inner radiance painted each droplet a deep red, like drops of blood. Or bloody tears.
The mask I wear, the thought. Jesus. How could he know?
He flexed his hands and only then became aware that there was no pain anymore.
Not only had the cut and scratches vanished during his transformation, but all of the internal damage seemed to have healed as well. He tested his left shoulder and it moved freely as if the injuries he had sustained aboard the ship had never happened. He felt around his head and there were no bumps there, either.
Something caught his eye and he looked up and out to sea, staring for a long time without either alarm or surprise at the ship that bobbed slowly in the swell a few hundred yards away. The Tortureship. The fact that it hadn’t been there a second ago did not shock
him. If anything, it was a comfort to see something that was, if nothing else, familiar. An image of the bloody, pulped head of the Mechanic flashed in his mind, and the usual dread he felt was this time tinged with a cold anger. He stood there and tasted that anger, not recognizing the flavor of it. He liked the way it tasted in his mouth: the taste was strong, and too many of the flavors of his life had been weak.
The Tortureship rose on a wave and settled down into a shallow trough, sailing south so that the entire starboard side was in view. Oddly –and perhaps this was an illusion of distance– the ship looked less damaged. Even the sails seemed more intact, looking more whole and ordinary and less like an assortment of torn laundry. No bodies hung from the yardarm, and there were no broad-bladed spears thrust through the lower gunports to act as oars. If anything, the ship looked to be under sail, and with a minor jolt Heart wondered who was at the wheel.
No, he decided. No, not him.
Then who? He shrugged the thought away because it didn’t really matter. The ship was under sail and some hand was guiding it. Perhaps it was Mister Sin. Perhaps it was someone else he hadn’t yet met, but in any case that point didn’t matter.
“I need to focus,” he said aloud, and saying it seemed to begin the process of inner alignment. Sin had struck home with the comment that he often attacked someone when they tried to reach him, and he’d always been half aware of the trait, and of his tactic of attacking some inconsequential point of the other person’s argument as a way of side- stepping any self-revelatory dialogues. Kamala had tried to tell him more or less the same thing both last night and tonight. Knowing that he was, and had always been, aware of the habit, and that it was a rather obvious defense mechanism, was no kind of comfort. The revelation was not a new one, but he felt cheap and stupid knowing that others saw the tactic for what it was.
In his mind he could see the light laying in mottled patterns across the battered and pitted surfaces of Pandora’s Box. It squatted there, heavy with the dreadful things he did not dare to think about; and its weight was a terrible burden. At times he felt crippled by that weight, at other times he felt possessed by its demonic nature. Most of the time, though, it was beyond the periphery of his vision, out of his reach and, he hoped, out of the reach of whatever demons now lived in the Box. Now, though, the image was very strong in his mind, each feature was distinct and clear –from the rusted iron of its hinges to the steel bands that he imagined crossed it, to the battered old lock that held it closed. Unbidden, his mind probed the lock and saw its flaws, it structural weaknesses. Its vulnerability.
“No….” Heart said. “I will not go there. No way.”
He turned away from the ship with deliberation, as if removing it from his sight would remove all thoughts of that internal conflict from his mind. He wrenched his mind away, wanting to be somewhere other than there with those thoughts; he wanted it very much.
And, so he was.
The sand hardened beneath his feet as he took a step, then the hardening sand slanted. Heart took a sloppy and off-balance sideways step, flailing his arms as he tried to keep from tumbling back into the waves. He took three quick back-pedaling steps… and was suddenly on the deck of the Tortureship.
Heart stopped dead, his buttocks striking the rail. He took a deep breath and coughed it out as an angry grunt as he pushed himself angrily off the rail and turned quickly in a full circle. Beyond the quarterdeck rail, hundreds of yards away, the color- strewn beach was slipping slowly past.
Sighing, he leaned back against the rail.
( 2 )
The storm was long over, the seas calmer now, almost placid. A few gulls flapped lazily through the late afternoon sunshine, but their wings did not shake the earth as the sky-pounders had done. Heart prowled the quarterdeck, but found nothing. The wheel was unattended, swinging lazily as the rudder yawed gently in the untroubled current. He stopped by the entrance to the companionway and looked for a long time down into the utter inky blackness below. He could see nothing, and there was no sound issuing up from below except the ordinary creakings of a wooden ship as it moved its mass through the water. Listening, he could hear that the sounds themselves were more musical than they should be, but the impression was so subtle that he fancied it could have been his imagination.
Stepping back from the entrance, he climbed the adjacent companion ladder to the poop deck just to confirm that it was empty. Except for a gull roosting on a hatch-cover, the deck was indeed empty. Heart strolled across the deck and stood looking at the bird for no other reason than it didn’t seem to be in any way threatening, weird, surreal or otherwise challenging to what little peace still clung to his mind. The gull looked at him with mild interest, and Heart wished he had some tidbit of food to give him, and absently patted his pockets. His fingers found an unfamiliar shape and he pulled it out, unwrapped it from a folded and water-stained paper bag and looked at it. It was the tiny heart-shaped picture frame he had bought at the Granny Shoppe. He’d forgotten all about it.
Miraculously it was neither tainted with the red poison nor in any way damaged. He ran his glowing fingertips across it and the picture glass refused to reflect the distorted color, showing only an ordinary finger. He held it up and looked at his face and that, too, appeared normal.
