Book: Black Wings

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Michael Shea

 

Michael Shea has written the Lovecraftian novel The Color out of Time (DAW, 1984). He is the author of the short story collection Polyphemus (Arkham House, 1987). His Cthulhu Mythos story "Fat Face" has been widely reprinted, notably in Cthulhu 2000 (Arkham House, 1995). Among his many other works are a four-volume series of novels chronicling the adven tures of Nifft the Lean (1982–2000), the first of which won the World Fantasy Award. Shea has also worked in science fiction and has been nominated for a Hugo Award.

 
 
icky Deuce, twenty-eight and three years sober, was the night clerk at Mahmoud's Mom and Pop Market. He was a small, leanly muscled guy, and as he sat there, the darkness outside deepening toward midnight, his tight little Irish face looked pleased with where he was. Behind Ricky on his stool, the whole wall was bottles of every kind of Hard known to man.

  This job was easy money—a sit-down after his day forklifting at the warehouse. He already owned an awesomely restored '64 Mustang and had near ten K saved, and by rights he ought to be casting around for where he might take off to next. But the fact was, he got a kick out of clerking here till two a.m. each night.

  A kick that was not powder nor pill nor smoke nor booze, that was not needing any of them, especially not booze, which could shine and glint in its bottles and surround him all night long, and he not give a shit. He never got tired of sitting here immune, savoring the unadorned adventure of being alive.

  Not that the job lacked irritants. There were obnoxious clientele, and these preponderated toward the deep of night.

  Ricky thought he heard one even now.

  Single cars shushed past outside, long silences falling between, and a scuffy tread advanced along the sidewalk. A purposeful tread that nonetheless staggered now and then. It reminded Ricky that he was It, the only island of comfort and light for a half a mile in all directions, in a big city, in the dead of night.

  Then, there in Mahmoud's Mom and Pop Market's entryway, stood a big gaunt black guy. Youngish, but with a strange, outdated look, his hair growing weedily out toward a 'fro. His torso and half his legs were engulfed in an oversize nylon athletic jacket that looked like it might have slept in an alley or two, and which revealed the chest of a dark T-shirt that said something indecipherable RULES. The man had a drugged look, but he also had wide-arched, inquiring brows. His glossy black eyes checked you out, as if maybe the real him was somewhere back in there, smarter than he looked.

  But then, as he lurched inside the store, and into the light, he just looked drunk.

  "Evening," Ricky said smiling. He always opened by giving all his clientele the benefit of the doubt.

  The man came and planted his hands of the counter, not aggressively, it seemed, but in the manner of someone tipsily presenting a formal proposition.

  "Hi. I'm Andre. I need your money, man."

  Ricky couldn't help laughing. "What a coincidence! So do I!"

  "OK, Bro," Andre said calmly, agreeably. As if he was shaping a counter-proposal, he straightened and stepped back from the counter. "Then I'ma cut your fuckin ass to ribbons till you give me your fuckin money!"

  The odd picture this plan of action presented almost made Ricky laugh again, but then the guy whipped out and flipped open—with great expertise—a very large-gravity knife, which he then swept around by way of threat, though still out of striking range. Ricky was so startled that he half fell off his stool.

  Getting his legs under him, furious at having been galvanized like that, Ricky shrieked, "A knife? You're gonna to rob me with a fucking knife? I've got a fucking knife!"

  And he unpocketed his lock-back Buck knife and snapped it open. All this while he found himself once again trying to decipher the big, uncouthly lettered word on the guy's T-shirt above the word RULES.

  Andre didn't seem drunk at all now. He swept a slash over the counter at Ricky's head, from which Ricky had to recoil right smartly.

  "You shit! You do that again and I'm gonna slice your—"

  Here came the gravity knife again, as quick as a shark, and, snapping his head back out of the way, Ricky counter-slashed at the sweeping arm and felt the rubbery tug of flesh unzipped by the tip of his Buck's steel.

  Andre abruptly stepped back and relaxed. He put his knife away and held up his arm. It had a nice bloody slash across the inner forearm. He stood there letting it bleed for Ricky. Ricky had seen himself and others bleed, but not a black man. On black skin, he found, blood looked more opulent, a richer red, and so did the meat underneath the skin. That cut would take at least a dozen stitches. They both watched the blood soak the elastic cuff of Andre's jacket.

  "So here's what it is," said Andre, and dipped his free hand in the jacket and pulled out a teensy, elegant little silver cellphone. "Ima call the oinkers, and say I need an ambulance because this mad whacked white shrimp—that's you—slashed me when I just axed him for some spare change, and then Ima ditch the shit outta this knife before they show up, and it won't matter if they believe me or not, when they see me bleedin like this they gonna take us both down for questioning and statements. How's your rap sheet, Chief, hey? So look. Just give me a little money and I'm totally outta your face. It don't have to be much. Ten dollars would do it!"

