Without – Excerpt 3

February 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

In the tall grass, a tall man sweated and cursed at the Zetar tractor he’d bought for very cheap off of his neighbor the year before. He was rapidly learning why the Czech-built tractor had been so cheap. As if the mayonnaise jar screwed into the side of the thing hadn’t been clue enough.

“How can you have metric and imperial bolts? Does the Czech Republic hate consistency? Did I do something to annoy the gods of fasteners? Fucking come off the damn thing already!” Enraged, his short close-cropped blond hair streaked with grease from his repeated stroking of his forehead with his right hand, he bashed the side of the orange cowling and stood up. “I swear to god, Ernie, next time I see you I’m going to shoot you in the fucking head execution style and bury you in quicklime.”

“Sounds awfully merciful of you if he actually took money from you for this piece of shit.”

Dah!” Jumping forward, the blond tried to turn around and ended up smacking his hip against the side of the tractor, almost falling over before he caught himself. Standing less than four feet away from him was a man he’d not seen in several years, although the leather jacket and height (almost as tall as himself) tipped him off, as did the sensation of that deep voice so close to his ears. “Jesus fuck, don’t do that!”

“Sorry, Bishop.” Grinning, the green hair swirling down to half-hide his face (green hair?) the surprise visitor held out a hand to help lift him off of the tractor. “I couldn’t miss the chance to freak you out.”

“Yes, what would life be if… “Bishop’s blue eyes hardened as he fought for the word that wouldn’t appear in his head, tried to jar his mouth into forming it by habit. Nothing came for a long moment. “I still can’t get used to that. I knew you for years. Goddamn it, I should remember the name of a guy whose hair I held out of that many toilets.”

“It’s not your fault, man.”

“No, it’s yours. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t irk me.” Scowling but feeling his heartbeat slowing back down, the blond man placed the wrench down on top of the tractor and leaned back against the big front tires. “Been what, four years?”

“Five, I think. Since I left Evvie. Seen her lately? How is she?”

“More or less okay. She was pretty messed up at the time… easy to understand how she’d be worried when she stopped being able to tell people the name of the guy she’d spent a year dating. I think she thought she was losing it.” Bishop looked over at the man in a black leather jacket who almost seemed to have stepped out of an evening years past. “It didn’t help that no one else could fill in the gap for her, not even me.”

“Wow, you’re good. You should be giving mom lessons. You could out-guilt a whole room of old grandmas.” His tone was light, teasing, and Bishop’s hand itched to pick up the wrench again.

“I don’t recall inviting you, man. You don’t like my manners, you can take off.”

“Yeah, well, obviously I’m here because I need something, and I don’t want to take the chance of going back to my place until I know I’m not being followed.”

“This is bad shit, I assume?”

“Yeah, you could say that… I was at that gas station near Independence Park down on Hope Street in Bristol, and two… I think I should know what they were but I’m not coming up with it… things came in and shot the place up. They seemed surprised to see me, but like they were looking for me at the same time.” An errant mass of green hair dropped down into his face and was pushed back up in that intensely familiar way that gave Bishop a shock of something like vertigo and nostalgia at once.  “I knew they were wrong before I even saw them. It was like they were a boom box playing twelve-tone or something, just pure dissonance with everything.”

Bishop cradled his jaw in his grease-stained hand. His eyes darkened to the color of a thunderhead creeping across a summer sky as he thought about it.

“Did you get any of them?” Out of a pocket a bag with a lumpy mass of brown and black matter, like oatmeal in oil, came into view. “Huh.”

“What do you think?”

“I’d need to look it over.” He turned to regard the tractor in the tall grass, barely stirring around them. “Shit, might as well. I’m not getting this thing fixed any time soon, I don’t think. Let’s go in the house.”

Smiling again, the green haired stranger who’d been a best friend not very long ago at all reached down and grabbed Bishop’s toolbox.

“Don’t go getting cocky. I’m not doing it to help you out, I’m just curious.”

“Column A, column B, I’m not picky.” They walked down the hill towards the green house that had been Bishop’s father’s home before it became his. “This place looks taken care of. You doing okay out here?”

“I’m doing. That’s enough, I guess. You look good for no one.” Bishop turned his head slightly to the left to look at him, slightly shorter and a bit wider in the shoulder, hair even longer than it had been when they’d been drunks and wannabe bohemians at large, taking classes at Blackstone and imagining a future where they aged into decadence and decay in the best American tradition, ignored by their peers. “Being nameless agrees with you?”

“It’s not something I have a lot of choice about.” The slash of sharklike grin across his face straightened up. “It’s weird. I get asked what my name is all the time, and I can’t say anything. I can’t even make one up. It’s like when you meet someone you used to know, and you know you knew them but damn if there’s nothing there… except it’s me and I know who I am just fine, except for that. I don’t remember it any better than you do.”

“Jesus. That sounds like having hornets trapped in my pants heading up my left for my crotch.”

“A little less than that.” Bishop went in first, opening the heavily oiled screen door and holding it so that his guest could walk in ahead of him. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Nameless. Sit your ass down at the table while I dig up my old books, the ones you probably have at your place if you weren’t too chickenshit to go back there.” He waved a hand in the general direction of the kitchen. “I’m going to take a quick shower, so help yourself to a beer or two. Note that I said ‘or two’ and not ‘as many as you like’ just so that’s clear.”

“Wow, drink a couple of cases of beer on a guy and you’re branded for life.”

“I don’t forget shit if left to my own devices.” Bishop stomped up the stairs to the bathroom, leaving his nameless friend standing alone in the kitchen. The old tile floor was gone, as was the old gas stove… a nice new range sat like a polished onyx altar with recessed electric burners underneath a smooth black glossy top, and the floor was black, too, almost like glass under his feet. He didn’t doubt that Bishop had done the work himself. Of the two of them, Bishop had always been the one who liked working with his hands.