“Well, that’s something at least,” he murmured.
He carefully wrapped the frame with the sodden paper and put it back in his pocket.
The gull stood up, stretched his wings, and opened his long beak as if yawning and then abruptly flew away. Heart watched it until it was out of sight, then he turned and from the corner of his eye saw something that had been hidden by the bird, or had perhaps been under it. He stood for a moment, staring at it, no flicker of amusement touching his face despite the absurdity of the object –and of the situation. Lips curled in mingled distaste and apprehension, he bent forward and picked up the fortune cookie.
“Bastard,” he murmured as he broke it open. The tiny slip of paper was as red as his own fiery skin, but the lettering was a silvery-white, almost the color of Mister Sin’s eyes. He wondered if that was some kind of obscure joke on the part of Owen Minor. He read the inscription:
“Wise man say: If you are afraid of ghosts, sleep in a graveyard.”
Heart frowned. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” he said, though the adage rang a faint bell with him. He turned it over and saw a second message:
“Wise man also say: Subtlety is often lost on the insufferably dense.”
Below that were several lines written in incredibly tiny script:
“As the ad campaign so aptly said, ‘A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste.”
So…stop wasting yours, dumb-ass.
Besides, It’s no fun if you don’t fight back.”
Hugs and kisses,
Owen Minor the Wolverine
Heart dug in his shirt pocket for the other two slips, both of which were still in good shape despite the repeated soakings. He folded them with the new one and put them away again.
He wished he had a bottle of bourbon because he felt he needed to do some serious drinking, then he recanted the wish and thought about the desire which had prompted it. Why drink? To forget? To numb the senses? To misdirect or redirect the probing mind?
All of the above? Well, sure. Obviously.
Realization brought shame and he stared at the deck, humbled by the object lesson that supported all of Sin’s accusations.
“What a hero,” he told himself, then shook his head. “What an asshole.”
The gull flew back, landed on the deck a few feet away; Heart stared bleakly at the bird. “What do you think? I’m an asshole, right?”
The gull did not seem willing to rebut his assessment. Heart sighed again.
“Hey,” he said to the bird, “can we talk? I mean…do you mind if I use you as kind of a sounding board?”
The gull said nothing, his black eyes staring fixedly.
“You see,” Heart continued, “apparently I can’t talk to people. I mean I can’t have real conversations…people keep wanting to talk to me, keep wanting me to talk, but I can’t. I just get all pissy with them and I start fights. It’s really getting me nowhere. But there’s been so much happening lately and I really need to talk to someone. So…do you mind if I just bounce this stuff off of you?”
The seagull listened patiently, and even appeared to be mildly interested as Heart told him his life story. The bird was a good listener, and again Heart wished he had something to feed it. He also wished he had something to feed himself with. He patted his pockets again and for a second time felt an unfamiliar lump. He dug into his trousers and pulled it out. It was a cellophane-wrapped packet of peanut butter-filled cheese crackers. Heart stared it for a long time. He didn’t even ask himself how it had come to be there.
“Okay,” he said, quite reasonably, and tore open the cellophane. He gave the first cracker to the gull as a reward for his patient attention. Munching the second, he continued his narrative. He could actually hear himself warping the story as he told it but didn’t know how to steer it back to a cold presentation of the facts. Eventually his voice drifted off and man and gull sat there munching cheese crackers and staring at the ocean.
“I’m a monster,” he said after a while. He hung his head and his tears splashed down on the neon leprosy on his hands. “A monster,” he repeated in a voice filled with a vitriolic self-loathing. “Just like my father.”
Behind him he heard the high tittering laughter of the Mechanic and the sound froze him, then a moment later he heard another sound which spiked him through the heart. Wrapped up in the sound of the Mechanic’s perverse laugh, nearly buried beneath it, was the terrified cry of the child –the ghostly child whose disembodied voice had been haunting him for days. But now the voice seemed absolutely real: and as he strained to hear, it rose to a nearly ultrasonic shriek of horror, pain, fear and humiliation.
“Nooooooooo!” the child wailed, and a split second later: “Help!” The second word was paler, weaker, and the contrast was heart breaking, but the difference barely registered on Heart –as soon as he heard that first rending wail of the child’s voice, he was in motion. Inactivity –or at least a forced and artificial indifference to the needs of that child– was no longer possible. Things had gone too far now. He spun from the rail, dashed to the ladder and barely touched a step as he leapt down to the quarterdeck, then he whirled again and faced the black maw of the entrance to the companionway leading belowdecks, down into a darkness like the darkness of his father’s cellar. Some part of his mind may have been aware of the terror he should have felt at entering the lair of the beast, but if such a warning bell sounded he did not heed it or even slacken his pace by half a step. The child screamed again, but the sound was nearly drowned by the Mechanic’s laughter. Snarling with inarticulate rage, Indigo flung himself into darkness, his body glowing like a match dropped into a black abyss.
On deck, the bird sat there for a long time but within a moment of Heart entering the companionway the gull was no longer a gull.
Owen Minor smiled as he finished the last of the cheese crackers.
( 3 )
The darkness tried to fight him, throwing invisible objects in his way, striking his shoulders and shins and hips with immovable obstructions. He collided and crashed, bounced off and spun away, but each time the child’s scream ripped again through the blackness, Heart just growled, bit down on the pain from the frequent collisions, and kept moving.
“HELP!” the child cried, and the sound tore holes in Heart’s soul.
