Tales from the Fire Zone: The Odyssey of Indigo Heart
Tales from the Fire Zone was first produced as a play at Temple University in the early 1980s, and was later produced as a radio production in Los Angeles. After letting it sit for nearly 20 years I decided to revise it and turn it into a novel.
This is a long story, using experimental storytelling methods. The entire book will be published in three sections, one in each of first three issues of The Bucks County Review. Comments are welcome and can be sent to email@example.com.
When kings are born or die the heavens rain down fire and lions are seen in the streets; but how does creation acknowledge the death and rebirth of the soul of an ordinary man? On the night that he stopped being Jim Smith and became Indigo Heart no comets ignited the sky, the dawn did not tremble as he opened his eyes. Instead, as he slept, the universe sent him dreams of the Fire Zone.
He’d dreamed of it before in bits and pieces but that night he spent every sleeping moment in the Zone. The dreams were complex and even when he was aware that he was dreaming he didn’t understand all of it. It was like stepping through Alice’s looking glass without having read the book.
When he woke he had only a few broken moments of memory, and the awake Jim Smith and the dreaming Jim Smith shared just a flicker of understanding. It was like primitive man and future man both looking at a spark floating on the air and sharing an understanding of fire.
When he’d awakened that morning he’d risen to the top of his dreams and broke the surface tension like a swimmer fighting against an undertow. Sweating, breathing hard he sat on the edge of the bed, hating the morning and remembering only pieces of the dream.
He’d rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, not yet realizing that his trembling fingers were painted with magic.
THE REFUGEE INDIGO HEART
I wish someone would find me and help me gain control before I lose my reason
And my soul.
King Midas In Reverse
I got keep movin’ I’ve got to keep movin’
blues fallin’ down like hail Umm mmm mmm mmm
And the days keeps on worryin’ me there’s a hellhound on my trail hellhound on my trail
Hellhound on My Trail
by Robert Johnson
CHAPTER ONE ( 1 )
Jim Smith ran as if the hounds of hell were dogging him. Which, in point of fact, they were.
He ran out of the bar with blood on his hands and hurled himself into the raging darkness, cringing at the blasts of thunder overhead, wincing as the tears in his eyes made the lightning flashes stab all the way through his brain. The streets were a shadowy glistening smear before him and immovable objects leapt into his path. He ran balls first into a fireplug and pitched over the curb into the street, flopping like a gaffed marlin into a puddle. Gagging on greasy water, whimpering with the enormous agony in his crotch, he staggered to toes and fingers and scampered like a kicked dog for five yards before he could get back to his feet. Then he dug in and ran like hell because the air behind him suddenly filled with banshee wails. Blue and red lights chopped back and forth above his head and he dashed behind a van, crouching low as the police cruiser tore past. Then he launched himself away from the van’s cold metal body and fled down a side street.
Jim Smith ran as fast as his long legs and hard muscles and big feet could take him. But he could not run fast enough. What he ran from was inside of him and it pursued him with the speed of a big hunting cat, shrieking in his mind like a cougar, tearing at his back with savage claws. He ran, but it ran faster.
He tried not to think, or failing that, he tried just to think about running.
But his mind refused to shut down to autopilot. It flashed images at him, over and over again. The squalid front room at the strip club…the crowd of onlookers leering like Romans at the Circus…the three men coming at him with clenched fists and drunken hatred…and then his own hands, moving out with blurring speed.
Then his mind began feeding him an audio track to go with the images. The shouts of the crowd rising above the cheap disco music…the shriek of the dancer from the stage as if all of the violence were somehow directed at her…and then the sounds of fists on flesh. Thud, thud! The gunshot loudness of the sound of bones breaking.
Gags, yells. A man whimpering in pain, another choking on a throatful of blood.
And then the heavy crash -with sound and pictures— of one man collapsing bonelessly to the barroom floor, his face a mask of blood. Two eyes stared at Jim through the blood, eyes bright and clear for a moment. Eyes full of life, but troubled by pain and confusion, unable to understand how things had gone so terribly wrong. Then as if someone had thrown a switch, those eyes faded to darkness, to emptiness. They became dead eyes in just the span of a few seconds.
Jim ran, still seeing those dead eyes. Eyes beyond sight…and yet eyes that stared accusingly after him as he ran.
A denial rose to his lips but he choked on it.
No. The man was dead. He could try to outrun the truth of it, try to flee the reality of it, but the man was dead.
An alley way yawned open to his right and he dodged into it, clipping his shoulder on the slick red bricks.
Behind him the rainy sky was speckled with neon-colored lights and heavy with sirens, one after the other. Before him the polluted darkness of the alley loomed black and immense and inviting, and he gave himself to it entirely.
( 2 )
At the end of a million years of darkness the alley spilled out into another street. Framed by the walls of the alley’s mouth and spotlighted under a streetlamp, idling on the glistening black asphalt with smoke curling up from the tailpipe and steam hissing from the hot skin of its hood, stood a cab. A strange cab, weird. An old ’57 Chevy that had mutated into something new and sleek and powerful and totally alien. The cab was painted dark red with a broad yellow line running from headlights to tailfins. The dome light shone so bright it was hard to look at. Jim almost slowed, almost dodged away behind a dumpster. But didn’t.
The cabbie, just a shadow within the vehicle, leaned over and jerked open the passenger door.
With no more hesitation than a momentary falter in his step, Jim burst out into the street, ran the eight short steps to the cab and literally dove into the back seat.
“Drive!” he screamed. He was a tangle of too many arms and legs and not enough room, but he clawed his way onto the bench seat. “Drive…drive!”
The cabbie turned to look at him but all Jim saw was the shadowy outline of a head and shoulders and the glowing tip of his cigar through a smoky blue haze.
“Anywhere! Just drive, for Christ’s sake!”
The cigar tip flared bright as the cabbie drew on it and then it vanished as the man turned away to stare out the windshield. There was moment where nothing happened. There was no sound outside of the car and only the sound of Jim’s labored breathing inside. Then the cabbie stamped then pedal down and the cab shot away from the curb with a jerk, slamming Jim inches deep into the upholstery. Jim reached for the open door but the sudden lurch of the car slammed it shut with a thud, jamming his fingers. Yelping in pain he sucked his fingers, tasting dirty rainwater and blood. He gagged.
The streetlights beyond the rain-spotted windows blurred and diffused into racing smears, another car’s horn moaned in a mournful Doppler wail, the windshield wipers slashed back and forth like the frenetic scythes of maddened reapers.
The cab tore holes in the night.
( 1 )
It took Jim a while to gather up all the disconnected pieces of himself and clumsy them back into something resembling a human being, though overall it was not a grand success. He looked like shit, which was appropriate to how he felt. He wore a three-button burgundy pullover with the words EYEFUL’S sTOPLESS GO- GO embroidered over the right breast below an appliqué of the silhouette of a nude woman with improbable breasts bathing in a martini glass. The shirt was pasted to him by rainwater and sweat and it smelled of beer and cigarettes and blood. He wore black double-knit polyester pants and black sneakers with Velcro closings. He wore a Timex watch with a cracked glass, and he wore an earring in his left ear: a silver crow’s head dangling on a short chain. His clothes were disgusting and he couldn’t blame it all on the storm or the fight back at the bar. The polyester was his work clothes, the required uniform of a bouncer, and an embarrassment even when he was on he job. Now they just looked tacky and sad and miserable, soaked and stinking. A homeless person wouldn’t mug him for those clothes.
His short hair was plastered to his head, dyed from brown to black by the storm, the curls flattened by the water. Only the droplets of rain, sparkling like
jewels in the close tangle of his auburn beard, gave him a dash of tattered elegance, but it was way too little and far too late. He was a mess.
“Jesus,” he muttered as he ran his palms over his face. His hands were shaking badly. Maybe it was the cold, or the effort of running, but he doubted it. The skin of his knuckles was torn and the wounds still bled sluggishly. He turned his face away, not wanting to see the evidence of his crime.
Instead he looked at the driver. Jim couldn’t see the rear-view mirror and could only see the cabbie in profile. He was thin, even gaunt, with wax-white skin and lips so red they looked rouged. His eyes were dark and he had a slender, beaky nose; he wore a billed-cap backward and Jim could read the embroidered logo: Black Marsh Crematories, Inc. There was a chewed stump of a soggy, smoky cigar dangling limply from between those red lips. He wore dangling Alpha and Omega- symbol earrings. He looked like some kind of surreal punk Dracula.
The car sliced along the side street, paused for a second at the corner and then plunged into the crosscutting traffic of the avenue. Horns blared and tires squealed wetly, but the cabbie just poured on the gas and trailed twin steams of pale smoke from his nostrils.
“Safe,” murmured Jim and a moment later his conscious mind realized he’d said it. He played back that word in his head and wondered what he meant, why he said it. Safe? That was a fucking joke. As far as he was concerned, safety was a thing of the past. And nothing –nothing– would ever be the same again.
In that moment it all flooded into him, brushing past the gates of shock and immediacy, pushing brusquely into the courtyard of his awareness. Nothing would
ever be the same.
That statement was absolutely true.
Suddenly the enormity of it all rose up before him like some black sea monster rising over the rail of ship: vast and dark and overwhelming. He shrank back against the cushions, tears bubbling in the corners of his eyes, his lips forming words of hopeless denial.
Nothing would ever be the same.
Everything he had ever known was going to pass away, it was all damaged or dying. He tried to look forward just as far as the next hour of his life, or the next minute, but all he saw was chaos, and it did not fill him with dread but with an absolutely ice-cold bleakness, a vast emptiness through which not even the winds of chance blew. The tears boiling in the corners of his eyes, broke, and rolled down his cheeks, but even these were cold.
“Safe,” he muttered again, but this time he loaded the word with mockery.
He stared out the window and miles and minutes whipped past.
As he sat there, the hum of the motor and the rhythm of the wheels began to lull him, the interminable line of street lights flicking by were like a hypnotist’s watch. He drowsed and his outward eye turned slowly inward to look at the bleakness of his interior landscape. Half-asleep, he dreamed that those dark mental skies were polluted by the image of a gigantic face, a man’s face that stretched from horizon to horizon, as vast as the face of a god. It was a familiar face, but familiar in
an odd and twisted sort of way because it reminded Jim of two different people, two separate people who shared –either by pure chance or by some perverse twist of cosmic whim– nearly identical features. As Jim looked at it, the face shifted back and forth between the two different but similar men, like one of those toys you flip back and forth to see first a live Jesus then a dead one.
One face was that of the man Jim had left broken and bleeding on the bar room floor back at Eyeful’s sTopless Go-Go (was his name Terry?) and the other man’s face was an older, broader, blunter face –similar in many way’s to Terry’s, and yet clearly not related. Similar to Jim’s face, and much as he wanted to, Jim could not wish away the blood connection there. This second face was one Jim knew all too well, and one that he hated with every atom of his being. When that face dominated the sky, it leered at him with a broad, wet, leering smile. A hateful smile, the smile of a beast, the hungry smile of a user, a taker. Jim had hated that face since childhood and would hate it until every star in the sky burned out to clouds of cold carbon dust.
As Jim slept, the face in his mind stretched across the skies of his dreamworld became clearer, the features more sharply defined, the characteristics of ugly appetites and hatred more evident in every curl of lip and flick of tongue over spit-gleaming teeth.
The bloody face leaned toward him from the sky, bending low to where Jim lay cringing on the scorched earth of his dreamworld. Helpless, held immobile by fear, Jim could only stare upward as the leering lips peeled back to reveal white
teeth slimed with red. Those lips writhed like worms, and as he watched, one eye slowly winked at him. A long, knowing wink above a butcher’s crimson smile.
In a gagging, choking cry Jim sprang awake, kicking out suddenly against the back of the driver’s seat, turning, clawing at the door handle. “STOP!” he cried and clamped a hand over his mouth, feeling his stomach turn to gutter-water. “Jesus, pull over! Now!”
Jim had the door-handle jerked up before the cab rolled to a stop and he spilled out into the rain. It hammered on his back as he collapsed half-in and half- out of the cab and immediately began to vomit. He choked on his disgust and his fear and spit up what felt like gallons of terror and shame, of hatred and rage, of humiliation and despair; and the puke mingled with the tears that fell like rain from his eyes and the last few drops of blood from his torn knuckles. The rain intensified and washed the commingled liquids away from him into a culvert and down into darkness. He kept throwing up until his chest spasmed with painful dry-heaves and all that escaped his throat was a gut-churning, throat burning cough. Still, Jim knelt there, doubled over a knotted gut, feeling impossibly empty.
Gradually, the spasms stopped. He crawled all the way out of the cab and knelt on hands and knees in the street, his throat raw, his ribs aching from the convulsions, his mouth open, lips slack and rubbery, spit an snot dripping from his face and fresh tears burned like acid in his eyes.
He stared down at his own reflection in the puddle, his face shadowed by the overhead streetlight, distorted by the rippling of the puddle. The features looked heavy and brutal, the face of a killer. Like the two faces that had haunted his brief dreams; but this one was certainly his own.
And it was the face of a killer, he realized. There was no doubt of it
now…the evidence was laying on a beer splashed taproom floor. Though his hands were now washed-clean of any traces, he could still feel the warm burn of human blood on his fingertips and on his knuckles.
Distantly he heard a sound. The click of a car door, the soft scuff of a shoe on the ground. Jim remembered the cabbie, realized the man was probably wondering what was going on. He felt more than saw the man come around the front of the cab.
Jim looked up pleadingly at the darkened figure. “I…,” he began but his voice was thick, his thoughts confused. He couldn’t even compose the words to concede defeat.
He lowered his head until his brow was touching the surface of the water, looking like a supplicant kneeling in respectful prayer, but there was nothing devout left alive in Jim, nothing reverent in his defeat. His mouth formed the words: Oh, God! silently. Over and over again.
Within a handful of seconds the rain dwindled from a steady downpour to a gentle shower to nothing at all.
Jim tried to raise his head. It was like jacking up a truck. He looked over his shoulder at the cab. Somehow all the rain had sizzled off of it, leaving no smear or droplet or trace. The crimson skin looked hot, and steam rose from it. The cabbie leaned against the fender, arms folded, head tilted to one side, chewing on his cigar..
Jim felt his throat working and he wondered what he would say. He wiped a hand over his face and heard himself say: “Please.” Very softly, plaintively, but without direction.
The cabbie was a small man, five-seven and as thin and hard as a rake- handle. He wore ancient jeans and a t-shirt with a band label for a group Jim had never heard of: Tortureship. The logo was a galleon in heavy seas, listing hard to
port with tattered sails flapping in a stiff wind; sweeps like long halberds cut the choppy seas and a silhouetted corpse hung from a yardarm. Blood streamed from the scuppers. Below the logo was the legend: ENLIGHTENMENT TOUR.
Jim looked up at him. “Please?” he murmured, but said it as a question. The cabbie stood there, staring down at him with dark unreadable eyes but the smallest curl of contempt on his red lips. “Get up off the ground.”
The cabbie took the stub of cigar from between his white teeth and studied it. “Then stay here and drown,” he said with a shrug of his thin shoulders. “I’m easy.”
Jim looked down at the dirty water of the puddle.
“Your call, Ace,” the cabbie said. “Meter’s running.” He picked a fleck of tobacco off the tip of his tongue, looked at it, then flicked it away into the dark.
With a grunt of effort, Jim sat back on his heels. He pawed at his clothes. “Christ,” he said vacantly, “I’m a mess.”
“Life’s a mess. You wanna go somewhere or you wanna stay here hurlin’ your lunch at the concrete?”
Jim dragged his forearm along his mouth. “No,” he said softly. “No.”
“Then get the fuck up and get outta the God damn rain.” “It’s not raining anymore….”
The cabbie measured out a faint half-smile at that. “Yeah, but it’ll start up again, you can bet on it.”
“Yes,” Jim agreed heavily, as if they were discussing a cosmic verity.
Which, perhaps, they were. He thought about it without moving. Inertia had him by the balls. On the other hand….
Nothing will ever be the same again.
The thought flickered back again. This time, though, it sounded more like a hopeful promise than a pronouncement of doom; and he didn’t understand it at all.
He tried to stand, but his knees buckled and he thumped back down, the rough concrete scraping skin of his kneecaps. He reached out a hand toward the cabbie. “Little help…?”
The cabbie folded his arms, cocked his head to one side and smiled, but otherwise did not move a muscle. In the uncertain light his incisors looked unnaturally long, adding to his punk vampire look.
Snorting, the cabbie turned and walked back around to the driver’s side.
Over his shoulder he said, “You’ll get up if you want to, and you’ll stay there if you don’t.”
You fucker! Jim thought, but he didn’t say it. Furious, he pulled himself
back to his knees, then onto his wobbly feet and from there staggered over to the
cab, collapsing against it for a moment. He grabbed the edge of the open door and glared in. “You could have at least given me a friggin’ hand!”
“Could have,” the cabbie agreed thoughtfully, then added: “Didn’t though.” He threw his cigar butt out the window and fished another one out of the cellophane-wrapped pack on the seat; he lighted it and blew smoke into the silence as Jim stood there glaring at him. Finally, he sighed, half-turned in his seat and said: “It got you to pick your own sorry ass up off the ground though, didn’t it?”
Jim opened his mouth to fire an outraged broadside at him. Then he shut it without making a sound. He climbed slowly -almost warily- into the cab. “Bastard,” he said softly as he pulled the door shut.
“So they tell me.” The cabbie put it in drive and nosed the big cab away from the curb. “Tell me again where I’m taking you, Ace?”
Jim stared at the back of his head for a moment, then down at his own hands, then out the window. Cars shot past in either direction, seeming to move quickly away from that moment in time. Jim rubbed his hands over his face and looked at his palms. There were smears from the fresh tears in his eyes. Three times he opened his mouth to answer, and three times he couldn’t make his tongue work. Where did he want to go? Where on earth could he go? Well…certainly as far away from Eyeful’s as he could get. The cops would be there now, and his description would probably be broadcast over the police bands soon. Bouncer or no, provoked or no, he had killed that guy back at the bar. The fact that he had done it, more or less, in the line of duty wouldn’t wash with the cops because his “line of duty” had been head bouncer for a strip club. Kind of hard to justify the use of lethal force under those circumstances, which meant that the cops would be looking to bust him, and he did not have money for bail, sure as hell couldn’t afford a lawyer, and could not think of one person on Earth who would accept his one phone call. He was alone, on the run, and he had to decide where he was going to run to. The darkness of his despair seemed to be closing around him and he felt a claustrophobic panic.
He twisted in his seat and looked over his shoulder –back down the street, back the way they’d come. Back there was the heart of the city he’d lived in all his life. Back there was Eyeful’s Stopless Go-Go, and the dreary death of a dreary drunk. Back there was a three-room apartment that was as empty as a dead battery. Back there were a bunch of people he knew, but there were no real friends back there. Back there was a pointless job as a bouncer, and a meager bank account, and a membership to a gym filled with people he didn’t know and didn’t want to know. Back there were patterns and routines. Back there was his life.
Or the shallow, threadbare thing that passed for one.
He stared out of the back window of the cab. Back there it was as dark as death.
He turned slowly and saw that the cabbie was watching him with eyes that glittered like onyx. Jim Smith licked his lips. “Find me some light,” he said.
The cabbie looked at him for a long, silent time, chewing thoughtfully on his cigar. “You sure that’s what you want?”
Jim nodded. “Get me out of here,” he said fiercely. “Just get me out.”
The cabbie gave him a razor-slash of a smile. “Right-o,” he said, and stepped on the gas. The cab went soaring through the lanes of traffic. They did not turn prosaically toward the storm-shrouded sunset; instead the cabbie turned the cab east toward the blossoming night.
( 4 )
The cab shot away from the curb, leaving the rainslick street, the curb, the gutter. It was gone in seconds.
In the wet cleft of the curb, the culvert gaped like a mouth to reveal a black gullet, deep as forever. The rain had washed it all down there: Jim’s vomit, his tears, some blood, his rage, his disgust and his fear. Washed it down and that black throat swallowed all of it.
Water trickled thick as blood down the drainpipes that clung like black vines to the sides of buildings; it dripped heavily from the tattered awnings of condemned stores. Overhead the storm was intensifying, drawing together its long fingers of wind and rain and lightning and thunder into a tightly knotted fist. The wind swirled for a moment, then hushed down to an awful stillness…then with a bellow of rage the storm punched down at the street, burning the darkness with flash after searing flash of white, shattering all stillness, destroying any illusion of peace. Rain fell like hammers, like nails. The wind growled like a mob. Lightning stabbed again and again. Within seconds the downpour was so intense, so massive that the street was obliterated. The relentless rain went on and on, falling in sheets so heavy that even the wind could not slant them. The whole street became a churning river
of black water. Water cascaded in harsh waterfalls from rooftops, it churned in the gutters and boiled into the black mouth of the culvert, gurgling down into the hungry belly of the beast.
And then, as if the ravenous sewer had sucked all of the life from the storm, the rain abruptly stopped. The thunder choked back its voice. Only the lofty lightning continued to flash, but it was eerily silent now, daring to show itself but not to raise its voice.
The black mouth of the sewer sucked down the last of the dirty rainwater, held it all, digested it for a long time and once more an ugly silence crouched over the whole street.
Suddenly there was an explosion so sudden and so powerful that it blew out every window on the street. A mailbox was ripped from its bolts and went flying through the windshield of a parked van. The doors of an abandoned pawnshop were blown inward off their hinges. A telephone pole splintered at its base and toppled backward away from the impact point and crashing down on the stripped hulk of a stolen car. Severed electric lines danced and hissed like angry snakes; and geysers of scalding black water shot all the manhole covers thirty feet into the air. Thunder shouted once, twice…and then the stillness gathered again, but more quietly now, more cautiously. The manhole covers clanged down and spun like tiddlywinks before finally banging down flat on the asphalt.
The street was a ruin, a war zone, devastated by the explosion. Even the concrete pavement and greasy blacktop were patterned with cracks and fissures.
Only one thing was completely untouched and unharmed by what had happened; only one thing had been impervious to it all.
A man who hadn’t been there only a moment ago but who now stood in the precise center of the devastation, smiling at what he had wrought.
His name –though Jim Smith would never have heard it before- was Owen Minor, called “the Wolverine” by everyone who knew him.
Minor was a small man, compact and wiry, with hands whose apparent delicate weakness were lies. He wore a claret-colored poet’s shirt, open at the throat, the laces undone and fluttering in the breeze. He wore tight black velvet slacks and a crocodile belt, and shoes that glistened with a fresh polish. He wore lots of rings and pendants and four silver hoop-earrings in each ear. He wore his black hair cropped short. He wore a peculiar little smile, the kind that made people itch. Or cringe. His eyes were a smoky gray with flecks of red and they radiated heat. Around him the rainwater hissed and steamed as it rose in thin columns from the street.
“Well, well,” he said, addressing the night.
He turned slowly, without haste until he faced the direction the cab had taken. His eyes narrowed and focused as if he could see through buildings and distance and darkness into the cab itself, which was dozens of blocks away now. He stared with predatory intensity as if he could clearly see Jim Smith in the cab’s back seat, huddled into his own fear and despair, and Owen Minor’s smile writhed.
“Well, well, Mr. Heart,” he said, addressing Jim, “I hope you enjoyed that. I know I did.” He looked at his own palm and in the whorls and lines he conjured an image: the grinning face of the Mechanic. Then with a flourish he whipped his hand in the direction the cab had taken as if throwing something. When he lowered his hand the image was gone. “Fetch,” he said.
Overhead lightning flashed again. “This is going to be oh so much fun.” He licked his lips. “Well…fun for me, anyway.” He chuckled a low, nasty little chuckle
He began walking slowly in that direction, moving without hurry but with purpose.
( 5 )
Unaware of any of this, Jim closed his eyes and leaned into the soft, deep cushions of the back seat. His muscles were trembling and he wrapped his arms around his body to keep his hands from shaking.
Nothing will ever be the same again. His own words echoed over and over in
his head, taking the slow monotonous rhythm of a mantra. Exhausted, settled back and against all logic, was asleep within minutes, and this time no bloody faces leered at him as he slept.
Outside, the buildings and lights seemed to blur together, to mold into a surreal tapestry of transcended distances. Colors merged and blended in the growing darkness until the cab seemed to be hurtling through a vast void like the blackness between stars. The cabbie turned on the radio and listened as something eased itself from the speakers. Something that wasn’t just music.
It was Music. The Music.
It filled the interior of the cab with incredible, impossible –and impossibly beautiful– sounds. The cabbie looked at the sleeping man in the rearview mirror. If Jim had been awake, and if he’d been paying attention, he might have seen that the cabbie’s face was in no way reflected in the mirror. This was not a quality of the mirror. The cabbie smiled a sharp-toothed smile and drove wildly through the changing realities. Away from the storm; away from the world. Into the darkness, and through it, toward the light.
Toward the Fire Zone.
( 1 )
He slept and dreamed that everything was all right, that he hadn’t killed anyone, that cops weren’t searching for him. He dreamed that he had a great life filled with friends who loved him, that he worked at a rewarding job, that he woke every morning with excitement and expectation that the new day would bring him growth and contentment. He dreamed that he didn’t have deep scars cut into the fabric of his soul, and that he was, in nearly all ways, just an ordinary –and ordinarily happy— man.
Then he woke up.
( 2 )
Jim Smith shook himself awake like a hungover dog that had spent the night licking spilled beer at a white-trash barbecue. Struggling upright he stared stupidly at the uninformative middle distance and tried to remember complicated things — like his own name. Figuring out the mechanics of rubbing his face with both hands took all his concentration but he eventually managed it.
There was a tissue dispenser on the back of the driver’s seat and he plucked out a soft wad of them and mopped sweat and half-dried tears out of his eyes. His hands were still jittery with stress, but as he woke up to his surroundings he felt calmer by small degrees. Strange as it was, there was something safe and protective
about the back seat of the big cab. He closed his eyes and let himself be driven for several long blocks, taking slow diaphragmatic breaths. Then something moved against his leg and he jumped.
“What the…Christ! Hey! Do you know there’s a bird back here?” he dodged away from a fat pigeon that was cozying up to his thigh.
“Don’t hurt him,” the cabbie jerked his head sideways, growling around the cigar stub. “He’s mine.”
Jim Smith stared at the back of the cabbie’s head for a few seconds, then looked down at the bird, and then cocked his head to one side and merely looked askance. “Okay,” he said in a reasonable tone. “Fine.” He licked his lips. “Ummm, do you always take your pet pigeon with you when you hack?”
“Sure,” said the driver. “Why wouldn’t I?”
Jim couldn’t think of why not so he went back to scrutinizing the pigeon which, as if sensing Jim was not a bird lover, got up and moved across the seat in a huff. The bird was plump and gray with black bars across his wings, and he waddled like Friar Tuck.
“He’s your pigeon?” “Yeah.” “Your…pet..pigeon…?”
“Yeah.” The driver hung a left. “Which you take to work with you?” “I already said that.”
Um…” Jim said, “is he some special kind of pigeon or something?”
The driver nodded. Jim waited, got nothing further, and prompted: “What kind?”
Jim smiled despite himself. “No, really….”
The cabbie looked briefly over his shoulder. “Yes. Really.” “I see.” Jim sucked his teeth. “They are extinct, you know.” “Yeah, somebody said somethin’ like that. Whatever.” “Ah.”
The pigeon turned and was eyeing him speculatively as if wondering if he were yummy to eat.
“He have a name?”
“Uh huh. Frank Bacon.”
“ ‘Frank Bacon’ ” Jim echoed the name, still smiling. “Let me guess –short for Francis?”
“Named him after somebody I knew once.” “Really. There was a Francis Bacon once who….” “Yeah,” grinned the cabbie. “I know.”
The bird trundled over to Jim’s thigh again and gave his pants a desultory peck. “I think he’s hungry.”
“Here,” the driver said and without turning he handed a small crumpled paper bag over the seat. Jim opened it, peered inside, sniffed at it.
“Yeah. Frank can’t get enough of the stuff, but don’t give him any of the raisins. Makes him fart.”
Bouncing the bag of Trail Mix on his palm, Jim stared at the back of the driver’s head. He explored the inside of his cheek with his tongue and then sat for a few moments with his lips pursed, thinking of something appropriate to say, but he came up dry. So he said: “Right-o,” and fed the Trail Mix to the bird, who took it as a gesture of détente and sidled closer.
The cab whisked on in silence.
Jim was aware of buildings and stores and parks passing by, but he didn’t focus on them long enough to try and get a fix on where he was. He didn’t want to know where he was, or where he was going, because that kind of perspective would put him back in the midst of the circumstances of what had turned out to be the worst night of his life. Or, the worst he could remember in a life that had had far too many really bad nights. He would rather let himself be carried –borne away is how his mind phrased it— to somewhere else. To anywhere else.
Some condensation had formed on the inside of the near window and Jim touched it with a finger, idly tracing a face. A blank face, like a mask, with black eyes, asexual features –well, perhaps tending toward the masculine, but in an ethereal way– like the funeral mask of an Egyptian king or queen. It reminded Jim of the Noh masks he’d seen in a book about Japan, a mask that he often saw in his
dreams, worn by a big man with silver eyes and a soothing voice.
The dream he’d had the night before flickered around in his brain for a moment and he tried to remember some of the details, but couldn’t. He looked at the face for a long time as he settled back in the cushions, and found that it somehow comforted him. While he looked at it, the memories of the fight in the bar, and the flight through the brutal storm, seemed somehow distant, as if either they were events he merely observed and had not participating in, or were events which were in his distant past and which had long ago ceased to matter. He closed his eyes for a moment and wondered what his friends –no, his acquaintances, the people he saw everyday– would think when they found out that he’d killed someone. Especially in so sordid a way as during a fight in a strip club. What would they think? He could imagine their familiar faces becoming masks of disgust and disapproval. No matter what happened –jail or an unending and self-imposed exile on the lam– he knew he would never see those people again, and even though there was no one with whom he was truly close, he felt a sudden stab of loss. He
thought of them with a poignancy he had never before felt, and tears struggled to slip past the barriers of his closed lids. Dave and Rudy –his two fellow bouncers and occasional drinking buddies. Rachel, who worked at the bookstore near the train station, and who sold him newspapers and George Pelecanos novels and cups of hazelnut coffee with a constant smile and the bluest eyes in town. Old Mr.
Stumock who owned the grocery store down the street from his apartment, and who was always ready to pass five comfortable minutes talking about the weather or the latest headlines, and who nearly always gave him a few extra ounces of salmon when Jim bought his weekly food. Fourteen-year old Tabitha and her baby brother, Lump (her name for him, and the only one Jim knew him by), who had a mini-lop- eared rabbit named Droopy Dan, and who walked him on a leash in the park across the street from their apartment building while pushing Lump in his stroller.
Maria…the woman his supervisor kept trying to hook him up with –a comparative religions major who stripped four times a week to pay her ticket through college.
And, of course, Sensei .
Sensei ran the dojo where Jim had studied jujutsu for nearly twenty years.
Once vital and powerful, now retired and fighting a losing battle with prostate cancer. Jim thought he would miss Sensei most; a hard and sometimes harsh man, but a good one, and if Jim had learned anything about decency and honor, it had been from Sensei . But they’d become estranged –maybe because of Sensei’s need for dignified privacy during his illness, and maybe because Jim was just no fucking good at being friends with anyone.
He thought about the people he had really cared about, but whom had been swept off the board over the years. Mike O’Hanlan, Sensei’s assistant, who had been killed in a traffic accident two years ago. And Helen. Dear, sweet, innocent Helen. Christ. In a way he was glad she didn’t talk to him any more…this would break her heart even more than it was already broken.
He sat there in the cab, idly stroking the pigeon, and ran down the list of people and the images each name called to his mind. People he knew, but none of them were friends. None of those still alive, anyway. Not even Sensei.
Jim opened his eyes and stared at the Noh mask he’d drawn on the window and thought about the people he knew. People who would be shocked by what he had done, who wouldn’t understand why he had done it. People who would dislike him for it, perhaps detest him. People –like Sensei– who would not understand why he’d chosen the kind of dreary life that would put him in a circumstance where something like that could happen; and would feel a fundamental disappointment in him for wasting his life. People he knew who did not really know him. Gone now. Gone in a flash: in the flash of brutal hands amid the flash of reflected mirror-ball lighting and grating music.
A tear broke and fell across his right cheek. It was small and as it rolled across one of his bruises its path changed, it curled around the swelling to leave a glistening mark like the sickle-shaped crescent of an old scar. He brushed irritably at the tear, but it left a stain in the shape of a half-moon
The cabbie adjusted the volume of the radio, and the sounds that drifted out of the speakers were so immediately compelling that they snatched Jim from his gloomy reverie. He opened his eyes and raised his head, listening. The song was a strange and haunting instrumental piece with harp, flute and some stringed instrument, possibly a zither. It was an odd composition with a melody line that wandered in and out of a recognizable pattern, returning to its theme periodically in an unhurried and untroubled way. The harp was the central instrument and it gently debated the song’s argument with the other instruments in exotic and unexpected ways. Less skillfully performed, the tune might have been disjointed, jumbled, even grating; but the harpist was masterful and subtle and she –somehow
Jim knew it was a woman– maintained a delicate semblance of control over both the accompanying instruments and the essence of the melody.
“Wow,” Jim said softly. “That’s really lovely.” The cabbie nodded.
“Who is it?”
“Bethy Holprett. You wouldn’t know her.” “She new?”
The driver glanced over a bony shoulder and gave Jim an enigmatic smile. “No,” he said, “she’s been around for a while.”
Jim nodded and listened as the music played. In its soft and understated way it was immensely powerful and even as he strove to understand it he could feel it work its magic in him. The knots in his shoulders and at the corners of his jawline relaxed by small degrees; he found himself sighing, and with each deep exhalation he sank a little deeper into the soft cushions of the cab. The condensation on the window had sweated and dripped and obscured the Noh mask, so Jim rolled down the window and watched the other cars for a while. Some ripped up and down the avenues, chasing the lost sunlight or seeking the blooming shadows according to individual need. Others seemed to circle and cruise endlessly like hungry sharks on a macadam sea. The red and yellow cab moved among them, a larger, more dangerous predator, and the other cars gave way before it.
Safe inside the cab, Jim Smith watched the play of the cars and the movement of people on the sidewalks and it occurred to him that there was nothing of the outside world that made any sense to him now. None of it applied to him anymore, not in light of what had happened tonight. So much hurry and worry and stress over all the fiddly little details of normal life, of home, and of family, of work and friends. The latest movies, the current headlines, gossip about which celebrity was sleeping with whom, recent developments in technology, the stock market, new medical breakthroughs, the latest jokes that were making the rounds, fashion, art, books…all of it was part of another culture to which he no longer belonged. Out there predator and prey circled each other endlessly in a game with too many rules and no clear winner; and as of now he was no long even an impartial observer.
Wicked fate, cruel chance, or perhaps his own inner darkness had removed him from the playing field, had swept all the tokens from the board.
Nothing will ever be the same again.
None of it applied to him. Not now. Not while this music played; and not while he sat snug in the back of this oddball cab with a driver who looked like a reject from the Vampire Lestat and a pigeon who ate Trail Mix and had trouble with gas. His companions seemed strangely less absurd and more natural than did anything out there, and far more appealing than what he had left behind.
Nothing will ever be the same again.
Thinking that, he drifted once more into sleep.