Pulling a beer (crap, it’s Becks) out of the refridgerator, he studiously avoided catching his eyes reflected in the black surface of the door. New stove, new floor, new icebox… they ruined the illusion for him, made it painfully apparent that yes, he had been away from the place for more than a few days, that this wasn’t the morning after a night spent at bars in Providence looking for a fight, or a fuck, or even just a game of pool and some music.

He drank the beer and stared at the weird old wallpaper that had been in the house as long as he’d been visiting it, cherubs flying across a faded pink sky, some with bows, some blowing on long horns, while below them chariots charged at each other across a faded battleground the color of chewed cinnamon gum. He had no idea who was fighting, which side the cherubs were on, or even what colors it had been before it faded away off of the wall… draining his beer, he wondered why the hell Bishop had spent the money on a new floor and new appliances, and left this bizarre scene to peel and fade off of the walls.

Well, it’s not like anyone ever asks you to decorate houses either, asshole. Maybe he remembers the way it used to be fondly or something.

“Isn’t that shit awful?” Rubbing his short blond hair with a towel, Bishop walked around the corner into the room wearing jeans and a t-shirt, looking just as subtly different from how he was expected to as did the room itself.

“What, this crap you call beer?”

“I like Becks. Least it isn’t Fosters… “

“Oh hell, don’t even. I hate that even worse, now. Australian for piss.”

“Anyway, no, I meant the wallpaper. I keep meaning to take it down, but I never seem to get to it. Always something more important to do comes up.” Shrugging, he tossed the towel over onto the chair nearest the wall and sat down at the table himself. “Show me that sludge again.”

The nameless reached into his pocket and tossed it down casually. Bishop lifted the bag in freshly scrubbed hands, still slightly pink from the heat of the shower, and tilted the plastic back and forth.

“I think this is mandrake root. Yeah. Mandrake root, horseshit, some dandelion maybe… I don’t even need to look this up, I know what this is all right. You should too.”

“Thanks. Now, since I don’t know, exactly, why not break it down for me without making me feel even stupider than I do?”

“Think about it.” Bishop put the bag down. “Mandrake, horseshit, various and sundry spagyric chemicals. You done pissed off someone who knows some juju, man, because you got jumped by homunculi.”

“Homunculi? Don’t those take like forty weeks to grow? Who the hell did I piss off last year? I guess the question could be narrowed down a bit.” Pushing his green hair back out of his face again, he sipped at his beer and looked at the bag. “You don’t suppose someone’s growing so many of these fucking things that they can afford to just use them as menial grunts, do you?”

“Shit, I sure as hell wouldn’t trust them for delicate work.” Bishop stood up and walked over to the refrigerator. “You want another one?”

“I want another ten, but I’ll settle for one more.” Finishing off his current bottle, he took the colder one in a hand still a bit frostburned around the palm. “This is really weird, even for me. Who the hell sends homunculi to kill people anymore?”

“It is kind of old fashioned.” Bishop sat across the table, looking at the bag. “Are you sure they were after you?”

“Well, they shot up the place pretty effectively as soon as they noticed me. I suppose it’s just possible they were there to shoot up the place and I got in the way, but that would imply that they were either there to rob a gas station… “

“Yeah, I have a hard time imagining anyone thinking it worth the time to spend a year making these damn things to knock over an Exxon.” Bishop snorted, drank most of his beer in a few convulsive swallows. “You could probably just go around curing people’s STD’s if you had that kind of command of Paracelsus’ work.”

“Or they were there to kill someone else and I just spooked them.”

“I’d sooner believe they were there to heist the Exxon than I would believe that you spooked mindless automata made of roots, horse apples and semen.”

“Point. So it comes back to the idea that they were there to kill me… which means either they were tracking me, or someone knew I would be at a gas station I had no idea I was going to be at until it happened.” He looked at the glass, at the skin of his hand through the glass. “Since I’m paranoid enough, I think I would have noticed if they were following me, especially the way they just howled I’m a horrible mockery of all that’s good, look out before they even got near me. So someone knew I’d be there.”

“Makes sense. You going to take that with you?”

“What, this crap?” He smiled as he realized how literally that could be taken. “Hadn’t thought about it. Why? You looking to make yourself some help?”

“Not really, but I would like to look it over. The doctrine of signatures implies that the invisible impressions left on this stuff could teach me a lot about who made it… if you’re thinking about going looking for him or her, you might want to know all you can.” Bishop looked up from the bag. “Plus, I’m just damn well dying to know how this fucker got it to work.”

“I wondered why you’d help me out of the goodness of your heart. Yeah, sure, play with it if you want. I’m going to try a more direct way.” Standing up, the nameless man finished his second beer in a long swallow and put the bottle down. “Take it easy, Bishop.”

“You too, man. Hey, you need a ride home?”

“Walking suits me fine.” The floor reflected his boots back up at him, and for a moment he imagined that in some other world, he was actually walking on himself, a copy of him who was also walking on him. “Clears the head and gives me the time to think. Besides, you’ve got your shit to play with.”

“Jesus, you’re still about as funny as a kick in the nuts.”

“Yeah, I know.” He stopped in the doorway. “I’ll give you a call and we’ll meet up tomorrow. I have a friend I need to ask about this shit anyway, you should come along, since you’re so interested.”

“I suppose it wouldn’t make any sense to play dumb now. Fine, call me. I’m surprised you even have a phone.”

“I don’t have one. But I’m pretty sure I still remember how they work.”

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