The interior of the ship was an alien world to him, which he would have had trouble navigating had there been lamplight; but in total darkness it was like being blind and in a foreign country. None of the shapes his outstretched hands encountered made any sense to him, and he would have been completely lost within seconds had not the child’s wail become an auditory beacon which drew him inexorably in the right direction. His own cries, soft, insistent, pleading were interspersed with snarls and growls of pure rage.
“PLEASE!” begged the child, then the voice abruptly changed as a note of horrified denial burst through his pleas. “NO… PLEASE –NO!”
The tittering laugh of the Mechanic drowned the child’s denials, and Heart roared, his fury stoked even hotter with each new cry.
The sounds were much closer now as he made his way through a long compartment that had fewer obstructions, though on either side of him he could feel soft cocoon-like objects swinging with the ship’s roll. They felt like hammocks, and Heart had a flash image of the belowdecks packed with hundreds of seamen, all crammed together in their hammocks as the ship thundered through the waves. There was a sharp and oppressive stink of human sweat still lingering in the air, clogging his laboring lungs.
“NOOOOOOO!” the child cried and it sounded like it was coming from just ahead.
The thought of reaching the child in time, of wrenching the kid away from the un-tender mercies of the Mechanic pumped both ice-water and molten steel into his legs. He was aware of his fear, but for once his anger was a greater, larger, more powerful force. He reached the end of the long compartment and found a hatchway blocked by a closed door, a door he could not see and crashed into with teeth-jarring force.
“Bastard!” he hissed as he rebounded, pain flaring in all the impact points of knee, elbow and forehead; but he channeled the pain right back into his rage and lashed out with his heel, kicking with all his force at the panel once, twice, three times and then the wood splintered with a rending CRACK! The door flew open and inward, one hinge tearing loose and the heavy panel sagged in defeat to the deck. There was a faint light beyond the bulkhead, and shadows moved and capered on the one visible section of wall. Heart should have used caution, but his rage was too great and to immediate to bother. He threw himself through the bulkhead and landed in an aggressive crouch in the compartment, his legs bent, fingers curled like claws, lips pulled back from gritted teeth.
The tableau before him froze Heart for just a second, long enough to fill his soul with the commingled juices of despair and horror and hatred. The Mechanic –his head no longer injured– was there, as Heart knew he would be, and the child was there as well. It was a boy, no more than eight or nine, with brown hair and large sea-blue eyes that were full of a hopeless terror. The child’s wrists were tied to two legs of a heavy overturned chair, and his small body was bent chest forward over the chair. The child was naked from the waist down and there was blood on his buttocks and upper thighs. The Mechanic stood over him, likewise naked except for a shirt; his pants were puddled around his ankles. His penis was erect and smeared with blood, and around his big right fist was wound a leather belt that trailed a ten-inch length ending in a gleaming steel buckle. Angry red welts from the buckle were slashed across the child’s lower body, and spots of blood were stained through the boy’s white t-shirt, evidence of the savage beating that had accompanied the more obvious and terrible assault. The Mechanic turned and grinned at Heart; the mangled face still intact enough to display that horrible –and horribly familiar–smile of wet lust.
In a voice choked by pain and humiliation and confusion, the boy whispered: “Help…?” It was a question, devoid of hope, stripped of anything but a completely primal need.
The Mechanic looked at Heart licked his bloody lips. “Hey, boy, just in time for the fun. I’ll save you some.”
In that moment, all sanity fled from Heart’s mind.
The fiery red glow on Heart’s skin flared for a single moment into a sunburst that filled every crevice and corner of the room, but as it flared the scarlet burned away revealing a deeper, hotter white flame. This burning light flashed out, filling every crevice of the room, invading all corners, conquering all shadows, casting the Mechanic and the child in sharp black and white relief, like images graven on the burning walls of Hell.
There were no words in Heart’s vocabulary with which he could express what he was feeling. The English language does not contain such words, and possibly no human tongue has ever been able to express them in any acceptable way. No scholar has adequately recorded those kinds of emotions, no poet has ever been able to marry adjectives together to impart such thoughts. Crouching there in a posture more animal than human, burning with a light brighter and hotter than the surface of a new star, Heart felt his mind fragmenting. He was in some ways himself, the battered man: poisoned, outraged, lost, a refugee in the storm of life-events over which he had never been able to exert control– and he was the child: raped, beaten, terrified, confused by the strange horror of it all, filled with shame, unable to reach out because the hand of the caregiver was the hand of the monster. No part of Heart –not one fiber of his soul– was in harmony with the Mechanic. Except for the most superficial of facial appearance they were creatures from different species, and for the very first time in his life Heart was totally aware of that fact. Awareness of this stoked his anger hotter still, and screaming in guttural madness, he threw himself at the Mechanic.
At his father.
The Mechanic turned to meet him, swinging the heavy leather belt, but his attack was hampered by the shackles of his trousers still hanging loose around his ankles. Heart had no capstan bar this time, no weapon at all except the outrage that was clutched in each knotted fist.
They collided, force against force, will against will, darkness against light, lust against moral fury; it was like the collision of antimatter with matter.
The impact destroyed that world entirely.
When Jim Smith was fourteen…
He held Helen in his arms and rocked back and forth, back and forth. Her skin felt hot through her t-shirt and her tears burned like drops of acid on his neck.