( 3 )
Another song began to play on the radio. The cabbie’s long white fingers stroked the knob as he raised the volume a notch. He began whistling along with the tune, which was completely anarchic and discordant. He stepped on the gas and again everything outside seemed to blur into washes of sodium vapor yellow and headlight white.
( 1 )
When Jim was eight he began to spend a lot of time in the Emergency Room at Northeastern Hospital. The staff knew him by name. They joked about him being their best customer. Young Jimmy sometimes managed to smile at the joke. Sometimes he was too hurt to do anything but cry.
“Well, if it isn’t Evel Knevel!”
Jimmy looked up slowly at the E.R. nurse, his vision blurry with tears. He had both arms wrapped around his stomach as if he was afraid that if he let go his pain would all spill out onto his lap. The nurse was a middle-aged black woman with kind eyes and a cloisonné Bugs Bunny with a broken leg in cast and crutches pinned to her blue sweater. The name on her tag was Minnie.
“Fall off your bike again?” she asked, smiling one of those comforting smiles that everyone in the E.R. always wore.
Jimmy’s glance flicked from her eyes to his father, who stood by the side of the table, thick forearms folded across the chest of his greasy mechanic’s shirt. His father’s eyes were as hard as his fists, and Jimmy’s glance bounced off and dropped back to the floor.
“He’s always falling off that damn bike,” his father said. “Yeah,” Jimmy said after a while.
He did not see the smile on Minnie’s face change as she followed the split- second exchange of looks between Jimmy and his father. He didn’t see the wooden scaffolding she built up to support the smile; didn’t see the tightening of the skin at the corners of her eyes and mouth.
“Well,” she said after only the briefest pause. “Let’s take a look, shall we?” She helped him pull off his Land of the Giants t-shirt, soothing him with soft and shapeless words when he gasped. There was a dark cluster of bruises blossoming from redness into an angry purple along the ribs on his right side. She probed them very gently and he hissed. “Hm,” she said, withdrawing her hand. “The doctor will be in a few minutes. He’ll probably want you to have some x-rays.”
“Are they covered?” his father asked.
Minnie looked at him for a moment, then glanced at the chart on the clipboard. “Yes,” she said with only a flavor of disapproval evident in her voice.
“Good. I’m losing time at work as it is.”
The nurse turned back to Jimmy. “So…you fell off your bike? Is that it?” He nodded.
“Yeah. My bike.” He looked up at his father for a moment. “I’m always falling off it.”
Minnie made a bit of a face.
“Yeah, I guess he can’t ride for shit.” His father leaned against the wall and crossed his ankles. His work shoes left oil marks on the floor. “I should probably take the damn thing away from him.”
Minnie turned back to him and met his flat, level stare. He had crocodile eyes. “Yes,” she said, “I think maybe you should. Then maybe he wouldn’t get hurt so much.”
Jimmy’s father smiled a very faint, very thin little smile at her and said nothing for maybe five seconds. Then, “Why don’t you just go and get someone to take a look at him.”
( 2 )
Jim Smith dragged himself awake. His dreams had begun to sour and he wanted out. Sitting up with a jerk he accidentally kicked the back of the cabbie’s seat.
The driver half-turned. “You all right back there?”
“Uh…what? Oh. Yeah,” Jim said, fumbling with a thick tongue and what felt like too many teeth. The inside of his mouth tasted like a sick lizard had pissed in it. “I…must have drifted off.”
The cab was still whisking along through moderate traffic. The streets were slick and glistening from the rain.
Frank Bacon was settled in against his thigh, his plump body filled with Trail Mix and he was cooing in a way suggestive of snoring. Jim ran a fingertip along the bird’s back and Frank ruffled his feathers a little and snuggled in even more into the niche between seat and thigh. Then Jim heard another sound and looked up, surprised. A cat was peering at him over the back of the passenger seat. Jim was almost, but not quite, surprised. If a man takes his bird with him to work, why should that be any weirder than taking along a cat? The cat himself, however, was a little weird. It was as tan as a cougar, with liquid green eyes and pale whiskers.
The cat was no bigger than an ordinary house cat, but he had huge, ridiculous- looking fangs that hung down well past his furry sand-colored chin.
Jim Smith and the cat regarded each other for a full minute, and then the cat gave him a long, slow blink.
“You, ah, take your cat with you, too, huh?” he said. “So it would seem.”
“Strange-looking little bugger.”
“Oh?” said the cabbie with disinterest. “Is he?”
“Is he…uh…some special breed of some kind?” “Yeah. Sabertooth. Miniature.”
“Um,” was all Jim could manage to say. He held out his hand to the cat and it sniffed his fingertips, the pink nose twitching. The cat gave his finger an experimental lick, decided he didn’t like the taste, and disappeared again into the shadows of the front seat.
“What’s his name.”
“Lorenzo de Medici,” said the driver. “Lorenzo for short.”
The cab took a corner on a pair of squealing tires, and Jim was shoved against the door. Frank Bacon slid right along with him, feathers twitching only a little and eyes remaining shut.
“Say, pal, where the hell are we anyway?” He craned to look past the driver’s shoulder, but there was not one thing about the outside world that he recognized. The buildings were all squat and dark, unlighted except for occasional and desperate splashes of color. A few neon signs flickered and wheezed in bar windows and a stoplight warned caution, hour after hour. The street was straight and black and unpainted, and it clawed a path through the troubled shadows that were piled-up against the misshapen buildings on either side. Above the street, the glow from the street lamps hung in disillusioned clouds around the cracked and dirty bulbs.
“Where are we?” he asked again. “I don’t recognize this place.” The cabbie flicked ash out the window. “Boundary Street.” “Where?” he asked, but the driver didn’t repeat it.
A cold wind had torn a jagged hole in the clouds and some soiled moonlight spilled down onto the avenue, doing damn little to improve its looks. They passed a greasy spoon with a huge sign that read BEST BEANS in faded black letters on filthy white plywood. Further along they saw a score of gleaming motorcycles
standing in a precise line outside of a bar called The Stumble Inn. A couple of leather-jacketed toughs stood in B-movie poses, watching with reptilian eyes as the cab passed. One of them, taller than the others, with a long face and a sharp widow’s peak stabbing downward from slicked-back black hair, stared at the cabbie and gave him a slow nod. The driver nodded back, but he said nothing and soon the bar was devoured by the shadows behind them.
Jim Smith really had no idea where in the hell they were, and that surprised him because he thought he knew just about every part of the city and most of the suburbs. But this place was totally alien to him.
He wondered how far they had driven; and then wondered with a sick jolt if it was far enough. The turmoil back at the bar, back at Eyeful’s Stopless Go-Go, seemed a million miles behind him, and that was fine. He didn’t want to be found…ever. On the other hand, he didn’t know where he was going. Or, more precisely, where he was being taken. The cabbie seemed to know, so he took a chance and said: “Are we almost there?” though he had no idea what he meant by that.
The cabbie smiled his brilliantly white, sharp-toothed smile and nodded to the far distance. Leaning forward, Jim saw that way beyond the blackness of the dirty streets, past the blocky silhouettes of factories, several tall buildings rose up in multicolored splendor above the dark squalor of Boundary Street.
On the front seat, Lorenzo meowed; Frank Bacon looked up for a moment and it seemed to Jim that the bird and the cat were both looking at the clean and sparkling lights of the distant towers.
The cat meowed again. The bird cooed.
The cabbie smiled once more and said: “Home again, home again, jiggity-
( 1 )
The streets were alive with neon brilliance.
Jim Smith paused, half out of the cab, one foot on rain-slick blacktop, staring with slack-jawed amazement.
Lights burned in every corner of the long, broad street, glowed from every wrought-iron post, glimmered atop tall buildings, and flashed in the very air around him. On the glittering sides of the buildings neon tubing twisted and retwisted before his eyes, forming works and acts and thoughts and images faster than Jim’s mind could absorb them. Straight lines of iridescence shot upward along the sides of buildings to the rooftops, raced along balconies and then plunged insanely downward to the streets again, dragging Jim’s goggling gaze with them, dizzying him with the rush of color and speed. There was no looking away –the lights were everywhere, bursting like fireworks in his brain, even detonating beautifully behind the veil of closed eyes.
From a dozen turrets mounted high and low, lasers swept and stabbed. Dancers would be caught in the stark blue-white of the laser beams and would writhe joyously to whatever rhythm dominated the street at that moment. The streets were washed clean except for fragments of color that swirled along on soft winds, kicked high by dancers’ steps, propelled by the eddying currents of the Music.
A naked dancer, tattooed like a pit viper, leapt from a lamp post, pirouetted in mid-air and flitted away like a will o’-the-wisp. Mute, sightless creatures, beautifully nonhuman, danced complex gavottes on the pavement and their patterns spilled out into the street as watchers were drawn into the steps. The creatures were sewn into skin-tight leotards that covered every square inch of their sinewy bodies, and they turned and jumped and rolled and leapt with joy and freedom. As Jim watched, three of them turned their masked and featureless faces toward him and offered him a deep, courtly bow, then, with childlike joy, they spun away into the press of the revel, splinters of the All, reforming.
From a dozen open doorways the Music spilled out into the madhouse streets, washing the avenue and drenching every wanderer in the varicolored storm with sweet sounds. Footsteps clicked along in time to every drum beat, hands clapped with the resonant bass notes, fingers popped with guitar riffs, and voices were raised in song to match the powerful voice of the Music itself. The Music rose above the street, taking elements from every individual song and blending them with the counter-tempo of thousands of beating hearts; it stirred them, seasoning them with magic, and brewed one single song, one ultimate and unique song. It became Othertone –the ultimate state of sound, the purest aspect of the Music itself, hovering a tone above perfection.
Jim didn’t even realize he had stepped out of the cab, had no idea that he was swaying to the beat, slapping his thighs in time to the drums; he was completely lost in the inrush of things his senses could barely accept and only partially contain. His open mouth was smiling with a pure and uncomplicated joy -and he was unaware of that, too.
Jim had no idea where this place was, or even if it existed at all outside of some kind of delusion. He wasn’t entirely convinced he was awake, or even alive. The small part of his mind that was not totally caught up in the moment was
wondering if maybe he was dead back there, back at the bar. Dead with blood on his hands, dead along with Terry. Could well be, he mused. Could very well be.
Fear leapt up suddenly in his heart, and it was a clawing growling thing that drove him inward and muted the sounds of the Music. Jim sagged against the cab. Jesus Christ Almighty, he thought, I think I’m dead.
Is this Hell? he wondered and instantly the Music warped into a discordant screeching, the laughter of the dancers became the bray of donkeys. All of the colors were stained and he squeezed his eyes shut against the glare. He could not bear to think about what had happened back at Eyeful’s, and what it must mean for his immortal soul. He did not want to die and be damned. Hell was where the Mechanic lived, and sharing eternity with that monster was too much. Too much.
“No, God damn it!” he yelled, and by main force of will he shoved those thoughts away from him, forcing them back into darkness, back into the Pandora’s Box in the back of his mind. He smashed it down, mashed it down, and then slammed the lid on it. No! he snarled at himself.
He drew in a ragged breath, held it, and then let it out slowly. “No,” he said quietly.
He blinked and ran a hand over his face. Gradually he became aware of himself, of his body and the weight of physical weariness that hung on each limb; and he became aware again of the Music, of the movement and the powerful energies that were pulsing in the air around him, throbbing up from the ground beneath his feet. Once more it was lovely music and unsullied color. The fist that was squeezed around his heart let go, one finger at a time.
He sensed the cabbie and turned, saw him lounging against the fender of the taxi, arms folded, a fresh cigar caught between his teeth, studying him with narrowed eyes.
The cabbie asked: “So, you gonna stay or what?”
Dimly, Jim realized that it wasn’t the first time the driver had asked the question.
Jim shook his head dumbly, “I….” “Meter’s still running, Ace.”
Leaning both hands on the cab, Jim said, “Where the hell am I?”
The cab driver leaned back and looked at all the movement, all the colors. His dark eyes sparkled with reflected light and a smile danced on his red lips as he turned back to face Jim. “This is the Fire Zone, Ace.”
Jim blinked at him, his breath catching at the sound of those words. The Fire Zone.
That name struck a chord deep in his soul, and he felt the impact of the name like a physical blow.
The Fire Zone.
He felt he ought to know that name, and felt that knowing it was very important; but the harder he tried to catch the fragment of memory –or a dream– the further away it ran.
“I….” he said, and failed to manage anything else for a moment. “Yeah,” said the driver. “That’s pretty much what everyone says.”
He flicked some ash into the soft breeze. It seemed to sparkle like fairy dust.
In the glow of the neon light the cabbie’s face looked less intense, less cynical and harsh. There was even a warmth in the curl of his thin lips Jim hadn’t noticed before.
Jim didn’t know what to say so he said, “I…don’t think I’ve ever been here before.”
The cabbie studied him for a slow three-count. “Y’don’t say.”
Jim tried a different tack. “I’ve never heard of… I mean, I never heard about this place. This…Fire Zone?” He shrugged and looked at the driver. “How come?”
“How come I’ve never heard of it?”
The cabbie’s smile became a Cheshire grin. “Maybe you have, but you just forgot.”
“Forgot this place? No, I don’t think so…” Jim shook his head; he stared at the wildness, absolutely dazzled. “I’ve never…seen anything like this.” He tried to sound calm, and failed entirely. “It’s so…incredible.” He shook his head. “Has this place been around long?”
“The Zone? Hell, the Zone’s been for like forever.”
Jim mouthed the words —Fire Zone. They tasted sweet on his tongue, like clean water to a man dying of thirst. He wanted to shout the name. “Why is it called that?” he asked, fighting to appear calm. “Why is it called the ‘Fire Zone’?”
The cabbie grunted. “I’m just a hack, buddy,” he said with a shrug, “not a tour guide. Besides, you’re the one said you wanted to come here.”
“That’s what you said, isn’t it?”
“What’re you saying? That I asked you to bring me…here?”
Turning, the driver looked at him with eyes that reflected the fiery lights. “Isn’t it?”
“Are you saying that’s what I told you? ‘Take me to the Fire Zone’? I said those words?”
The cabbie spread his hands. “You know what you said. Who am I to argue? But, hey, maybe, I’m wrong. Maybe this isn’t where you ought to be. I’m easy. Look, Ace, you want to go somewhere else, hop in the cab and I’ll take you
wherever your little heart desires’ but make up your mind quick, Dude, ‘cause I make my living by driving not by talking.”
Jim looked at him for a thoughtful moment, fighting the desire to turn and run into the Music. And the desire to re-enter the cab and flee. Both choices pulled at him like twin moons wrestling with the tides in his blood. He looked down at his hands and they seemed to have been washed clean by the colored lights. A clown came ambling by, deftly juggling two throwing knives, a bowling pin, a tomahawk, a Micro-Uzi submachine gun and a small nuclear detonator. He was whistling Leher’s Armageddon Rag. Jim watched him go until the crowd swallowed him up.
“No,” he said eventually. “No, I think I’ll hang out here for a while.” He thought he saw a glint of approval in the cabbie’s dark eyes,
“So…how much do I owe you?” The cabbie named a price and Jim paid him, giving him a generous tip. The driver stuffed the cash into a pocket.
“Listen, Ace,” he said, “if you decide you do want to cut out, or if anytime you just need a cab, pick up the phone and call the company. Ask for Xander.”
“Yep.” The cabbie winked at him and walked around the front of the car, jerked open the door.
“Xander—?” Jim asked. “Do you know what the hell’s going on?” “I just drive a cab.” Jim stared at him, and after a moment Xander
shrugged. “Yeah, well, I guess I hear some things.”
“Okay then, will you tell me? I mean what is going on?”
Xander laughed out loud. “More than you could possibly understand.” With that he slid behind the wheel. Jim came around and leaned his hands on the doorframe.
“Well, that was nice and ambiguous.” “It was meant to be cryptic.”
They smiled at each other. Xander started the engine. “Look, Ace, like I said, you need a ride, call the company.” “But I don’t have the number.”
“That’s okay. They don’t have a phone,” Xander said, and drove away.
( 2 )
Jim Smith stood in the middle of the street and watched the dangerous cab vanish into the noisy, colorful distance.
“Swell,” he said. “That’s just…swell.”
( 1 )
When Jim Smith was nine….
Minnie, the E.R. nurse clucked her tongue when she saw who it was on the gurney. She held a clipboard to her chest with both arms as if it would keep her warm, and stared down at the boy for long seconds, not saying a word. Jimmy stared up at her through the narrow slits of his puffed eyes. One eye was nearly swollen shut, the other had better vision but actually hurt more.
Eventually Minnie managed to smile, though there was no sunlight in it. She touched Jimmy’s cheek, then brushed a dark curl away from his sweaty forehead. “Let me guess. Fell off your bike again?”
He didn’t answer her. He couldn’t. Not because his upper lip was split and crusted with blood, but because he just could not make himself speak. He was afraid of what he would say.
“Jimmy?” she said, still touching his face. “It’s okay to tell me.” He just looked at her.
Minnie looked pointedly at him and then around the small, empty examining room, and back at him. “Your mother brought you in?”
He managed a nod.
“She’s outside filling out the forms. It’s just us in here now.” He didn’t move.
“Your father’s not here, Jimmy.”
Nothing. Not so much as a flicker of his eyelids. “So…why don’t you tell me what really happened.” Nothing.
“You didn’t really fall off your bike, did you?” He looked at her, but that was all.
“Someone beat you up, didn’t they?” Nothing.
He closed his eyes.
“Jimmy…I’m your friend. I’m the one who patches you up and makes you feel better.”
She leaned close, lowered her voice. “I’m on your side, Jimmy. I’m not trying to hurt you.”
He turned his head away.
Or, perhaps, he turned one ear upward to hear her. It wasn’t clear which.
Minnie said. “If someone is beating you up…you can learn how to stop them. You can learn how to escape…or, to protect yourself.” She touched his arm. “Do you know what I’m saying.”
Nothing. Not even a rise of his chest, as if he was afraid to breathe. “I’m going to give you something.”
He didn’t look at her but the touch on his arm vanished and a second later there was the sound of a pen scratching on paper, then the rip as the paper was torn off the pad. He heard her fold it.
“Jimmy, will you take this? It’s my uncle’s name and phone number. He’s a good man, Jimmy. His name is Joshua . He teaches jujutsu. Do you know what that is?”
“It’s a way of doing self-defense. Kind of like karate, only better. It’s very good for stopping people from hurting you.”
She pressed the folded paper into his hand, but he didn’t take it. His fingers were limp and cold and wet. She pitched her voice a little lower, just a whisper now into his upturned ear. “It can even help you against someone bigger…or older.”
Jimmy Smith lay for a long time, eyes closed, head turned away. He did not speak a word to her. After a while, his fingers twitched and then curled into a hard fist around the note.
( 2 )
A loud HONK! made him jump and spin around, and then he was dodging out of the way of an old school bus that had been painted a poisonous chemical green and was jacked-up on lift-kits and blowing fiery smoke from dual exhausts. Along the side in flaming letters was HONOR SOCIETY RULES! The driver was a nerdy Mr. Peabody-type with thick glasses and multi-colored spiked hair. He waved merrily at Jim with a can of TAB and gave him a huge grin. Jim waved back and watched as the bus took the corner on the very outside edges of two tires, thumped down heavily as it entered the cross street and rumbled away. As it vanished, Jim was mooned by the entire Math Club.
Laughing, Jim stepped to the curb, pausing to allow a pair of dancers to swirl past him. It was so strange that people were just dancing in the street like it was Mardi Gras or New Year’s Eve. No worries, no inhibitions and no fears –this last part was strange since Jim sensed that beneath the gaiety, the Fire Zone was actually a very dangerous place. But…dangerous to whom? And in what way? He had no clue, and didn’t trust his shocked and fractured brain to sort it out.
All that mattered is that he felt like Eyeful’s was a million goddamn miles away. And maybe a million years away, too. Strangely, he felt as if the bar, and the fight, and that poor dead bastard –all of that shit– was part of some surreal dream, and all of the wildness around him was somehow orderly and normal. The thought made him want to laugh again.
He walked on, trying not to think about Eyeful’s and Terry, and succeeding for just a second or two every few dozen steps.
Dancers waved at him or bumped into him or ignored him entirely as they turned in their gavottes. The revelers invited him in, but he only gave them tight smiles and shakes of his head and kept on moving. He was afraid to touch anyone, and dreaded to be touched. He thought he’d scream if anyone laid a hand on him.
He passed a small man wearing a wine-colored poet’s shirt and black velvet trousers whom Jim took for a street magician because he was doing a pretty good trick: tossing a ball of fire from one hand to the other; but he had no spectators and his smile was all wrong –wet and twisted and trembly, as if he was trying very hard not to laugh at something nasty. He gave Jim a broad stage wink, but Jim just hurried past because the little man made him nervous. His eyes seemed to see too much.
Jim moved on down the street and as he went he began to wobble. There was just too much input. Too many of the things around him required active thought and his brain didn’t want to think. He saw a side street that was nearly empty of dancers and less brightly lit, so he turned and headed that way. Some of the shops were still open, but most of them on that little alley were closed. As he walked past the shadowy picture window of a closed antique store a horrid sight caught his eyes
and it jerked him to an abrupt halt. It was himself, his own tattered image reflected in the darkened glass. His shirt was stained and tattered, there were holes in both trouser knees, and his arms and cheeks were streaked with dirt.
“Christ. You look like shit,” he told his reflection, and the image offered no argument.
Then the glow from one of the ever-shifting lasers changed the arrangement of shadows in the window and altered his reflection in a way that cemented him to the spot. Jim Smith stared at the reflection and felt the blood in his veins turn to dirty rainwater; worms of ice marched up his back and nestled in the hairs at the nape of his neck. The image in the window had changed. Drastically changed.
True, the man reflected there was just as tall as he was, his deep-set eyes just as blue, and the lines of his face just as angular as they should be –but everything else had undergone a process of transformation. He stared at his own image and saw another Jim Smith. This Jim Smith looked both older and younger: older in the wisdom of his sea-blue eyes, younger in the purity of his smile. His beard was longer and trimmed differently; and this Jim Smith had a crescent-shaped scar high on his right cheek.
The image was dressed differently, too: he wore a blouse-sleeved poet’s shirt with a swirling pattern of colors that seemed to change and blend and was never still; he wore dark leather trousers with a rough finish and black half boots. Slung across his back was a beautiful guitar on a strap embroidered with silver and red. Around his bull neck he wore a choker of coarse multicolored fibers and on the ring finger of his left hand he wore a simple band that looked like it might have been made from the strands of a woman’s fiery red hair. The ring glowed with heat and energy. The face of the image was bathed in the pulsing light from a huge red neon hand that throbbed on-and-off against a white, stuccoed wall against which he leaned with casual grace.
Jim Smith stared at the figure, then turned slowly and looked behind him.
No stuccoed wall, no red neon hand.
He turned back toward the window and saw that the image was still there.
He swallowed a lump in his throat the size of an eggplant. “What the fu—?”
The man in the mirror laughed. “Jesus, pal. You need to get a life.” Jim cried out and jumped a foot in the air, landing in a tense crouch, movements that were not imitated by the Jim Smith in the mirror. “Do you even know who I am?” the image asked.
Jim’s mouth fell open to answer, but he still couldn’t manage a word.
The man in the mirror shook his head in obvious disgust. “Then tell me this, do you know why you’re here?”
Jim shook his head, more in disbelief than in reply.
The other Jim leaned closer and Jim could see that this truly was his own face transformed. The mirror image repeated his question. “Do you know why you’re here? Do you know why you’re here in the Fire Zone?”
“I…I…,” Jim sputtered, shaking his head.
“You got a lot to learn, buddy boy. A lot to learn.” The figure leaned back, studying him. “Well…to be fair, I guess I should at least give you a clue. ‘Cause God knows you’re pretty clueless as it stands now.”
Jim was too stunned by the encounter to even register the insult.
“Well, try this on for size,” the image said slowly. “Maybe this’ll tell you something. Maybe this’ll jog your memory a bit….” He shifted to one side revealing a squat, heavy, iron-bound chest on the floor behind him. The chest was banded with steel and secured with yards of rusted iron chain. The mirror Jim kicked the corner of it with his booted toe, and something inside the box threw its considerable strength against the chains, making the whole chest tremble.
“This do anything for you?”
Jim fell back away from the glass, sitting down hard on his ass near the curb, his heart hammering painfully in his chest.
The other Jim smiled coldly and began backing away, fading deeper into the darkness of the unlighted store window. Trying not to lose sight of him, Jim scrambled to his feet and pressed his hands to the glass so that his shadow fell across the window, darkening it, changing the image. The chest vanished into shadows and the other Jim was obscured almost as if by a swirl of dark smoke.
“No! Wait!” Jim cried out, banging his palms on the glass. He squinted and peered, trying to keep his “other” self in focus, but it was too late…the mirror image had transformed once again as Jim pressed his face against the glass. For just a moment he looked into his own eyes –dark and intense and lost— and then the face in the glass –smiled.
It was a coarse, ugly smile, with wet lips and gleaming teeth and at once Jim screamed and fell back, landing hard on the ground once more. The reflection leered at him, but now it was neither the other Jim or the real Jim, but an entirely different person. This new figure was not as tall as both Jim and his metamorphosed reflection, but was broader in the shoulders, with a deeper chest and over-developed arms that hung as crooked as an ape’s. This face had the same basic structure as Jim’s –the same nose, nearly the same brow and mouth, almost identical eyes– but this image was older, heavier and beardless. The image stood tall in greasy mechanic’s blues, shaking his head in amused disgust as he slowly and deliberately undid the buckle of his belt.
“We’re going to have to have us one of our talks, young sir,” said the Mechanic in a voice that had been rubbed raw by cigarettes and whiskey. Spit from his wet lips dottled the inside of the glass. Behind the image the lights and movements of the street were no longer reflected; behind him was a pegboard heavy
with tools and a thick table made from two-by-fours, on which were a vise and a dentist’s drill. “One of our talks. Yes sir.”
His tongue snaked out and licked the spit off of the glass. This was one of the two faces Jim had seen in his half-dream in the cab, the one that had alternated with the face of Terry. It was a face he knew with horrible familiarity.
“No!” Jim’s denial came rasped its way out of a tightening throat. “No!”
“Yeah,” murmured the Mechanic, releasing his buckle and fingering the tab of his zipper. “One of our real special talks.”
Jim screamed. Suddenly, without realizing that it had been boiling-up in his throat. The scream tore out of him, scalding his tongue and lips, and he threw himself backward, falling, scrabbling like an upside-down crab, scuttling backward away from that leering face, from those glistening lips, from that awful smile.
“You’re not real!” he screeched, his voice as high and shrill as a child’s. “You’re fucking dead!”
The Mechanic stood there, fingers still holding the slack ends of his belt, and he laughed at Jim. “So are you, young sir.”
“Like I said, boy, we’re going to have one of our little talks.” His eyes looked dreamy and intoxicated by the thought. “One of our nice little talks…”
The second scream was torn from the pit of Jim’s gut and ripped its way out into the night air. He collapsed onto his back and then convulsed, his whole body knotting into a tight fetal ball, knees drawn up, thighs clamped together, arms wrapped around his bowed and sobbing head. It was all very immediate and intense, and unbearably ugly.
“Please!” he whimpered into his curled-up arms. “Not again…please God…not again.”
The Music in the streets was once again muted down to a muddied distortion, far away and of no help to him. No light pierced the darkness he had drawn up around himself. He tensed, waiting for the blows, waiting for the rough hands. For the belt, and for the Mechanic’s touch.
( 3 )
Slowly, gradually, like the first spring flower blooming on a sunlit hill, the Music swelled again; it seeped into his darkness, worming gently through the cracks in his defenses, gliding over the barriers and into his heart. Lovely music. The harpist again –alone this time, no accompaniment, sweet and soft and even a little sad in the way that dawn is sad for the departure of the velvet night.
A voice said: “Life’s too short.”
Jim Smith barely heard it, almost didn’t catch the words. His arms still clutched his head; his gut was still knotted like a fist. He waited for more of the voice -it was not the voice of the Mechanic, nor was it the voice of his transformed image. This voice was different –deeper, richer, beautifully rounded and modulated. Jim waited.
“He’s gone,” the voice said.
With a great effort of will Jim released the desperate strictures of his muscles. He did it slowly, cautiously, expecting it to be a trick, expecting to be struck. Or worse. His arms moved as stiffly as the arms of a statue trying to come to life, and he rolled sloppily onto his knees, still crouched, still keeping his eyes pressed shut.
Again that rich, warm voice spoke: “Life’s too short,” he repeated, then added, “to spend so much of it on your knees.”
The words hit him like a punch.
He jerked his head away from the ground and pried-open his eyes. The light and colors had returned to his world, and the Music was still there, still playing sweet and lovely. The darkened window still possessed a reflection, and it was still not his own, nor that of the Mechanic. This time it was a big man, bigger even than Jim, dressed in a fog-colored trenchcoat belted at the waist over charcoal trousers and black shoes. He wore a snap-brimmed fedora that matched the dark foggy gray of the coat, and on his hands were gloves the color of freshly spilled blood. The oddest thing about him was his face –or the lack of it. He wore a plain white Noh
mask like the one Jim had drawn on the inside of the cab window; a mask that burned white-hot in the reflected laser light. Through the holes in the mask two silvery eyes fumed like drops of boiling mercury.
“Time to get up off your knees, Mr. Heart,” said the figure.
Before Jim could ask why this specter had called him ‘Mr. Heart’, the window was suddenly bathed in brilliant blue laser light. Jim turned his face and shielded his eyes with both hands. Around him the harpist’s tune swelled to a sudden and unexpected denouement.
There was a moment of abrupt silence.
Warily, Jim opened his eyes. The window, of course, was empty of any spectral reflections except the wreck of Jim Smith. No evolved selves, no Mechanic, no white-masked phantom. Just a battered wreck of a man in tattered polyester.
He opened his mouth. Some commentary seemed required, even to himself; but nothing in his life had given him the experience or vocabulary necessary to frame an appropriate observation. However the thought: “I’m either dead or insane,” flitted through his brain. The masked man’s gentle, powerful voice echoed in his head, pushing that thought aside. Time to get up off your knees, Mr. Heart.
Mr. Heart? Why had he called him that? Why did it sound so familiar?
And, why, thinking on that name did he suddenly know –with absolute certainty– that the man in the Noh mask was called Mister Sin? He knew it for certain, but did not know how he knew it, or why.
The hard roughness of the ground against his kneecaps reminded him of his position, and of the other thing the man -Mister Sin– had said. Life’s too short to
spend so much of it on your knees.
He looked down at the ground, at his knees and the symbolic weight of it slammed him in the gut.
Time to get up off your knees.
Somehow, Jim Smith managed to find the strength to climb shakily to his feet, and then stood there, listening as a new song began to play.
Behind him, the Fire Zone burned.
( 1 )
Collecting himself took time, since so much of him was scattered every which way. More store lights came on along the alley and now a few people walked or ran or danced past him; some of them waving or greeting him, some as oblivious to him as if they were characters in a movie and he standing next to the screen. No one seemed to have noticed him when he’d been down on the ground, or maybe it was that no one had wanted to intrude on the problems of a tattered, dirty, and apparently mentally disturbed stranger. No more than he would have had the roles been reversed.
After a while, when he could trust his legs, he moved into the flow of foot traffic and drifted along, letting the tide of revelers carry him back to the main drag, past stores that were brightly lit and full of people, past cafes and bars thronged with chattering crowds, past gated courtyards where lively parties were in full swing. A pay phone was mounted against the wall of a store selling religious trinkets and he stared at it for a long time, wishing he had a friend he could call, but his mind couldn’t even conjure the names of acquaintances close enough to care.
He observed it all and yet felt numb to any sense or feeling about what he was seeing. His mind felt cracked and held together with badly applied Scotch tape. Too much had happened –was still happening– for him to process. Beginning with the events at the bar, but accelerating like a runaway train racing through a Daliesque landscape. Seeing the Mechanic again had been the worst part of it.
Worse even than the horrors back at the bar. Bile burned the back of his throat and he clamped a hand over his mouth and sagged against the cold bricks of a drugstore wall.
With cold clarity he realized that he was in shock, and he wondered how much more of it he could withstand. After that last little bit of surreality, he more than halfway believed that he was actually laying unconscious somewhere — probably back at the bar, with his head smashed in by a heavy beer mug and his brains scrambled. Things had been going in that direction before he had….
Before he had done what he had done.
Few memories beyond his afternoon cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee seemed reliable; everything that had happened since seemed to be part of a constantly expanding nightmare.
Nothing will ever be the same again.
Yeah, he thought with bitter amusement, well no shit, Sherlock.
He barked a crooked little laugh. Is this what it feels like to go crazy?
As he walked he caught sight of himself in several mirrors and at first he didn’t want to look, afraid of what –or, rather, whom– he would see; but after taking a few experimental peeks in a long mirror bolted to the outside of a clothing shop he stopped and reappraised himself. He really did look like shit. Running his fingers through his matted hair accomplished nothing constructive, and straightening the hang of his shirt only made for straighter rags. He sighed.
Above him a prism caught light from a dozen sources and showered him with colorful sparks, He looked up and read the sign above the mirror:
ICON’S OTHER STORE
(Clothes for Refugees)
“That seems appropriate,” he muttered. Of all the things of actual importance that he should be focusing on, clothes were near the bottom of the list. Nevertheless, he squared his shoulders, cleared his throat, and went inside.
( 2 )
Just inside there was a smaller sign:
We’ll Make You New
He snorted. Well, he thought as the door swung shut behind him, hope
The store was surprisingly sedate considering the bizarre fashions the window mannequins had been wearing. The Music was punchy, though, with a flavor of Basso-nova buried under industrial guitars. Mirror-balls hung from the ceiling amid paper streamers in carnival colors. The place was packed with people milling through the narrow corridors of racks and shelves, and on pedestals other mannequins turned gracefully to watch the customers, their plaster faces benign and amused. Overall there was an orderliness and naturalness to the activities, and that was very appealing to Jim at that moment. A saleswoman drifted over and gave him and what was left of his wardrobe a quick up-and-down appraisal then pursed her lips.
“Well,” she said, striking an art-museum pose, head tilted to one side, “it’s a statement.”
Jim felt immensely grubby, and like a little kid he held his dirty hands behind his back.
The saleswoman was thirtyish, thin and tall, and she had the most perfect skin Jim had ever seen. Her hair was up in a loose bun and it was a swirl of dark red and chestnut. She had very red nails and red lipstick and she flashed him a beguiling smile that raised the temperature of his rain-chilled skin by several degrees.
“I…” he began, but she waved him off with a laugh.
“You don’t even have to tell me, sugar. We’re talking the works. Basement to penthouse.” She snapped her finger and a young man in black t-shirt and jeans appeared at his shoulder. “Go with Jinx,” the woman said. “I’ll see you when you get back.”
Taking a pad from her back pocket, she pursed her lips again. She spoke as she wrote. “Okay, let me see. Waist 38, inseam 36. Dresses to the left. Shirt double-X tall, neck eighteen and a half. Short or capped sleeves. Socks to match the shirt. Mmmm…maybe a vest. Nothing too outré, just a little color. Shoes –oh, say a 13-wide. Low rubber heels.”
“But…but…” But the saleswoman was already turning away. Jinx touched his arm. “This way, sir.”
