Without – Excerpt 6
March 24, 2011 § Leave a comment
“I still don’t understand why we had to meet here.”
“Because I hate this fucking place.” Nameless waved his hand, indicating the hideously bright yellow and red décor, the statue of a brightly clad clown engaged in solemn discourse with sentient lumps of fried chicken, a gaudy mauve bell-shaped thing at the clown’s side, and the desperate looking people behind the counter.
“Okay, yeah, everyone hates this place. Why, therefore, are we here?” Bishop looked around at the booths surrounding them. Most were empty, except for one near the door to the parking lot jammed with several high school kids in letter jackets. There was a frazzled looking woman with four remarkably loud children attempting to maintain order by the ruthless rationing of French fries. And there were the two of them, each taking up a side of their booth, Bishop sipping at a watered down soda out of habit. “I mean, we could have met up at several other places, or I could have picked you up at your hypothetical-to-me apartment.”
“Well, so far, I’ve gone out in public twice in the past two days, and each time I’ve been attacked. The way I see it, if I get attacked here, I’m at least contributing to the shutdown of something I hate.” He put a fry in his mouth, chewed it and regretted it. “Look around you. Look at the way they lay the places out, at the scuffed floor where armies of shoes have taken and retaken the ground. This place is a psychic quagmire. You are armed, right?”
“Yeah.” Bishop looked around nervously. “I have a tire iron in my jacket. I’m kind of hoping I don’t end up having to use it. So, you said they were different when they attacked you the second time?”
“It was like I was under attack by Madame Tussaud’s Island of Doctor Moreau collection.” His hands dithered with fries he wasn’t happy eating. “They smelled worse, and they weren’t very solid. It was like they were wet sacks of fat.”
“Without a sample to check out and without seeing them, all I can figure is that whoever’s trying to kill you had to cut some corners. Maybe used animal fat in the process. Which might be good news for you, if he or she is feeling the pressure enough to hurry things.” Bishop sipped and grimaced at the taste. “This is the flattest, most watered down piss I’ve ever had the misfortune to order. I remember when this place used to have good soda.”
“Don’t eat the fries, then. They suck, too.”
“Then I’m delighted you invited me to tag along.” Thea sat down next to Bishop, carrying a tray with a look of bemused disdain. “What’s their new slogan again… ‘I’m tolerating it’ or some such?”
“I think it’s more positive than that, but something along those lines.” Bishop’s voice dropped an octave, becoming deep enough to vibrate the seat, and Nameless nearly laughed out loud. He’d seen Thea have that effect on other men. He’d been one of those men. Still, there was something particularly amusing about seeing a friend get turned on. It would have been more amusing if Thea wasn’t lapping it up like a basket full of kittens under a cow’s udder. “What’d you get?”
“The all-new lumps of chicken deep fried in a coating of indeterminate origin. Why must they deep fry everything?” She arched an eyebrow and pursed her lips, and he nodded to himself. Yep, they’re going to fuck. Hell, I’m surprised they’re not fucking now.
“Not to interrupt your meet cute, but one of the people at this table has a problem… and oh, yeah, I think it’s me.”
“Everyone in this restaurant has a problem, namely being in it.” Thea snorted at him, her penny-red hair tied back in a braid that swung in a circle when she turned her head to look at him. “But I suppose we can talk more about you if we have to.”
“Seriously, how the hell are they finding me? If they know where I live, why wouldn’t they just attack me there?”
“Your apartment? I doubt anyone can find it, at least not through exotic means.” She popped the lid off of her drink and sipped from it directly. “Hell, if I didn’t know where you lived, I probably couldn’t find it. I’ll give you credit for that. No, they probably don’t know where you live.”
“Then what’s going on? I’m not exactly easy to read… I should be almost invisible, especially when I’m not doing anything to draw on anyone.”
“Maybe that’s your problem.” Bishop had warily opened his hamburger and was looking inside it. “Is that supposed to be a pickle?”
Thea looked, her nose crinkling.
“Ewww. That’s awful. Those horrid little white things look like bugs.”
“Yeah, I don’t think I can eat this.” He closed the burger and straightened up. “Look, if we use the principle of signatures as a metaphor, everything is stamped with the essence of what it is, right? The true nature of anything is obvious within and without.”
“Okay. I’m with you so far.” He stopped playing with his French fries, which were totally unappealing lumps of cold potato by this point. “Projected inwardness.”
“As above, so below to quote the ever-quotable Hermes. If you think about it, astronomy has a good example of what I’m talking about.” Bishop leaned back, locking his hands together and working his thumbs in an infuriatingly familiar display. Nameless choked back an expletive and waited, knowing how the gears in that brain worked.
“Wait.” Thea spoke up, her eyes catching Bishops, and for a long second Nameless feared they were going to forget he was there. “You mean the way they find planets around distant stars?”