“What happened?” he kept saying, pleading with her to explain; but she just kept crying.
They had planned to meet outside of his house and go to the movies, but he’d missed the bus back from the dojo and was over an hour late. She wasn’t in front of his house.
Only his father was there, sitting on the porch smoking a cigarette. Jimmy didn’t even bother to ask if Helen had stopped by or left a message.
He knocked for her but her sister said she wasn’t home, and her bike wasn’t on her porch. So Jimmy took off on his own bike and set out looking for her. She wasn’t hard to find…he saw her walking down the back street behind the factories. He didn’t know where her bike was. He rode down to her and swung around in front, making a bike arc and stopping with a flourish and a grin.
Then he saw her face and his grin evaporated instantly. Helen’s face was streaked with tears and she was walking with her arms wrapped around her as if she were freezing, but the sun was hot. Her hands were crossed over her chest and gripped her upper arms with such force that her short fingernails had left half-moon cuts in her skin. Her eyes were wet and dark and vacant.
Jimmy stepped off his bike and let it drop and reached for her, but she stepped back, dark eyes flaring wide. She looked at him and through him and didn’t see Jimmy at all.
“Hey,” he said, gently but with fear in his voice. “Hey….Helen?”
She kept staring through him and the tears welled and broke and ran down her face.
Jimmy held his hands up, palm outward, and moved slowly, cautiously toward her. It wasn’t until he was just a few feet away that her eyes seemed to find a little focus and she looked at him, seeing him for the first time.
“J..Jimmy…?” Her voice was small and broken, barely a whisper.
“Helen,” he said softly and moved closer still. “Helen…what’s wrong? What happened?”
Her eyes stared at him –and for a moment they were wild eyes, the eyes of some small trapped animal—and then she started to shake her head. Whatever it was, whatever had happened to her, it was too big, too enormous. Shaking her head she sank down into a squat, bowing her head and wrapping it with both arms.
Panic flared in Jimmy and he dropped down onto his knees and wrapped his arms around her. For just a moment she fought him, but then he said her name, and maybe it was the sound of his voice, but she pushed against him and wrapped her arms around his chest and began to weep.
He held her, kneeling there with her on the deserted back street, holding her with all his strength, saying her name over and over again and begging her to tell him what had happened.
But then, as he buried his nose in her hair, he smelled the stink of cigarette smoke and engine grease.
And he knew.
A BRIEF PAUSE FOR REFRESHMENTS PLEASE STAND BY
( 1 )
Heart awoke to the smell of frying bacon.
It was so incongruous and unlikely a smell that it drew him to the surface of the dreamless darkness, but he came awake slowly, moving through unspecific resistance toward the light. He felt his body before he became aware of any conscious understanding of place or time, and what he felt of his body was an absence of pain. He had come to expect pain, to feel it always in some part of his body, either the more recent agonies of broken shoulder, snakebite, torn cheek, or the older, duller aches from the pins and screws that held so much of him together. He felt none of the pain, either familiar or new, as he swam upward to the surface, bursting with unfamiliar ease through the surface tension between sleep and wakefulness. For once lifting his eyelids did not require the strength of Atlas.
He was in a hammock, swaying gently with the roll of the ship. Light poured in through an open port in rich, golden rays; particles of dust sparkled in the sunlight like galaxies. His awakening senses detected a second smell, one that coaxed him to movement: coffee. Hot and fresh. Heart lifted his head and shoulders and looked around, but all he could see was a small cabin, furnished only with a wooden chair, a scarred and use-stained writing desk. Incongruously, the walls were covered with ancient and tattered posters from Tortureship concerts around the world. Timing his move to the roll, Heart sat up and then slid down to the floor. The movement was performed as smoothly as if he’d done it a thousand times; a fact that did not register with him.
His clothing, however, did register. He was wearing yellowish nankeen sailor’s trousers, a red-and-white striped shirt of some coarse fabric, a belt made of rope and no shoes. He touched his throat and then lifted the ends of the brightly colored scarf that had been knotted loosely around his neck.
“Ar, me buckos,” he said aloud. “Avast there.”
He looked around and saw that he was in one of the crowded sleeping berths allotted to sailors. It was cramped and musty and dim. There was no sign of the Mechanic or the little boy, and when he moved to the bulkhead and strained to listen he heard only the creak of the ship and the distant muffled slap of water against the hull.
He leaned on the bulkhead for a moment, drumming his fingers and chewing his lip…and then something else registered with him. The hand that leaned against the wall was normal, it was his own hand again –not a glowing red mockery, not a white-hot image, nor a transparent ghost hand, but his own flesh and blood. He looked down at his trunk, legs, and feet, and they were all normal. Perhaps a bit pale, but his own. He turned his hand over, and though he found two tiny scars that could once have been snakebites but which now were completely healed over. There were no traces at all of any of the cuts he’d earned when he beat-up the mirror in the bathroom where he’d awakened yesterday morning. He flexed his hand and found no pain, no twinges. Likewise he rolled his left shoulder, but the bones, muscles, and tendons all worked with their familiar ease and without a flicker of discomfort. In truth, he hadn’t felt this good in years. Even his pelvis, which had always throbbed with a dull ache ever since he’d been a kid –the legacy of his father’s rage– did not hurt.
A smile broke out on his face and its brightness competed with the cheery rays of warm sunlight. “Must be the sea air,” he said aloud.