Feeling dizzy, Jim followed the young man through a curtained partition, down a corridor and into an anteroom. There was a small table and chair, a gleaming porcelain sink, a tiled shower stall, an enclosed lavatory, and a full-length mirror. The lighting was soft and indirect. Incense burned in a small ceramic bowl on the table, and the Music played gently from two tall tower speakers. Inset into one wall was a small double-sided cupboard and built into another wall was a large saltwater fish tank in which brightly colored beauties swam serenely amidst the anemones and coral. Jinx went to the cupboard and fetched two thick towels, a wash cloth, and a small disposable toilet kit. He laid the towels on the chair and handed the toilet kit to Jim.
“It’s okay, Mr. Heart,” Jinx said. He spun. “What did you call me?”
The young man seemed startled and looked alarmed as if he’d done something wrong. “Excuse me?”
“You just called me Mr. Heart.” “I did?”
“Yes, damn it.”
Jinx looked confused and shook his head. “I’m sorry, sir…didn’t mean to offend you or anything.”
“You didn’t,” Jim snapped, then tried it again more softly. “No, you didn’t.
It’s just that you’re the second person who’s called me that tonight.” “Called you —what?”
“Called me ‘Mr. Heart’.”
“Oh.” Jinx smiled and shrugged. “That’s weird…I don’t even remember saying that. I just meant to say that it’s okay to use the shower and other facilities. Courtesy of Icon’s.”
Jim shook his head and let the matter go. He nodded at the shower. “I’ve never heard of a clothing store that encouraged people to shower before trying on a new shirt.”
Jinx gave his tattered clothes, rain-lank hair and grimy skin a brief appraising glance, but said nothing. Nevertheless, Jim got the point. Jinx went to the shower, turned it on and adjusted the temperature mix, testing it against his palm. “I’ll be outside if you need anything.” With that he left.
For quite a while Jim Smith stood there and just stared at the closed door. “Thursdays,” he said. “I was always bad with Thursdays.”
Three minutes later he was naked and scrubbing vigorously at the dirt and grime and blood and tears that covered his flesh. As he washed he once more used every ounce of will he possessed to avoid thinking about what was going on. He was more successful than he had been out on the street.
When he got out of the shower, Jinx had returned. Like a valet, he stood by with proffered towel, eyes tactfully averted to apparently observe the fish in the tank. When Jim was dried-off, Jinx gave him a second towel, a bath sheet, and gestured vaguely at Jim’s middle. After a moment’s hesitation, Jim got the idea and wrapped the towel around him. Jinx had removed the items from the toilet kit, laying-out a disposable razor, scented shaving cream, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant and a small tester-sized bottle of an expensive cologne. He had brought with him a small container which, when opened, yielded-up a heated towel. Jim pressed it to his face and held it there for a while to soften the five-o’clock shadow that had turned the areas above and below his beard into blue-black patches.
“I’ll go fetch your clothes,” Jinx said, and drifted silently out of the room. “Weird,” Jim observed as he began to lather his jaw and cheeks.
“Reeeeeelly, really weird.”
He glanced in the mirror carefully, expecting to see one of the other figures –
-his transformed self, the man in the Noh mask (Mister Sin, Jim thought, and was strangely comforted by knowing that name), or the Mechanic– but did not. Only his own skeptical face, the sourness of self-loathing muting the blue of his eyes.
Even though it was his own face he was seeing, the words of his transformed image echoed clearly through his mind.
Do you know why you’re here? Do you know why you’re here in the Fire Zone?
“No I damn well don’t,” Jim said aloud.
Do you know why you’re here in the Fire Zone? The question echoed and reechoed in his mind.
Then the image had said: Maybe this’ll jog your memory a bit…. After which the ugly images had appeared. First Pandora’s Box, and then the leering face of the Mechanic.
Now what the hell was that supposed to mean? Jim wondered sourly.
He thought about it and thought about it and came up dry. The shaving cream had started to get cool, so he reached for the razor. Jim shaved carefully around the contours of his beard, then brushed his teeth and finished his ablutions with as much haste as he could. After rinsing his mouth he drank four glasses of water, the last few drops of which were gurgling down his throat when there was a light tap on the door and then Jinx entered bearing a stack of clothes atop which was a new pair of shoes. Jim glanced around and realized that his old clothes had been removed and that contents of his pockets were laid out neatly for him on the table.
“You’d better wait,” Jim said as Jinx turned to go. “In case they don’t fit.” Jinx chuckled at that, shook his head and left.
“Whatever,” Jim muttered and tried on the clothes. Of course they fit perfectly. Not off the rack comfortable, but as if a smart tailor had taken precise measurements of every angle, plane, contour and curve of his body. There were black silk boxers and knitted socks, dark trousers that hovered somewhere near black but with a hint of a twilit purple in the weave; a shirt with a somewhat more vibrant purple swirling in an overlaid pattern; and a silk vest with subtle bursts of silver and dark purple against a matte black background. The shoes were hand- sewn and more comfortable than any shoes he had ever owned. The belt had a silver buckle inset with a purple stone Jim couldn’t identify. He dressed slowly, taking his time to let his body enjoy the experience, and mentally trying to tally-up how much this would cost him. Probably more than he could afford, and he wondered how this place would handle the awkwardness of that eventuality.
For quite a while he stood in front of the mirror, amazed at how much apparent change a shower, shave and some new clothes had made: he looked like a new man. No, he corrected himself –he looked like a different man.
A flash image of the first of the three mirrored images from the darkened store window stepped into his inner line-of-sight. The man in the poet’s shirt, leather trousers and black half-boots. Though his current clothes were in no way similar to those the mirror image had worn, they nonetheless possessed an alikeness in style, in chic, in the masterful cut. In all his life, Jim had never owned clothes as fine as these, and somehow he felt both inadequate to them and yet more adequate than he had in quite a while. The perceptual dichotomy was hard to understand.
He stuffed his keys, wallet, comb and coins into his various pockets, draped the towels over the back of the chair, gave the room a last long appraising look, and went out.
The store was still all a-bustle and it took him a while to find the red-haired woman who had waited on him. She was tying a cinnamon-colored scarf around the throat of a mannequin and humming along with the Music; she looked up as he approached, a smile forming instantly on her pretty lips.
“Ah,” she said, “that’s more like it.” “More presentable?” he asked, grinning. “Less like the victim of a hit-and-run.”
“Ah.” He ran his fingers along the hem of the vest. “These are great. You have a good eye.”
Her smile was dazzling.
“How much do I owe you?”
She fished around in a pocket and came up with the bill, handed it over. It was less than he would have expected to pay for the shoes alone. “Wow. Good prices.”
While he sorted through his wallet for his debit card, she finished the knot on the scarf and stood back to appraise it; then turned and appraised him. “What do you think?” she asked, nodding at the statue.
“Mm. Maybe.” She considered, then nodded. “Okay,” she said, “into the window.”
The mannequin stepped down, turned a slow pirouette and walked away past Jim, who shrank back in astonished horror.
“He doesn’t shop here,” the redhead said airily, walking away. “You can pay at the counter. Come again.”
“But…” He stood there, pointing at the retreating back of the mannequin, but no one else in the store seemed to notice anything that was out of place, or out of the ordinary.
( 3 )
Out on the street he stopped to let the cooler air steady his spinning head.
“I’m definitely in shock,” he told himself, which was true enough. Then he added, “So, steady-on, old son. If something looks like a bugaboo and acts like a bugaboo, chances are it’s your own neurons that aren’t firing properly. So, take a deep breath.” He took one, held it, let it out slowly. “Then go and find some alcohol because you are way too sober to handle this.”
He said all this out loud. Talking to himself seemed like a perfectly normal action, considering the circumstances.
The street bent around the nearest building then rose up in a long tree-lined hill. At the top of the hill was what looked like a huge nightclub: a white edifice with a glaring red neon sign of some kind he couldn’t quite make out from that distance. People were going in an out, some of them laughing out loud.
Jim pointed. “Booze,” he said. “Go fetch.”
( 4 )
Owen Minor the Wolverine stepped from behind a slender shadow and watched Jim Smith head up the hill toward the nightclub. Unlike Jim Smith, who had transformed from a wretched refugee into a semblance of an urban gentleman, Owen still wore the same clothing he’d chosen at the moment of his manifestation back on the deserted street where Jim had vomited his fear and hurt and rage into the gutter. His full, fleshy lips writhed into an approximation of a smile and he licked a wet tongue over his teeth as he watched Jim plod upward toward the lights.
“Yes, this is going to be fun,” he said, echoing his earlier sentiments. “Oh, so much fun.”
He waited until a few passersby were watching and then snapped his fingers and vanished in a theatrical flash of fire and brimstone. His chuckle lingered even longer than the sulfurous smoke.
( 1 )
Up ahead the neon facade of the club loomed like one of the cliffs of Dover: tall, rough-textured and painted a mottled white, towering above the waves of light that lapped at its base. It soared twenty stories upward into the sky and was crowned by a massive rotating laser cannon that fired a barrage of bright red and blue light into the night. Every sixty seconds the laser would tilt downward and its twin barrels would focus together and send purple beams smashing down into the street where they would explode into bright sparks that tinkled like wind chimes. At ground level, the revelers were bathed in the sanguine glow of a pulsing neon hand that was fifteen-foot high and the color of arterial blood. Mounted to the left of the massive doors, the hand throbbed with the insistent rhythm of a passionate heart, the fingers splayed wide as if in pain, or in ecstasy.
Jim Smith stopped in front of the bar and looked dubiously up at the pulsating red hand, and was suddenly jabbed by a splinter of memory from his vision in the store window: his own metamorphosed image bathed in the red glow of a neon hand. Had that been a vision of the future? Jim was superstitious enough to believe in omens. His own grandmother –Grammy MacDougall— had been a deeply spiritual person, one of those Old World holdovers from the days when rural Earth magic was as important and valid as any modern science. Grammy had read tealeaves and tarot cards and palms, and what she read was often very accurate. So accurate that nearly everyone in Jim’s family had been afraid of her, shunning her the way puritans shunned a witch, though they had stopped short of burning her at the stake. Jim, always an exception to what the rest of his family thought and felt, had not feared Grammy, but instead had listened intently to what she had said about the forces at work in the world –seen and unseen, felt and unfelt– and had grown up believing that there were signs and portents all around, requiring only the gift of second sight or an open mind to perceive them. While Jim did not believe he had second sight himself, he did try to keep an open mind about spiritual things.
Events that might stop a more rigid thinker in his tracks did not stall Jim. Mind you, they slowed him to a walk occasionally, but did not actually stop him dead in his tracks.
He stood there and looked at the pulsing red hand, and wondered what it meant. Some instinct told him that it was important, that it did mean something to him, something to his life…something more profound than an invitation to a drink. The image of himself transformed that he had seen and even talked to in the darkened window of the closed store had been bathed by the light from a flashing red neon hand. So, what had that meant? Coincidence, he believed, was the refuge of the unimaginative mind.
Jim knew that there was something going on. Something very large and something very powerful; something that was moving through his life like a hurricane, destroying structures, obliterating safety, blasting down all the walls. Nothing will ever be the same again. The hurricane winds blew those words through his mind over and over again; and Jim began to suspect that there was more prophecy in them than merely a bitter evaluation of cause and effect.
The neon hand flashed and flashed, flicking from boiling crimson icy blackness. He noticed that to the left of the hand was a much smaller sign, gold script on a black metal plate, announcing the club’s name. TORQUEMADA’S. Mouthing the name, Jim allowed himself a single cold smile. “Cute,” he said. He thought briefly of Thomas Torquemada, the twisted mind of a twisted man who had
spearheaded the Inquisition. A man who’s soul must have burned like black flame. A man like the Mechanic, Jim thought, and shivered again. The image of the Mechanic as he had appeared in the darkened storefront window was all too powerful. Well, try this on for size, his transformed self had. Maybe this’ll tell you something. Maybe this’ll jog your memory a bit. Then the Mechanic had appeared out of the reflected darkness. It had jogged Jim’s memory all right. It had nearly unmanned him with those memories. The wet, smiling lips of the Mechanic. We’re going to have to one of our special talks, boy…
With a growl, Jim forced the Mechanic out of his mind, shoved all thoughts of him down into Pandora’s Box, and with determination tried to focus his mind, to obtain some fragment of understanding of what was happening to him.
Dead on the barroom floor, he mused again. Or strapped down in the psycho ward. Or, maybe just concussed and in an E.R. somewhere with an I.V. drip and a dent in his skull. All of those were likely options. He looked up at the pulsing hand and wondered how his whacked-out dreaming mind could have imagined this place.
The hand pulsed and throbbed and Jim could feel the alternating sensations of red heat and cool shadows on his face.
If this was all the product of injury, trauma, possibly even brain damage…then he was safe. If he was the one on the floor of the strip club, and not Terry, then the Mark of Cain was not burned onto him. Jim thought about that, hoping it was true; knowing that he would rather be a dead innocent than a live killer, a victim rather than a predator.
“Maybe I am dead,” he murmured to the night breeze. This time there was some comfort in that thought. A second later he shivered as a chill wind swept up his spine and swirled all the hair on the top of his head. “I must be dead ‘cause someone just walked over my grave…”
Behind him, across the street and out of his line of sight, the small man in the wine-colored poet’s shirt, the one with the smile that seemed to writhe on his lips, stepped from the shadows of an alley and stood for a moment, watching him. His eyes glittered with amusement. Jim shivered again and turned abruptly, feeling eyes on the back of his neck, but when he looked up and down the street, it was empty.
He sighed and turned back to the pulsing red hand, thinking about how his own mind worked, about the desires he had, about what he would accept as the
truth. That he would accept crippling injury, insanity or death more easily and readily than the apparent truth should have reduced him to screaming tears.
It didn’t. Instead it merely afforded him some measure of comfort. He watched the flashing hand and tried to remember every detail of his transformed image. The face, the clothes, the knife at his hip. All of it was still crystal clear in his mind. And the words… Do you know why you’re here? Do you know why you’re here in the Fire Zone? They still rang as clear as church bells in his mind. Prophecy? Or insanity? Which was the better option? Which of those avenues would lead to salvation?
At that moment, standing here, watching the manifestation of that neon hand flashing with crimson light, he couldn’t be sure whether that earlier vision had been shock-induced delusion or a trick of déjá-vu.
Well, either way, he told himself, they’ll still have drinks, so at least I’m ahead of the game there.
The doors of Torquemada’s were thick and strong, and made from seasoned oak and bound with stout black studded metal bands. There was a small grilled window set at head height in the left-hand door, below which was a face carved from tortured brass, eyes pressed shut against some unimaginable extreme of emotion, mouth flung wide to utter a horrible scream of rage or agony. An impossibly long
tongue lolled from the mouth and curved down to form the door-handle. It was exquisitely repulsive.
Jim looked around him, left, right, behind, surveying the empty street. Then he drew a steadying breath and reached for handle.
“You sure you want to go in there?”
The stranger’s voice had come from behind him and Jim jumped, spun as he landed and ended up in a crouch with his hands clenched into fists, facing the man who had spoken. The man who hadn’t been there a heartbeat earlier.
The fellow was as old as time, as black as sleep, and as lined as a map. What hair he had was a snowy rime on his wrinkled head. He wore patched denim bib- overalls over a checked work-shirt and scuffed brown boots. He leaned one forearm on the haft of a corn-thistle push broom, his other arm crossed over it, thickly callused fingers dangling. There were terrible healed-over scars on his wrists. Jim thought that he looked like an older, shorter, more weather-beaten version of B. B. King.
He was smiling warmly.
Jim Smith looked at him, then up and down the street. “Did you say something?”
“Uh-huh. Asked if you really wanted to go in there.” “Why? What’s it to you?”
The old man gave a small shrug.
“Well,” Jim asked, his voice overly patient in the way people are when they are speaking to the very old or the very stupid, “is there some reason I shouldn’t go in there. Is it a private club or something?”
“No. Torquie’s open to everyone.” “Then why shouldn’t I go in?”
The street-sweeper shrugged again. “Not for me to say what you should or shouldn’t do, mister. It’s just that a lot of folks prefer to just pass that place by.”
“Why?” Jim looked at the closed door. He could feel more than hear the vibrations from the bass notes of the Music inside. “Is something wrong with this place?”
A smaller shrug this time. “Depends, mister.” “On?”
“On what you’re looking for.”
Jim turned back to face him. “I hate to be rude here, pal, but that’s kind of my business, isn’t it?”
“Sure, sure, didn’t mean no offense.” The man scratched at the ragged scars on one wrist. “It’s just that I saw you hesitating and I thought maybe you weren’t sure. People going in Torquemada’s generally don’t do too well if they’re waffling. Torquie’s isn’t the kind of place to be in if you ain’t got your lights wired in a nice, neat row, y’know what I mean?”
Jim, who didn’t have the slightest clue what the man meant, said, “Yeah, I got it.”
There was a skeptical look in the old man’s eyes.
Turning once more to look up at the whitewashed facade, Jim thought that it looked like just exactly what he needed: it was big enough and loud enough for him to lose himself completely, and that held great appeal for him. “What is it? Is there something wrong with this place?” he asked again.
“Some folks think that there’s everything wrong with that place, but I couldn’t say for sure.”
“You ever been in there.”
The man brushed dirt from his coveralls. “Not really my sort of place, don’t you think?”
“How should I know? It’s a free country, though.”
The old black man just smiled at that, and gave a faint, tolerant chuckle. “What I’m wondering, friend, is whether it’s your sort of place.”
“What’s that to you? I mean, why do you even care? You don’t know me.” “No, no I don’t. You’re right about that. Maybe nobody really knows you.” “I’m a stranger here,” Jim said, vaguely aware that this wasn’t what the old man meant; but then he didn’t know what the old man did mean. The conversation had quickly wandered down some sort of side street, possibly into a disused cul-de- sac.
“I care,” the man said softly, lazily, “‘cause I’m the fellow who kind of takes care of the place.”
“You mean this club?”
“No, the whole place.” He gestured vaguely, maybe indicating the street, maybe the whole of the Fire Zone. “You know, I sweep up a bit, take out some trash, do a few small repairs. Look after things.”
“A caretaker?” Jim offered.
The old man beamed, liking the word. “Yeah. Caretaker. A caretaker who takes good care.” He picked at a splinter on the broom-handle, then cocked an eye at Jim. “You probably think I’m just some nosy old guy just poking himself in matters don’t concern him, and maybe that’s true. You get to be my age, you tend to do what you want. Kind of earn the right from having been and done, you catch me?”
“Okay, fine, so you’re the caretaker. How wonderful for you. Do they pay you to talk people out of going into the bars?”
“No, they don’t pay me to do that.”
“So, why the big production? I just want to have a beer or six and forget my troubles. Can’t a man do that without the third degree?”
“Sure, sure,” the man said placatingly. “Man wants to sit himself down with a beer, why that’s just fine. I might do that myself later on. A cold beer and maybe a hot sandwich. You like sandwiches? I’m thinking maybe a shrimp and fried- oyster po’-boy with mustard sauce. Maybe a couple cold ones, you know? Some of that Mexican beer they stick slices of lime into. Goes pretty good with Louisiana sandwiches.” He pronounced it Loozy-anna.
“Good, you go and do that. Meanwhile,” Jim said, “I’m going to go into there and get totally bombed out of my skull. Any objections?”
“No, sir. Not unless you don’t understand that this ain’t no quiet little corner taproom you going into,”
“I didn’t think it was, but I keep asking: is something wrong with that place?”
“Well…it sure ain’t quite right. I guess it’s as wrong as the Bishop wants it to be.”
“The Bishop? He the owner?”
“Him?” the caretaker chuckled. “Bishop don’t own it, no more than Mister
Sin owns Unlovely’s.”
Mister Sin! The name sent a thrill through Jim’s skin.
The old man went on, “Far as I know nobody owns it. Place kind of just is, but it’s the Bishop’s joint all the same. That’s kinda the way things are around here.”
“Here meaning the Fire Zone?” “Uh-huh.”
“Do you?” The old man’s eyes twinkled like a merry Santa Claus, but it was clear he knew Jim Smith didn’t get his point at all. “It’s always good to be able to see things clearly. So many people don’t, you know? They just stagger around going from one minute to the next and they never seem to be able to get a handle on anything. Kind of shame, when you think about it. All those refugees just lost in the storm. But you, sir, you tell me that you see, and I guess you must if you say so — so I’m real happy for you.”
Jim sucked his teeth. “Does it bother you that most of what you say doesn’t make sense?”
The old man laughed. “Don’t it? Well,” he considered, frowning thoughtfully, “believe me, son, it wouldn’t be the first time someone didn’t understand what I said. Not the first by a big, long count. But…maybe it’ll make better sense to you later on.”
“I doubt it.”
“Yeah, well, you never know, do you? Sometimes your –oh, hell, whaddya call it? –your perspective changes.”
“What’s my perspective got to do with anything? I just want a beer.” “Like I said, it always helps to see things clearly. See ‘em as they really are.
Smart as you are, I bet you don’t always see things like they really are, do you?” “Why would you say that?”
“You have the look.”
“Oh, and pray, what look is that?”
“The look. You know the one I mean. You see it in the mirror all the time.” He cocked his head to one side, considering. “Yeah…I’ll bet you see lots of things in mirrors that you don’t understand. Or don’t wanta understand.”
Jim opened his mouth to say something flip, then shut it with a click as his mind was suddenly a picture gallery of mirrors reflecting different versions of himself, of the Mechanic, of the enigmatic Mister Sin in his Noh mask, and of the bloodied face of Terry. Do you know why you’re here? Do you know why you’re here in the Fire Zone? The words echoed jarringly again in his mind. The mental funhouse gallery of images and words was far too present in his mind for smart-ass rebuttals. Somehow –he could not imagine how– he could see a shared understanding in the caretaker’s bottomless brown eyes. Those eyes were dark and ancient; and Jim felt suddenly very young and stupid.
“It’s okay,” the man said softly. “Most folks don’t see things they way they are. It takes practice to do that; it’s hard and scary to do that –but I gotta tell you that it’s a dandy thing when you can get to that point, to where things are just what they seem.” He shook his head and smiled. “That’s people for you. They’re all the time making things different in their heads.”
“People do that, do they?” Jim asked, coughing to clear a dry throat. “All the time,” the caretaker said, “you’d be surprised.”
Or maybe I wouldn’t, Jim thought darkly. “So, what you’re saying is that ‘cause I’m having a bad night, this place isn’t safe. Is that about it?”
The smile bloomed into a grin. “You’re quick, aintcha?” “Not lately,” Jim said under his breath.
“Yeah, that’s about it. I just hate to see people walk into a thorn-bush when they coulda walked ‘round it.”
“So, after all the dancing around it, the answer to my question is that this place is not, after all, safe?”
“Safe?” The caretaker chuckled and chewed on the word as if it had just been offered for the first time. “Hell no it ain’t safe. This is the Fire Zone, son. We ain’t really big on safe around here. You want safe, go to Disneyland.”
“Okay, so now I’m trembling in my shoes. I’ll try not to spill my beer.” The old man gave him a slow appraisal, up and down and back up again.
“Mm, well hell, mister, I ain’t trying to scare you. It was just a friendly bit of advice.”
“Yeah, but I’m not your friend. I’m a total stranger.”
“Sure, sure, but what’s that old saying? ‘Strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet.’” He chuckled.
“Okay, fine. So now we’re lifelong friends and you’ve given me sage advice about where it’s safe to order a shot and a beer. Thanks, pal. You have my gratitude. In fact, you’d have my undying and eternal gratitude if you’d just let me go and actually have that shot and beer!”
The smile drained away from the old man’s face like water from a cracked flowerpot. In its absence he looked older and wearier. He nodded. “Right, right…sorry. I let my mouth run off with my manners sometimes. You don’t know me from a can of paint and you don’t wanta know me. That’s fine. I understand that. Sorry. And I’m sorry for holding you up. I mean, I see a Refugee fresh outta Stone and I say to myself, Caster old son, there’s a young man walking in harm’s way, yessir.”
“I guess some people don’t like having their business poked into.”
“Said I was sorry.” The caretaker fiddled with the broom for a moment, nudging at some scraps of shadow. “You go and enjoy that beer now.”
“Oh,” Jim said in a chilly voice, ”may I?” He began reaching for the door- handle, but didn’t yet grab it.
The street-sweeper stopped nudging the shadows and looked up at the night sky, sighing, scratching unthinkingly at the scars on his wrists. “You try to help some people and they crucify you,” he said under his breath. “Always the same old story.” He shook his head. “Sorry I bothered you,” he said and turned away. He began walking slowly away, pushing at the darkness with the old corn broom.
Jim stood by the door, his hand inches away from that lolling brass tongue, and watched the old man go. He felt like the biggest horse’s ass on the planet. Not for the first time tonight did he feel like he’d lost all positive control of an encounter,
and even though the old guy was obviously a nutcake, his rudeness to the man bothered him.
“Fuck,” he said to himself, then louder: “Look…”
Waving a hand, the old man said over his shoulder: “No, no it’s okay.
You’re dead right –it’s your business and I oughtta spend more time minding my own.”
Smith licked his lips. “Hey!” he called.
The broom paused in its whisking. “Yeah?” the man asked, half turning. “Look, I’m sorry I jumped on you. It’s been a pretty bad night, okay?
Things are kind of getting out of hand for me. So…I’m sorry. I do appreciate the advice, but honestly, I’m just going in there for a beer. No hassles with anybody and I won’t stir up the natives, okay? Just a quiet beer.”
The old man looked as if he was about to reply to that, but checked himself.
He gave Jim a small smile and nodded.
“So…” Jim said, “I guess I’ll see you around. Okay?” “Sure,” the caretaker said. “Sure.”
He turned again and moved away down the street, ignoring the litter and sweeping diligently at the shadows.
Watching him, Jim said to himself: “Why do I always feel like I come in halfway through these things?” The musical breeze offered no opinions, so Jim turned back to the door of Torquemada’s. He looked at the door handle, then distinctly behind him he could hear the whisk-whisk-whisk of the old man’s broom.
He drew a breath, held it, and then exhaled decisively through his nostrils.
Then he reached for the door handle.
As soon as his hand closed around it an icy chill darted like a charge of static electricity through his skin and up his arm. The metal was impossibly cold and he almost let go of it; but he didn’t. Perhaps he couldn’t have if he’d tried. He pulled on the door and there was resistance at first -not as if it were locked or too heavy to pull, but as if the door was pulling back from his efforts– and then it swung outward with a sneaky little snicker of hinges.
The Music was there, lurking all this time behind the stout panel of ironbound wood. It waited until the door was fully open and Jim was moving to enter, and then it leapt at him, slamming four-footed into his chest like a hunting cat.
The cry was ripped out of him and he staggered, but his hand was closed tightly around the handle and he held on, for balance if for no other reason. The Music was huge, raw, loud: it tore at him with claws, it wrapped tendrils around him, sunk teeth into him as it attacked –not the volume of it, but the driving intensity of it, the palpable presence of it crouching malevolently within the sound.
At that moment, had he been able to, Jim Smith would have slammed the door shut behind him and fled. Back to the street; back to the old man. Maybe even back to wherever it was he had come from, back to Eyeful’s to face the cops and the consequences.
It was already too late. The Music of Torquemada’s had him now.
Dazed, he lurched forward into the hungry mouth of the club, into the darkness of the entrance hall, into the Music itself. He staggered like a man taking that fatal last step off a precipice.
Into the neon lights he went; into the movement and the madness. Behind him, the door pulled itself shut, the hinges still snickering, the brass face crying out in cruel delight.
( 2 )
Out on the street, the old man had stopped sweeping and was leaning against the east wall of Torquemada’s. He tugged a bottle of Old Time Religion out of his hip pocket, unscrewed the cap, and took a good, long swig. He sighed and wiped his mouth with the back of one scarred wrist.
Two young men strolled by, rough trade by the look of them. They saw the old man and stopped, staring at him for a moment; then both of them came and kissed the caretaker’s hands, and he hugged each of them with fatherly love. A few moments later a small girl ran by chasing a fluttering ball of light. The old man waved his hand at the ball and immediately it began flickering with thousands of magnificent colors. The little girl giggled in delight and danced down the street in happy pursuit.
When he was alone again, he settled back against the stucco wall and looked sadly at the shadows clustered along the darkened side street. The lights and noise seemed muted for a moment.
He’d heard the sonic explosion of the Music when Jim had opened the door, had felt the shudder of raw power wash out into the street, had felt the tides drag the young man inside. Into the belly of the beast.
He took another sip, hissed at the burn in his throat.
“I told you,” he murmured. “Damn if I didn’t tell you.”
( 1 )
When Jim Smith was nine…
A college kid was sitting at the front desk reading a European Lit textbook and eating Doritos. He sensed rather than saw Jim, and looked up sharply, squinting into the sunlight behind the boy. “Speak, apparition,” he intoned.
Jimmy said nothing because his mouth didn’t want to work. He stared around with wide eyes. The lobby was crammed with trophies topped by silver statues of men throwing and kicking one another. The walls were hung with important-looking certificates written in Japanese and photos of steely-eyed men in strange costumes, some of whom held swords. When the boy had finished his inventory, the college kid asked, “Just window shopping?”
Jimmy licked his lips and swallowed a dry throat, but instead of speaking, he dug into the pocket of his threadbare jeans and produced a much creased and folded piece of paper, which he held out. Taking it, the college kid unfolded it, read it, and glanced across the desk at the boy. He chewed his lip for a moment.
“Yeah, Minnie said you’d be stopping by.” “Oh?” It was the first sound Jimmy had made.
“We expected you a couple of weeks ago, though.” He cocked his head to one side and pasted on a friendly grin. “So…you want to turn yourself into a steel-fisted, fire-eating engine of mass destruction, eh?”
Jimmy said nothing. For the last couple of weeks he’d had trouble taking a deep breath, and walking had been difficult. Yesterday was the first day he had gone all day without feeling any pain, and it had taken the whole day to work up the nerve to get on the bus and come here. Plus he’d had to spend several hours in the afternoon looking for returnable bottles so he could make the bus fare. He had made enough for a round trip with eighteen cents left over.
“Or…perhaps you’d like to learn how to be a mime?” Jimmy blinked. “What?”
“Well, you have the silent dead-pan part down pretty good. All we need to do is teach you how to escape an invisible box and you’ll be all set.”
Jim didn’t know how to reply to that, and so said, “I came here to see Mr. Johnson.”
“Ah-ha! I knew I’d find you out.” “Is this the right place?”
“It is. Why not go on in? He’s in the dojo.” “What’s that?”
“The classroom, gym, practice hall. Right through those doors.” He pointed with his chin to a set of wooden doors polished to a high gloss. “Go on in and take a peek.”
There was a small sign on the right-hand door: Please enter quietly. Jimmy nodded and approached the doors, sucking in a deep, steadying breath as he did so. He reached out with one hand, hesitated for a long moment, and then pushed it open.
It swung inward without a sound, and he stepped inside. The doorway opened into a large, dark room that was nearly bare. There was a wooden rail between a space for observers to sit and the main floor of the dojo. Jimmy came as far as the rail and stopped, his hands resting on the polished wood divider as he stared around the room. It was big, dark, with a high ceiling nearly lost in soft shadows. Jimmy, unfamiliar with incense, recognized the scent of sandalwood — just like Grammy MacDougall’s parlor– and he liked it. The floor of the dojo was covered completely with thin, soft gray mats. In the far corner of the room was a small shrine atop which a reclining Buddha smiled gently into the center of the training area.
There was just one person in the room, an older middle-aged black man who knelt before the shrine, his back to Jimmy. The man had brush-cut gray hair and he seemed thin and frail in his voluminous robes of black and dark blue.
The man did not appear to be aware of his presence, and Jimmy stood silent, making no sound at all. Time passed, yet the moment did not stretch uncomfortably but instead seemed to expand, like lungs taking a deep and steadying breath.
Perhaps as much as five minutes passed before the old man bowed to the smiling Buddha and rose. He turned and looked across the room to where Jimmy stood in the shadows by the wall.
“Take your shoes off and come here,” the man said. He had a mildly Cajun accent, but to Jimmy it just sounded exotic
Jimmy sat down and carefully undid his laces, placed his shoes neatly together and padded in white sweat socks onto the mats. They yielded only a little under his weight, suggesting that they were not nearly as soft as they looked. Jimmy came cautiously to the old man. They eyed each other for a few moments, and it would have been hard to pick which had the better poker face. Jimmy thought that the man’s eyes were as black and expressionless as the empty eyes of a mask.
“Your name is Jimmy Smith?” said at last. “Yes, sir.”
“My niece tells me that you want to learn how to fight. Is that right?” Those black eyes were piercing.
“Yes or no, boy? Do you want to learn how to fight?”
“I…guess.” In truth he had never thought about it like that. Learning to fight. The concept was bizarre to him. Unreal.
Sensei Johnson grunted. He stood only a few inches taller than Jimmy, maybe five-three, and probably didn’t outweigh him by more than twenty pounds.
The question caught Jimmy off guard. He blinked, opened his mouth, then shut it on silence again. He shrugged again.
“Don’t do that.” “W…what?”
“Don’t just shrug your shoulders when I ask you a question. It’s impolite.” “Sorry.”
“And don’t say ‘sorry’ like that.” “Like what?”
“Like it’s a reflex rather than something you feel.”
“Sorr…” He stopped himself, flushed…and flinched, shying back a couple of inches as if he expected a flick of an annoyed hand.
Johnson saw the flinch. His eyes became, if anything, less expressive, his mouth a thinner line. Again he said, “Why do you want to learn how to fight?”
The incense drifted through the shadows, the candles on the shrine flickered quietly. Buddha smiled his tolerant smile.
“I guess…” Jimmy began, then faltered. Johnson made a sound of encouragement. Jimmy flicked a glance at him, then down at the floor. “I guess…so people won’t hurt me anymore.”
The word ‘anymore’ hung in the air, poisonous and heavy.
The old man said nothing for a fistful of seconds, then he sighed softly and nodded to himself. His seamed face looked older at that moment.
“Then we should get started,” he said.
Jimmy Smith looked up sharply, but he still could not read the secrets of those black eyes.
( 2 )
Jim nearly died there. Right there in the doorway to Torquemada’s.
His legs wanted to collapse and there wasn’t enough air in the room, or in his spasming lungs. He leaned against the inside wall and desperately tried to regain his equilibrium. The hammering of the Music was only less explosive than the desperate insistence of his heartbeat. Sweat burst from his pores and his fevered eyes jumped and twitched as he saw all the things that twisted and writhed within the club. It was like nothing he had ever seen before, or even imagined, and his
reeling senses could not begin to comprehend it all. It was too much and the overload drove holes in his head. Unable to resist, unsure if he wanted to, and yet terrified to let go, Jim Smith stood shaking near the door. He felt more than heard the door slam shut behind him with ringing finality.
“God save me…” he whispered, but the Music beat all the tone from his plea.
Torquemada’s was fantastically huge, much larger than it looked from without. The dance floor was a picture of mad infinity, stretching away beyond the reaches of his perceptions. It was edged by a broad wooden apron, and the floor itself was clear acrylic. Looking down revealed images of Heironymous Bosch –but alive and moving. The dancers themselves were insane, trapped within a musical force that was beyond definition: it caught them, spun them violently, drove them into dance-steps which human limbs should not be able to perform. Yet faltering was impossible, for the Music held absolute command. With tentacles of force the Music coiled around each body, probed every private place, discovered every secret; it kept moving, moving –always on the prowl for something deep, something rare. It writhed along the floor, forcing feet to move, buffeting sinuous bodies and making them gyrate in tune with its own pulsations.