“Give the woman a prize.” Bishop’s smile was so broad Nameless half-feared his head was going to zipper open. “Not exactly the same, but like it. Since the planets themselves don’t give off light, you can only notice them by fluctuations in the light that reaches us from the star. The same with you, man. If someone can’t scry on you, for instance, because you don’t put anything out there… they can scry around the area they know you frequent, and see you when you go out in public. You’re the dark spot.”
“Well, shit.” He leaned back hard against the cushion of the booth, forcing out air in a hissing sigh. “Fucking God-damn that never occurred to me.”
“It’s a theory, anyway. I could be totally full of shit.” Bishop grinned and stood up. “I’m probably right, though. Gonna get another watered-down coke. Either of you want anything?”
“I’m fine.” Thea looked up at him and Nameless had to suppress another snort. If I had a hose I’d turn it on you two.
“What about you?”
“I’ll take a root beer.” As Bishop nodded and stalked over to the counter, Nameless turned his shaggy green head to Thea, who was watching him walk away. “Okay, did you two know each other before today and I missed it?”
“What? No. No, we’ve never met… which I believe is your fault, since you’ve known me for years now and him even longer.”
“In my defense, back when we first met I was the one you looked at like a bottle of Jim Beam at an AA meeting.”
“Are you jealous?” Her huge green eyes surprised him again at how similar to his own they were. It had been what first caught his eye back when they’d met, the similar line of their jaws, the eyes, the hair. Possibly a touch of narcissism in there, huh?
“A little, but don’t sweat it. He’s a good guy, you couldn’t find better. Present company included.” He looked around the room at the pack of teenagers near the door, which had swelled to absorb another booth and which was noisily engaged in its own rituals, most of which seemed to involve showing mouthfuls of chewed food to each other, giggling, and either groping or attempting to grope. The bedraggled mother from before had taken her brood and left, but two new clusters of women and children were working the same basic pattern. Out the large window Metacom Ave was alive with vehicles, barely more than a few seconds between cars or trucks passing. He felt the weight of his jacket on his back, and a trickle of cold sweat making itself felt on his back.
“I do think I like him.” She smiled. “I’m not sure if anything will happen, though. He’s a bit different than the guys I usually date.”
“You usually date wankers, that’s why.” He smiled then, glad to be able to tease her. “Like that guy who wanted you to go out in the desert with him and help him recreate the Babylon working… the one who carried that biography of the rocket scientist around? Jesus. Or the one who wanted you to call him Osiris in bed?”
“I had a very good reason for dating him.”
“He was good looking, performed well in bed, and didn’t take up a lot of my time. Most men are like puppies, they want constant reassurance. Stuart was very sure of himself. Eventually, too sure of himself.” She smirked, sipped at the plastic cup. “Besides, I may date a lot of losers, but that’s part of the process. You only avoid it by not dating anyone at all.”
“Yeah, it works perfectly.”
“I’m sure you make your socks very happy.”
“If by happy you mean repeatedly laundered.” He leered at her. “You know, I should start saving up. I could make my own homunculi. Kind of a semen arms race.”
“God, you’re disgusting.” She smacked him in the arm.
“Jesus, are you talking about jerking off? Man, there’s a woman present.”
“Well, to be fair to me, you did just get back from the counter, ma’am. Where’s my root beer?”
“You’re lucky you don’t end up wearing it.” Bishop handed him the cup, then sat back down. “Okay, now that we’ve dealt with the minor issue of your fecal assassins and how they keep finding you, I need some important information. The two of you seeing each other?”
Thea’s eyebrow quirked up. Nameless laughed.
“You’re very direct.”
“Someone has to be, and since Captain Obfuscation here wouldn’t know directness if it clamped metal teeth into his ass while singing ‘Tell me what I want to know already, you jackass’ and lighting off roman candles, the task falls to me.” He looked at his hands and then back up. “I know I just met you, but I’d like to ask you out on a real date, preferably somewhere that doesn’t feature the magical exploits of a depressing clown as a theme.”
“No, we’re not dating.” She smiled. “In fact, he was just telling me what a good person you are and that I should go out with you.”
“Well, I more phrased it in the form that you’re less of a limp asshole than her usual boyfriends, but along those lines anyway.”
“And to think I doubted you.” Bishop grinned, sitting back in his seat. “So, what are you going to do now?”
“What I really don’t want to.” He pushed his lank green hair back out of his face and sighed. “I have to turn things over to a higher power.”
The building was dark, and full of trash, and smelled… no, it reeked, reeked of salt and tide. Salt water. She crunched her nose up at the brine scent, muttered to herself as her fingers worked the needle and thread. So hard to understand where she’d gone wrong. She’d found the perfect place, empty, abandoned, built over a harbor. She’d harvested carefully from the derelict ones who’d made the place their home before she arrived, used the materials she’d been granted. She’d consulted the cards, viewing them through the carefully folded skin she kept safe in the locket by her neck.
The hanged man had led her to her home. The knight of cups, the one she sought, was hidden beneath the moon, a lie she could not pierce. And when she sought to find what blocked her path, the universe upended, the synthesis came from the knight of swords, the chosen of Chokmah, prince of motion.