The cooking smells were stronger now. Bacon and eggs, coffee and toast. Heart’s stomach rumbled like cannon fire and his could feel his mouth watering, so he set off in search of the smells, deciding that if it was the Devil himself serving breakfast, he’d damn well sit down with him and break bread. At that point, he could have easily eaten a lightly cooked two-by-four.
The ship was still dark belowdecks, though not totally black and he could pick his way through the compartments with care. He followed his nose and eventually found what he assumed was the ship’s mess, which was lighted by swinging oil lamps. A figure stood in the galley with his back to Heart, busy with pans and wreathed in fragrant cooking smoke.
As Heart approached, the man turned. He was wearing a chef’s hat and an apron that said ‘Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Just the Cook’ in large red letters; he held a steaming spatula in one hand and a plate heavy with food in the other. He was smiling.
“Good morning,” said the Traveler. “Thought you were gonna sleep all day.” Heart slowed and stopped a few yards away. “What are you doing here?” he asked,
and he could hear the sudden belligerence in his own voice. “Cooking breakfast. Want some?”
Heart stood his ground and explored the inside of his cheek with his tongue for a dozen seconds. “What’s in it? Poison? LSD?”
The Traveler blinked. “Well, there’s some oregano, some basil, a little dill, some cheddar cheese and a few scraps of onions. Unless you’re allergic to any of those, I think it should be safe to eat. I made toast and coffee, too.”
In truth the food looked delicious: a fat omelet flanked by three rashers of bacon on each side and was backed by a mound of new potatoes fried with onions and peppers.
Steam rose in gentle wisps from the food and the smell of it was maddeningly enticing. “What the hell,” Heart said, unconsciously rubbing his belly. “I’m so hungry my stomach thinks my throat’s been cut.”
“Then pull up a pew, Dude. Chow’s on.” He set the plate down on the edge of the wooden table, selected some blunt silverware from a bin, and handed over an uneven piece of linen for a napkin.
“If there is a shred of decency in your soul, you’ll pour me a cup of that coffee.” “It’s strong stuff. I made it the way I drink it: boiled, black and bitter.”
“I don’t care if it tastes like roofing tar. It smells wonderful.” He sat down, picked up a fork and prodded the omelet experimentally for a moment. It wiggled heavily and looked entirely delicious.
“It won’t bite,” said the Traveler.
“No, but I will.” And he was as good as his word.
The Traveler pushed a battered tin mug of coffee across to him and sat down with one of his own. He buttered a stack of toast, cut them like a poker deck and passed half to Heart, who nodded, grunted thanks through a mouthful of food and kept eating. The Traveler waited him out, sipping his own coffee and nibbling at a corner of toast. When
Heart had finished-off the plate and was settling back with his third cup of the scalding black coffee, the Traveler said: “You look well, considering.”
Heart grunted and flexed his right hand. “Who’s responsible for the first aid?” “You have friends.”
Heart eyed him over the rim of the cup. “Do I? Lately it’s been hard to tell.” “Oh?”
“Come on…. Everywhere I turn someone’s trying to take a chunk out of me.” “Yeah, well, life’s a bitch. Tell me, Indy,” the Traveler drawled, “do you have any idea who’s doing all this to you? Any brilliant insights yet?” “No, but I could take a few guesses.”
Heart cocked his head to one side. “Why on earth should I confide in you?” “Why not? We’re friends, aren’t we?”
“Are we? Hmmmm. I met you tonight –or was it last night?– and we had a couple of drinks together. Doesn’t exactly qualify you as my bosom buddy.”
“Mm, maybe not, but who else do you have to talk to? More seabirds? Can’t always trust them, y’know.”
Heart sipped his coffee and considered this. “Maybe I should just keep it to myself.” “It’s your call. I’m just trying to be helpful.”
“If you want to be helpful, then tell me what’s going on.” “Oh, come on, Indy, you know it doesn’t work like that.” “What doesn’t?”
“Life, what else?”
“What, his is some kind of bizarre episode of This Is Your Life?” “If you like.”
“I don’t like.”
“Well, I guess that’s forcing an analogy anyway,” the Traveler conceded. “No, y’see, this whole gig is one of those mystical rite-of-passage sort of things you probably read about in books.”
“Stage-managed by you clowns?”
The Traveler shrugged. “Everybody’s life touches a great number of people,” he said, “and some of them touch back.”
“Oh, very profound.”
“Mock if you want to, but it’s the truth. No cryptic dodginess.” “So, what you’re saying is that….”
“What I’m saying,” the Traveler said with patient insistence, “is that you are at a crisis point in your life and if you don’t get a handle on how to manage the events and forces in your life, then you are going to crash and burn big time.” He paused and poured them both a fresh cup of coffee. “lndy, you’re a pretty smart guy for someone who’s lived his whole life in Stone, but whether you accept the fact or not, the world is a lot bigger than that, a lot bigger than one reality. A lot bigger even than one perception of reality. There are infinite worlds, and these worlds overlap in a million different ways. Reality is both subjective and malleable. Time is equally elastic.”
“And this New Age bullshit relates to me how?” “It relates to you because you’re caught in it.” Heart pursed his lips. “How?”
The Traveler glanced significantly at the interior of the cabin. “Kind of obvious, isn’t it?”
“It is if you believe this is real.” “Which…you don’t?”
“Right. Coma or delusions. I keep forgetting.” “There’s a third theory I like, too.”