In the throes of madness, the dancers were stretched and contorted like hot plastic, their bodies warping and changing according to the whims and demands of the Music. The fabric of material existence was altered so that the fingers of a stretched hand would suddenly fly off to the end of the room, but the stumps would not bleed. People exploded and became fragments of light. Off in one corner a leg danced with itself, then grew a new body that was far different from the one it had lost. A man fell upward unto the air and melted into the swirling plasterworks of the ceiling. These things –these mad things that he saw and felt– convinced him that his earlier guess had been right: he was either dead or insane, and this was all some kind of nightmare.
Yet….the Music felt real, and the vibrations of the bass notes through the floor felt real, and the lights burned with stinging reality in his eyes. He tried to stand his ground, but his mind was already tumbling. Caught at the deadly edge of the whirlpool, he fought for balance but knew that he would be dragged down if he took even the tiniest step forward. Nothing he could do would prevent that. As he swayed, the rhythms pounded at him, tugged him, enticed him, cried out to him in siren voices, teasing him to succumb, to simply step off the precipice and plunge into the abyss that was the Music.
The Music closed itself as one song finished and there was a trembling second of relief. Jim felt faint; his face was hot and running with sweat. He pawed the sweat out of his eyes and tried to concentrate, but the whole place seemed to be out of focus. Then the next song began, and it began with such intensity that Jim stumbled backward, crying out, gasping, and clutching at his chest as the first notes struck him above the heart. He realized that he was screaming and forced his mouth shut; then he laughed as a wave of madness hit him. In a brief moment of clarity he looked around for any kind of lifeline, anything with which he could pull himself back to safety and sanity, and found nothing.
One rebellious foot –too weak to resist any longer– stepped off the wooden apron and he was instantly dragged along into the sound and the fury. Laughing, leaving behind the last vestiges of his sanity, he followed that foot and stepped off the high cliff, taking the long dive down into the Music.
Another wave of Music slammed into him and he staggered, gasping, but the beat mastered him and he was held upright, dominated entirely, completely in its thrall. His pelvis swung around and he arched his back. He felt like a surfer crouched atop a heavy roller that was swelling, gathering big chunks of the ocean as it raced toward the shoreline. The Music swelled upward from the floor and he rode it shakily, fighting for control. Hands reached for him and he was brought into
the press. Someone slender and tall used him to ride her own wave, her crotch brushing violently against his thigh, nails twisting and twining in his hair. He tried to pull back, tried to mumble some kind of an excuse, but the woman had an unbreakable grip on him. She grunted and gasped and screamed as the Music worked its magic deep within her.
“Kiss me!” she commanded, pulling him close. Her kiss was scalding, and he managed only a lukewarm riposte. Then he was lumbering backward, released suddenly from her passion, and she was gone, a specter he had not actually been able to see in the confused semi-darkness. He had only a vague impression of tight green silk, black hair and a red, red mouth.
The Music had settled into a pattern now, and Jim Smith was able to dance. He danced by instinct, perhaps by reflex, but his active will had little to do with it. He felt as if he were still caught in that tidal wave and he was beginning to be afraid of what would happen when it smacked down on the beach. Or, maybe it was more like a river speeding onward to a waterfall. Would there be jagged rocks down there? Would he sink down in waters infested with biting sharks? Or would there be something more monstrous, something as alien as this place?
Or, would there be some resolution to this madness, some solution beyond his imagination?
Something brushed against his shoulder and he turned. It was the man with the butcher’s smile and wet lips; the big man in the greasy mechanic’s overalls that looked so much like Jim Smith. The Mechanic. He gave Jim a slow, lascivious wink.
Laughing, the Mechanic vanished into the crowd, but his passage had torn open a hole in Jim’s brain, spilling out the memories he had long ago locked.
Memories of fear and pain, of humiliation and torture. Memories he could not
afford, and certainly could not face right now, not with all the madness boiling around him. Long ago he’d mashed them all down into the bottom of his mental Pandora’s Box and he was not ready, willing or able to let those horrors loose on his world. Shrieking in horror, he reeled across the dance floor, careening into other dancers, but even his screams became part of the Music. His feet, though heavy with the shackles of terror, moved again and found the rhythm.
The piercing scream of a child in terrible pain silenced his own cries and made him whirl, but there was nothing behind him but the wildly thrashing dancers. The screams rose again; and they went on and on until they blotted out even the Music. “Oh, God! No! Please don’t! God…please…help me!”
Jim stared in horror, recognizing the voice. Recognizing it as an echo from the past. It was completely impossible…and yet it was so real, so present that it filled him with that old atavistic dread. In his mind, Pandora’s Box creaked threateningly, straining against the locks and chains he’d placed around it.
“No!” he said, as much to himself as in denial that the voice of the screaming child was real. “God damn it! No!”
“Please, help–!” the voice began but then was immediately cut off as if someone had pressed the STOP button on a tape player. The tone of the note was caught and blended with a guitar note that rose and warped and vanished into the next progression of distortion-heavy guitar chords.
Jim turned this way and that, trying to find the Mechanic in the crowd, but just past the spot where he had vanished there was only a small man dressed in a claret-colored poet’s shirt over black velvet slacks and thigh-high boots. The man seemed to sense Jim’s eyes on him and he turned and offered a sly wink. It was just like the Mechanic’s wink, and his lips glistened just as wetly; but the face was totally different, a stranger’s face. Jim stared, feeling as if he should recognize this man,
knowing in a very visceral way that it was important to know this man; and yet he new that he did not. Or, had he seen him on the street somewhere? The man was a completely familiar total stranger. He knew it made no sense; or, rather, he knew that he was not able to make sense of it. The paradox hurt his head.
The man lingered for one moment more, still smiling a smile that made Jim Smith’s blood run cold. Just for that one moment, just for the brief second of that smile’s duration, Jim felt his life pour away like sand from a shattered hourglass. It was as if the little man had that much power in his grasp: the power to snuff out Jim Smith’s candle with but a pinch of his fingers. Then, a heartbeat later the man was gone and only the utter insanity of the dance floor remained.
The fear, however, lingered.
Something heavy and sinuous coiled around his thighs, but he dared not look. He prayed that it was only a snake.
“I need to sit down,” he gasped uselessly, then cringed as teasing laughter answered him. His feet moved continuously, ignoring his pleas to find safety. He looked down and realized that his torso was missing. He blinked rapidly for several seconds and it reappeared.
“I need to get some air!” he cried.
“Breathe this!” A smoking bowl drifted before him held by slender fingers.
Vapors caressed his senses. He bent and inhaled deeply.
All time and reality went sideways.
The bass rhythms of the Music shook him like thunder; lasers flashed like lightning and stabbed him repeatedly through the heart. The floor canted and he felt himself sliding, shoes scuffling on the Lucite as the Pit tried to suck him down. Hands reached out of the crowd and laughing dancers hauled him back to solid ground. He thought he might die there, if that was still possible for someone
trapped in musical Hell; or, maybe he would just go on forever, a slave to the Music and to the dance.
Pain flared in his sides as he dragged in air and he wondered how he could have become so terribly exhausted in mere minutes on the dance floor. His clothes were limp and pasted to his skin by sweat. In a flash of laser light he looked at his watch.
Three hours were gone from his knowledge. Where? How?
“NO!” he cried in outrage for those lost moments, and he realized with sinking horror that those lost hours were gone forever and gone for real. That, at least, was no illusion. Jim cringed, feeling terribly exposed and vulnerable, and he cast wild glances around, fearful that the Mechanic had rematerialized during his fugue. Or, perhaps, the small man in the wine-colored shirt. Jim feared them both equally; the Mechanic for reasons as old as Jim’s memories, and the other man for reasons he could not begin to understand.
The pain in his sides came again and it fought its way deep inside of him, clutching at his lungs, at his heart. He tried to match his own heartbeat to the pulse of the Music, sensing somehow that this might save him, that this was what he was supposed to do if he wanted to survive this. He opened up, stretched out, let the Music in so he could match it note for note. The pain flared as the Music invaded him completely.
He was deeply afraid of the Music because he could sense its cold and lurking sapience, its deep and calculating sentiency. In the dark niches of his consciousness, Jim heard the whispering voice of the Music. It asked him terrible questions; it revealed to him awful truths. It held before his eyes the key that would unlock Pandora’s Box and let out all of his personal demons.
The sound of his voice was instantly blended with the backbeat, an unexpected but useful note, percussing and concussing with the drums. Whispered fears were read from his own pain, remembered terrors echoed through all the rooms of his mind. The Music told him things he had spent years trying to forget. It flayed him, left him naked and alone, with not even a single scrap of dignity or a splinter of his old barriers with which he could hide his nakedness.
“NO!” he yelled, reeling.
The chordal progression whipped his denial back at him, it beat at him until he could not help but look at the horrors manifesting themselves in his mind. The Music rolled over melody lines that waited like hidden reefs; driving Jim toward those jagged shoals.
Tortured, he hung on that killer wave, praying desperately that it would peak soon. Peak, and be over, even if it meant that he would die with it –just so that it would be over. He thought that even the fatal plunge downward to destruction would be a foundation on which he could somehow stabilize himself. Twitching and stumbling to the beat, he found it almost impossible to feel his body; he was aware only of a proportionless cloud of pain and fear. Each limb seemed detached and lost, writhing in its own separate agony. Only the Music’s raw and commanding force kept him spinning like a marionette on wildly jerking strings; without its power he would have collapsed in a boneless heap on the plastic floor which looked down on Hell. He staggered after each note, hands reaching and fingers clawing, knowing by the grace of some alien instinct that if he could survive just a few notes longer, he’d be safe.
“Nonononononononononno….,” he mumbled insanely.
The song galloped toward its climax. Just a fistful of notes hung between him and salvation as the bong burned its way to its explosion. Jim tensed as he
moved, waiting and craving for the last note that, once resolved, would save him. Unresolved he knew he would be as good as dead, or perhaps dead in fact. The Music was not a wave anymore but a vast mountain rising between him and survival. The notes climbed the jagged cliff of the crescendo and his sanity climbed after. The notes burned themselves into his mind. His sanity clung to the need to hear that last resolving, sanctifying, redeeming note. The penultimate note slashed at him and he drew in his breath, ready to scream. The gap between the notes sizzled in the air, and time stretched as he willed –no, begged— that last note to play.
Then the Music stopped. Ice cold.
Unresolved by that single, final note. “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”
The scream was ripped out of him, out of his soul, torn from his body and his
mind. He tottered on the very edge of the precipice, arms flailing. A desperate shiver shuddered through Jim’s soul. This was the point of greatest danger, the splintered fragment of time between survival and total, perpetual failure. The universal clock was poised to tick past this moment, and if it did –Jim’s mind was going black at the edges. In a moment the echo of that previous note would burn away and be gone forever. So would he. Already he began to feel insubstantial.
Then, he heard the note.
That last, glorious note. Not blasting at him from the speakers, but breathing gently against his face like the first breath of a golden dawn. It sighed across his ruined nerves: the most soothing and healing balm possible. It flowed into him, into his lungs and into his veins, a musical elixir vitae.
Trembling, weeping as his hands touched his sweaty and tear-stained face, he sank to his knees. The floor was solid beneath him, cool, real; he bent and touched his cheek to it. A school-kid giggle bubbled out of his chest. Then he threw back his head and laughed for the sheer joy of being alive. A second later his mind was jolted by a revelation, a revelation which was more powerful than the sound of that last note. He knew, all at once, that no band had ever played that final note; his ears had never actually heard it. That single, delicious, saving note had come from within his own mind, from with his own soul. It had come from some deep place in his consciousness, blossoming from his need to hear it, created by some part of his essential self in which beauty dwelt and thrived despite the ugliness in his life.
Of all the skills and knowledge he possessed, that one quality had saved him. Beauty. His understanding of beauty had brought him through the fire.
When the Music began again –a new song, different, less lethal– Jim Smith found that his strength was flowing back. With a shaky laugh he climbed back to his feet.
Somewhere another dancer was sobbing brokenly. Jim looked at him, feeling a deep pity for the man as he understood that the poor bastard had not heard that final note. Maybe he hadn’t had it in him to hear it, or maybe he was too blocked to let it out. In either case, the man had toppled over the precipice and had fallen down to despair. As Jim watched, the man reeled, clutching his chest as if in the throes of a seizure, tears streaming down his painted face.
Jim stared at him. “Peace, brother,” he murmured, feeling a kinship for the fallen dancer. In another split part of a second that might have been himself there grasping for the shards of his sanity. The thought both jarred him and yet invigorated him because he had survived. “There but for the grace…,” he said, then his voice melted away as the crowd parted to make way for a tall woman with thick, flowing red hair. She glided through the crowd and the Music seemed to change as
her presence was made manifest. She wore a gown of some silvery material that seemed to absorb light rather than reflect it –absorb it and use it to light the fabric from within. For a wild moment Jim fancied that the dress was actually composed of light. Which, perhaps, it was.
The dancers peeled back to create a corridor for the woman, and some of them even bowed to her —courtly bows which demonstrated a deep and reverential respect, but which seemed in no way campy or dramatic. Jim frowned and began moving through the crowd, trying to get a better look at her. He knew that she must be beautiful, and he felt a sudden ache to see her face. She moved toward the broken man with more queenly grace and elegance than Jim had ever seen, and it made him feel cheap and unwashed. He edged closer and felt a strangeness stealing over him: a wave of new strength blossomed suddenly within him, as if the woman’s aura could somehow recharge the life force of those around her. Jim felt the tingle of tears in his eye. Even with his blunted perceptions, Jim knew that her strength dwarfed his own the way the sun dwarfs a tiny candle, and perhaps the ratio was even greater. Humbled, he slowed his approach and blended into the crowd, watching.
The woman, her back still to Jim, stopped by the fallen dancer. She bent and touched the man’s head, caressing his tousled hair, soothing him, murmuring to him in a low, soft voice. Jim wished he could have heard what she said, certain that those words would have comforted him as well. Then his instincts kicked him, telling him ‘No.’ Those words were for that person alone. Whatever this woman said to him was private to him, and Jim felt ashamed for his inquisitive greed.
After long seconds, the man’s wretched sobs dwindled to light spasms. He turned and looked up at the woman, and though Jim could not see the woman’s face, he could see the face of the dancer: it was alight! His eyes sparkled like newborn stars and though his lips still trembled, he was smiling an innocent, hopeful smile.
The woman drew the man to his feet and he collapsed against her, encompassed by her arms, enfolded within her presence. She bent and kissed his head, whispering in his ear, stroking his back. Then she bent further and gathered the man up in her arms, lifting him the way Jim would have lifted a small child.
There was no strain, no shift in her gait as she bore his weight. She carried him easily as she turned and moved once more toward the shadows at the edge of the dance floor. As she passed, she turned her face toward where Jim stood. He gasped, staring at her, feeling his heart hammer and feeling his throat clench shut.
The woman was beautiful, but not in any way that Jim Smith had ever conceived. Her face was long, framed by the thick scarlet hair, the skin as white as new snow, her lips full and red, her nose straight. But her eyes! Jim’s throat worked futilely as he tried to draw breath. The woman had no eyes at all. Below the graceful arch of her brows were pale, plain panels of smooth flesh. She’s blind, Jim thought, then immediately he knew that his perception was childishly stupid. No, he realized, she’s not blind. She can see me. She can see everything. His breath rattled in his throat. Everything!
That echoed in his brain as a positive truth. She can see everything.
He cringed away with all the self-hatred of a leper shying away from the touch of a clean hand.
The woman turned again and, as the crowd parted, she carried the broken man into the colorful shadows and vanished, even as the sounds from the speakers vanished into a hushed and respectful silence.
“I don’t understand,” Jim said aloud, his voice seeming to crash in the quiet, but really he had only whispered. Another dancer, standing near Jim’s left side, rested a reassuring hand on his arm.
“It’s okay. He’ll be fine.”
Turning, Jim regarded the danseur. The man was slender, with skin the color of oak bark, and he was painted like an adder. His eyes were the cool mint green of Christmas candy.
“He was torn apart,” Jim said.
The danseur shrugged. “It happens. This is Torquemada’s after all,” he said with a predatory grin; but then the smile softened and he gave Jim’s arm a squeeze. “When you face the Music here, well…there are risks.”
“Yes.” Jim licked his lips. “Jesus…”
“He’s with the Lady Eyes now. He couldn’t be in better hands.”
“‘The Lady Eyes’.” Jim echoed softly. He shivered suddenly as if waking from a dream. Around them a new song had begun and already it was flexing its muscles. The percussion theme was African –logs and heavy drums that seemed to shake the very molecules of the floor beneath them. To the danseur, Jim said: “This place is so….”
“Mm, yes. It sure is.” Laughing, the danseur spun and threw himself into the crowd, and the other dancers followed his steps, forming bizarre and wonderful new patterns on the dance floor.
Jim Smith stood watching them, still caught up in the mystery and majesty of the Lady Eyes.
Then the dance swept at him like a tide and, laughing suddenly, Jim Smith threw himself into it.
( 1 )
Above the dance floor were the lights; above the lights was a slowly rotating pleasure-dome, glass-encased, impenetrable from prying eyes, but overlooking all. Lazily it turned, like a spider feigning distraction. The column upon which it perched was central to the dance floor and the dome rotated a slow thirteen times an hour, bathed constantly in the backlash of spilled light and color.
Wrapped in pale shadows of violet and yellow, hands expertly busy as Europa and Childe writhed languorously against him, the Bishop scanned the throng below. Vibrant eyes, drowsy but aware, moved slowly from dancer to dancer, reading them; full, sensual lips maintained an amused half-smile. Every once in a while a tongue would taste those lips as if recalling the flavor of a kiss. Childe, so delicate and fragile, propped himself up on one elbow and poured clear water into a cut-crystal goblet and handed it to the Bishop, who kissed him and sipped, savoring the purity.
The Bishop was beauty and elegance. Curly hair of a rich and intense black framed a saturnine face; his strong jaw was clean-shaven, his cheekbones were high, and his skin was a lustrous olive. He fondly regarded his lovers with eyes the color of polished silver –eyes which exuded heat despite their cool and metallic sheen.
He held the goblet in one gloved hand and studied his reflection in the polished facets of the prismed glass, turning the goblet to present different versions of his beautiful face –some different only by the way light and shadows sculpted his features, some vastly and wildly different in ways no refraction of light could justify.
One facet showed his own silver eyes meeting his level stare through the holes of a pure white Noh mask. The Bishop frowned at this reflection and wiped condensation across the facet, obscuring the image. He sighed and turned away, refocusing on the dance floor. A feather of perception tickled him and he stretched out with an awareness grown sharp with long use. One eyebrow lifted artistically.
He said, “There is a new heart beating in the Fire Zone.”
Europa also raised herself to one elbow and looked down at the hundreds dancing below. “Where?”
The Bishop pointed. “There. See? Dancing with Sweet Sidne.” “Mm,” she murmured drowsily. “Yes, he is new. So?”
“You don’t recognize him? He hasn’t been in the Cafe Vortex?” “No.”
“Hasn’t visited your House of Perfections?” She shook her head.
“Unlovely’s?” he drawled, smiling playfully.
She kissed his cheek. “You know I don’t go in there anymore.”
“Out of love for me? How sweet.” They watched the crowd dancing.
Europa lost interest and sank back, pulling one of the other revelers to her and directing his head down past her stomach.
The Bishop, however, kept watching. He selected a grape and chewed it thoughtfully. “I think he’s a Runner of some kind,” he said.
“Mm?” murmured Europa, more interested in the oral ministrations of her companion.
“Possibly a Refugee. He has the look.” Europa’s reply was a long, shuddering moan.
The Bishop took a strawberry from the bowl and handed it to Childe, who held it in both hands and nibbled it while watching the Bishop watch the crowd.
After a while Europa pushed her attendant away and snuggled to her lover, nuzzling the side of the Bishop’s throat. He stroked her hair and kissed her lightly on the forehead. Sitting together they watched the dramas of the dance floor.
“Your Refugee is not much of a dancer,” she said.
“Well, not by your standards, my peach; but I’ve seen worse, even among the Invited.”
“Those clothes look like some of Icon’s rags.”
“Mm.” He pursed his lips judiciously. “Do you know that he faced the Music on his first try.”
Europa’s glance sharpened. “You mean tonight?” “Just a few minutes ago. I think you were still asleep.” “You’re sure?”
“Of course. And it was Tortureship number no less. Imagine that.”
Europa sat up and bent forward to peer down at the stranger, her curiosity finally piqued. “Look at him. He can’t have been out of Stone for more than a few hours. Four, maybe five.” She turned to the Bishop, her skepticism evident. “He faced the Music? Here?”
“Mm, yes.” He was smiling with faint amusement.
Europa looked at him for a few moments longer, then turned again and looked down through glass and smoky distance to where Jim Smith danced with Sweet Sidne. “Very interesting.” Europa and the Bishop drew closer, skin and silks touching and watched Jim for a long time. After a while, she said, “He’s in a lot of pain, that one.”
“Oh?” the Bishop said, mildly entertained by that thought.
“I can see it in him. It’s in the set of his shoulders, in the way he holds his head….”
“What kind? What do you see?”
“Well, aside from the obvious –prolonged child abuse, a tremendous degree of self-loathing, an absolute inability to maintain any close friendships,” she said offhandedly, waving her hand. “He’s a complete social misfit.”
“Sounds like half the people who frequent this place.” She jabbed him with her thumb.
“Anything else?” he asked.
Europa’s eyes drifted shut and the colors of the shadows around her shifted subtly, becoming thicker. “Darkness,” she murmured.
“’Darkness’?” The Bishop smiled, amused. “Yes…it’s clutched all around him.”
“What are you saying? That he’s corrupt? That he’s evil?” The idea entertained him.
Europa shook her head. “No…the darkness isn’t his…but he clutches it to himself. He holds onto it as if it’s his.” Her eyes opened and flickered with green flame. “What an odd one he is.” Her smile was thin, less amused than the Bishop’s, but not overflowing with compassion. “It taints him,” she said and the distaste was clear in her voice.
“Which spoils him for you?” the Bishop teased. “I know how you crave perfections.”
“Which he is not.”
“Which he is not,” agreed the Bishop. They watched Jim for a while longer, and the Bishop pursed his lips in thought. “Still…he is interesting. If he faced the Music on his first try, then he must be more powerful than he looks.”
“Or he has a powerful sponsor.” Europa’s glance was significant; but the Bishop waved it away.
“No, my dear, Mister Sin is dead. And while he is dead he can’t sponsor anyone.”
“Well, he won’t be dead for very much longer, my love.”
That stung the Bishop, and he winced despite himself. “Perhaps not. But he promised not to interfere while he was dead, and if nothing else he keeps his word.”
She shrugged, admitting that this was true. “Who else, then? I saw Snakedancer down there earlier.”
“No. He doesn’t dance well enough for Snakedancer to sponsor him.” “Surely not Sweet Sidne?”
“Hardly. I think her interest in him is purely physical. Besides, she sticks to her own kind. She’s only ever sponsored musicians. Whereas I sense this boy knows something of music, he is not a player.”
“Well, I have no ideas.”
“I saw someone else down there,” said the Bishop. “He was drifting through the crowds just before this fellow faced the Music.”
The Bishop watched the dancers for a while before answering. He let a smile taste his lips. “I saw Owen Minor the Wolverine down there.”
Europa sat up with a jerk, stared at him, then turned and trained all of her senses down at the dancing man. The Bishop added, “You did say there was darkness clustered around him…and who is darker than dear Owen?”
“Owen doesn’t sponsor, my love, he merely destroys.”
“No, be fair. He corrupts, tantalizes, twists and drives people insane, too.
Give the man credit for diversity.”
She snorted. “You admire him.”
“I do,” he admitted, nodding. “It’s true.” “Well, I don’t.”
“Why not? After all, you favor perfections….” “What does that have to do with Owen Minor?” “Well, you must admit, he’s a perfect monster.”
She laughed. “Yes, I suppose he is.” The song changed again and the Refugee below drew Sweet Sidne closer and in a pool of blue-white laser light they began dancing slowly and sweetly.
“If Owen Minor is involved with that one,” Europa said, “then he is not out to sponsor him…but to destroy him.”
“Perhaps,” mused the Bishop, but he was smiling. He knew things about Owen Minor that Europa did not, but they were things he was sworn not to tell. Not even to her. “Sadly, we’ll have to wait for the gory details along with everyone else.”
“Perhaps not,” she said.
He turned toward her. “What do you mean?”
“Why not find out what’s going on from him? Straight from the source.” “What? Ask Owen? Not even I’m that daring.”
“No, no…I mean from the Refugee. Why not ask him?” “Oh…I don’t feel like going downstairs. Do you?”
“Of course not. So…why not invite him up here?”
The Bishop looked at her, then he kissed her. “What a delicious idea.” He tapped Childe on the shoulder. “Up, boy. Fetch.”
Growling at being disturbed, the boy rose and left, his thin body swaying on the ponderous stilts of his hairy goat legs.
( 2 )
Halflaugh, the man harlequin, had come dancing through the center of the floor, turning a wide pirouette while holding a large snake at arm’s length. The snake wore sunglasses and its hiss sounded like sly laughter. They spun away, the spotlight following, leaving Jim Smith in darkness and in the company of the sinister beauty, Sweet Sidne. Her hair was short and intensely black, contrasting sharply with the ghostly blue-white of her skin; her eyes were polished emerald chips that scorched the air with green fire as she laughed. For a while they danced with two other people –a gaunt man in a vulture mask and a short, round woman with a megawatt smile– but as the song ended, the couple melted away. Then a frail woman wearing a jeweled Aztec headdress came and danced with them, her eyes distant and aloof. She left halfway through the next song, and Jim Smith danced on with Sweet Sidne in their own private circle of colored shadows.
They danced closely, their bodies barely touching, hands making faint contact palm-to-palm; their lips shared a fantasy kiss, inches apart.
A hand fell lightly on Jim’s arm. He ignored it. The fingers caught the cloth of his vest and gave a brief tug.
“You,” said a child’s voice. “The Bishop will see you now.” Eyes dreamily closed, Jim said: “I’m busy. Go away.”
In the very next instant the kiss and the contact were broken. Jim opened his eyes to see Sweet Sidne backing away from him, her face a mixture of shock and surprise. “Didn’t you hear him?”
“Yeah,” he said. “So?”
Sweet Sidne was looking at him as if he was the town fool. “Don’t be an ass,” she snapped. “If the Bishop wants to see you, then get it in gear. God, who do you think you are?” In disgust she turned away and floated over to a group and melted into it, closing him out completely.
Furious, Jim whirled around to face the messenger, vicious words forming on his lips –but he bit them back. Childe was, after all, a child. Jim’s mouth shifted into several shapes and he tasted half a dozen different replies before he tersely said: “Who the hell is this ‘Bishop’ person and what does he want with me?”
A nasty smile was on Childe’s full lips. “He just says ‘Come’.”
Jim looked down at him, exploring his vocabulary to try and find just the right words that would send this spooky little child off like a scalded cat. Childe’s eyes twinkled with challenge, daring Jim to spit out the words. Looking over his shoulder, Jim could see Sweet Sidne dancing with a man in surgical scrubs and a Groucho mustache. They were laughing.
He glared down at Childe.
Then he said: “Sure. Fine. Whatever.”
Chuckling to himself, Childe spun and clumped away with Jim trudging reluctantly in tow. The boy led the way through the throngs of dancers, past the end of the half-acre of polished mahogany bar, past two bouncers who looked big enough to tear a Volvo in half, through a red door that had been halfway painted black, and up a flight of stairs. The door shut behind them with a snug little click.
And that was the last anyone ever saw of Jim Smith.
( 1 )
“Hello and welcome,” said the Bishop, not rising from his rugs and pillows and concubines. He held a goblet in one hand and with the other waved Jim to a relatively clear spot across from him. He felt the need to say something witty and urbane, some clever bon mot, but couldn’t decide what would really be appropriate. It was, after all, the first time he’d ever been invited by a total stranger to have a quiet conversation in the middle of a steamy orgy. One of the drowsy revelers rolled away onto her stomach to give him enough room to sit down, and he lowered himself carefully and awkwardly onto the pillow of warm, moist cushions. Jim was all-too conscious of the woman’s naked buttocks inches from his hip; he perched uncomfortably on the comfortable cushions and didn’t know what to do with his hands.
The pleasure dome was large and dark and the air was heavy with spicy incense. The light was too dim to make out all of the shapes huddled and intertwined around the Bishop, but he guessed there were at least a dozen. Men, women, and…others. Jim tried not to stare and made a poor job of it.
“Let me guess,” Jim said in a creaking voice, “this is Xanadu?” Europa rolled her eyes. “Ah. Coleridge. How original.”
Jim’s face flushed to an alarming shade of crimson.
“Some wine?” the Bishop asked, obviously amused by Jim’s discomfort yet playing the gracious host with lazy elegance. He gestured toward a bottle, and Jim nodded a slim young man dressed in what looked like gold crepe paper rose and filled a tall wineglass, handed it to Jim with a mock bow, and sank back into the writhing press. Jim sniffed, sipped, then swallowed. A stingingly dry yet full- bodied sauvignon with a subtle but complex finish.
“That’s wonderful,” he said. “Thanks.” He looked around. Central to the dome was a low brass-topped Moroccan table on which were wine and water bottles, glasses –none of which matched but all of which were exquisite and elegant– and a large bowl of plump, fresh fruit. Above them swung a number of unusual mobiles: stars and planets chased hearts and diamonds through the scented darkness.
Reflected laser light made the small metal and glass shapes flare with unexpected color.
Childe went over to Europa’s side, snuggled against her, and appeared to go to sleep. She idly stroked the downy fur on his shoulders.
“So,” said the Bishop mildly, “who is it that we have the pleasure to entertain?”
By way of answering, Jim said, “You’re the Bishop, I take it?” “Of course.”
Glancing at Europa, Jim raised an eyebrow in silent query.
Smiling, the Bishop touched her leg. “God, where are my manners? Allow me to introduce my dearest friend, Europa.” She inclined her head. Jim tried not to stare, but he was overwhelmed by her beauty. Europa was somewhere in her late forties, full-bodied with masses of pale blond hair that hung in loose tangles around her naked shoulders and breasts. Europa’s eyes were dark blue, and despite the drowsy, half-lowered lids, were as sharp as dagger points.
“And you are…?” prompted the Bishop.
Jim hedged, looking around, trying to ignore the moans and grunts and sighs of the revelers. As he turned his head he saw a flash of blue: a stab of indigo laser light reflecting sharply from the surface of one of the small spinning hearts in the Bishop’s mobile. The color was just somber enough to match his mood, and the shape was certainly suggestive. He faced the Bishop, smiling faintly, and then closed his eyes. Oh well, he thought as he reopened them. Why fight fate?
“Heart,” he said, trying it on. “My name is…Indigo Heart.” “Well then,” the Bishop said, “be welcome, Mr. Heart.” And Jim Smith was no more.
( 2 )
When Jim Smith was nine…
Sensei Johnson had an assistant named Mike who was as big as the Chrysler Building. Mike stood six feet eight inches tall and crushed the scales at 320 pounds. Not one ounce of it was fat. Muscle was packed on him as if some mad sculptor had smacked handfuls of clay onto a statue of one of the Titans. Mike towered over Jimmy, blotting out most of the room and ceiling.
Mike O’Hanlon had a face like a gargoyle, the red hair and freckles of his mother and the kindly blue eyes of his father, and there was the faintest trace of County Cork in his voice, even though he was Philadelphia born and bred. He wore a crisp white gi, the uniform strained to the seams across his chest and biceps. The black belt tied neatly around his surprisingly narrow waist had six white stripes embroidered on one end.
“You’re the new kid?” he asked smiling brightly, dabbing at a thin film of sweat on his forehead. It was a hot day and the gym was not air-conditioned. A pair of ancient fans wheezed on either side of the room and did nothing more than push the humid air back and forth.
“Yeah,” Jimmy said.
“Hai. H-a-i. It’s Japanese for yes.”
“So…you’re the new kid?”
“Ever train before?” “No.”
“Say ‘iye’. Just like the two letters: ee-ay Japanese for….”
“So, you never trained before. No boxing or wrestling? No karate?
“Hai, I mean…iye.” “Osu.”
Mike grinned. “Oh, that’s a general acknowledgement. You’d better get used to them. Hai, iye and osu. Some people slur that one into oosh, or ooce.
Whatever. All the same to me. Confused yet?” Jimmy thought about it. “Hai.”
Mike laughed; Jimmy almost smiled.
“Okay. We’re going to start with the basics and pretty much stick with the basics for a long, long time.”
“The ABCs. Y’know…postures, movements, blocks, punches, kicks. That sort of thing. We do them a certain way and we do them a whole lot. Over and over again.”
“So they become reflexive. Do you know what that is?” Jimmy shook his head.
“Here, I’ll show you.” He went to a small rack of equipment and picked up a boxing glove, turned and tossed it underhand to Jimmy, who got a quick arm up and caught it. “That’s what I mean. You caught that because you’ve been catching stuff –balls, Frisbees, whatever– since you were old enough to stand. You’ve conditioned yourself to have the reflex of catching something thrown at you.
Jimmy thought about that, then nodded.
Mike took the glove and put it back, saying, “When we practice our strikes and kicks and stuff over and over again, then eventually those movements become natural, and when that happens, we do them without having to think about them. In a fight you mostly won’t have time to think. You have to react or get your butt kicked. Get it?”
“I think so…I…I mean, hai!”
Grinning, Mike raised his hand to high-five Jimmy, but the boy suddenly jerked backward, squeezing his eyes shut, cowering down into his shirt, hands coming up to ward off a blow.
“Whoa! Whoa, now pard’ner,” Mike said, lowering his hand and stepping a pace backward. “Time out, flag down on the play.”
Jimmy lowered his arms, opened his eyes and flushed a deep scarlet as shame hit him like a wave. “Sorry,” he mumbled.
“What was that all about?” Mike’s eyes were probing.
“I…I don’t know.” He licked his lips and cleared his throat. His eyes were a little glassy and he looked away. “Just a reflex, I guess.”
Mike just gazed down at him and said nothing. Despite the heat, the day had suddenly gotten colder.
( 3 )
The Bishop’s eyes sparkled as he regarded Heart over the rim of his goblet. “So, tell me, Mr. Heart, how long have you been among us here in the Zone?”
Heart shrugged. “A couple hours. More if I can trust my watch.” “Time is relative,” said the Bishop.
“So I’m coming to believe.”
“Although it’s horribly impolite to interrogate a guest, I feel naughty this evening. So, may I ask where you’re from? You look like some species of urbanite.”
Heart named the city, to which the Bishop sniffed disdainfully. “Oh,” he said. “There. Well, I suppose people must live in such places. Still, you’ve at least traded up on your choice of real-estate by coming here.”
“Providing I choose to stay,” Heart said tartly.
“Of course. On the other hand, it might be a case of the Fire Zone choosing not to have you stay.”
“The Fire Zone itself,” Heart asked, smiling a small, cool smile. “Or someone in the Zone?”
“Take your pick.”