She did not know him, and yet she did. Could not find him, but he stood out, the fire of air. She could find him among others. Yet her first servants died, for all that they were nearly perfect, the apogee of waiting.
She wiped her slick fingers on her long grey dress, her pallid skin clammy to the touch, and resumed sewing. She knew many secrets. She had begun learning a very long time ago, in a place of remorselessness, where the body had been taken apart and put back together in ways most would never have considered. She witnessed, and assisted, and learned. She learned much. When it was over, and she was free, they told her she was a victim. The intense eyes of the doctor in green, asking her to help him save lives. She knew it was not lives he sought, not by half, his eyes like a deep void, an abyss of water over a dark channel. She gave him the clues he needed to learn, knowing it would serve her purposes.
She had long before that resolved never to be a victim of anything, no matter what it took. Dasallia had been her name once, before she left Poland forever behind, to walk across the alien land left in the wake of the landscape painter from Austria and the wrath fallen from the sky. Across beaten Germany, picking in the ruins for any scrap of knowledge. Into defiant Paris, where bookstores had survived and a young woman could eke out a small living among them, learning. She made her way in time to London, itself having tasted the man-made fire from above, and pieced together more fragments.
She stepped back from the table and ran a finger along the chest of the body, where the stitches joined flesh to flesh, tracing a symbol like an m with a pointed tail. She imagined Tiphareth descending to Netzach, and the flesh quivered, flushing as it quickened.
Her resources were limited, and she hadn’t time to craft any more. She had little choice but to piece together the dregs she had to hand. As it sucked in a wheezing breath through both heads, she smiled, the long dark streaks on her hands and face and the stains down her dress attracting the occasional fly.
She could not waste any more time trying to strike down the one who moved. It was time to find the moon. She had gambled on removing her obstacle and had failed. Now it was time to move around it.
Before her mistake, the children of her mistake, found her.
First he taped up the grip of the cricket bat with electrical tape. His ribs and shoulder still ached from the bite, even closed over, and he wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. If he had to drop a mantle, he was at least going to have a club to hand. The bat was from an older time, one of the things his grandfather had left behind, heavy yet with a good spring to the wood. It would serve. He swung it a time or two, feeling the weight of it, the way it pulled in his grip.
Then he placed it down on the couch and picked up the jacket. Gouges and tears and scratches and symbols, each a reminder. He didn’t know how many more reminders it could take before it fell apart. His eye caught for a moment on a Cyclops in a Hawaiian shirt on the back, wearing a red and white top hat and holding a sign with the legend Welcome to Arimaspia printed on it. He didn’t remember when he’d put that on there.
It slid over his shoulders as easily as ever. It became more comfortable with time, even as it slowly fell apart.
He stood there for a few seconds, remembering finding it years before in a box of his parent’s effects… funny how they call the things you leave behind effects, as if life consisted of props you used to present the impression that you were there… and the hallucinatory fugue that had prompted him to drive spikes through the shoulder, to paint marks on the arms and back and lapels, to affix pins and decals. To basically ruin the damn thing, objectively.
It didn’t seem ruined to him.
Dropping to his knees, he opened the box on the floor and took out the leather cords, and began tying them. Four knots per cord, eighteen cords in all. As he tied them he muttered to himself, his voice hoarse.
“Prepare to meet your God. This is the Explicit Name, for which permission was given that it be permuted and spoken.” He breathed in, twisting his head to the side sharply, eyes closed as he tied the knots without looking. “And the Angel of the Elohim went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud went from before them and stood behind them.”
The walls began to tremble. The bookshelves crammed in along every available space swayed in still air.
“And it came before the camp of the Egyptians, the camp of Israel; it was a cloud and darkness to the first but gave light by night to the second; and the one came not near the other all the night.” His head moved in erratic rhythm, his fingers deft, twisting and pulling cord against cord without his attention. A ripple centered on him spread out along the floor, a shadow passing over his features.
Again the walls trembled, and the books lining the walls jumped in the places, shuddering.
“And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land and the waters parted.”
His fingers finished tying the last knot. As they did, he shuddered, and the room shuddered with him, along with the books shaking themselves free from the bookcases and the furniture dancing, shifting along the undulating floor.
Then it all stopped.
His eyes snapped open, burning green, full of stars.
He did not know where he had to go, but he knew if he left now, he would get there. Standing, he easily swung the cricket bat up and held it causally, low against his hip. Then out the door, barely remembering to close it behind him, and down the hall, down the stairs with his feet drumming against the floor, neither hurried nor relaxed, purposeful, sure in the knowledge that he would arrive where he was supposed to be. His breathing was calm, even, and each breath felt like it was pulling in starlight along with it, and the moonlight above light the darkness with a watchful light.
He walked down the street, turned left, walked parallel with the water for a while. Then right, heading towards downtown, completely innocent of any knowing yet moving as though he knew.