“Which is?” “That I’m dead.”
The Traveler smiled down into his coffee cup, shaking his head. “Dead, huh? And this is what…hell?”
“Or some kind of purgatory.” “You like this theory?”
“Well, maybe like is the wrong word,” Heart said, “but the theory explains everything. That fight I was in? With the three jackasses at the bar where I worked? Who knows, maybe I got shanked and this is some kind of purgatory.”
“Purgatory,” said the Traveler.
“Which, admitted, serves a good breakfast.” He stuffed a corner of toast in his mouth and crunched loudly.
“Ah. So…of all of these theories which would you prefer to be the truth?” “Oh, the coma one, naturally. It’s better to be dreaming than to be damned.”
“That would look good on a plaque somewhere.” He refilled their cups. “And the fourth possibility is that this is all real…well, more or less real.”
Heart shook his head. “Nope, don’t like that option.”
“Why is it so hard to accept that the world may be more complex than you thought? Didn’t Hamlet say something about that to Horatio? Or is it that you can’t buy the concept that a person can change or reshape the world according to will or desire?”
“That’s fairly hard to accept, sure. The world is the world. I’ve never seen any evidence that a person can affect real changes on it. I mean on its structure.”
“No? I’m really surprised you think that, considering.” “Considering what?’
“Considering who you are,” the Traveler said evenly, “and considering what you’ve done with your life.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
The Traveler sipped his coffee and studied Heart. “Before I answer that, let me preface by saying that by now it should be obvious that some of us, some of the Invited, have a way of knowing more about you than you think we should. You’ve gotten pretty pissed-off about that, but there it is. Can we talk about this without you getting all pissy again?”
Heart managed a rueful smile. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, Mister Sin slapped my wrist about that already.”
“Good.” The Traveler matched his smile. “Okay, so let me take an oblique run at answering your question.”
“Oh, by all means do. Never consider just straight-out giving an answer. It’d be too easy.”
Ignoring that, the Traveler said, “You’ve had a helluva fight recently, right? I mean, the three guys at the bar would have taken the average joe apart. How do you think you did?”
“You mean in the actual fight?” “Uh-huh.”
Heart shrugged. “I did okay.”
Shaking his head, the Traveler said, “No sir, you did not do ‘okay’. You kicked ass.
You kicked –to use the vernacular– some serious bootie.” Heart shrugged again.
“He’s modest, too!” The Traveler chuckled. “You took three guys out at the bar, one of whom pulled a knife, and came out on top.”
“Yeah,” Heart said quickly, and his eyes darted down to his hands, which were now gripped tightly around his coffee mug.
Heart glanced up. “What?”
“How did you beat them all so easily?” “I don’t remember it being all that easy.” “So efficiently, then.”
Heart made a vague gesture. “Oh, you know…I’ve had a little martial arts training.” “How much is ‘a little’?”
“Give me a number.”
“Ten, fifteen, something like that.”
“Try nineteen.” The Traveler’s eyes glittered as Heart stared at him, but Heart did not make a comment, and the Traveler nodded with faint approval. “You’re what, a third or fourth degree black belt?”
“Fourth.” “In jujutsu?” “Yeah.”
“And…other than kicking the crap out of the bad guys, what else have you done with that knowledge and with those skills?”
Heart said nothing.
“Well then,” said the Traveler, “let me refresh your memory. We all know you worked as a bouncer in a go-go bar. Dude, let me tell you, that was one seriously shitty job.”
“I know. Not my scene, but I had some debts and the money was good.”
“It’d have to be. I also seem to have heard somewhere that you also taught some self-defense courses at the local YWCA and at a community college.”
“What of it? What does this have to do with changing the substance of reality?” “What are you, double-parked or something? Let me get to it my own way, dude.”
He drank a large mouthful of coffee, suppressed a belch, and continued. “So, here you are, teaching self-defense to women a couple nights a week for, what, six, seven years? Tell me, did you ever hear about any of your students using what you showed them in real self- defense?”
“Well, sure, but I—.” “Aha!”
“What’s with the ‘aha!’?”
“How many of your students have used what you showed them in successful self- defense?”
“It was a rough neighborhood. These were mostly college kids and housewives, single moms and stuff like that.”
“How many?” “Oh, I don’t–.” “Indy?”
“Okay, maybe something like a dozen. Maybe a few more.”
The Traveler leaned his elbows on the table. “Maybe twenty-one.” “Twenty-one? No, that’s too many….”
“I have better sources than you do, son. Twenty-one. And, it’s twenty-one successful defenses out of as many situations. That’s a one hundred percent success ratio. That’s twenty-one women who were not raped, not brutalized, not abused.”
Heart remained silent; he merely fidgeted with his coffee cup.
“That’s also twenty-one bad guys who got their asses kicked. Some quite seriously kicked, I’m told.”