Heart sighed. “What is this? National Cryptic Comment Day?” “Sorry?”
“I mean that what you just said doesn’t really make any sense. You’re trying to tell me that the Fire Zone –this chunk of weirdo real-estate– could choose to evict me? Now what the hell does that mean? Why can’t you people just talk straight for five minutes?”
“By ‘you people’ I assume you’re referring to other people you’ve met here.” “You know damn well that’s what I mean.”
The Bishop glanced from him to Europa, who gave a disinterested shrug, and then back to Heart. “Please explain.”
“Well…first I get a cab driver who looks like a low-rent Dracula, and he’s saying all sorts of weird shit. Then I go into a clothing store and they do everything but floss my teeth for me and, hell, they even knew my inseam without asking. After that I run into enough oddballs to stock a Fellini version of Mardi Gras. Then I stumble onto this old street-sweeper guy who says he’s like some kind of caretaker here and yet he tries to talk me out of coming in here. Everyone I talk to is saying lines that sound like they’re coming out of some kind of performance-art for fruitcakes.”
The Bishop chuckled mildly.
“Caster Bootey advised you against coming in here?” mused Europa. “If that’s his name. The old guy outside. Looks like B. B. King?” “Caster Bootey,” she said.
“Well, he would, wouldn’t he,” said the Bishop to Europa. “Considering our Mr. Heart here is a Refugee.”
“You see!” Heart stabbed the air between them with index fingers. “You see? That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about.”
The Bishop studied him; Europa reached for a peach. She ate it slowly, thoughtfully, and silently.
“Mr. Heart, you’ll have to forgive us,” said the Bishop soothingly, “but you also have to try and understand us. This is the Fire Zone. It isn’t your city. If you go to another place, say a foreign country, the vernacular is naturally going to be different. Customs and cultural references are always different. Just because you haven’t had the time to learn the, um, local language, so to speak, that isn’t a reason for harshness or belligerence. You are not being attacked, Mr. Heart, and you are safe here among my friends.”
“Safe?” Heart snorted. “Pal, I don’t think the word ‘safe’ quite applies to my life anymore.” His voice faltered and his gaze fell away. Terry, dead in a pool of beer and blood. The face of the Mechanic, stalking him through the dance floor.
And the little man who’s single, brief look had made Heart feel as if his life was running away like sand. His lip curled in a sneer and he wanted to bolt and run. “I’m not safe. Not here or anywhere else.” He looked up again, forcing his eyes to be hard. “Not after what I just went through downstairs.”
“Yet you survived your confrontation with the Music. Surely you are aware of the reduction of immediate threat that goes with having passed through that particular veil of fire.”
“Whatever that means. All I know is that someone made me breathe something from a bowl –maybe some kind of hash or crack or something– and the next thing I know its three hours later and I think I’m fighting for my life on the dance floor. Now, I say ‘think’ because I’m pretty sure I was stoned out of my gourd for most of those three hours. So, my having passed through a veil a fire, as you so prosaically put it, means just two things to me: jack and shit. In fact, since my college days aren’t so far behind me that I can’t remember what it’s like to be blasted out of my mind, I know that nearly everything I think I’ve experienced today is suspect. There’s no way to know what’s real and what’s not.” “The same in life itself,” said the Bishop.
“Oh, very deep. What are you, a philosopher?” “Isn’t everyone?”
“Oh, Christ,” Heart said, then realized the Bishop was grinning. “Okay, okay, have your joke.” But he smiled in spite of himself, then rubbed his hands over his face, drew in a breath, held it for a moment, then let it out slowly. “Look, I’m sorry if I’m being a little testy. It really has been ‘one of those days’.”
Europa sniffed, “Oh? You’ve had days like this before?”
He looked at her and his smile turned rueful. “Well, no…not quite like this.”
The Bishop said, “Tell me, Mr. Heart, why did you come to the Fire Zone tonight? I am assuming that this is your first visit?”
“First, yeah. And…as to why? Hell, it just sort of happened.” “‘Happened’,” echoed the Bishop. “How so? I mean, generally one seeks the
Fire Zone for a reason, for a purpose. It’s relatively difficult to find without some sort of focus.”
“Not for me. I just hopped a cab. Even slept most of the way here. One minute I’m on the corner of Eighth and Somewhere, the next I’m coming down something called Boundary Street.”
Europa and the Bishop both stared at him. Then they burst out laughing. The revelers laughed, too. The Bishop set down his goblet and clapped his gloved hands. “Oh, very droll, Mr. Heart. Asleep in the back of a cab! Very witty, sir.” “Oh, that’s precious,” Europa said, shaking her head as she laughed. “At
least I hope it was Xander’s cab and not some ghastly yellow taxi.” She dabbed at her eyes with a scrap of cloth.
“The guy’s name was Xander,” Heart agreed testily, shifting in discomfort.
The urge to flee was mounting.
“Yes,” the Bishop said dryly, “I daresay it was.”
“I’m glad I amuse you folks. Shall I juggle next? Or do a few cartwheels?” “Oh, please forgive us, Mr. Heart,” said the Bishop, constructing a straight face with some effort. “If you only knew how absurd it is that you slept your way to the Fire Zone. Oh, dear me.” He cracked up again and Europa collapsed against him. “Oh…oh…forgive me, dear Mr. Heart,” the Bishop gasped. “If you only knew….”
“Gosh, can that be another cryptic remark?” Heart asked. “I haven’t heard one of those in, gosh, must be a full minute.”
Sobering with effort, the Bishop reached out and patted Heart’s knee. “I am truly sorry for being so rude. Believe me, we are not in any way mocking you –it is the situation that is absurd. You, my friend, are in no way a figure of fun. In fact, I esteem you greatly for having accomplished what you have accomplished. It is a very rare thing indeed when a person so new to the Zone faces the Music so successfully on their first try.”
“Especially here,” added Europa distantly.
“It seemed like I didn’t have much choice in the matter,” Heart said. “If I hadn’t faced it, as you put it, that freakin’ Music would have killed me.”
“Mm, I daresay,” the Bishop drawled.
“It might have been safer,” offered Europa, “to have made your first try somewhere else less…challenging. Somewhere like the Café Vortex or Unlovely’s. Torquemada’s is not for the faint-hearted.”
“No shit, lady. Still,” and here Heart sat back, looking mildly smug, “I did beat it, didn’t I?”
The glint of humor in the Bishop’s eyes dulled slightly. “ ‘Beat it’? Is…that what you think happened?”
The Bishop did not answer. He sprawled there, studying Heart with shrewd eyes and pursed lips, but the fun had gone out of his face. Beside him, Europa sighed what seemed like a sigh of irritation; then the Bishop pretended to consult a wristwatch that wasn’t there. “Dear me, where has the time gone? Mr. Heart, I hate to give you the bum’s rush, but I just recalled an urgent appointment.”
Heart gave him a frank stare. “With what? Your sock drawer?”
“Or somesuch. Been fun and all that, call, we’ll do lunch, but push off, there’s a good fellow.”
“So, what did I do? Fail some kind of test? I didn’t answer your questions the right way and now my interview is over?”
“Perhaps we’ll speak again, Mr. Heart,” said the Bishop in a way that clearly suggested otherwise and turned to face his lover. Europa, for her part, let her gaze linger a moment longer, then she made a face of disapproval and dipped her head into private exclusion with the Bishop. None of the other revelers so much as glanced at him.
Heart sat there for at least thirty seconds, trying not to feel as absolutely overwhelmed and under-informed as he actually was. He felt off-balance and angry, but mostly he felt like a fool, and he didn’t exactly know why. The complete
and sudden dismissal was alarming and it hurt his feelings, which was absurd since he neither knew nor even liked the Bishop.
He sat there as long as he could, trying to establish a comfortable buffer between the curt dismissal and the moment when he choose to leave; but nobody seemed to notice or care that he was still perched there on his pillows. So, finally and reluctantly, he heaved himself to his feet and crept away in shamed bewilderment.
After he was gone, the Bishop gazed distractedly at the door and slowly shook his head. “I must be slipping,” he mused. “For a moment there I thought he was something special.”
Europa lounged against a brocade pillow and nibbled the last of the sweetness from the peach pit. “Even so, Caster Bootey did take an interest in him. That says something.”
He nodded, eyes narrowed as he if he could see Heart through the door. “Something…yes….”
( 4 )
Indigo Heart returned to the dance floor and just to make a point, danced three more dances, hoping that the Bishop and his cronies were watching and could see how cool and unperturbed he was. Stealing glances up at the pleasure dome revealed nothing: the glass was opaque from without. When the third song ended, he said farewell to the saucy little redhead with whom he’d been dancing and left Torquemada’s. He half expected the dance floor to exert some kind of pull on him, some form of sonic tractor-beam, but it didn’t, and he felt like a moron for even thinking it.
Outside the wheel of night seemed not to have turned at all. It still felt like the red meat of the evening, and the dancers in the street were in full swing.
Standing on the step, Heart felt better, as if the air was cleaner outside, the atmosphere less oppressive. A mild but steady breeze carried sounds and smells enticingly to his senses: strange perfumes, mouth-watering cooking smells, the sweet aroma of the dancers’ sweat. Revelers wandered by, laughing and talking about things he did not understand, but many of them shared their smiles with him, and that helped soothe his abraded nerves. The power he had felt when he had survived that first song swelled in him, despite the mockery and dismissal of the Bishop and Europa. He felt a surge of vital energy course through him, and for the first time tonight he felt alive. He stepped down onto the pavement and stepped further out of the presence of Torquemada’s. Heart felt power flickering in his hands, his eyes darted here and there and his smile was dangerous. He wouldn’t have been surprised to see lightning sparking from his fingertips.
Another step and he felt that he was free of the Bishop’s spell. Dancers waved at him and he smiled and waved back, feeling less like an outcast. Cars cruised the wet-black street with Music and laughter spilling from the open windows. Two beautiful girls, their arms entwined and their faces painted a rare and delicate yellow, came and stopped near him, looking up at Torquemada’s. They spoke together in rapid words in a language Heart could not identify. One, the taller of the two, shook her head, and laughing, they moved away from the stucco walls, from the red flashing hand, and from the screaming door-handle with its lolling brass tongue. Heart was glad they had chosen to go elsewhere: they looked too innocent and fragile for Torquemada’s.
He began walking with no idea at all of where he wanted to go. For the moment he felt a lot less like a victim and a bit more like someone who –if not in control of his destiny– at least had some sort of say in it. Which was good, because
he couldn’t recall the last time he’d felt that. For the moment at least, Pandora’s Box was tucked safely back in the shadows.
Twenty yards down the street he spotted the old man with the broom. The caretaker was squatting to twist the tie on a bright blue trash-bag which, Heart was amused to see as he approached, looked more like it was filled with balloons than garbage. Though Heart was walking quietly, with his shadow trailing behind him, the old man stopped fiddling with the bag, straightened and, without turning, said: “I see you done okay.”
Heart was smiling as he came around to face the old man. For a moment they searched each other’s faces, both half-smiling, both taking new measure.
“It…wasn’t what I expected,” Heart said. “What did you expect?”
“I guess I don’t know. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to expect anything to be what I expect.” He frowned, then gave the old man a rueful smile. “Does that make even a shred of sense?”
Caster Bootey clapped Heart on the shoulder and gave him a big smile and a friendly wink. “That’s about the smartest thing I’ve heard anybody say today.”
“If so, then it’s the first smart thing I’ve said all day.”
“Day’s not over yet. Well…night’s not over yet. You might even say something smarter. Who knows?”
“Who knows.” Heart felt the warmth of the man’s hand through the fabric of his sleeve. It was a comforting warmth. He said: “You’re…not at all what you seem, are you?”
The twinkle in Caster’s eyes was like starlight and he winked and chuckled. “Who’s to say, son? Who’s to say?” He took his hand away and leaned on the broom. Moonlight danced along the crenellated edges of the ancient healed-over scars on his wrists.
“I didn’t take your advice on where to get a drink. Can I ask for it now?” “Sure, sure. I was thinking Unlovely’s might be more to your taste, young
“Unlovely’s. I keep hearing that name. Is it safer?”
Caster barked a short laugh. “Son,” he said, “I wouldn’t even know how to
answer that. Unlovely’s is Mister Sin’s place, which is something that don’t matter to you now, but if you’re lucky it will later on. It beats along with his heart, just like Torquemada’s beats along with the Bishop’s. I guess you can measure the safety by what you take in there with you.”
“I won’t try to figure that out right now.”
“Best if you didn’t.” Caster tugged at his earlobe. “Tell me something, son.” “What’s that?”
“Do you really think you beat the Music?”
Heart gasped. “How’d you know…?” His words trailed off and his mouth hung open for a moment, then it gelled into another rueful smile. “No, belay that. Never mind how you knew. Um…do I think I beat the Music?”
Heart shook his head, laughing a little. “No, sir. Not even close.”
Caster nodded his approval and winked again. “Good, you got that far, then.
So…what do you think happened?”
“Well, I’ve given it a lot of thought and I have a theory about that.” “Oh, and what’s that?”
“My theory,” said Heart, “is that it beats the living hell out of me.”
Caster threw back his head and laughed. After a moment Heart laughed with him. They stood there for a moment, laughing like idiots, clapping each other on the shoulder, dabbing at the tears in the corners of their eyes.
The beginning of a new song sobered them down to chuckles and then to silence. They stood and listened. It was a rousing folk ballad about someone called the Traveler.
“So,” asked Heart after a few moments, “now what?” “Now I guess you go and find what you need.”
“You mean a cold beer?” Heart asked with a facetious grin. “You know what I mean.”
“Actually, no I don’t,” Heart said honestly.
Caster shrugged. “Well, I guess you will. Or,” he added, “maybe you won’t.” “That’s encouraging.”
“Well, hell, son, this is life. That’s about as much encouragement as you could expect.”
“Mm.” Heart took a breath, held it until it steadied him, and then let it out slowly. Abruptly he held out his hand to Caster. “Thanks,” he said.
Caster looked puzzled. “For what?”
Grinning, Heart said, “I don’t know what for, to tell you the truth. But thanks all the same.”
The old man took his hand and they shook. It was Caster’s ancient hand that was the stronger.
Heart stepped away and looked down the hill. “I guess I’ll see you around
“Never can tell.”
“Well…I hope I will. Maybe one of these days I can buy you that beer.” “Hey, that’d be real nice.”
“It’s a done deal, then.” Heart took a few steps, but stopped when Caster called out.
“Mr. Heart?” He turned.
“Mr. Heart…it ain’t that the Fire Zone is all that dangerous. Not in the way you think. It’s you who’s dangerous, Mr. Heart. Dangerous to your own self, you understand me?”
Heart just shook his head and walked back to the old man.
Sighing, Caster said, “Son, somewhere inside you, you know who you are, and you know what you are –you faced the Music, and you couldn’t have done it else, but don’t let yourself get cocky, son.”
“I don’t know if I get you or not.”
Caster nodded. “At least you don’t think you know everything. You won’t believe how good a start that is.” He picked up his broom. “I’ll be seeing you, Mr. Heart.”
“Wait…listen, will you ever tell me how you knew my name?”
Caster studied him for a while, stars dancing in his ageless eyes. “Probably
Indigo Heart smiled, waved, and turned away.
Behind him, Caster Bootey moved on up the street, whisking his broom back
and forth, pushing shadows before him, leaving light and color behind in the Fire Zone.
( 1 )
When Jimmy Smith was ten….
There was nowhere he could go, no way to hide, but he cringed back against the cushions of the couch, hoping to slip through a crack in the dimension and flee into another world. The Mechanic loomed over him, a powerful silhouette against the pale white sheers that stirred faintly in the sluggish breeze. The living room was immensely silent until the Mechanic’s icy voice broke it..
“Now, what the fuck did I tell you?” A pause. “Hm? I want you to tell me exactly what the fuck I told you.”
Jimmy did not dare speak; wouldn’t have even if his mouth hadn’t turned to dry paste.
On the floor, between the couch where he cringed and the windows where his father stood lay the evidence of the crime. Undeniable. His father looked down at it with undisguised disgust. He nudged it with a toe the way you nudge a dead animal.
His blue eyes rose from the object and pierced Jimmy like knives. “You tell
me what I told you to do.” His voice had gone quiet. Not a good sign, and he waited. Jimmy would have to say something now, this was part of the routine. The loud voice expected silence; the quiet voice demanded answers.
“Don’t mumble like you got a mouthful of shit,” his father snapped. “Just fucking tell me.”
Jimmy swallowed the dust in his throat. “You t..told me to take out the t..trash.”
“‘I t.told you to t..take out the t…t..trash,’” his father mocked. “Is that right?
Is that what I said?”
“I didn’t fucking hear that.” “Yes…sir.”
“Goddam right I did. And when I tell you to take out the fucking trash, what do you think I expect you to do?”
“T..take out the trash.” Jimmy’s voice was flat, nearly dead.
“Well, you’re not as fucking stupid as you look. You can at least understand what I mean when I say something.”
“And yet…,”and for a moment the Mechanic’s chameleon voice became quiet, almost reasonable. “And yet what do I come in and find you doing?”
“I was going to take it out!” Jimmy protested. “When? Fucking Christmas time?”
“No, I was about to….”
“Oh! You were about to! Oh, I see. So…you just appeared to be fucking off
instead. Gosh, I must have misunderstood.”
“No, really, I was just about to take out the…”
“Mm-hm. So then this,” and he nudged the object again, “must have been a piece of trash that you were going to take out with the rest.”
Jimmy stared in horror at the object on the floor, knowing where this was going to go. He even began forming words of protest on his lips, but he didn’t dare utter them. It only ever made things worse.
The Mechanic looked at him, a smile on his wet lips. “Am I right or am I right? Is that a piece of trash you were going to throw out with the rest?”
Jimmy thought fast. Maybe if he agreed and threw it out he could sneak out later and retrieve it, hide it in his room. The plan steadied him a little. He licked his lips, then nodded. “Yes sir.”
“Yes…it’s just some trash I was going to throw out with the rest.”
The Mechanic’s smile broadened. “Good.” He dragged out the word. “Then pick it up.”
Jimmy hesitated, then crept off the couch, ducked low and picked it up, expecting to get hit while he was bending; but his father didn’t move. He just stood there, smiling. Gloating.
Holding it gingerly, Jimmy turned as if to go, heading in the direction of the kitchen.
“Whoa! Hold on…not so fast.” Jimmy froze.
“Why don’t you make sure that it won’t be mistaken for anything else but trash? Just in case.”
Jimmy clutched the object, waiting with a sinking heart. “Why not tear it up?”
The boy turned sharply, eyes going wide. “T..tear…?”
“Yes, sirree. Just tear that piece of crap up so we’ll all know it’s trash.”
The words hit Jimmy like a series of punches. His hands were shaking as he looked down at the object he was holding.
“Go on, boy,” his father said, and the reasonable tone of his voice took on new tints of menace. Of promise. “Tear it up.”
Jimmy wanted to run, wanted to rescue the precious object. He wanted to defend it, but knew that he never could. The jujutsu he was studying in secret was still surreal to him. At ten –only four months into his training– he couldn’t have defended himself against a sixth grader, let alone this hulking mountain of sinew and hard bone in greasy mechanic’s clothes. Still, he wanted to lash out, to hit back in defense of this object. If he’d known where the Mechanic kept his guns he’d have shot him.
“I’m not going to tell you again, boy.” No pretense of calm now…just a menace that was all too familiar and real. The Mechanic fingered the heavy metal of his belt buckle. “Unless you want to discuss this downstairs….” He let this direst of threats hang in the air like a swarm of hornets, then eventually added: “I want to see you tear it up. All of it. To pieces.”
Jimmy knew that he was defeated. Tears boiled in the corners of his eyes and there wasn’t enough air in the room. His hands were shaking so badly now that he almost dropped it as he peeled back the cover and took one edge in his hand.
He ripped the cover off with a spasmodic jerk of his hand. The cardstock cover ripped with a sharp hiss and then he dropped it. It turned over and over, floating in a grotesque slow motion as it fell, and all the way down, with each turn, he read and reread the title on the cover. To Kill a Mockingbird.
“Now the pages.”
Jimmy was crying now as he ripped out the introduction and then chapter one and then the next few pages and some more. They fell like ashes around his ankles until all he held in his hands was the back cover.
“In half,” his father said, and Jimmy numbly turned the cover sideways and tore it in half. “Now pick them all up and put them in the trash.”
He nodded, totally unable to speak.
“If I find you wasting your fucking time reading that shit again, I’ll take a pound of fat off your ass with my belt. You hear me loud and clear?”
Jimmy nodded, sobbing.
“Now get the fuck out of my sight before I decide to whip your ass anyway, you four-eyed little fuck.”
Bending, crying so hard his chest hurt, Jimmy bent and gathered up the murdered pages and carried them out to the trash. He pressed them all down into the can, tied the plastic ties over them, pulled the bag out of the can and then lugged
it outside. He replaced the lid on the big can in the yard, and then leaned on it and wept as if he had just lost a friend. This was the fourth time his father had made him destroy a book. First The Martian Chronicles, then The Wizard of Oz, and three months ago a ragged coverless copy of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. All friends, all dead. Now, worst of all was To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus…Scout…Boo Radley…all of them torn to pieces and mashed down with coffee grounds and eggshells and table scraps and the Mechanic’s soggy cigarette butts.
His knees buckled and he sagged down to the ground, arms draped over the trash can, stomach knotting, chest heaving as he wept.
“Please…” he begged to no one. “Please!”
( 2 )
Indigo Heart went down the hill toward the noise and laughter.
In the window of a darkened store he caught sight of his reflection and the new lightness in his heart abruptly congealed into dread. He jerked to a stop, steeled himself against what he might see and turned to face the reflection, waiting for strangeness to happen.
But the reflected image was his own. It was just Jim Smith.
No…and he caught himself as he mouthed the words “Thank God”. It was not Jim Smith’s reflection he was looking at. It was the image of a man known in
the Fire Zone as Indigo Heart.
He said the name aloud, tasting the four syllables, experiencing their flavor as one name. He searched his thoughts for an answer to why he had so easily, so
willingly changed his name. Granted, people had been calling him Mr. Heart all evening –or so he believed, and belief in recent memories was highly suspect at best– but why had he so easily shed his old name and stepped into the new one?
The question was itself the answer. He had shed the old for the new. The old was Jim Smith’s old and empty life. The old was Eyeful’s Stopless Go-Go, with it’s anorexic junkie dancers, disillusioned bartenders, and hooting, cat-calling, wretchedly out-of-integrity patrons. The old was the disappointment everyone who had ever known him would feel, once they found out what he had done…Mr.
Stumock at the grocery store, Rachel from the bookstore, little Tabitha and her baby brother, Lump. And Sensei Johnson most of all; Sensei, who was a man of such certain honor, such unshakable values…how disgusted he would be by what his student, Jim Smith, had become.
Well, he thought, no matter. That was part of the old. The old was Terry, laying dead on the floor at Eyeful’s. The old was the Mechanic. And…the old was Pandora’s Box as well. All of that belonged to Jim Smith.
So what about the new? What belonged to this new creature called Indigo Heart? Was the Fire Zone his? Was Caster Bootey his?
(In the secret depths of his soul Heart craved that this was so.)
Was the Fire Zone some kind of birthright for this strange and inexplicable rebirth? If so, what did that imply? Would there be a price tag for it? He couldn’t help but think so. Everything life had taught him so far proved that as a certainty. He stared at the reflection, at his new clothes and the dance-sweat that still glistened on his forehead. He didn’t even know how to think about all of this.
He heard a sound and turned to see Caster Bootey sweeping his way to the corner. The laser and neon seemed to make the air around him shimmer as if he possessed an aura of incredible power and astonishing purity. Heart knew that was a fanciful idea even as he thought it, but the illusion was hard to shake.
The old man must have felt his stare because he stopped sweeping for a moment, turned, stared in Heart’s direction and gave him a friendly wave. Heart lifted his hand to wave back, and at first it was heavy, as if weighted with chains, and then suddenly the weight was gone. He waved back, and he could see Caster’s shoulders shake with laughter as he reached again for his broom and turned away. It was a happy smile, and it made Heart smile again, too.
He turned back to the store window and regarded himself once more. Indigo Heart stood foursquare in the darkened glass and met his gaze with equal intensity. In the glass he saw the reflection of a taxi’s dome-light and he turned, arm raised to flag it…then paused, a smile forming on his mouth. The cab was sleek and red and it angled toward him and rolled to a purring stop by the curb. Grinning at him out of the window, a fuming cigar caught between sharp white teeth, Xander gave him a wink.
“Where to, Mr. Heart?” Xander drawled.
Pausing only for a moment, Indigo Heart said: “Unlovely’s.” “The short cut or the scenic route?”
Heart jerked the door open and climbed carefully past Frank Bacon, who was snoozing on the seat. “Surprise me,” he said.
Xander laughed out loud and threw the cab into gear. It exploded away from the curb and hurled itself into the night.
Into the Fire Zone.
Oswald Four sat like an elegant white spider in his hermetically sealed glass booth on the dance floor at Unlovely’s: secure, supreme, smiling a smile few could ever understand. All around him gleamed the knobbed surfaces of mixing boards and keyboards, computer terminals and effects boards. Thick coaxial cables and wrapped bundles of wires connected the keyboards in unlikely ways, bringing in power, bearing mixed sound out to the amplifiers and speakers. From behind thick- framed horn-rimmed glasses with deep red opaque lenses Oswald watched the dancers spin and writhe. Slender, spatulate fingers the color of new snow poised above a row of dials and switches.
Bending toward a microphone, he spoke in a voice that was a silken whisper, a shade softer than thought and yet as penetrating as a knife-blade. “O’ my children, the high hour is come. The hour of strength for all you Sharks and Guppies swimming so boldly in the stormy seas; for all you Runners and Refugees adrift in the vastness of the multicolored ocean; for all the Mannikens and Morloks; for the selkes and the spirits; and, of course,” and here he paused, tasting the smile on his red lips, “for all you Invited. Mmm, yes. Listen now, my pets. Listen….”
One finger flipped a switch and a silvery disc hissed from a slot, pivoted on a little hydraulic arm, and dropped carefully down onto a golden pad. The label was dark blue with the emblem of a hurricane-wracked ship heeling to port. The band’s label was Tortureship.
“It’s time for the Music to make itself known, my lambs, my loves.”
Another flick of a switch and a laser beam, slender as a strand of silk thread, shot down onto the surface of the disk.
“Here it comes, my darlings.”
When the Music began, all movement in the Fire Zone stopped.
For just one heartbeat, for the time it took to gasp, or to draw in a lover’s ecstatic breath –for this was not just another song, not even another Tortureship tune, whose songs had dominated the whole of the Zone for days since their dramatic return. This was not just another piece of Music.
This was the song.
This was Fire Dreams.
This was the fire salamander, nestled in a bed of coals, unconsumed. This was the hot blood that ran through the streets of the Fire Zone and kept its heart pumping. This was the tongue that tasted, the lips that kissed…the teeth that bit.
This was the secret voice of the Fire Zone, as old and as fresh as beauty. Fire
Dreams was the lightning that flashed from eyes and fingers and from the sky itself.
It was the quick and all-seeing eye of the lasers and the pattern of the dance.
It was the Music of soul, not of mind; the Music of art, not of skill.
Everyone knew that song. The Sharks knew the Dreams, but not as their
own, and they jealously craved them; the Guppies coveted and worshiped them in their secret, innocent darkness. The Runners were drawn by them, the Refugees buffeted by them. And the Invited…they knew them for what they were, because the Fire Dreams were their own dreams given voice and allowed to rise and spread out
over the whole of the Zone like flocks of birds of indescribable beauty.
The Music had no words because none were necessary. The melody, the bass notes, the percussion and riffs told it all, and each note inspired greater knowledge from within.
No one in the Fire Zone –or on Boundary street as well– could turn a deaf ear when Fire Dreams played. That was just not possible. Even those who had no
love for the Fire Zone had to stop and listen, had to hear, had to feel….
In the shadows of a damp alley, Drunken Tom Judge lay sprawled amid heaps of refuse, his rats gathered around him like gray courtiers. They watched as his silver eyes grew cloudy, they saw the fall of tears that burned on his cheeks like drops of molten lead. The rats came closer, lending the warmth of their small bodies to comfort him.
In the vast hall of Unlovely’s, central to five thousand writhing dancers, Snakedancer held sway over all. When he moved, the waves of motion rippled
outward from him through every twisting body. Each step was mirrored as if the surface of a stream into which someone was dropping pebble after pebble. When he took a step, five thousand legs stepped with him; when his sinuous hips bucked, five thousand hips reflected the movement; when he leapt it was as if the whole world took flight.
Snakedancer played them, ran them, and spun them into a Catherine wheel of ecstasy. His will was second only to the will of the Music, but still part of the whole. The dancers round him were caught between the force of the Music and the masterful control of Snakedancer. The air around them flashed with colors as they moved.
The Bishop and Europa lay close to one another, letting Fire Dreams wrap
them in beauty.
“Love me,” he whispered, his hands touching her face, her throat. Smiling, she came to him like a virgin to a vampire.
***** Destroyer, the artist, was working now.
For long hours he had been idle, sprawled in a fit of ennui, filled with vision but lacking the energy to make it a reality. Then Fire Dreams came whispering
through his windows and had wrapped its satin fingers around him, swirling in the air like opium smoke.
Now the fever was full upon him. Light and color, tone and texture moved like living things under his hands.
Deep in the empty ruins of the Hotel Gershwin, the Brothers of Da Vinci were stirring, pushing dirt away from their mouths, their sanguine hungers awakened by the Music, their sharp white teeth biting the air as they rose.
The bike beneath the Boundary Street light was black and sleek and long.
1200cc’s of engine lurked within the cowling, waiting, waiting. From the left handlebar dangled morocco made from a cat’s skull and a child’s tibia; the skull was filled with rubies. From the right hung a glass-encased eyeball that had been taken from a Haitian houngan. There was a hell of a story behind that one. A knife
was sheathed to the engine housing and the blade was no virgin.
Lounging against the back-bars, his booted feet propped high and crossed at the ankles, Boulevard Shark listened to the Music play. His guitar lay across his thighs like a spent lover. He held the pick idle in one hand and let the Music soak into him, allowing it to access every deeply buried part of him.
Boulevard Shark was many things: a renegade in a world of renegades, a lawless rocker with more talent than he deserved, an adored and feared leader. His flock, the Cyke-lones, were strung out along Boundary Street in a tight line of precisely angled bikes, each machine exactly 45 degrees from the curb. They had
come riding in across all sorts of lines: city, state –and divisions less precise or more subjective– following Boulevard Shark’s lead and clinging to his mad, grand dreams. Most of them had no idea where, precisely, they were; though a few of the brighter lights in Shark’s constellation were beginning to guess. Shark, himself, knew.
When the Music played, Shark played along and he was as good as he thought he was; but in those rare and wonderful times when this particular song played, he laid down his sword and just listened, because he knew he wasn’t that
He stroked the long, slender neck of his guitar and murmured, “One of these days….”
The shapeshifter, Centerlok, danced alone in the spotlight spill of a street- lamp, his shadow twisting and reforming with protean ease at every step.
The bartender’s name was Brutal John and he was, well, brutal. Big hands on thick wrists danced over the bottles and glasses, massive shoulders jerked lines of tension in the crisp white linen of his shirt with every deft movement. His eyes were so hard they could smash you down with but a glance. With lightning speed he mixed mixtures and concocted concoctions; lesser drew beers and wiped glasses and stayed the hell out of his way. Every drink Brutal John made was perfect. Each
martini was dry enough to turn a rain forest into a desert; each Kir burned with sweet perfection. He never made a mistake. Ever.
When Fire Dreams played, he stopped, setting down a half-made Rum
Collins. He had a face like an eroded wall and it rarely showed any expression at all, but as the song worked its way into him, his eyes changed. Those steely eyes did not soften except in the way that a raging fire is softer than the cutting edge of a scalpel.
Brutal John flicked his gaze toward Oswald Four, who was secure behind his glass wall. He raised his head in silent query and with a tiny smile, Oswald inclined his head, affirming John’s guess.
It would be tonight!
Brutal John felt a thrill race through every nerve in his body. He would have smiled, but smiles were not well received by the muscles on his face, so he frowned happily instead.
The playing of Fire Dreams had not been coincidental! The event John —
and almost everyone else in the Zone had been waiting for, craving– was about to happen.
Deep beneath the Zone was a suite of hidden rooms. A thousand candles burned and dripped and scented the air with delicate perfumes. In the largest room
a long bier reposed on a dais made from lignum vitae and platinum, positioned to be the center of a constellation of flickering candles. Draped in elegant shrouds of samite lay a single figure, still as death. The eyes were closed, long lashes sweeping perfect cheeks.
From the floor of the chamber rose four columns, speakers of impeccable design and flawless fidelity.
Fire Dreams drifted from the speakers, swirling and blending with the
incense into an atmosphere of ethereal beauty, filling the room with enchantment.
Before the song faded, the eyes of the dead man opened –suddenly, abruptly, flashing with silver light.
Slowly he drew in a single breath deep into his empty lungs, filling himself and his senses with scent and sound.
“Ahhhhhhhhh…” he murmured, as a connoisseur would savor the bouquet of a fine wine.
In the back seat of Xander’s cab, Indigo Heart felt the Music of Fire Dreams
stab him through the chest with beauty, drawing gasps and cries from him with each subtle change in melody and argument. Sweat glistened on his face and ran in rivulets down his cheeks, racing with the fall of his tears.
Looking at Heart in the rearview mirror, Xander saw the effect the song was having on him. He smiled a thin smile, nodding to himself.
They drove wildly on, tearing through the night, racing with the beat of the song and flying into the heart of the Fire Zone.
( 1 )
Xander called his cab the Red Rocket and it lived up to that name: blasting its way through traffic, scoffing at speed laws, and pretty much ignoring the laws of physics as well. Other cars pulled to the side of the avenue as the Red Rocket zoomed past, dancers leapt out of its way, hugging street-lamps or each other as the mutant Chevy ripped past them.
“Jesus!” gasped Heart. “This crate moves!”
“You have no idea,” Xander murmured. He flicked the butt of his cigar out of the window and, steering with his knees, used both hands to fish a new one out of the pack and tear off the cellophane, and light it. He took a couple of long, slow drags, the exhaled smoke whipping past him out of the window. Xander patted the dashboard lovingly. “Yeah, she’ll go from here to there.” He swerved around a Viper and left its driver peering at his receding taillights through clouds of exhaust fumes.
“Um,” Heart said, “out of curiosity, where are we going?” “Unlovely’s, like you asked.”
“I thought it was just down the street and around the corner. A couple, three blocks.”
“I know,” Xander agreed. “This is the shortcut.” “Ah.”
“Well, more scenic than actually short.” “I see.”
Xander took a corner on a couple of wheels and kicked the pedal down as soon as the other tires thumped-down. They raced along Spiny Norman Drive and then whipped onto Hooligan’s Lane, zipping past the gray-stuccoed facade of the Dan Vile Memorial Rodent Research Institute and Milk Bar.
“What’s the long-cut like?” Xander just laughed.
Frank Bacon, awake now, cooed and strutted unsteadily around the back seat until Heart picked him up and set him down on his lap. The pigeon immediately went back to sleep. Lorenzo stood with his front paws on the dashboard and meowed every time they passed a running dog. Turning off Hooligan’s after a dozen blocks, Xander dropped it down to sixty and rattled along the planks of the Boardwalk.