Heart said, “Okay, so I taught them a few dirty tricks, sure, but don’t go looking to credit me with their success. I didn’t invent the techniques, pal, I just taught them; and I wasn’t there calling encouragement when they were fighting. Each of those women earned their own victories, and each one of them deserves all the credit. If you’re trying to pat me on the back and get me to steal some of the glory, then you’re barking up the wrong tree.” The Traveler opened his mouth to say something, but Heart cut him off. “Listen to me, pal:
I win fights because I’m big and I’m tough and I know a lot about martial arts. Okay, bully for me; but don’t you dare diminish the fact that each one of those women had to fight against greater odds than I ever had to face. They were all smaller and weaker than the men they faced; and each one of them was scared out of her mind. Each one of them was fighting for the very first time in her life, too. As a bouncer I have hundreds of fights behind me, so of course I’m more likely to win that Joe Average; but those women –God, what they did was heroic! Fighting against those kinds of odds. You don’t understand; you’re like me: a man, and we don’t really know what it’s like to feel that kind of fear, to feel overwhelmed and helpless; to know that no matter what you do to fight back, it’s not enough. You don’t know what it’s like to live in fear every single fucking day of your life, knowing that at any second a monster can leap out of the shadows and beat you, control you, invade you! You don’t understand.” He said these last three words with great passion, spacing each one and giving them equal and ponderous weight.
“Wow,” said the Traveler, “that’s some soapbox you have. And, you’re dead wrong about one thing: I do know what it’s like to be that helpless. I really do.” He paused and for just a moment his face softened and looked younger. “My own childhood had its rough spots, believe me. Maybe one day I’ll tell you my long, sad story –and it’s a corker. But I’m not that kid who was once knocked around. I grew up, Indigo. I grew up, I got older, and I got tougher. Now…well, now I’m a very dangerous man; and I’ve been a dangerous man for a long, long time.” He paused. “I guess it’s true to say that you’re a dangerous man, too. Not as dangerous as I am, but very, very tough and very experienced, and I can remember a lot of fights where I could have used someone like you at my back. We’re different than most men in a lot of ways, and it stems back to what happened to us as kids.
Having gone what we went through has changed us, or, rather I should say, that it caused us to grow up differently than the norm. So, there’s a major difference between men like us and the average man, Indigo, and it stands at the nexus of all the paths and choices of your life.”
“Yeah,” Heart asked belligerently, “and what is that?”
“The difference, Indy, is that unlike most men you do know what it’s like. You do know what it’s like to be smaller and helpless, to be overwhelmed and violated.” “Shut up,” Heart said, but he said it softly, without emphasis.
The Traveler drank the rest of his coffee, but his eyes were fixed on Heart. “Because you really do understand what that feels like you wanted to make sure that no one else ever felt the same thing. You probably weren’t conscious of that, but it’s plain that it was there. As a result you packed so much intensity into what you taught those women that they were truly empowered. That changed the whole shape and structure of their worlds for them by allowing them to own their lives, to take back the night as that slogan puts it. And to take back more than just the night. What you taught them, and the way that you taught them, allowed them to change the way they look at the world, and the way they deal with the world.” He paused and the ship creaked softly around them. “So, Indigo, how is it you don’t think that a person can change the structure of reality?”
Heart frowned stubbornly. “Yeah, well, I don’t see the connection.”
The Traveler snorted. “Tell me, what happened between you and your father?” There was a beat, then: “How about you just go and fuck yourself?”
“No, I’m not asking about what he did to you. I can see that and my heart breaks for you. No, that was not sarcastic, Indigo, my heart breaks for you and every child who was or is going through that kind of hell.” He shook his head. “I know something about that, too. As Kamala told you last night, a lot of people have been through hell.”
“I don’t want to talk about this.”
“And yet we are talking about it. That’s all we’ve ever been talking about.”
Heart said nothing to that.
“So,” continued the Traveler, “what I’m asking is this: what happened between you and your father? What stopped the abuse? What happened to your father that made all the horror stop?” He reached across the table and gripped Heart’s forearm. “What saved you from the monster, Indigo?”
Heart wrenched his arm away and stood up, backing away from the table so violently that he spilled both coffee mugs. He felt sick as if the food in his stomach had turned to offal.
“You prick.” “Indigo….”
“You have no right to do this.”
The Traveler stood, a frown of concern darkening his features. “No right? No right to try help save a soul?”
“Aren’t we getting a little self-righteous, “ Heart sneered. “As if you could save my soul.”
“I didn’t say I was able to save your soul. I said I was trying to help save it.”
“Save it from what?” Heart demanded. “From whom, actually.”
“Don’t fucking mince words with me.”
“I’m not. I’m making a specific point, you nitwit. If you’d stop emoting for a minute and just listen then maybe you’d learn something. I said I was trying to help save a soul and, yes, it is your soul I’m referring to, I was not claiming that I was, single-handedly going to flap into your life like the archangel Michael and bestow blessings. This is the world, man; the world doesn’t work like that. Not even in the Fire Zone.”
“Then what are you saying?”
“I’m saying that you need all the help you can get because you are in real danger, Indy. Real danger.”
“Damn it, will you listen! Not from what, but from whom, man. I’m trying to protect you from the person who has been trying for so long to hurt you.” “Who? Owen Minor? I can handle that punk.”
The Traveler stared helplessly at him. He looked up to heaven and flapped his arms in futility. “Jesus H. T. Christ on a skateboard! You are about the most contrary son of a bitch I’ve met in a long time.” His smile faded and his face hardened. “What does it take to make you understand that you’re fighting the wrong fight? That you’re fighting the wrong enemy?” Heart said nothing, but his fists were balled-up at his sides. “Mister Sin asked me to come back to the Zone and give you a hand, and I’ve been doing that. He said that you were facing a pretty tough opponent, but I’m beginning to think overwhelming
might be a better word.” His words mingled anger and disapproval. “Okay then,” he said, then nodded to himself and repeated it. “Okay then. Christ, you really are you own worst enemy, you know that? So…maybe we’d better pump-up the volume on you, Mr. Heart.”