Heart pressed his face and palms to the side window and peered out at the ocean. He frowned.
Which ocean? His city, the place where Xander’s cab had first picked him
up, was more than sixty miles from the coast, and he was sure they hadn’t driven anywhere near that far. His mouth went dry as he realized once again –and more strongly than ever– that he had absolutely no clue where on Earth he was. The thought brought a flash of panic at first, a sense of being totally lost; but then he thought about it. If he didn’t know where he was, then no one else did, either. Not the cops. Not the friends of Terry, the man he’d killed back at the bar. Nobody.
The frown became a tentative smile. Perhaps it was a hopeful smile, but even he didn’t know.
Nothing will ever be the same.
The thought echoed again through his brain, bringing back with it memories of everything that had happened that evening, from when he first showed up for work at the bar —God, was that actually today and not a million years ago?— to those horrible minutes running through the storm; it brought back the faces in the mirrors –the Mechanic, Terry, the Noh mask, his transformed self—and made him cognizant of every strange and wild that had happened since coming here. Here, he thought with murky humor, wherever here actually is.
The Fire Zone.
What is hell was the Fire Zone? he demanded of the noise inside his head,
then thought, Oh, Lordie-Lordie-Lord, where am I? And, Lord, what in Your big
ol’ world is going on?
Beyond the edge of the boardwalk, past the darkened sand, phosphorescence glimmered on the wave caps, the foam shining white in the moonlight. The sky above sparkled like black velvet sewn with millions upon millions of tiny jewels.
Heart almost asked Xander to stop the car; he wanted to go running down off the boardwalk and out across the cool sand, to fling himself into the black water and go floating out with the tide, far beyond his world and this world and all worlds, deep into the eternal night. What a simple solution that would be: just to give into oblivion, to stop the machinery of pain by simply switching it off, by yanking out the cord and depriving the misery engines of all power. Out there in the vasty night there were no islands of despair, no submerged memories onto which the unsuspecting sailor might tear out his emotional keel, no short-water shoals of blame and guilt waiting for the unwary mariner. Out there was just peace and darkness and…nothing.
The Red Rocket slowed to forty, then to thirty, and cruised along at that speed, going far along the coast while Heart’s mind went far back in time, millions of years, all the way back to eight-thirty that night, to events that might as well have happened in another lifetime and to another person….
…it was hot, he was tired and it was already turning out to be a real bastard of a night. Thursdays were never his favorite nights, and this one truly sucked. The spectator’s at Eyeful’s Stopless Go-Go were cackling like crows, squealing like pigs. They were a faceless mob surrounding him on three sides; the fourth wall was the bar itself, on the other side of which stood two bartenders and a dancer in an electric-blue g-string and pasties the size of quarters. The bartenders were both skinny, both short, one was old and the other was a petite woman who barely weighed a hundred pounds. No help there. The dancer had her hands clutched together against her chest and her eyes were as wide and white as eggs.
The yells and bleats and caws of the crowd rose like a cloud of locusts, swarming even over the background noise of juke-boxed white-boy hip-hop. Jim Smith’s lips were pulled into tight lines that were his attempt at a placating smile.
His mouth was dry, his throat positively dusty. There was something warm trickling in a line down the left side of his face –either stale beer or blood, he couldn’t tell and didn’t want to check. There was a dull ache in his stomach where the big guy’s fist had suckered him, and a bell-ringing pain behind his right ear where the third guy had cold-cocked him with a beer mug. The punch the second clown had thrown had missed, but it had distracted him long enough for the other two hit him high and low like a Vaudeville comedy act and now he was in pain as well as pissed off. Not a terrific combination.
After the one-two attack he’d cleared some space with a big roundhouse kick that did not connect with either of the jokers but did manage to drive them both back. Now he had a wide circle around him, so he let out the breath he was holding and stood his ground, listening inward to his body for signs of injury and finding only distracting pain but no real damage.
The whole thing had started the way these things do. One of the three guys –the smallest and drunkest of the trio– had accused some other poor schnook, who was a total stranger to him, of pinching some of his beer change. The schnook, who was a scrawny accountant type and almost certainly innocent, offered shocked defense and even apologies for any misunderstandings. The wise-mouth little drunk didn’t want an apology (no surprise there) and began declaring loudly that he was going to kick the other guy’s ass. The Accountant protested and even tried to placate, but that only spurred the Wise-mouth on. The argument got heated and it quickly disintegrated into a shoving match. Jim had been perched on his high stool by the door, half dozing because this was early on a Thursday and this sort of crap didn’t usually get rolling until well after midnight. He was still the only bouncer on the job, the other two guys weren’t due in until ten. By the time Jim was off his stool and moving, the Wise-mouth’s two buddies had each landed a couple of sloppy punches on the Accountant’s nose, and Wise-mouth himself had kicked him in the balls. Once the Accountant was down, Wise-mouth kept on kicking him and both of the others had taken a stomp as well. The little Accountant was totally out of it by the time Jim muscled his way through the crowd; the poor bastard was curled into a fetal ball and bleeding from mouth, nose and ears. Jim had parted the ranks of onlookers like a hunter moving through tall reeds and stepped into the space cleared by the mini-brawl. He took it all in at a glance and knew he’d seen it all before; in truth there was nothing new about this kind of three-on-one nonsense. A one-on- one even-odds fight might have surprised him but not the drunken gang-up-on-an- innocent-little-guy routine. That was par for the course for a dive like Eyeful’s; and it paid Jim’s rent.
Even so, it should also have been routine for Jim to ring down the curtain on the little melodrama in about three seconds flat. He had it worked out to a couple of different scenarios, and knew how to play them. Ideally, Jim would have just talked them all down, gotten everything to a lower level, and then flagged the lot of them, good-guys and bad-guys alike, sending them off home or to other taprooms, but definitely away from there. Then the rest of the baboons would slouch back to their beers and watch Dolly remove the rest of what the law allowed there at Eyeful’s; and Jim Smith would have struggled through another night of working for the buck and would be that much closer to having enough of a stake to finally shake the dust of that town off his boot-heels as he cleared out for cleaner skies. That was the general plan, and that’s the way it usually worked, night after night.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t that kind of night.
Sometimes a second variation on the theme might have carried Jim through it unscathed. That variation involved Jim clocking one guy in some sudden and dramatic way and letting the example of overwhelming physical force cow the others. Jim was very big and had very fast hands, and the combination of muscle, speed, and violence usually threw a flag down on the play. As a back-up plan it was generally reliable. But not on this particular evening.
Tonight was going to be the third variation of the tune. The unfortunate variation. The one where there was going to be no way to calm it all down because these three jokers had consumed more alcohol than their common sense could hold. That meant that it would get meaner and uglier than it already was, and it was plenty mean and ugly now. As Jim well knew, there was a line of sobriety a man could cross if he was stupid enough and careless enough and mean spirited enough, and it left that guy thinking he could fight without defeat like Rocky Balboa and run off at the mouth with impunity like Chris Rock. It was the textbook example of how a person’s mouth could get his ass in trouble. Excise the violent aspect and it would make pretty good comedy; but tonight no one was laughing.
The Three Stooges had turned on Jim as soon as he cleared the wall of spectators, and as soon as he stepped into reach, the second asshole -a medium- sized guy with Popeye forearms– threw a looping haymaker that Jim would have to have been unconscious not to see coming. He slapped it past him and hit the guy with three fast shots to eyebrow, nose and short ribs. The guy dropped like he’d been standing on a trapdoor. Jim, thinking that he’d cut the fuse on it, unwisely turned toward the bar to tell Lefty to call 911. Which is when the other two jokers had popped him, one in the gut, one behind the right ear.
They had danced away from his wide roundkick but then charged again, thinking that Jim was out on his feet. In truth he was a little dazed, but he was far from out and as they stepped in Jim lashed out with a couple of fast ones and felt them connect. The remaining Stooges staggered back and he back-pedaled to give himself room to think.
Around them the Roman Circus cheered the gladiators on. They, at least, thought the whole thing was a hoot –even better than the emaciated college drop- out up on stage with the blue g-string, plastic boobs and track marks on her arms and thighs that were poorly concealed by layers of stage make-up. The crowd loved a good fight, as long as they themselves weren’t hurt and nobody spilled their beer, and this one had the makings of a doozy.
Jim took another step backward, keeping the bar behind him, holding his palms out in a calming gesture. “Okay, okay, that’s enough. Let’s just think about this for a moment. Nobody wants to get hurt here.”
“Fuck they don’t!” someone yelled from the back of the crowd. The two remaining Stooges laughed, goaded by the enthusiasm of their cheering section, and advanced a couple of short steps toward Jim. They were even too drunk to hesitate, drunk enough that there was no sense or fear in them. Jim had tagged each of them with enough sauce to have made more sober men hesitate, but these guys were way too drunk and too involved in macho dramatics to be so easily cowed. Jim’s heart sank, knowing this was going to go very bad.
“Get ‘im, Terry!” someone yelled, and the bigger of the Stooges grinned.
Terry had heavy features of the kind Jim particularly hated: wavy black hair hanging down over a Cro-Magnon brow, blunt nose and prominent chin. Similar in some regards to Jim’s own, but Jim’s were more orderly, more evolved. Jim had always hated faces like that because they reminded him of his father; he could even imagine the Mechanic’s greasy face superimposed over Terry’s, and it drew anger from deep inside his soul. Anger that Jim knew could ignite into rage if he was not very, very careful.
Terry’s grin was wet, revealing uneven yellow teeth. His big fists pawed the air as he moved. Perhaps it was a variation on a boxer’s shuffle, but it made him look like a big, drunk bear.
“Just settle down,” Jim said and his voice sounded tight, the rage seeping through the control.
“Fuck you!” said Popeye, his forearms swelling from rolled-up shirtsleeves. His tie hung slack and he had a bruise blooming on his cheek from Jim’s first love- tap. He still had the beer mug in his hand that he had used to sucker Jim behind the ear.
“Careful, Jim!” called the older bartender, Lefty. He was thirty years past the age when he would have vaulted the bar and taken Jim’s back, and the hurt of his age was in his voice.
“I’m going to tell you guys this just once,” Jim said, trying another tack: the harsh commanding voice. Sometimes it worked. “You just step off! You hear me? Step off before this gets out of hand.”
“It’s already outta hand, motherfucker,” slurred Terry. “I’ma kick your ass.”
“No,” Jim said, “you’re not. Nobody’s going to kick anyone’s ass. You guys are going to pick up your buddy here and get out. You’re flagged. Keep it up and I can make that permanent.”
“Yeah?” Terry’s buddy said, sticking out a chest that wasn’t as big as he thought it was. “Only thing gonna be permanent is my foot up your ass.”
He stepped in and swung a hard, wide, sloppy punch.
Some part of Jim’s mind seemed to sigh sadly and step back, observing the whole debacle. It was ridiculous. Both of these guys, muscles notwithstanding, were in no shape to go against someone like himself. Jim was just shy of six-four, built like a bridge support, hard-nosed and very tough. He even looked tough; anyone with sense could see that. These guys were in the bar often enough to have seen Jim in action, and they had probably seen Jim clear the place out a couple of times.
Two-on-one, three-on-one and once even five-on-one, with or without the other bartenders backing him up, Jim always came out on top, and he was not a gentle fighter. Terry may have been big, and in his own circles was probably a formidable bully, but he was of a different breed than Jim. He wasn’t even the same physical type. Jim ordinarily filled a lot of the room, but when he was angry he filled most of it; Terry, though big, was soft around the middle and he didn’t know how to stand or move. All he had was muscle and mean, and a great depth of stupidity. His partner, Popeye, had better speed and balance, but he led with his chin and he couldn’t match Jim’s reach. Las Vegas odds makers wouldn’t have thought much of their chances. Still, they began to dodge in and out, throwing light punches and the occasional kick, trying to double-team him, hoping to catch him with another blindside play.
Jim was getting really angry now, and the detached part of him watched this process, even understood it, saw the layers of it, but could not actually do anything to interfere with the inevitable progression.
Jim slapped away the exploratory punches, waited for the real attack. When it came it was Popeye, not Terry who tried to end it with a haymaker. Jim almost sighed as he saw the wind up. He could have gone out for a sandwich and beer and still gotten back before that punch landed. When it finally got there, Jim parried it with no effort and even gave the arm a little push; and as Popeye spun off balance, Jim drove a single-knuckle punch into his xiphoid. Air whooshed out of the man’s lungs and it seemed as if his bugged-out eyes were trying to jump ship as well.
Turning a ripe plum-color, Popeye sank down to his knees, arms wrapped around an empty set of convulsing lungs.
From then on it was a one-on-one between Jim and Terry, and that should have been a piece of cake. It was a good night for “should haves”, but none of the breaks seemed to be going Jim’s way, and from that moment on things went all to hell. Terry’s lips were wet with spit and his face was flushed red, and when he advanced he looked just like the Mechanic. As he stepped forward his hand pulled something from his pocket…something hard and shiny that opened with a metallic click at the press of a button.
But Jim didn’t see the knife. Maybe he sensed it, but he didn’t see it, or anything. He didn’t hear it click open; didn’t hear Lefty yell the warning: “Knife!” All Jim could see was the face of the mechanic superimposed over Terry’s; all he could hear was something wet tearing in his mind. Then a black veil dropped over Jim’s mind and within thirty seconds the fight was over and the whole of the bar had been plunged into a stunned and horrified silence.
In that scant half-minute of time, Jim Smith’s world had been smashed to pieces and the debris set on fire. When those thirty seconds were over, Terry was laying on the barroom floor in a spreading pool of his own blood…broken and dead. Jim Smith had instantly fled from the scene of disaster out into the raging storm.
Jim Smith’s world would never be the same again….
The ocean’s soft voice whispered to him as the Red Rocket rumbled along the boards, but he felt deeply tense. Thinking about tonight, about how things had gone badly –and about how badly things had gone– made his face and ears flush with heat. Tears threatened to blind him.
God damn it.
The cab eased into a turn and left the ocean and the boardwalk behind; Xander fed it gas as they headed back into an urban center. One-story beach cottages quickly gave wave to taller homes, to small buildings and finally to the larger, more brightly-colored structures of the Fire Zone. Hugh klieg lights mounted on flatbeds cut the night with swords of light.
Wiping at his eyes and clearing his throat, Heart forced jauntiness into his voice and said: “This is some cab ride.”
“Yeah. Like I said, the Rocket’ll take us from here to there.” The driver’s head was wreathed in noxious fumes.
“Hey, you got any of those things going spare?”
Xander handed the pack over his shoulder and Heart examined it, reading the label out loud: “Mungo Jerry’s Finest Leaf Cigars. Five for $1.25. Mm. Are these as bad as they smell?”
“Worst freaking cigars in the known world,” Xander admitted.
“Ah.” Heart slipped one out of the pack and tore off the cellophane. Sniffing the unlighted cigar was like sniffing a jogger’s sock. Xander pushed in the dashboard lighter and when it popped he handed it back. Heart lit the cigar, handing back the pack and the lighter, and smoked for a few moments.
“My dear lord,” he said after some reflection, “this is the worst freaking cigar in the known world.” “Like I said.”
“Why on earth do you smoke these damn things?”
Xander considered. “‘Cause they are the worst freaking cigars in the known world.”
Heart had to think about that for a moment, and then nodded. “Okay,” he said, “I can buy that.”
They drove and smoked in silence for several blocks. The cab passed a huge lot in which a carnival was in full swing, all the rides spinning and whirling, the midway ablaze with bright lights. A banner read: The Disturbing Sights and
Sounds All-Year Summer Carnival. A roller coaster threaded its serpentine way all
through the fairground, through tents, and even through the hub of the massive Ferris wheel. In the first car stood Charon, the Styx ferryman, his scythe gleaming with fresh blood. A tilt-a-whirl spun so fast that passengers were reduced to smears of color, and every few minutes one of the riders would break free of the seat restraints and would go soaring through the air to land in one of the huge nets slung across the field. Next to the Ferris wheel was a Rocket Ride that actually went to the moon, much to the surprise of the passengers.
Xander peeled away left and raced down a narrow alley, sending yowling cats scratching off into the shadows.
“On a guess,” said Heart; “I’d be willing to bet that there aren’t any really reliable maps of the Fire Zone.”
“Ah, there’s just no fooling you is there, Ace?”
They passed a factory where laughter was canned and sold to bad sitcoms, and then the tall and lonesome spike of the Tomb –fifteen stories of faded brownstone with barred windows and a massive steel portcullis –loomed suddenly overhead.
“I don’t actually know,” said Xander. “Always wondered about it, but I can never remember to ask anyone.”
They passed the electric orchard that bordered the Square Redux and by craning his neck, Heart could see the faHade of the Cafe Vortex, which was at the center of the square. The forty-foot-high whirlwind spun and twisted like a snake, shooting bolts of lightning into the air and filling the night with the scent of ozone.
“Wow, that’s some place.”
Xander nodded. “Polyfun built it a couple of years ago.” “Polyfun?”
“Yeah. He’s an architect.” He paused, the added: “He thinks he’s the reincarnation of Jane Fonda.”
“But…she’s not actually dead yet….”
“I know. Polyfun’s kind of a hard guy to understand at times.” “I’ll bet. Say, can we stop in there?”
“Maybe later,” said Xander. “You haven’t been to Unlovely’s yet.” “Is Unlovely’s better?”
The cabbie laughed. “Dude, Unlovely’s is the club.”
A block later, Heart asked, “I hope their drinks are strong.” “Strong as you want ‘em.”
“Well, I want them strong enough to help me forget.” “Forget what?”
“Forget pretty much everything. I want to shut my head off.” “Oh, I think we can arrange that.”
( 2 )
Heart finished the cigar and flicked it out into the street. On his lap Frank Bacon cooed in his sleep. Maybe he was dreaming of some nice, plump lady pigeon, Heart fancied.
A minute later they zipped past Torquemada’s, rolled down the hill, made a fast left by Riot Park, and swooped down on Unlovely’s. The Red Rocket jolted to a teeth-jarring halt at the corner.
“Ta da,” said Xander with a little flip of the hand. “What do I owe you?”
Xander jerked his chin at the meter. It was turned off. “Consider this a free ride.”
“Thanks,” said Heart, opening the door. “I won’t forget this.” “No. I don’t expect you will.”
Heart lifted the sleeping pigeon and handed him across the seat to Xander, who gave him a quick kiss on the head and set him down next to Lorenzo, who was playing with some string and making a big show of ignoring everyone.
Heart got out and closed the door. He offered his hand to Xander, who looked at it for a moment, then smiled and took it. Xander’s hand was thin and cold and as hard as marble and he gave it a short, hard shake and then released it and stepped back. Without a further word, the Red Rocket blasted away from the curb.
Standing in the middle of the street, Heart watched the big car vanish into the distance, heard the honks and squeals as other cars veered for safety.
“I have had days,” he said aloud, “which have made more sense than this one.”
Shaking his head, he turned toward the club’s brightly lit front doors.
When Jim Smith was ten….
Mike O’Hanlon knelt beside his master as they watched the junior class train. Two older boys, both seventeen, were coaching the younger students in the proper form to hit the heavy bags, hand-held targets and wall-mounted striking boards. Sensei Johnson was sipping ginger tea from a cup painted with a design of bamboo leaves. Mike took occasional sips from a bottle of Evian. They were quiet amid the storm of grunts and ki-ais and thudding impacts. Occasionally there was the dry crack of a pine board as someone managed to put the right amount of snap and speed into a backfist or reverse punch.
Most of the boys were in their early teens, a handful younger. All of them very intent on what they were doing, probably because Sensei and Mike were watching. In the presence of teenage upperclassmen alone they might have goofed off some, or filled the room with as much chatter as hits and grunts; but with the two instructors present the boys trained as seriously as if they themselves were advanced black belts. The boys worked in pairs, one holding the target while the other struck and kicked. A few worked solo on speed bags and timing bags, working the leather globes with skills varying from inept to truly promising. One young Hispanic boy, no more than eleven, danced a speed bag with a professional’s finesse and grace, not only hitting it with consistent speed, but working little patterns and rhythms into his punches so that the blurring bag sang as well as danced. Mike pointed at the kid with his chin, and Sensei gave a small nod.
Over in the far corner, at the end of the row of six heavy bags, Jimmy Smith was working alone. He was the odd man out today so there was no one to steady the bag. When he hit it with a clumsy punch or kick, it jerked away from him and he had to stop and reset it, steadying it for the next blow. He was working now on palm-heel strikes, stepping gracelessly into the 40-pound bag and hitting it with all of his weight and strength. The strikes were slow, awkward, revealing to the watching instructors what they needed to know about his skills.
“He’s a ball of fire that one. Shame about his form,” Mike observed softly. “He’s stepping in too much…I’ve told him about that. He’s almost knocking himself on his face each time he hits.”
“Going in flat-footed, too.” Mike added.
“Osu.” Sensei said it with a quiet hiss, blending it into one soft syllable, ostensibly to let Mike know that he had already evaluated the flaws in the boy’s technique, but mostly to politely silence him. The sensei’s eyes were narrowed and he wanted to study the boy not the technique. Jimmy hit, reset, hit again, working with a single-mindedness that was somehow less commendable than it was alarming. His little body was drenched with sweat, his dark hair plastered to his skull. Even from across the room and through all the ambient noise, they could hear his grunts every time his palm slammed into the center of the bag.
In a soft voice, Sensei said, “Call him over.”
“Hai, sensei.” Mike stood up and signaled for one of the upperclassmen,
nodded at Jimmy, and then jerked his head back indicating where he was standing. The upperclassman bowed sharply and trotted over to Jimmy. He waited until the boy had delivered his strike and then spoke to him. Jimmy stood back from the bag, chest heaving, bowed and came quickly over to Mike and Sensei, stood at attention and bowed again, more formally this time.
Sensei Johnson set down his teacup and returned the boy’s bow with a small incline of his head. Jimmy was panting like a marathon runner, his face flushed to bright red. His right eye glittered like wet glass –bright with exertion and intensity. His left was swollen nearly shut and there was a black half-circle of subcutaneous blood staining the cheek below the eye. It was new enough not to show any of the yellow diffusion that would soon mar the boy’s face. Mike was in the process of kneeling again when he caught sight of the black eye and he paused for a moment, then lowered himself slowly the rest of the way, shooting a brief look to Sensei. The sensei’s face was impassive.
The two instructors knelt there for several moments while Jimmy stood and panted and sweated and waited.
Then, “You’re wasting your hit,” Sensei said. Jimmy said nothing, waiting.
“You’re wasting your hit by trying to hit too hard. That makes you vulnerable to a counterattack. Do you understand what I mean by that?”
Jimmy licked his lips. “Iye, Sensei.”
In as nondescript a tone as he could manage, Mike said, “You’re going at the bag with too much body weight, kiddo. That’s bad enough with a target that’s just hanging on a chain, but try it with a person and they’ll just step out of the way and clock you as you’re falling forward.” He shook his head. “Don’t try to win the fight with the first move.”
“Unless you are very fast, very strong, very skilled, or all three, you seldom can,” said Sensei. “In a fight against someone bigger and stronger,” he added after a moment, “you have to fight smart rather than hard. The way a cat would fight against a dog.”
“The dog would just tear the cat up, wouldn’t he?” It was clear that it hurt Jimmy’s mouth to speak. Though there were no visible bruises around his mouth, he moved his jaw and lips with care.
“Yeah,” added Mike, “you get some alley cats –nothing more than skin and bones and claws—and some nosey house dog thinks he’s easy prey…and whammo! Fido gets his nose sliced and diced. Maybe loses an eye. And why? It’s just like Sensei says, if you’re fighting someone bigger and stronger, you got to fight smarter. You got to fight fast and mean. Hit and run instead of trying to go in like a freight train. Remember Muhammad Ali?”
Jimmy just shook his head.
“Before your time, I guess. Anyway, Ali was this incredible fighter.
Heavyweight boxing champ. His motto was ‘dance like a butterfly, sting like a bee’.”
Jimmy nodded soberly. “That’s like those sayings on the walls.” The gym was decorated with small wooden plaques, each containing a short aphorism suggesting the Zen approach to martial training. Things like “Even Monkeys Fall Out of Trees” and “The sword is an extension of the spirit, not of the hand”.
“Like that. Yeah,” Mike said, reflecting, “Ali was a Zen kinda guy.”
Sensei interrupted Mike before he could launch into one of his attempts to interpret Zen. Mike, big hearted and decent, was not a philosopher by any stretch. “The point is that you are trying to hit like an adult, but you don’t have adult size or strength.”
Jimmy waited, his one dark eye intense. “You need to learn to hit like a child.” “But, I…”
Sensei held up a hand to stop him. “Don’t misunderstand. Hitting like a child doesn’t mean hitting without power or without effect. It means that you must learn to hit in a way that’s real to you.” Jimmy’s face was clouded with uncertainty and he shifted slightly from foot to foot. Sensei said, “Everyone has natural advantages and disadvantages. So, you have to learn all you can about yourself in order to know how to fight.”
“What Sensei is trying to say,” Mike added, “is you need to float like a butterfly -so as not to keep getting hit—and sting like a bee –‘cause you’re small and fast.”
“But…” Jimmy began, but didn’t know where to go with it, so he trailed off. “Let me ask you a question,” Sensei said, almost but not smiling. “You may
have noticed that Sempai Mike is a little larger than I am.” Sensei was five-three; Mike was six-eight and more than twice Sensei Johnson’s weight. Even Jimmy managed to smile a little at the question. “So…in a fight, who would suppose might win?”
Jimmy looked from Sensei to Mike and back again. “Um….”
“Go ahead. Say what you think.” “I guess…you?”
“Duh. Good guess,” Mike said under his breath.
Sensei nodded. “There is that chance, yes. But,” and he held a long, slender finger. “Tell me why?”
Jimmy just shook his head.
Mike said, “Kid, Sensei can kick my butt in his sleep. Easily. He does it the same way you could kick the butt of someone bigger and stronger than you.”
Jimmy’s face screwed up as he tried to work it out. “Be..because you fight like a child?”
Sensei gave a warm chuckle. “That was a good try at an answer…but, no. I don’t fight like a child.”
“Then I don’t know.”
Again under his breath Mike said, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bloody cruise missile.”
“It’s because I fight like who I am,” Sensei said softly.
The boy took several moments to try and understand that, his efforts showing on his bruised face. A faint, small, desperate fire sprang to life in his haunted eyes.
“How?” he asked. The question came out sounding like a plea.
Indigo Heart stood in the doorway of Unlovely’s, hands gripping the frame as if the musical winds from inside might blow him back into the street; his face was dyed as blue as his name by the colorful lasers. The high he’d been riding since talking with Caster Bootey and tooling around in the Red Rocket had taken a beating by his reverie of the fight with Terry. He felt like he was losing himself again and didn’t know where to look.
“Drunk,” he said aloud, his voice lost in the insistence of the Music, “is what I need to be.”
With that as a plan, he stepped further into Unlovely’s. It looked livelier and less fell than Torquemada’s and Heart felt that he was –to some degree and on some levels– prepared for the place. After all, Caster and Xander had both recommended it.
Even so, the place was daunting. Unlovely’s was three times the size of the cavernous Torquemada’s, and it was packed to bursting. A dozen beefy bouncers lurked around, dressed like cheap hoods in pinstripe suits and gangster hats. A few of them stood on raised platforms, arms folded over bulging chests, watching the bobbing heads with cold, slitted eyes. One of them gave Heart the up-and-down before nodding him inside.
Just inside the door there was a broad wooden apron that was eighty feet wide and which ringed the dance floor on three sides; the scattered tables were packed with laughing, drinking, eating, goggling patrons. Agile waitstaff threaded their way through the press bearing laden trays. Not a crumb or a drop was spilled as the servers dipped and dodged, evaded and twisted their way through the press.
Thick columns rose from the floor to support the vaulted ceiling that was a hundred feet-high; and rotating mirror balls as big as church-bells splintered the light from the lasers that stitched back and forth like machine guns. In the air there were sudden and intense explosions of colored light emanating from no source Heart could identify. Strobes cut in and then flashed unexpectedly off and on; steam rose from ports set into the floor, and the whole room was plunged into a dreamscape of ethereal madness and amazing beauty. The dance floor and most of the walls were covered by mirrors so that the overall effect was that ten million dancers danced on ten million dance floors, and all of them floated on air.
It charmed some of the panic out of him.
Around the tables and at the edges of the dance floor, people stood in groups, laughing and clapping hands and holding each other; or stood alone with eyes dreamily closed as they swayed to the Music. On the dance floor itself the dancers were so thick that the whole mass of them looked like rippled human carpet. Heart watched them with fascination as he drifted along the edge of the apron toward the far wall over which the neon word Drinks flashed with inviting brilliance.
To his left Heart saw a glass-enclosed booth occupied by a spidery albino in red wraparound sunglasses. The deejay was watching him as he crossed the floor,
and Heart found it disconcerting to look at someone whose eyes were totally hidden by opaque lenses. To disguise his discomfiture, Heart gave the albino what he hoped would be construed as a knowing nod. The deejay’s mouth wrapped itself around an amused and sardonic smile and he returned the nod, ever so slightly.
The deejay was eerie, bizarre, yet oddly elegant and quite beautiful; he was entirely individual in appearance, like no one Heart had ever before encountered, and he seemed charming in an itchy sort of way. In all, he was a perfect example of himself, a perspective Heart found that he could appreciate, which surprised him.
To Heart’s right there was a huge bandstand set-up for a gig, but no players were onstage. There were guitars on stands, a sophisticated keyboard set-up and an elaborate drum kit. Two evil-looking bouncers lurked at the foot of the short flight of stairs that lead up to the bandstand. Heart gave them a friendly wave and a wide berth, and their stares followed him all the way across the floor.
The fourth side of the club was lined, wall to wall, with the longest bar Heart had ever seen: five hundred feet of polished oak with beer stations acting like mile markers. The foot-rails were made from neon tubing that underlit the patrons in flattering ways. The beer taps were shaped like the heads of animals, and as each tap was pulled to fill a mug, the enamel head would utter an eerily authentic roar of defiance.
A large section of the bar seemed reserved for some special clientele because, despite all the hundreds standing, there were a few seats left pointedly vacant.
Heart wondered what it took to be allowed to occupy one of those seats, and further wondered if he had the balls to go up and simply sit down there.
“What the hell,” he thought and angled that way. He nearly stopped in his tracks when he saw the bartender working that section of the bar. The man was enormous –inches taller than Heart, who was six-four– and far broader across the chest and shoulders. The bartender’s arms were monstrously huge, straining the crisp white sleeves of his shirt. He had blunt features on a nearly flat face, with a slash of a mouth that looked totally unfamiliar with the concept of smiling. Eyes the color of coal stared out with flat disapproval of everyone and everything, and he responded to each customer’s request with a gargoyle’s baleful glower.
Heart bellied up to the bar between two of unoccupied chairs –not yet daring to sit down but still intruding into the reserved space. The bartender loomed over him like the Angel of Death.
“Thrill me,” he said in a flat, rough voice.
“Something different, I think,” Heart said amiably. “Any suggestions?” “No,” said the bartender.
“Oh.” Heart tried on a smile but it felt pale. “I see. Well, then, how about some bourbon. Any chance you have Heaven Hill?”
The bartender drummed his fingers on the counter.
“Ah,” said Heart, “of course you do. Place like this. I’ll have it on the rocks.
“Whatever.” The bartender turned away, selected a bottle, tumbled some ice into a glass and splashed in a generous spill of the dark golden liquid. He set the glass down in front of Heart.
“Put that on my tab, John,” said a voice, and Heart turned toward his benefactor and eyed him carefully: a medium-skinned black man in a quiet dark suit and loud shirt and tie. The man sat with one haunch propped on the adjoining stool..
“Thanks,” said Heart guardedly.
The man grinned and extended his hand. “Jellicho.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Heart took the hand and shook it. Jellicho’s grip was firm and dry and a faint current of energy seemed to pulse through the surface of his flesh. Heart almost snatched his hand away, but the sensation was in no way negative, though it felt as if something of his own essence was passing into the other man’s grip. Heart realized that the thought was fanciful to the point of stupidity, and dismissed it. Jellicho kept the grip for a few seconds longer than usual, and stared deeply into Heart’s eyes as he did so. Then, with a smile, he let go and settled back against the bar and lifted his own drink, toasting Heart.
“Thanks,” Heart said. “Your health.” They drank.
Jellicho nodded down at Heart’s vest. “Rough day at the office?” Heart snorted. “Yeah, you might say that.”
“Mind if I ask your name?”
“Indigo Heart.” The new name came easily to his lips. “Oh yeah…I heard something about you.”
“Mmm…I don’t think so. I just got here.”
Jellicho pursed his lips. “You got into some trouble over at Torquies.” He stated it with no hint of a question.
“How’d you hear about that?” Heart said wearily, not really surprised by that kind of offhand prescience any more, but irritated by it.
Jellicho gave an elaborate shrug. “Oh, you know how it is. Somebody said something to somebody. I really don’t remember.”
“What exactly did you hear?”
Waving Heart to the closest stool, Jellicho pulled his own close, sat, shrugged. “Heard you faced the Music over there, and it was your first time.”
“And that you came out of with a whole skin.”
Is that what you call it? Heart mused. Then what does it feel like to get your ass kicked? Then he thought about the other dancer, the one who had been broken, and he understood. Still, he was too grouchy to acknowledge Jellicho’s point, and said: “What’s the big deal? It was just a song.” He sipped his bourbon and challenged Jellicho with a level stare.
The man was smiling blandly, obviously amused. He sipped his own drink and set it down and, while he was searching for something to say he began fiddling with the ring on his left hand. It was thin and non-metallic, braided from some shiny red material that looked like human hair, but was obviously much harder.
Jellicho wore it like a wedding band, and it flashed scarlet fire as he slowly turned round and round and round on his finger. “How long have you been here?”
“I just came in five minutes ago.” “No, I mean—.”
“Oh. A few hours ago.”
“Uh-huh. Ever been here before? No, cancel that: I can see that this all really new to you.”
“Oh? Is there a neon sign over my head or something?”
“Or something.” Seeing that Heart was offended, Jellicho laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “Sorry, man, I guess that kind of shit doesn’t swing too well for you.”
“What, you mean the vague comments that reinforces the idea that –in terms of knowing what the fuck is going on– I’m two steps below a country bumpkin? No, why should that bother me?
“Sorry, man. It’s not intentional man, trust me.”
“Jellicho, I don’t even know you, so why should I trust you?”
The man smiled. “Why shouldn’t you? Just ‘cause you don’t know me doesn’t mean that I’m not trustworthy.”
“Doesn’t mean you are, either.”
“True, but you gotta start somewhere. Besides,” and again he gave a quick shrug, “I did buy you a drink.”
“Which could be part of a hustle.” “Mm?”
“If I had a dime for every time someone bought someone a drink as a prelude to a scam—”
“Yeah, yeah, you could buy North America.”
“A coupla times over. So…do you have an angle?”
Refusing to take offense, Jellicho shrugged. “Hell no. I just wanted to buy you a drink.”
Heart studied him for a moment. “Why?”
“You looked like you needed one.” He lifted his glass and toasted Heart, sipping thoughtfully. “Tell me something, though,” he said, “are you always this paranoid, or has it been one of those days?”