Heart turned away. ‘Yeah, well, don’t do me any favors.”
“Believe me,” said the Traveler coldly, “I’m not.”
Heart stood with his back turned for several seconds, fighting his anger. Then he drew in a deep breath and sighed it out. “Can’t it ever be simple?” he whispered.
The Traveler didn’t answer him. Because the Traveler wasn’t even there.
( 2 )
Heart stood there in the fragrant, lonely darkness of the galley and looked around for something that he could squeeze until it screamed. Finding nothing to hand, he heaved out a long sigh of mingled frustration and hatred, and stormed off toward the corridor that led to the ladder that would take him away from here and up into the sunlight. Finding the ladder, he began to climb, looking neither up nor down but at his own hands, at the mechanical way in which they reached, gripped, pulled and released. Reached, gripped, pulled and released. There was comfort in the routine of it and he climbed for a while without thinking about it.
Then he had to think about it because he had been climbing for too long a while and hadn’t reached the upper deck. He paused and looked up. The ladder stretched high and away, perhaps a thousand miles into a semi-darkened emptiness.
“Oh no,” he said, “not again.”
He looked down. Below, the ladder vanished into a roiling blackness just inches below his feet. The blackness seemed to eddy like the surface of a pool of tar. As he watched, the level of the roiling darkness crept up a full inch until it was just lapping at his heels. He hastily climbed a step. The darkness welled upward after him.
For a moment he considered ending it right there. Maybe it would be easier to let go of the ladder and just allow his body to plunge into that unknown blackness, to become part of it, letting it extinguish all of his light and all of his life. He considered it for quite a while as the inky blackness rose inch-by-inch until once more it was licking at the bottom of his bare feet. It was cold and felt oily. He climbed two more steps and stopped, watching as the darkness rose again.
He cocked his ear, listening. There was a sound in the air, like the faintest echo of a whisper. No–whispers. Voices. He strained to hear what they were saying, but the sounds were blended together, whispery soft, too faint to make out even a single word, and yet somehow he had an impression of what the voices were saying. There was an enticing, alluring quality to the whispers, like friends confiding secrets, or lovers calling him into sheltered trysting places. He listened and he felt the seduction take hold of his heart. Come and be with us, the voices seemed to be saying. It’s easier. It’s better. Be with us.
Then with a cold shiver he realized that the whispers were rising up to his ears, coming from somewhere down below the dark waters.
Come and be with us. He imagined that this was what the voices were saying. It’s easier. It’s better. Be with us.
He lingered, staring down at the utter blackness below. It did seem so simple that way. No more fighting, no more of these stupid Fire Zone games. No grief.
He thought of the Mechanic. Was he finally defeated, or had he, too, fallen back and regrouped? Would he be whole and dangerous again if they met once more?
It’s easier. It’s better. Be with us.
He could escape the Mechanic down there. He could escape all of it down there. It’s better.
He looked up. The ladder stretched away beyond the limits of his vision, and he knew how hard the climb would be. He knew he didn’t have that kind of strength.
The blackness was gathering around his ankles now, and the coldness of it was startling. It wasn’t like the cold wetness of water –this was a totally empty coldness. Like how he imagined the coldness of outer space would feel. A deep, hollow coldness.
“No…” he murmured, and climbed up another step.
Once free of the coldness the seductive voices grew louder, their pleas more insistent.
Come and be with us.
Heart leaned his forehead against a rung and closed his eyes. He could sense the darkness rising again, and with his eyes closed it felt as if it were rising inside his body, as if he himself were filling up with darkness.
“No,” he said again. Soft and pleading. “Please no.”
Somewhere, nearly hidden within the smoky whispers, he could hear another voice. “Hey, boy, just in time for the fun. I’ll save you some.”
It was the voice of the Mechanic.
Heart sagged, his grip loosening in defeat.
“God damn you to Hell!” he said, but his voice was as weak and helpless as a child.
The whispering went on and on, begging him to let go, imploring him to fall into the darkness, and his will began to crumble. Heart stared at his right hand, watching as the muscles went slowly slack, watched as the fingers slowly uncurled their grip. He watched as the hand gradually and slowly let go.
The hand hung free in space and he clung to the ladder with only his left. Heart stared at the small healed-over scars on his right hand.
Tears were streaming down his face. It’s easier. It’s better. Be with us.
Then Indigo Heart’s right hand reached up for the next rung. He left go with his left and reached up again.
And again. Climbing toward the impossibly distant light. Below him the siren whispers turned to snarls of rage and the darkness swelled upward in hungry pursuit.
Jonathan Maberry, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Editor at Wild River Review in 2007, has been a professional writer for thirty years and has sold over a dozen nonfiction books, three novels (including Ghost Road Blues, June 2006, Pinnacle), and over 900 articles, as well as short stories, poetry, plays, video scripts, song lyrics, and more. He is a book doctor and writing teacher, and is a frequent lecturer at writers’ conferences.
Works by Jonathan Mayberry
Thrill Ride: The Dark World of Mysteries and Thrillers:
An Interview with Lawrence Block and Steve Hamilton
An Interview with Barry Eisler
An Interview with Bill Kent
An Interview with David Housewright