Heart looked at Jellicho, then out at the dancers, then down at his drink. “One of those incarnations, actually.”
Jellicho laughed. He had an easy laugh and a quick smile that seemed to Heart to contain genuine warmth. Despite his blooming paranoia, Heart found himself liking the man.
“Maybe your luck will change, man.”
“I don’t know about you, friend, but I’ve noticed an ugly trend in the luck department.”
“So far it’s been all bad.” “All of it?”
“Well, no…I do get little spurts of good luck once in a while.” “See then, that’s not too–.”
“All it does is set me up for the punch.”
“Ah. Then let me change your luck for you, Mr. Heart, and introduce you to someone special. Good luck always seems to follow her.” Turning, Jellicho offered
a better view of the woman who was seated on the stool next to him. Apparently
sensing the imminent introduction, the woman turned to face them and Heart nearly staggered from the powerful and palpable impact of her presence. “This,” said Jellicho with a gracious wave of his hand, “is Kamala Jane.”
“To be sure,” Heart said, dry-mouthed. He took the extended hand and shook it, resisting the ridiculous urge to bend and kiss it. Or, maybe that might not have been too ridiculous; Kamala Jane had the presence and bearing of a woman of great strength, great wisdom and great beauty. Very great beauty. Her skin was smooth and a great deal of it was visible in the brief, low-cut silk dress she wore.
The dress was a lustrous red-brown with glittering golden threads sewn through it to form the hazy outlines of exotic flowers; her hair was styled into soft black curls that sparkled with flecks of gold. A circlet of rich topazes ringed her slender throat and it took a moment for Heart to process the fact that they were not connected to a chain but seemed to blossom from her skin. That skin was golden brown and glossy with obvious health. She was slim, the way a dancer is slim, with good bones and graceful lines, long legs and artistic hands ending in spatulate fingers tipped with red-gold nails. She wore very little make-up, and what she did have on had been applied by a subtle hand. The softness of her make-up, the light radiating from the topazes and the luster of her complexion gave her face the appearance of almost inhuman beauty, like the funeral mask of an ancient Egyptian Queen. Set evenly in that flawless mask of a face were two lambent eyes which seemed to radiate a light of their own. They were a pale, complex swirl of greens and blues and purples, like the ever-changing colors of a tropical ocean in the heart of summer.
“Kamala, this is my new friend, Indigo Heart.”
“Very pleased to meet you, Mr. Heart.”
Heart stood up and found himself beginning to offer a bow when Jellicho, laughing, clapped a hand on his shoulder and steered him back to his chair. “Sit your silly white ass down. Stop pawing at your clothes.”
Heart, who had been straightening his vest as if it were a dinner jacket, flicked an embarrassed glance at Jellicho but remained standing. “I’m, uh, very pleased to, um, meet you, Ms. –um– Jane.”
“Kamala Jane. Or Kamala, if it’s easier. You couldn’t pronounce my last name.”
“She’s right,” Jellicho nodded. “I tried it once and hurt my mouth.”
Heart could sense that Jellicho was a powerful person, but even he did not seem to be on the level of Kamala Jane. Even the Music seemed to flow more quietly around her.
“Do you, er, live here? Er, hereabouts.” He stopped, realizing how idiotic he sounded. “I mean….” He faltered, let the words trail away and he sighed, and then sat down, shaking his head and cocking it to one side. “Okay,” he said, “let me ask this: Exactly how does one start a conversation with people like you?”
“Like us?” Kamala asked.
“Fire Zone people. All night I’ve been feeling like I’m faking my way through a play without having read the script. It’s really…disconcerting, you know? Seems that every time I say something people look at me and titter politely into their hands.”
“I’ve never tittered in my life,” Jellicho said, and then tittered politely into his hand.
Heart grinned. “Jeez.”
Smiling, flashing perfect teeth at him, Kamala said, “We’re just people, Mr.
Heart. Like any other people anywhere.”
“Not quite like people everywhere, I think,” Heart said.
She lowered her eyes briefly, acknowledging the compliment. “You don’t have to worry about not knowing the ground rules, Mr. Heart, if that’s what you’re asking. There are no ground rules. This is the—.”
“I know,” he interrupted dryly, “this is the Fire Zone.”
She frowned. “Mm, I guess I see your point. Answers like that are what’s throwing you off.”
“A bit, yes.” He sipped his whiskey.
Jellicho exchanged a brief glance with Heart. He said: “Feel free to use us as sounding boards if there’s something you want to talk about, or…ask. Whatever.”
“So…what? Are you two lovely folks going to be my tour guides to the mysteries of life?”
“If you like,” murmured Kamala Jane.
Heart nodded and opened his mouth to actually ask a clarifying question when the song ended and there was a two-note bing–bong that drew everyone’s attention even, reluctantly, his own. His companions both looked toward the glass booth where the peculiar deejay squatted amid all his high-tech gadgetry. Craning his neck, Heart could see that the albino held an old-fashioned radio microphone in his white hands, his deep red lips brushing the disk-shaped guard.
“Okay, my children, that was the Fabulous Z-Men with their soulful and heartfelt rendition of that old Sonic Jonzz hit Slaughter the Stupid. Now, your
loving Uncle Oswald Four has a few announcements for the faithful. First, my darlings, tomorrow night is all you can eat brain candy, so bring an empty head.” He grinned as the crowd chuckled, his red lips framing white teeth and framed in turn by his white face. “Oh, this just in….” He plucked a piece of paper out of thin air, scrutinized it and then snapped his fingers, causing it to vanish in a puff of blue smoke. “Well, well, well,” he said, his grin slithering into a broader, wetter smile, “I have the announcement you’ve all been waiting for. Mmm, yes, indeed I do. This is for all you Runners and Refugees, all you Sharks and Guppies, and all you succulent Invited –tonight, right here at Unlovelys, this cozy little country inn– we will be blessed with the reappearance of somebody very special. Let me say that again: somebody very special! Do you all know whom I mean? I can see the glint of rudimentary intelligence flickering in some of your eyes. Mmm, oh, yes indeed. My sweets, my loves, tonight we will see the return of the Masked Master himself…
The applause was immediate and thunderous. It shook the walls and rattled the glasses on the bar. Heart leaned close and shouted in Jellicho’s ear. ”Who’s Mister Sin? Someone else mentioned his name….”
Clapping and laughing with real delight, Jellicho said, “You’ll find out, my brother.”
Oswald Four waited out the applause then guided it down into silence with calming gestures of his hands. “Unless you’ve been in Stone, you know that the Man has been dead for two looooooong weeks.”
There were boos and catcalls.
To Jellicho, Heart said, “Um…did he say…?”
“Yeah. Mister Sin lost a bet to the Bishop and had to forfeit a couple of weeks of life. Been a complete bitch without him, let me tell you.”
“Uhhh. Okay, but just between you and me –that didn’t make any sense.” “So, the Master will be back in the world tonight!” the albino was saying.
Oswald Four grinned like a reptile as he turned to survey the vast, expectant crowd. “And the Master’s first stop is…Unlovely’s!”
Insane applause. Heart saw people weeping and hugging each other.
Jellicho had a huge grin stretched across his handsome face and he was beating his fist on his thigh. Next to him, Kamala Jane was dabbing at the corners of her lovely eyes with a small paper napkin. Heart turned and caught Brutal John a close approximation of a smile, but as soon as he was caught, the bartender’s face transformed into a scowling mask of such immediate ferocity that it made Heart snap his head around forward.
“But not yet, my pets, not yet…” soothed Oswald Four. Again he hushed the crowd to silence. “Mister Sin is Mister Sin, if you know what I mean, so he’ll be here when the moment is jusssst right.”
They all laughed, in on the joke that sailed right over Heart’s head.
“Now, don’t forget, my lovelies, that this is Tortureship Week here at Unlovely’s. Why is that? Hmmm? ‘Cause the ultimate Othertone band will be opening here at Unlovely’s Friday night –that’s twenty-four eentsy-weensty hours from now, my little ducks. They’re back from their Hundred Year’s Tour of elsewhere and they are ready to blow the roof off this joint with tunes from their new CD release, REDEMPTION. Let me tell you, campers, it won’t be what you expect.” He dropped his voice and leaned into the words. “I can fair guarantee you that.”
More wild applause. Heart clapped, too. It had been a Tortureship number he’d danced to at Torquemada’s, or so Sweet Sidne, his dancing partner, had said. She’d told him she was the lead singer of the band, but Heart hadn’t really believed her. Also, Xander has said that the heartbreakingly beautiful song they’d heard in the cab had been a Tortureship number. Fire Dreams. It amazed Heart that the band that had made such a magnificent song as that had made the malevolent and nearly lethal dance number that had just about killed him. If those two songs were typical of the band’s range and power, then Heart thought that he would be more than willing to see that show. I’ll wear a bulletproof vest and a life jacket, though, he thought.
“The boys in the band will be stopping by to have a chat with ol’ Uncle Oswald between sets, so don’t miss it, or I will track you down and kill you. Heh-heh. Now, last item, my sweetlings: we’ve got a new heart beating in the Fire Zone tonight. He’s just cut and run from Stone and –get this duckies– he faced down
the Music on his first go-round, and he did it…” he paused for effect, “–at Torquemada’s!”
There were actual gasps from the crowd. Heart felt his gut go all slushy and he cringed back against the bar.
“Our Boy Wonder is sitting right over there next to our own sweet Candyman and the lovely, lovely Kamala Jane.”
Heart poised to bolt.
“So let’s have a really, really big hand for Mr. Indigo Heart –‘cause God knows he could use one.”
All heads turned and all hands met as Indigo Heart, nudged by Jellicho and encouraged by Kamala’s smile, shambled to his feet. He stood flush-faced and wretchedly embarrassed, and he forced a smile past wooden lips, gestured vaguely at the crowd, then fired a brief, murderous glare at Oswald, and finally crawled back onto his seat as the applause died away. Once seated, he threw back the rest of his bourbon and shoved the glass across the bar toward Brutal John, who gave a dry chuckle at Heart’s discomfiture and reached for a bottle. “I guess this is my fifteen minutes of celebrity,” he muttered into the depths of his second drink. “Gosh, how wonderful.”
“Now, liebschens,” purred Oswald, “let’s hear it for the Lightriders and their
new hit, Dark Winds. This is for all you Guppies with broken hearts, and all you
Invited who remember what gray clay feels like. Oh, those were the days!”
The speakers kicked out some fresh Music, a haunting melody that altered the mood of the place and even changed the ambient light into somber tones of
brown and orange and gold. The revelers moved into a slower dance, much like a stylized waltz.
Heart was frowning into the bottom of his glass, wondering how it had suddenly gotten empty. His stomach was telling him that he’d just knocked it down, but his brain hadn’t been paying attention and had no memory at all of the act. Still two double bourbons in ten minutes were already making the skin at the corners of his eyes start to tingle. As he became aware of the beginnings of a buzz, the room suddenly seemed brighter and louder. He placed the empty glass on the bar and tried to signal Brutal John again; but the big bartender was, apparently, ignoring him.
“You’re lucky,” said Jellicho. Heart looked at him, but Kamala Jane spoke before the Candyman could explain.
“Oswald mentioned your name. That’s a rarity. I’ve known people to court him for months to get a mention. I fear you’ll be swamped with Guppies, Mr.
Heart cleared his throat. “Call me Indigo, please. Um, what exactly are Guppies?”
With his glass, Jellicho gestured to the sea of gently moving bodies. “Guppies are those wide-eyed bits of floating lunch that you see around you.”
“All of them?”
“No, not all,” said Kamala. “Some are Sharks. Some are other things.” “Like?”
“Is that what I am?”
She made a small dismissive gesture. “I would not be so rude as to label a new friend.”
“I would,” said Jellicho with a laugh. “No, Dude, you’re what we call a Refugee.”
“What’s the distinction?”
“Runners tend to go looking for places like the Fire Zone. It’s kind of their mission in life. Raison d’être and all that.”
“And Refugees?” asked Heart, his bitterness undisguised. “Are exactly what you would expect.”
Heart thought about it, then nodded sourly. Refugee. How apt.
The moody Music played and Heart drifted into it, feeling its somberness invade his emotions, darkening them with twilight colors. In his mind Pandora’s Box loomed, the demons within pitting their strength against the chains and locks. Unbidden and unwelcome –and assisted by the alcohol that was launching a corporate takeover of his mental control– his mind strayed toward the box and lifted just the corner of the lid. In his mind there was a sudden dazzle of light as the beam from a projector burst through the opening and began playing a slide-show on the scarred walls of the inside of his brain. Lulled by whiskey and half-hypnotized by the troubling song, Heart was mesmerized by the horrible images that were being shown. He sat there and looked inward at the picture show, at the images of the things he’d created Pandora’s Box to protect him from, at the scenes of the war-torn landscape that was his life –past and present– while some perverse hand within the Box was thumbing the clicker, projecting slide after slide.
Click! The three toughs at Eyeful’s tonight, two of them sprawled on the floor and the third one, Terry, sagging in Heart’s own bloody hands, his eyes glazing over with a terminal surprise at the sudden proof of his own mortality.
Click! Another night at the bar, eight months ago. A flash of shockingly acute pain as a pool cue chopped him in the jaw. He could remember the pain and the sight of his right molar trailing blood as it flew like a missile over the beer case and the guy with the pool cue swinging it like Ty Cobb.
Click! Years and years ago. A younger Jim Smith kneeling there, holding his girlfriend Helen in his own teenage arms as she wept, her white with shock and her hair soiled by the Mechanic’s cigarette smoke, the enormity of what he had done to her too big for either of them to confront.
Click! Then years later, seeing Helen on the street and hardly recognizing her behind her disguise of black clothes and heavy makeup and a feral look as she sought for any route of escape that would take her away from talking to him.
Click! Back to his younger days, when he was just an eight-year old Jimmy
Smith. Falling, falling, scrambling away from his father’s hard hands, away from the cruel swing of that belt, trying to hide in the cleft between the couch and the wall, knowing that it was as hopeless a bolt-hole as all the others had been, screaming protests to drown out the sing-song voice of the Mechanic. “We’re gonna have us one of our little talks, boy. One of our special talks. Oh, boy, here it comes.
Yeah, man oh man, here it comes.” Then the belt shrieking through the air like a banshee.
Click! The cruel voices, the laughter, of the other boys at school when he was twelve as they saw the blood stains on the seat of his gym shorts. They called him a little girl. They said he was getting his period. He cringed in the cleft between his locker and the wall, crying like a baby; his face flushed from the scorn, their thoughtless laughter tearing at him. He knew he could not say anything to them, any more than he could adequately explain it to the gym teacher. How does a child explain that his rectal tissues were so badly torn that he had to stuff wads of tissues into his shorts to keep from staining his clothes? And the voice constantly echoing in his head: “Here it comes. Oh boy, here it comes.”
Click! The Mechanic again. Down in the dark privacy of the cellar. Young
Jim stripped from the waist down and bound ankle and wrist to an overturned chair. The Mechanic. Behind him. Laughing with his wet mouth. Then the pain.
Click! Other nights, deep in the dark when everyone else was asleep, laying in bed, hugging a ragged stuffed monkey to his heaving chest, trying not to breathe too loud, trying not to be heard, trying to be invisible so that no one would remember he was there and want him for…things. Waiting for the inevitable, knowing it was a certainty.
Click! Tonight, running through the rain, fleeing the bloody battleground at
Eyeful’s, stumbling through the storm –a refugee from the war-torn country of his own life.
Click! Click! Click!
Over and over again. Slides taken by the combat photographer in his brain; records of a life lived on the battlefield.
STOP IT! he shouted inside his own head. GOD DAMN IT —STOP!
A hand touched his arm, and from a million miles away he heard Kamala Jane’s sweet voice. “Are you all right?”
At the instant of her touch the slide projector in his head went dark, the images fading. The lid of Pandora’s Box swung shut on the monsters inside, locking them into the darkness where they belonged. Heart was sweating badly and the hands he wrapped around the whiskey glass were shaking with the palsy of nightmare.
He could feel Kamala Jane watching him. Her touch was so warm, like a healing balm. Slowly, trying to look casual, he turned to her. Kamala’s deep eyes were swirling and there was a small vertical line between her brows.
“Indigo?” she said softly.
The invitation in her voice was genuine and generous, but when he opened his mouth to speak, the word that came out was a muttered: ‘Refugee,” and the word tasted like bile. Angry and hurt, he turned away from her and stared into the glass, but it was still empty.
“John?” Kamala said mildly, and the bartender caught her eye, read her expression, then lumbered over and refilled Heart’s glass. Heart took it, nodding a mute thanks and drank half of it. He blamed the tears in his eyes on the burn of the sour mash in his throat; so he never saw the three-way exchange of looks between Kamala Jane, Jellicho and Brutal John, and he probably wouldn’t have understood its significance. Not at that moment, anyway.
Manufacturing a jovial smile that was fairly convincing, Jellicho clapped him on the shoulder and said, “Anyway, Dude, those Guppies’ll be all over you like — and you should pardon the expression– white on rice.”
“Yeah. Fine. Whatever.” His voice was muddy and he cleared his throat and straightened up a little. “I’ve always wanted to be an icon for the fluff-set.”
“Now, don’t be mean,” scolded Kamala mildly. “We may call them Guppies
–or, rather, we’ve picked up the name they’ve given themselves– but they are real people. I wouldn’t rush to belittle them.”
“I’m only kidding,” he said. “Believe me when I tell you that I’m in no position to judge anyone.”
“Yeah, well” conceded Jellicho, “they’re trying to get ahead like anyone, and if they can hook onto a rising star, well, there’s no harm in that.”
“More like a falling star. A big piece of space junk burning out in the atmosphere.”
“Wow,” said Jellicho. “That’s poetic. Gloomy as shit, but poetic.”
Heart sighed. “Sorry. I guess I’m feeling a bit…oh, hell, I don’t know what I’m feeling, other than like crap.”
Kamala reached over and touched his arm again. “Do you want to talk about it?”
He laughed. “Miss, I doubt you would believe me. I doubt you’d even believe half of it.”
“Oh,” she said, leaning back and running her manicured finger around the rim of her glass faster and faster until it sent up a soft musical hum, “I don’t know about that. Jellie and I…we’re pretty open-minded.”
“I’d even go as far as to say I’m credulous,” Jellicho agreed and hid a laugh by taking a sip of his beer.
Heart just stared into the depths of his whiskey and said nothing. The images that had leaked out of Pandora’s Box were still too present, too oppressively powerful. His hands were closed around the chunky tumbler and all his knuckles were white, in sharp contrast to the darkness gathering around his heart.
Help me, he thought. God, please help me. The plea echoed in the hollow
corridors of his soul as the people danced and the revelers laughed and the Music played. Heart turned slowly and stared bleakly at the crowd, at all the gaiety and energy and vitality. He had spent too much of each of his years either looking for spaces in which to hide, or reaching out with scrabbling fingers for a hand to help pull him up into the light, but never in all his life had he felt more completely, more utterly, alone.
“God…help me please,” he whispered.
Owen Minor the Wolverine sat at the end of the bar eating gingerbread men and spitting out the bones. A tall glass of something dark red fumed and smoked and he took microsips from it every now and then as he watched the byplay between Kamala Jane, Jellicho and Indigo Heart.
He broke off an arm of one of the gingerbread men and popped it into his grinning mouth.
“This should be fun,” he said to himself. He’d been saying it all night, and all night it had been true. He was enjoying himself immensely, please with his own handiwork thus far, and entertained by those elements thrown into the mix by other forces in the Zone.
Two people, a muscular young Shark with a goatee and a Runner with a face pitted from childhood acne, looked at him as they reached for nearby stools; he flicked a single brief glance at them. They moved further down the bar.
Owen Minor went back to studying Indigo Heart. He stretched out with his awareness and read the events of the next couple of days –saw the violence, the blood, the pain. Saw Indigo Heart reduced to his lowest point, his barriers broken away, his defenses all destroyed.
Minor closed his empty left hand then opened it and there was a deck of cards in his palm. They were large, ornate tarot with hand-painted faces and with practiced nonchalance he began dealing them out face up. The first card was the Fool and it came off the deck right side up. The face of the befuddled man was Jim Smith’s. Minor laid a second card next to it: the Tower reversed.
“Hm,” murmured Minor, approving.
The third card was the Devil, also reversed, and the face was Owen Minor’s own. He smiled at that.
The fourth card was the Magician, straight up, and it showed a Noh mask.
The fifth was the Emperor and it was painted so that both top and bottom were the same, and the face was Caster Bootey’s surrounded by rays of light. Minor caressed the edge of the card but only after making sure no one was looking.
The sixth card was Death and the Grim Reaper wore greasy mechanics work clothes and his belt buckle was undone.
Minor dealt the seventh card, the last in the pattern he was making, and used it to cross the first. Judgment, and at the bottom of the card stood a shadowy outline that looked like Indigo Heart as he might appear reflected in dark glass.
He cocked an eyebrow at it and smiled, then lifted his steaming glass and stared into its depths, continuing to let his mind flow far across the sea of changes and possibilities. He saw faces reflected on each facet of the ice cubes that floated unmelted in defiance of the heat. The face of Jim Smith and the face of Indigo Heart. The face of the Mechanic. The face of Terry. He saw a monster’s face, a beast with a wrinkled muzzle and teeth like daggers. He saw the visored face of a
knight in blood-red armor. He saw the faces of three boys: one eight, one twelve and one fourteen –each with identical sea-blue eyes, each face contorted in identical masks of terrible pain. He saw all that, and more besides.
“Lots of fun,” he murmured as he licked crumbs from his lips. “Oh boy.”
( 1 )
The Music was beautiful and tragic, and the latter part suited Heart’s mood. He felt glum and sour, apathetic and self-pitying. He tried not to listen to the song, Dark Winds as it played, but it crept up and whispered in his ear. He’d already
turned away from Kamala Jane and Jellicho and was staring down into golden whiskey depths, knowing there was nowhere else to turn. Thus trapped, he could not avoid hearing the things the Music wanted to tell him, and he had just about no strength left with which to put up a fight. Between Torquemada’s, Eyeful’s, and his little picture show courtesy of the slide projector in Pandora’s Box, he felt used up, desiccated and ugly. So, he sat there and he brooded, and he listened.
The Music was subtle but strong within its subtlety; the band –the Lightriders– had managed, Heart thought gloomily, to precisely capture that sublime feeling of desperation and hopelessness that comes with losing a great love. Perhaps even of losing the love of being alive. Using no words and just a scattering of musical phrases the song managed to say all that really needed to be said about the onset of a truly lethal apathy, and of the terrible and vampiric strength that apathy possessed. A strength Heart knew all too well.
“Damn,” he breathed softly. “God damn it….”
The song ended and Oswald Four’s silky voice whispered from the speakers. “Well, that was perky, wasn’t it? Let’s disembark from the pain train for a while and instead do some truly unkind things to our psyche’s, what say?” After a tentative start, there was a lot of yelling and clapping. Heart just heaved a sigh. “This next little ditty is from Peggy Thatcher and the House of Commons — a golden oldie from last week. It’s Purely Corrupt, and it’s dedicated with love and loathing to the Bishop!” There was more laughter, this time at the Bishop’s expense, though none of it came from the Guppies. The Sharks laughed the loudest. Heart, to his credit, at least managed an amused grunt.
Leaning close, Jellicho said, “Hey, Dude, I hate to enter your Cone of Silence here, but I thought you might like another drink. Kamala’s paying.”
“Already have one,” Heart said, lifting his glass and swirling the contents.
He peered into the glass, which held only a pair of partially melted ice cubes. “Oh,” he said with a puzzled frown, wondering where his drink had gone. Ignoring Jellicho, he raised his glass and tried to flag Brutal John, who merely gave him a dismissive sneer and continued to lean against the bar and chew on a plastic coffee stirrer.
“He’s ignoring me,” Heart said. “Think so?” said Jellicho, smiling.
“Don’t know why, though. I haven’t done anything to him.”
“You’re a carbon-based life form,” Jellicho explained. “That’s pretty much all that’s required to piss-off Brutal John.”
Kamala, seeing Heart’s face, took pity on him. She tapped her own empty glass with the tip of a fingernail. It was too small a sound to be heard beneath the weight and force of the Music, but Brutal John immediately plucked the stirrer out of his mouth and lumbered down toward her.
“Whatcha want, Janie?” “Another round, if you please.”
“Him, too?” he asked, jerking a callused thumb at Heart. “Him too. He’s my guest.”
“Jesus, Janie, you ought to travel in better circles.”
“Now don’t be mean,” she said, almost coquettishly. “He’s had a bad night.
We should be kind to him.”
“We should send him the hell back home. Tonight’s kind of a special night, and I don’t remember hearing that geeks were invited.”
“Hey, look pal,” Heart flared, jumping to his feet.
Swiveling his bucket-shaped head on its tree-stump neck, Brutal John whispered: “Sit down while you can still suck air. I wasn’t talking to you.”
“But you were talking about me!”
“Yeah, and we’ll be talking about you at your funeral, too, you don’t sit down and behave.”
Heart almost —almost— reached across the bar and grabbed Brutal John’s
shirt front. But he wasn’t quite that drunk.
Rising, Kamala Jane put her hand on Heart’s shoulder and guided him back to his seat. “Please,” she said to him; and then to the bartender: “Please.”
Brutal John let out a slow breath through his nostrils, the way a bull might when the matador has thought better of it and jumped over the little wooden wall. He made the drinks, served them without comment, and wandered away.
Once he was gone, Heart became suddenly self-conscious. With as much grace as he could muster he flicked a brief glance at Jellicho and then Kamala Jane. “Sorry,” he mumbled.
“No problem, Dude,” said the Candyman. “But you can log that one as a real bonee-fidee close one.” He shook his head and grinned wide enough to show a gap between his front teeth.
“What’s his malfunction?” Heart grumped.
“That question,” said Kamala, resuming her seat, “is more complicated than you know. Just let it go, please.”
But Heart couldn’t let it go. “He shouldn’t go around provoking people.”
Kamala turned to him and her eyes searched his face. “Indigo…do you think you’re the only one in pain?”
Caught off guard by the question he stared at her. “What?” “I’m serious. Do you think you’re the only one in pain?” “Well, no, but….”
“Then don’t be so quick to judge other people. I mean…are you the only one who’s allowed to be a grouch?”
He clamped his mouth shut on a tart answer.
“Look,” she said, “it’s obvious you’re up against it, but do you even think that you’re only person out in the Zone tonight who’s running from a nightmare?”
“Who says I’m running from anything?”
“Who says you’re not?” Jellicho murmured, sotto voce.
Kamala continued. “Do you believe that all of this,” and here she gestured to indicate the whole of Unlovely’s, and perhaps the rest of the Zone itself, “is here just because you are on some kind of odyssey?”
“Of course not, but—.”
“There are a lot of things going on, Indigo, more than you could possibly grasp. You think you are the star of some kind of surreal drama, and that everyone you meet is just a colorful character in a performance piece based on your life.”
“Yeah,” added Jellicho sarcastically. “Well, here’s a wake-up call: that’s not how it is.”
Kamala’s nod of agreement was brief, but emphatic.
Heart opened his mouth, wondering how the hell he’d managed to piss everyone off so quickly. The alcohol in his system was no friend to his powers of reason. He scowled in consternation and it must have looked to Kamala like anger because she continued with unabated force.
“There is nothing so powerful as the self-absorption of pain. Yes, I can see that –it’s written all over your face. I can even make some guesses. Shall I?” She forged ahead, not waiting for his answer. “I can tell you’re having a bad night of it, maybe even the worst night of your life. No, don’t ask, as I said, a blind woman could see it. It’s clear that things have been going wrong for you, maybe even for a long time. Listen to me,” she said, her kindly smile at odds with the forcefulness in
her soft voice; and she laid a soothing hand on his forearm as she spoke. “Right now you are lost in the self-absorption of your own personal pain, which as I said, is very powerful. It’s blinding.”
“She’s right, Dude,” said Jellicho. “I’ve been there myself. So has everyone you’ve ever met.”
“Everyone, at some time or other, gets lost in the midnight shadows of the dark night of the soul,” said Kamala.
“Oh, very poetic.”
“Don’t be snippy with the lady,” warned Jellicho gently.
“Please take my advice, Indigo: don’t assume that because you are the star of your own tragic drama that you are the star of all life’s dramas.”
He just stared at her, and when he didn’t speak she continued: “Always remember that there is more going on than you think. There always has been, and there always will be, even when you are too wrapped up in your own pain to be aware of it.” She paused. “The whole world doesn’t stop just because yours does.”
Heart irritably jerked his hand away from her touch. “What are you saying?
That I should take insults from goons like that?” “No, and don’t pretend to be obtuse.”
“‘Obtuse’,” Jellicho echoed softly, liking the word. “I’m not being obtuse –I’m being pissed-off.” “About what? About Brutal John?”
“Why, because his pain spilled over your shoes, that it stole a little of the attention away from this little Greek tragedy you have going?”
“Very funny. If you insist, then yes, I am pissed off that he dumped his shit on me.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes I’m fucking sure!” he shouted.
“Odd,” she said airily, “considering all the other things that have happened to you tonight.”
“I mean,” she continued, “you get upset about Brutal John being rude, and yet you seem rather blasé about the fact that you have been in a terrible fight tonight, your stress level is dangerously high—”
“Yeah,” interrupted Jellicho. “Your blood pressure could probably blow the gaskets out of a truck engine, and emotionally-speaking you’re halfway to a nuclear meltdown.”
Kamala nodded. “You had to flee your life and you came running and found the Fire Zone -which is very confusing and demanding, I’ll admit– and you looked death in the face on the dance-floor at Torquemada’s, you’ve been dismissed by the Bishop…and the thing that gets you finally upset is the rude behavior of a bartender? Don’t you think that’s a little strange?”
He stood up again, feeling the fury bleach his face white and aware of the block of ice forming in his gut. His skin felt crawly and the room was way too bright. Kamala’s words burned in his flesh like arrows.
“How the fuck do you know about all that?” he snarled, his voice low and feral and full of rage. He was aware that Brutal John was heading down the bar toward him, and that Jellicho had stopped smiling.
“Does it matter how I know? Don’t shift the focus away from the point.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? That no one in this fucking place can respect a person’s privacy? That everyone but me seems to be giggling over the same private joke? So, okay, maybe I’ve had a bad night and wound up here, but does that give you the right to judge me?”
“Who’s judging you, Indigo?” she asked, genuinely puzzled. “You are!”
“I’m not judging anyone. I’m trying to help you understand a little of what’s going on here, and maybe a little of what’s going on in your head.”
“No you’re not! You’re just confusing me.” He was shouting now, his voice strident and shrill.
Kamala Jane stepped closer to him and stood there looking certainly up into his face. Heart felt all his fear and confusion coalescing into a black ball of total rage. He wanted to smash them all: Jellicho, Brutal John, the Bishop, Xander…all of them. Smash them into tiny fragments of silence, smash the words out of them, mash them into a paste and use that to build walls around his mind, brick-by-brick, until he was hidden from everything and everyone. His fists were balled at his sides, white-hot blocks of molten stone that hung heavily at the ends of his arms, instruments of his rage, ready to lash out.
Slowly, gently, Kamala Jane reached up with one hand and touched his face, tracing a line down his cheek.
“Leave me alone, damn you!” he hissed.
She looked at her fingers and then turned her hand so he could see the smears of wetness from his cheeks. The tears glistened like jewels on her fingertips.
Growling, he slapped her hand away,
“NO!” she said sharply, but it wasn’t to Heart –he was frozen in place, shocked at his own violence; no, she had directed her warning to Brutal John and Jellicho, both of whom had made to lunge at Heart for his impudence.
Jellicho leaned close, all affability gone from his face. “Indigo, you’re about a heartbeat away from having your night go from bad to worse.”
Heart sneered at him. “You don’t fucking know what bad is, asshole.”
The Candyman’s eyes glittered. “Uh-uh, baby, it’s you who don’t know what bad is. You think this is dark as the night gets?”
“Jellicho, please” Kamala said softly. “That’s not helping.”
“Anytime you want to take a run at it, sweetcheeks, you go right ahead,” Heart said to Jellicho.
Kamala grabbed his shoulder and wheeled him around. “And you shut your mouth in front of your betters,” she snapped. He blinked at the force in her voice and had no smartass reply.
“Listen to me, Indigo. Stop acting like a frustrated drunk for just a minute and listen.”
“I’m not drunk!” he insisted, but his voice was a slur.
“Will you listen?”
“You’d better,” cautioned Jellicho, his voice soft and dangerous. “Tonight’s not the night to try and earn your Jackass merit badge.”
“Listening would be the smartest thing you’ve done all day,” agreed Brutal
Hands balled into white fists at his sides, Heart said nothing, but his silence was his consent and Kamala Jane could read that in his eyes.
“Indigo, you are blundering around, smashing into walls, knocking stuff off shelves. You’re a bull in a china shop. I mentioned some of the things that have happened to you tonight because -no! It doesn’t really matter how I know. Hush! Listen. Just accept that I know about those and about other things that have happened to you besides. You’ve been through what must seem like Hell. You’ve nearly died a couple of times. You encountered things that are way beyond your
experience, beyond any and all logic –as far as you define the word. Do you try to understand that? No. Do you try to solve any of those riddles? No. Do you even get mad that so much unpleasantness has been shoved your way? No. Indigo, you haven’t done anything about those things. Nothing! Instead, you ride along with it as if it’s all just another day in the life; but when you encounter someone who is being rude to you, you suddenly react with passion and anger…! Don’t you see a problem with that?”
He said nothing.
“I mean…don’t you think it’s strange that you’re reacting to trivialities instead of actual life issues?”
“You don’t know me,” he said weakly.
“No,” she admitted and laid her hand flat on his chest, “perhaps I don’t. Nor is it important. The real question is: do you?”
( 2 )
If Heart was able to manage a riposte to that thrust, however feeble, he never got the chance. It was right then that the air-raid sirens began blasting, people started screaming, and the whole Zone caught fire.
( 1 )
Oswald Four pressed a button and air-raid sirens shook the world. One Guppy fainted dead away. The bouncers’ hands darted under their jackets toward their armpits as they looked sharply right and left. The sirens rose, rose, towering above the crowd, smashing at them, rattling glass and rebounding from the walls like ricocheting bullets. Somewhere someone yelled “Hallelujah! Take me, Lord!”
Oswald flicked off the switch and silence collapsed over them all. Everyone froze where they were.
Leaning close to his mike, he whispered, “And now, my children –you creatures of the night– time for a special request.” He gave each sibilant ‘S’ a snaky hiss. Everyone was hushed now to an expectant silence, pressing forward toward the deejay’s glass booth. “This is a special request made by someone you all know…a person you all lo-o-o-o-o-o-ve! But, shhhh!” he held a slender white finger to his ruby lips. “Our patron is such a secret person. Shall I tell you his name?” he asked coyly.
The crowd cheered him, coaxed him with waving arms and with laughter. “Shall I?”
Cries and calls and the stamping of thousands of feet.
“His name is….” He drew it out until the room was electric with silent tension. “”Is…Mister….”
People started clapping. “…E. Mann!”
A great groan rose up, but it was buoyed by laughter. The air crackled with excitement and expectation. Even Heart felt it. He turned away from Kamala Jane and Jellicho and looked across the sea of bodies to where Oswald Four sat and grinned and whispered.
“The song, my pretties, is…” he paused again, waiting for utter silence. “COME ALIVE!” Oswald’s scream was lost beneath the earthquake of applause and cheering. Heart didn’t understand it all, but he watched as the crowd went absolutely mad. He saw dozens of people weeping as they laughed, he saw people shouting and jumping up and down and hugging each other. Jellicho was smiling hard enough to hurt himself and he turned and winked at Heart and clapped him on the shoulder as if nothing had happened between them.
Heart didn’t know how to respond to that shift in gears so he just leaned close and said: “Must be some song.”
Jellicho just laughed and hooked his thumb and index fingers into his mouth and blew a piercing note that was heard even above the clamor. Kamala Jane was pounding both of her fists onto her thighs. All attention had been snatched away from Heart and his troubles as quickly and decisively as if he no longer existed.
Part of him felt relieved by this sudden shift, and part of him was hurt by it. Hurt in a way he couldn’t quite define.
To himself, he repeated: “Must be some song.”
Behind the walls of his glass booth, Oswald Four raised his hands and again an expectant silence descended. The Sharks, Guppies, Refugees and Runners all fidgeted; the Invited shared secret smiles. Overall there was the scintillating tension as if something was about to happen: something huge and vastly important. He touched his own face, found that he was frowning instead of smiling, and he tried to explore what he was feeling. Apprehension, and a little fear. Perhaps more than a little fear. But fear of what? He wondered at it. Was it fear of what would happen next? What did that matter after all the things that had happened so far tonight?
If…and here he even paused mentally as he prepared himself for the
ramifications of the dawning thought. If all of the things that had happened tonight had actually happened at all. As real as everything felt, little of it was likely and most of it was downright impossible. Yet he was moving through it, reacting to it, interacting with it as if it was all real.
What does that say about your sanity, old sport? he asked himself,
Well….all things considered…not too damn much.
He sucked his teeth and waited for whatever was going to happen to happen.
( 2 )
Oswald Four held up his hand, fingers splayed wide. Slowly, slowly, he curled those snow-white fingers until they formed a loose ball.
“Now!” he said sharply, and the five fingers convulsed into a hard white fist that punched upward into the air. There was a moment of pure soundlessness, and then the Music hit.
It hit hard.
Everyone reeled back –the Guppies and Sharks went stumbling back, the Runners tried to dodge, the Refugees staggered under the weight of the musical force; only the Invited managed hold their ground though even they were knocked a full step backward. The Invited leaned into the force as if it was a stiff wind, letting the Music wash through them rather than against them. Heart felt himself falling, but a strong hand caught him under the armpit and hauled him back to his feet. He turned to see Jellicho grinning at him. “What a rush!” the Candyman yelled.
Come Alive was extremely powerful, and it left Heart breathless. It wasn’t
like Fire Dreams –that song was powerful according to an entirely different order of magnitude; that song kindled the essential fires in the most primal places in each human soul. This song could not do that. Come Alive was not the fires of each person in the Zone burning together with a brightness that could light the heavens –
-instead this was someone else’s fire, stoked into a blaze hot enough to burn anyone standing too close to it.
Despite having a fair understanding of music, Heart could tell that the instruments of the musicians were tuned in ways he couldn’t understand, producing notes both discordant and strangely appropriate. At first Heart found it difficult to bend his mind around the shape of these new sounds, the notes so apparently disjointed that seemed to make no sense, but as the song progressed he found that it wore grooves in him, creating through its friction a compatibility between sound and listener, forcing a sympathy to its nature which allowed him to glimpse the sense of it, to see the shape within the illusion of shapelessness. Beneath the oddly constructed chords and phrases Heart thought he detected a more subtle melody, one that was both fresh and strangely familiar. He tried to grab at it, to hold it still so he could look at it, remember it, but it danced always just beyond his reach. He stood there, entranced, listening, feeling the sensation as the Music drew him in, gathering him up the way a parent might enfold an hysterical child. He swayed to the beat, eyelids fluttering and nearly closed, narrowed vision smearing the lights into an impressionistic wash of colors, as if he were standing inside a canvas and a painter of great skill was washing colors back and forth across the world. The Music played on, exploring its own avant-garde nature without defining it. Heart, enthralled, listened to every note, hearing it with every molecule of his body, every trace element of his being.
A hand touched him and he looked down; it took long seconds to understand that what the contact was, his mind was that far away. His gaze traveled along the smooth brown length of the arm up to the well-molded shoulder, past a row of topaz gems, to a face of exquisite loveliness.
“Dance with me, Indigo,” she said. “But I….”
“Don’t be afraid.”
He licked his dry lips and blinked his eyes until he was back in the present moment. “Christ, Kamala,” he said. “You just finished reaming me out.”
“Who says I’m finished?” Devilish lights danced in her eyes as she took him by both hands and drew him away from the subjective safety of the bar rail, out into the ocean of movement. Come Alive seemed to swell as Kamala and Heart joined the thousands of sinuous bodies on the dance-floor.
“I’m sorry for yelling at you,” he said, pitching his voice to be heard through the Music, but for her ears alone. “And I’m sorry for slapping your hand like that.”
“No,” he said. “It’s not.”
They danced and as they moved their eyes met. Never in his life had he looked into eyes like hers, eyes so powerful, so deep, so fiercely intelligent, or so beautiful. There was a half-smile on her lips as if she understood her impact on him.
He said, “I’m just trying to get through it, you know?”
Kamala touched his face again. “Getting through it is probably the wrong thing to be doing, Indigo.”
“I’m a survivor. It’s what I do.”
“Sometimes there is a fine distinction between being a survivor and being a victim.”
“What’s the difference? Both types suffer and emerge alive don’t they?” “True, but a survivor learns from the pain and the hardship. Learns –and advances.”
“And a victim?”
“A victim just endures it. There’s only a little value in merely outlasting a calamity. That doesn’t take any skill, it doesn’t advance the spirit, it teaches nothing of value.”
“You know that? This is something you have insight into?” “Why do you sound so surprised.”
“I guess…I guess because you don’t look like the type who has ever been on the losing side.” He paused. “Of anything.”
She laughed. “Oh, brother! Trust me, Indigo: nobody wins all the time, and everybody is a victim occasionally. That’s probably one of the laws of the universe.”
“Yeah…well. I don’t consider myself a victim.” “Really?” she said, but she did not elaborate.
Heart did not want to question her meaning; it called too many things about his self-image into question.
If a body could be genetically engineered for the sole purpose of dancing in such a way as to be a perfect reflection of the mood and passion of a piece of music, then such a body would exactly match Kamala Jane’s. Despite himself, despite everything that had happened all night, Heart could feel a wave of intense passion and desire sweeping over him. He tried not to stare at her undulating hips –which seemed to possess universal joints or ball bearings, the way they moved– or at her breasts, or at her long legs. His loins stirred and he felt vaguely ashamed of the naked lust that must have been showing in his face, so, through main force of will, he cleared those thoughts away, met her piercing eyes, and held that contact as they danced.
For her part, Kamala Jane seemed to enjoy the directness of his stare; she danced a few inches closer. That did not help him maintain any fragment of his cool.
After a while, during a quieter break in the song, she leaned even closer and said, “They say I’m a very good judge of people.”
“Yeah? Who says that?”
“Most people. People who know me.” “Okay. So?”
“So, I have a feeling about you, Indigo.”
“A feeling? Like what? That I’m a confrontational, thin-skinned asshole? I don’t think that would come as a news flash to anyone.”
“No. Not that.” “Then what?”
She danced for a moment before answering, and he moved with her, his own skills rising a bit to meet hers as if her innate abilities could draw out of him a freer expressionism. That he was unaware of this was in no way surprising; that she was aware of it was equally appropriate. He wanted to just close his eyes and bury his nose in her hair and let the rest of the world just melt away into nothingness.
She said, “You’re a good person, Indigo.” “Yeah,” he mocked, “I’m a peach.”
“You’re a good person,” she repeated. “None of the stuff that’s been happening to you is your fault.”
“Many would disagree.”
Her eyes searched his face. “No,” she said, “I don’t think so.” He only grunted.
After a moment, she said again, “I don’t think so,” but she said it softly and while his face was briefly turned away.
The song’s vocals began, and the husky sensuous voice of the singer flowed from the speakers and out across the vast room. It was a woman’s voice, dark as shadows, and as rich as brandy. Heart could barely understand the words, but her energy, her mingling of passion and compassion soothed him, comforted him and in a sense protected him, building a shell of immediate experience that blocked other, older and more dangerous memories. Without knowing he was going to do it, Heart threw back his head and laughed for the sheer joy of laughing, and Kamala laughed with him. All sins forgotten, perhaps even forgiven, by the perfect beauty of the moment, a grace extended by a sharing of song and dance. They danced well together, their hands drifting up as if by prearrangement to touch palm-to-palm.
None of the dancers around him moved incorrectly –not the most confused Refugee nor the most arrogant Shark. Every step was right and true. Heart spun with Kamala, feeling her warmth, enticed by her beauty, entranced by the freedom with which she abandoned herself to the Music. Even now, as swept-up as he was, he wished could be as free as Kamala, as free as everyone else around him. Thinking that thought he again lost the pattern of the dance, and once more Kamala drew him back into it with gentle insistence.
The Music grew louder, got bigger, became more of what it was.
Lost now in the dance, Heart spun with Kamala, their mutual pirouette a single gear in the a massive machine of the dance, a wonderful construct that was part flesh, part sound and part spirit, and all of it powered by the Music. Heart felt like he was part of a secret ritual dance, an arcane rite invoking unknown and fabulous powers.
Lyrics rolled over him as Oswald cranked up the amplifiers, flicking switches to add effects to the guitars, to redirect the vocals through gates and dampers, to breathe his own magic into the mix. A deft finger on a button activated a bank of lasers that raked the revelers, piercing every dancer and sweeping all shadows away. The last reins of Heart’s inhibitions and control were slipping away now; the last tether that tied him to the world was fraying, stretching to the breaking point.
Sinuously moving between the masses came Snakedancer, painted like a copperhead, his body clothed only in vibrant color and glistening with sweat. With each drum beat his pelvis bucked, with each chord his body shuddered.
Snakedancer was the master of all dance in the Fire Zone, just as Oswald Four was the Good Shepherd of the Music. Snakedancer reached out with his long-fingered hands and touched only those who were worthy of the honor. Some wept with joy at his touch; others bowed to him within the pattern of their dance, offering a grave respect. Smiling, Snakedancer touched Kamala Jane, his fingers brushing along the line of her left cheek; she caught his hand and pressed it to her lips, closing her eyes as she kissed his palm. He flashed a bright smile at her and turned, passing close to Heart as he began to move away. Then he paused in the space between notes and spun; leaning close to Heart and whispering fiercely in his ear: “Dance, child!” he breathed. “In dance there is life. Even for you.”
“I don’t…I don’t understand.”
Snakedancer kissed Heart’s cheek. “Dance for your very soul, Indigo Heart.”
Then he was gone, melting into the crowd, becoming one with all the movement.
The singer said something that Heart missed, and there was cheering. Heart moved in time with the dance, but he stared at the place in the crowd where Snakedancer had vanished.
In dance there is life. Even for you.
Heart felt an ache in his chest as if his heart had just broken. Or, perhaps, broken-open, the way a seedpod breaks open; the way a cocoon opens to release the young imago.
Dance for your very soul, Indigo Heart.
And so he danced. For his very soul.
( 3 )
Kamala flashed him a wicked smile and writhed closer, stroking him with her body. He felt the passion flaring up again in his body, building with intensity and immediacy, and he wanted her so very badly. There was deep ache in his groin and his mouth wanted to taste hers, to breathe her breath; but he didn’t dare touch her or try to kiss her. Her golden-brown face seemed somehow icy cool in the stark laser light, and her lips were the color of new blood –the way the lips of so many people in the Fire Zone seemed to be, as if they had just tasted blood, or, perhaps, because their own blood was on fire within them. In that moment of his awareness, her face was the face of all the Invited. He became aware of the red ring flashing like fire on her left hand, just as it had flashed on Jellicho’s; and he turned and saw similar rings burning on the hands of dozens of the dancers in the crowd. At once he understood that these were all Invited, that the ring was their mark, perhaps their connection to one another and to…
To what? To some power?
He knew that was correct, though he likewise knew he didn’t understand the nature of this revelation.
Kamala reached out and entwined her slender fingers in his hair, and Heart felt an irresistible pull to which he offered no resistance. His need for any kindness, any fair touch was so deep that he gave in totally to Kamala’s will.
Her kiss was scalding.
Reeling away from her, Heart fought for breath. He felt weak, loose-kneed and stupid. He shook his head but all his perceptions were filled with overwhelming awareness of her. Her crystalline laughter rose high, even above the Music, and others around them laughed as well; it was at his expense, but it was in no way unkind. They understood, it seemed, and were sharing in his rush.
The dance continued, and as Heart regained some measure of himself he began to sense a movement within the overall motion of the dance, a shifting of emphasis, an alternation of space. The Invited were reaching toward each other, and as the seconds passed Heart began to consciously perceive other distinctions between the Invited and the others, the Sharks and Guppies and Runners. And the Refugees like himself. The Invited seemed to radiate a light particular to themselves, where the others merely reflected it.
The Invited began threading their way through the dance-floor toward its center, and like flotsam, the Guppies and Sharks, Runners and Refugees were rippled backward toward the outer fringes –still part of the unity of the dance, but not part of its heart. Dancing with Kamala, Heart sensed this and saw the Invited moving inward, moving toward where he and she danced, and he had a flash of paranoid panic: They’re coming for me! Then Kamala’s words filtered from memory into the front of his brain: “Don’t assume that because you are the star of your own tragic drama that you are the star of all life’s dramas.”
The paranoia abated with reluctance.
Touching, milling, smiling, weeping, the Invited came together. Heart pulled his hands away from Kamala’s and began retreating. She flashed him a look of concern, but it changed into one of gratitude when she realized that he understood that this was something of which she was a part, and he was not. She mouthed the words: Thank you as the crowd swept them apart; he nodded and faded into the press of bodies, back to the reefs and shoals at the edge of the sea of moving bodies.
Dancing together in the center of the vast room, the Invited left a small area open, just large enough for one person. Watching, the Guppies looked expectant, the Sharks looked Hungry; and all the others, including Heart, just looked on, profoundly confused.
Behind the walls of his antiseptic glass, Oswald Four was dancing with himself, his mouth fixed into an insane grin as the refrain beat through his system. The moment ticked closer and closer. Oswald flopped back a metal cover revealing five round empty sockets, and into these he thrust the fingers of his left hand. He cried out –not as electricity surged into him, but as power flew out of him and into the sound system, flooding the Music with his own energies, changing it, warping it into something entirely different. All of the inherent artistry of Oswald Four was channeled directly into the sound, transforming it and evolving it to a point beyond description. Heart saw this and, on some level understood the process. He felt frightened and excited by it in equal proportions.
Oswald Four screamed in ecstasy as he and the Music became truly one.
Indigo’s heart was pounding against his ribs; his eyes blinked back sweat as he danced. All around him the world was going mad. Again. For the third time tonight, though in a different way. The growing excitement had all the dancers completely enthralled and they chanted the words of the song as their bodies throbbed like the cells of a huge heart. The true Music was woven together by the dance in a tapestry of unsurpassed beauty. Oswald stayed in command, elevating it level by level, building it all to the breaking point, screaming with the dancers, moving with them as if he was out there among them.
It was coming, coming….
Oswald Four still had his left hand plunged into the console and the other was poised above the controls. He lowered it with agonizing slowness, making the moment stretch, making it last. As the power built he felt the moment –the absolutely correct moment– tick closer.
He counted the seconds with his own heartbeat.
Two seconds more. The dancers were going completely insane. One second more. Everyone was screaming.
Then he hit it.
He spun a rheostat and flipped a row of switches and the whole of Unlovely’s was plunged instantly into a world of absolutely darkness and utter, immeasurable silence.
Heart gasped, staggered, his feet skidding to an awkward stop. His contorted body froze along with the thousands of others around him in the darkness, listening, waiting, afraid even to breathe for fear that he would spoil the moment. When he realized that the only sound in the universe was his own labored breathing, he gasped it back, locked it in, held it fast.
When silence —total, infinite silence– finally fell, there was a moment as empty as if they were all floating in the vacuum of space. Then….
Then, a voice spoke. It floated out of the darkness. Deep and warm and rich.
“Hello, my children,” it said. “I am returned.”
The lights exploded all around and Heart reeled. The dancers, all of them —
-Sharks, Guppies, Refugees, Runners and Invited alike– were smiling and weeping and crying out a name over and over again. All attention, every heart and mind and eye, was focused on the precise center of the dance floor.
Mister Sin held out his hands, arms wide.
The Invited flooded to him, embracing him, or if not him, then whoever was closest, part of the perfect union of One.
( 1 )
Keeping to the fringes of the press, Indigo Heart beheld Mister Sin.
Sin was an imposing figure: very tall, with a grand sweep of shoulders, long limbs, and a posture that was as powerful and graceful as a tiger’s. He wore a belted trenchcoat the color of twilight fog over dark tweed trousers that mingled various grays with charcoal and perhaps an elusive purple. His shoes were black and gleamed with polish. His gloves were the same dark gray as the snap-brimmed fedora he wore. Not a single inch of his skin was visible, and even his face was forever hidden behind a Noh mask of alabaster perfection. The mask was
emotionless by design, but angle and attitude, shadow and tilt of head all conspired to suggest the various moods of Mister Sin.
Heart felt his mouth go dry as he looked at the man, and in his brain fragments of dreams and fragments of memories tried to puzzle themselves together into the thought that Heart knew this man. But from where…?
Sin was at once terrifying and magnificent; his presence and his energy filled the room, owned it, and commanded it, just as he commanded the gathered thousands. They came to him eagerly, subject to his will and his vision. Heart sensed all of this without being able to actually know any of it; he could feel the pull of the man, but he fought it, drifting further back, stepping out of the glow of Mister Sin. Heart felt too soiled, too grubby to stain this new light with his own personal darkness, but from the far edge of the crowd he watched.
Many people hugged Mister Sin and kissed his porcelain face or his gloved hands. A few bowed to him, and he returned their bows with equal courtliness.
Heart watched as Kamala Jane came up to Sin and touched his Noh mask with one slender hand, stroking it as gently as if it was sensate flesh; and with even greater gentleness he returned her touch.
“Sweet lady,” he murmured.
“Welcome back,” she said, her eyes bright with tears. “Welcome back to us.”
They embraced and Heart felt a preposterous flush of jealousy –or, perhaps it was envy– as they clung to one another. He was not at all sure which of these two powerful and magnificent beings he would like to have embraced.
There were others who came to share closeness with Mister Sin, and Heart would have known they were all Invited even if he had not seen the red rings flashing fire from their hands. As they neared Sin their own life energies seemed to shine with a brighter, cleaner radiance. There were words and smiles, and the Invited paid tribute to the Master with praise and secrets, and he gave them love and kindness in return. Despite Sin’s accessibility, Heart could tell that this person was somehow far above everyone in this crowd, even the Invited, that he was a power beyond the scope of their power; and yet there was no hauteur in his demeanor. There was only a total confidence. It seemed to Heart that there was nothing in the whole room –or perhaps in all the Fire Zone– which did not in some way belong to Mister Sin. Not one person, not one object, not one heart.
Mister Sin turned toward the glass booth and touched a finger to the brim of his hat; Oswald Four inclined his head and reached down to do something to the controls. Immediately Music began filling the empty spaces around the gathered masses. With a gentle laugh, Sin chased the throng away, back to their friends, their lovers, back to the dance, back to their drinks and to their own sub-realities. A few dozen still surrounded him, though, and he shared his light and warmth with them. He spoke to them in a voice so soft that Heart could not overhear a single word, though he longed to hear it all.
Speaking softly over the Music, Oswald said: “We have a request –no, a command royal– for this little classic from the Merciless Machine Men. This is Suicide Blues, and this one’s for the Man himself!” The Music flared amid a scattering of knowing laughter and the whole chamber was drenched in the somber
tones of the new song. Sin nodded his appreciation of the selection and moved across the dance floor toward the bar. Some of the Invited dropped away, drifting back into the dance; but a handful accompanied Sin. Kamala was not among them, Heart observed glumly. She had been tapped for a dance by a tall Japanese man wearing white silk, and they danced close, laughing together at some comment the man had made.
As Sin approached the bar, one of the burly bouncers trotted up with a tall chair made from intricately carved dogwood. Sin settled into the chair’s soft red velvet cushion, and Heart slouched along, taking up a post within earshot.
Despite the excitement he was picking up from everyone in the room, Heart felt exhausted and he slumped his hip against the bar, wishing he could sit down, or better yet find an empty spot on the floor where he could curl up and sleep for a whole month. It had been a very, very long night.
Brutal John reached across the bar and shook hands with Sin. “It’s good to have you back, sir,” he said, his gruff voice softened to a mild growl. “What can I make for you?”
“Hmm. That’s an excellent question and I confess I haven’t given it the thought it deserves. Well…as I am not yet ascended to my Father,” he paused as a few people laughed, getting a joke meant for some, but not meant for Heart, who didn’t get it and didn’t laugh, “I had better stick with Earthly delights.”
“Quite right, sir,” agreed John. He had gotten the joke, but he never laughed at anything.
“Still, John, I have an ancient thirst, if you take my meaning.”
“I do indeed, sir.”
“Then I will defer to both your insight and your judgment.”
Brutal John sketched a mock bow and busied himself with bottles and fixings. He produced a tall pewter goblet that foamed and seemed to glow from some inner heat.
“One Nuclear Ghost,” announced the bartender, delivering it with a flourish. Mister Sin raised it to the lips of his mask and drank, but try as he could,
Heart was unable to tell how he managed it. The only visible openings of the mask were the eyeholes, yet when the Master set down the goblet the level was definitely lower. He dabbed at the corners of the sculpted lips with a napkin. “When this is finished, John, I believe I’ll have another. Perhaps many others.”
“Of course, sir.” “Thank you, John.” “Thank you, sir.”
They beamed at each other for a moment and Heart would have sworn that Brutal John was blushing, but the big bartender turned away and Heart ascribed so fantastic an event to a trick of the lights.
Sin turned. “Jellicho!” he cried as if the Candyman had not been by his side since he had sat down. “How is business?”
“Sweet as honey, Boss.”
“How delightful. I’ll be needing your services later this evening.” “What’s your pleasure?”
“Mm, say absinthe in champagne? A moderate to good vintage, nothing too flashy. For a friend. And I’ll want it delivered.”
“Piece o’cake. I have Sweetmeat working as my runner these days.” “Is he apprenticing?”
“More or less. Kid knows his chemistry, have to give him that.” “You’re sponsoring him, is that it?”
Jellicho shrugged. “I’d like to see the kid get an Invitation, that’s true, but I’m not sure I want to take full responsibility, though. I’ll have to think about it.” “Perhaps we can talk about it tomorrow night.” Sin sipped his drink. “By
the way, I encountered your own mentor on the way here.” “My—?”
“The very good Doctor Velocity.”
Jellicho straightened and brightened. “What? He’s back, too?” “Indeed. He was heading over to Torquemada’s when I accosted him.” “Oh,” Jellicho said, deflating visibly.
Sin gave him arm a reassuring pat. “Still, I doubt he’ll linger too long with the Bishop. Even Velocity has his limits. In fact, I would be quite surprised if you could not find him at the Crippled Dwarf within the half hour.”
“Fantastic! Boss, there have been some wild things happening lately and I really need to run them by him, you know?”
“Indeed I do. I did mentioned something to him…” Sin let his words trail off but allowed the private meaning to hang in the air.
Jellicho looked at Sin for a moment, mouth opening to say something, and then he grinned. “Right.” He rose from his chair and stood for a moment snapping his fingers and fidgeting, face screwed-up in thought; then he said: “Look, Boss, I’ll send Sweetmeat over with the bottle in, say, an hour? Right now I gotta buzz.
Gotta find the Doc.”
“I’d really like to stay, but—.”
“I understand,” Sin said again, giving Jellicho a tolerant laugh. “Go. Go and learn something useful.”
“You the Man!” “So they tell me.”
Jellicho spun away and was gone into the crowd, leaving his stool vacant. Heart almost took a step toward it, but another person –a woman of about sixty dressed in gray gossamer– alit upon it like a damselfly coming to rest on a marsh flower. Heart stood by and watched and listened as Sin spoke with her, and then with another who came and took her place, and another, and another: addressing their concerns and speaking with such familiarity that the gist of each conversation was totally lost on Heart. Sin spoke with a strange-looking little man with a huge walrus mustache about something called ‘Brain Recycling’; he spoke with a spidery fellow with sallow skin about the impending opening of the Library of Alexandria; he spoke with a musician who was seeking Sin’s patronage for a new style of music called Musica Morbifica, but Sin declined the proposal, suggesting he seek out the
Bishop instead; he spoke with a hulking brute of a man named Centerlok about someone called the Traveler, a mutual friend who was apparently on his way back to town for some important event (Heart thought Centerlok cast a significant glance in his direction). Sin spoke with a fellow named Long Wilson about time travel, but Heart couldn’t hear enough of the conversation to catch any details. Sin spoke and spoke. And spoke.
Sin, like the Bishop, used a flowery and somewhat courtly way of speaking, and Heart wondered if it was the result of great breeding or some kind of affectation.
An hour passed and true to his word, Jellicho’s runner, a strange mulatto named Sweetmeat arrived with a lovely bottle of champagne. Sin wrote a name and address on a cocktail napkin and the young man smiled, bowed and whisked away with the bottle.
As he eavesdropped, Heart became more and more aware of his own exhaustion; the night had gone on too long and too much of it had demanded that he tap his reserves of stamina. His energy account was seriously overdrawn.
Sin finished a brief conversation with a young woman dressed like a runway model in one of those outfits that hovers on the dangerous edge between high style and comedy, and as she got up and left, Heart impulsively shoved his way through the press and won the fight for the stool, sinking down gratefully onto it.
Mister Sin was taking a tentative sip from a fresh drink, and unseen by Heart, Brutal John gave a slight sideways jerk of his head.
“Why not join me in a glass?” Sin said, turning to face Heart.
“I…” Heart began, but his sentence faded away immediately as he made eye contact with Mister Sin. The impact of the Master’s stare was as powerful as a fist in the face, and Heart actually shifted backward in his chair. Sin had the same exotic silvery eyes as the Bishop, but Sin’s were older, deeper, and they exuded a palpable heat. The Master’s eyes were pure orbs of silver, without visible iris or pupil: unnatural, alien eyes that frightened Heart without actually repelling him. Heart wondered why someone would wear contact lenses that were so dense and opaque –and a moment later wondered if they were contacts at all. There was nowhere to go with that line of thought except into dangerous territory, so he focused on manufacturing an affable smile.
“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll have a bourbon.”
“A new face,” Sin said after the bartender had poured the whiskey, this time without attitude. “A name…?”
Pausing for only a fraction of a second, Heart set down his drink and said, “Indigo Heart.”
“So! I’ve already heard of you.”
“Mm, so has everyone else in this damn place,” Heart said, trying not to slur his words. “Word gets around pretty quick.”
“It has been known to.” Sin appeared to be studying him; he said, “Tell me, Mr. Heart, why are you here?”
“At Unlovely’s?” “Please….”
“Oh. Tell you the truth, I’m not really sure.” Heart sipped more bourbon and sucked an ice cube into his mouth, crunching it thoughtfully. “I don’t think I really intended to come here.”
“I don’t know. It’s weird, but I feel like I should be here, if that makes any
kind of sense.”
“It makes sense, Mr. Heart.”
Heart snorted. “Then you must know something I don’t know.”
A few of the folk gathered around them laughed. “There’s that small chance,” Sin said dryly.
“Well, would you like to share some of that knowledge with me, or are you going to give me the same kind of dodgy crap I’ve been getting from everyone else all night.”
“How do you mean?”
“Oh, come on, you have to know how everyone acts –like they’re all part of some mysterious private club or secret society, and just about everything anyone says is exclusionary.”
“Mm, yes, it might seem that way. Allow me to extend an apology on behalf of my friends here in the Fire Zone, Mr. Heart. I’m sure no one intended to confuse you.”
“Not how it seems.”
“Nevertheless. Let me assure you that the Fire Zone is not a club of any
kind, and though every person has some secrets they choose only to share with select others, there is nothing specifically secret about our society. Anyone who is capable of reaching the Zone may do so, and anyone may opt to stay if it is appropriate to his or her needs. Our society is, if anything, totally open, devoid of all secrets. It is free, if you will, on a level most persons like yourself have never before encountered. You are at odds with it because you are unused to it.”
“So I’ve been told.”
“If you assume that we are intending to exclude you, then I have to tell you that you are quite wrong.”
“Indeed. If we had wanted to exclude you, you would never have reached the Zone at all.”
“Nobody knew I was even coming,” Heart countered, “so how could it be prevented?”
Sin’s silvery eyes twinkled with amusement. “Well…there’s a long answer to that and a short answer. Which would you prefer?”
“Which one will answer the question?” “Both. More or less.”
“Which will make the most sense to me?”
Sin considered. “Neither, I’m afraid. At least not yet. You haven’t been here in the Zone long enough to have acquired the right points of reference, or perhaps to have developed an appropriate lexicon to fully appreciate the answer to your own question.”
“So people keep telling me. Is that supposed to be a dig?”
“Not at all. It is a simple point of fact. Consider: if you suddenly found yourself in mainland China and somebody was willing to offer an explanation to you on a point of regional politics that was rooted in local folklore, and the explanation was in Mandarin, tell me: how much of the explanation would you understand?”
“Okay, okay, I get the point.” Heart thought about it, frowning, and Sin waited patiently. “Let’s have the short answer, then. I’ll flesh it out later.”
“Very well. The short answer is this: your coming here tonight was foreseen.
Something that is foreseen can often be prevented.” “‘Foreseen’?” Heart echoed softly.
“Just as something foreseen can be actualized.”
Heart said, “How the hell could anyone know I was coming here tonight when I didn’t know it myself?”
For answer, Mister Sin just shrugged his big shoulders. “Oh, come on—!”
“That would be part of the long answer, and that would take us all night.” “I’ve got all night.”
“Ah, but I do not. I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep,” he said with a wink.
Heart licked his lips. “Look, I’m just trying to get my bearings. I’ve had a pretty bad night and I don’t really know what’s happening to me.” He gave Sin a shaky laugh. “I’m not entirely sure all of this is real.”
“Most of it is,” Sin said simply, “some of it isn’t. Life is often like that.” “It’s just that I want…I mean, what I need is…” He couldn’t construct the right sentence.
“Ah, I see your dilemma. Let me ask you a question, Mr. Heart, perhaps that will help. Tell me: what would you like to find here?”
“Yes. What are you looking for?”
“I’m not really looking for anything. It’s just that things went really bad tonight and—.”
All Heart could do was shake his head.
The Music had changed several times since Sin’s arrival. The current piece was vaguely Mediterranean with a lot of Spanish guitar but with some Moroccan undertones in the accompanying percussion. Heart finished his drink and ordered another; he was drunk and wanted to get a lot drunker. Sin toyed with his drink, considering, then glanced back at Heart. “Very well, Mr. Heart,” he said at length, “let’s stop tap-dancing and take a look at it, shall we?”
“At what brought you to the Fire Zone.”
Heart hesitated for a long moment and then gave a reluctant nod. “You just got here, correct?”
“Earlier tonight, yeah.”
“I can assume that what you are running from is so bad that the act of running was a complete necessity?”
“Oh, yeah,” Heart said hollowly. In his mind the images flashed: Terry
falling backward, broken and dying. The catcalls of the crowd, the screams of the
dancer. Lefty’s voice yelling something he couldn’t understand. Sirens in the night.
He forced his mind to clear and studied the smooth lines of Sin’s Noh mask. “May I assume,” Sin continued smoothly, “that there have been other incidents in your life which had contributed to your decision to flee tonight.” “If ‘flee’ is the right word.”
“Is there one you’d prefer?”
“No,” Heart said after some reflection, “no, I guess maybe that’s the right word after all.”
“Has your arrival in the Fire Zone been –oh, what word am I searching for?— um, ‘interesting’?”
“Well, it sure hasn’t been boring, I can say that much.”
“The Zone can be quite an adventure,” Sin admitted. Behind him, the hulking man, Centerlok, cleared his throat and made it sound like a laugh.
“Even so,” continued Sin, “you’ve managed to keep on your feet. Surely that’s something.”
“It shouldn’t be. You’ve faced a lot tonight, and you’ve managed to come through it with most of a whole skin, a bit of pride, a shred or two of dignity, and even a touch of humor.”
“Whoa, lucky me.”
“Yes,” Sin said, “lucky you.”
Heart felt that Sin had made some kind of point and it had gone whistling over his head. He emptied his glass and signaled to Brutal John for another, who filled it only after Sin gave him a nod. Once he had the fresh drink –he’d lost count of how many this made– Heart cocked at eye at Sin. “You seem to know a lot about me.”
Sin spread his hands in a noncommittal gesture.
“So did Kamala Jane. So did the Bishop. So did that caretaker guy, Caster Bootey. So did pretty much everyone I’ve met tonight, for that matter.” He took a large gulp of his bourbon, hissing at the burn. “Want to explain to me how come that is? You guys all get an email or something?”
“We have an excellent grapevine.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah….”
“And let’s face it, you aren’t particularly hard to read.” “Oh, really?”
“And what, may I ask,” Heart said in his iciest voice, “do you read?”
The Master turned in his chair and regarded Heart for a long time before answering. His silver eyes were piercing, indifferent to the machineries of Heart’s defenses. “Mr. Heart, do you really want to hear all of this now?”
“Sure I do.”
Sin considered for a few seconds, and then shook his head slowly. “No,” he said. “No. Not tonight. If we talk about this now, you’ll try to dissemble and deflect and dodge, and neither of us has the time for that.”
“Hey, now wait a minute….”
“No, Mr. Heart. No more for tonight. Perhaps we’ll talk tomorrow.” “But I’m not finished!”
Sin gave him a slow up and down appraisal. “Look at yourself. You can barely stand. You’re drunk and you’re exhausted. It’s time for you to sleep, because quite simply you are not ready for the work that would be required to get your answers; and I am not willing to spend any more of this evening on you.”
“Now just hold on a minute there, pal,” Heart snapped as he rose to his feet.
The room did a little jig and he caught the edge of the bar for support. “As I said, Mr. Heart. You’re not ready for this tonight.”
“It’s not fair!” he snapped.
“Perhaps not,” Sin said without heat but with finality, “but it is correct.”
Heart took a step toward Mister Sin, aware that this was a supremely bad move but he was too involved in the obligations of the dramatic moment to listen to his better sense. He poked Sin in the chest. It was like poking a brick wall. “I’ll decide when I’m ready to pack it in, and right now I’m not ready.”
Sin looked past Heart. “Centerlok? Would you please catch Mr. Heart?” “Sure thing” said a voice behind Heart.
To Sin, Heart said: “Catch me? What the fu—?”
“Shhh,” Sin said and passed a gloved hand in front of Heart’s face.
( 2 )
The very next thing Heart was aware of was the slant of bright morning sunlight through frilly curtains, beams of cheery yellow falling across the sheets that covered him.
He sat up. In bed.
“God damn it!” he said aloud.
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