  This took Ricky aback. "Ten dollars? You make me cut you for ten dollars?"

  "You wanna give me a hundred, give me a hundred! Ten's all you gotta give me—and a ride. A short ride, over to the Hood."

  "You want money and a ride! You think I'm outta my mind? You wanna ride to your connection to score, and when we get there, you're gonna try an get more money out of me. And that's the best case scenario." Ricky was dismayed to hear a hint of negotiation in his own words. It was true, he'd had a number of contacts with the San Francisco Police Department, as the result of alcohol-enhanced conflicts here and there. But also, he felt intrigued by the guy. Something fascinating burned in this Andre whack. Intensity came off him in waves, along with his faint scent of street-funk. The man was consumed by a passion. In the deformed letters on his t-shirt, Ricky thought he could make out a T_H_U.

  "What could I be coppin for ten bucks?" crowed Andre. "I'm not out to harm you! This just has to do with me. See, it's required. I have to get these two things from someone else, the money and the ride."

  "Explain that. Explain why you have to get these two things from someone else."

  Andre didn't answer for a moment. He stared and stared, not exactly at Ricky, but at something he seemed to see in Ricky. He seemed to be weighing this thing he detected. He had eyes like black opals, and strange slow thoughts seemed to move within their shiny hemispheres . . . .

  "The reason is," he said at last, "that's the procedure. There are these particular rules for seeing the one I want to see."

  "And who is that?"

  "I can't tell you. I'm not allowed."

  It was almost time to close up anyway. Ricky became aware of a powerful tug of curiosity, and aware of the fact that Andre saw it in his eyes. This put Ricky's back up.

"No. You gotta give me something. You gotta tell me at least—"

  "Thassit! Fuck you!" And Andre flipped open the cellphone. His big spatulate fingertips made quick dainty movements on the minute keys. Ricky heard the bleep, minuscule but crystal clear, of the digits, and then a micro-voice saying, "Nine One One Emergency."

  "I been stabbed by a punk in a liquor store! I been stabbed!"

  Ricky violently shook his head, and held up his hands in surrender. With a bleep, Andre clicked off. "Believe me! You're not makin a mistake. It's something I can't talk about, but you can see it. You can see it yourself. But the thing is, it's got to be now. We can't hem an haw. And Ima tell you now, now that you're in, that there's something in it for you, something good as gold. Trust me, you'll see. Help me with this knot," he said, pulling a surprisingly clean-looking handkerchief from his jacket pocket. He folded it—rather expertly, Ricky thought—into a bandage. Ricky wrapped it round the wound and tied the ends in a neat, tight square-knot, feeling as his fingers pressed against flesh that he was forming a bond with this whack by stanching his blood. He was accepting a dangerous complicity with his whack aims, whatever they might be . . . .

  Bandaged, Andre held out his hand. Ricky put a ten in it.

  "Thanks," said Andre. "So. Where's your ride?"

 
 
The blue Mustang boomed down Sixteenth through the Mission. All the signals were on blink. Here and there under the streetlights, there was a wino or two, or someone walking fast, shoulders hunched against the emptiness, but mostly the Mustang rolled through pure naked City, a vacant concrete stage.

  Ricky liked driving around at this hour, and often did it on his own for fun. When he was a kid, he'd always felt sorcery in the midnight streets, in the mosaic of their lights, and he'd never lost the sense of unearthly shapes stirring beneath their web, stirring till they almost cohered, as the stars did for the ancients into constellations. Tonight, with mad, bleeding Andre riding shotgun, the lights glittered wilder possibilities, and a sinister grandeur seemed to lurk in them.

  They passed under the freeway and down to the Bayside, hanging south on Third. After long blocks of big blank buildings, Third took a snaky turn, and they were rolling through the Hood.

  Pawn shops and thrift stores and liquor stores. A whiff of Mad Dog hung over it, Mad Dog with every other drug laced through it. The Hood was lit, was like a long jewel. The signals were working here.

  The signals stretched out of sight ahead, like a python with scales of red and green, their radiance haloed in a light fog that was drifting in off the Bay. And people were out, little knots of them near the corners. They formed isolated clots of gaudy life, like tidepools, all of them dressed in baggy clothes of brightcolored nylon, panelled and logo-ed with surreal pastels under the emerald-and-ruby signal glare. And as they stood and talked together, they moved in a way both fitful and languid, like sealife bannering in a restless sea.

  The signals changed in pattern to a slow tidal rhythm. It seemed a rhythm meant to accommodate rush-hour traffic. You got a green for two blocks max, and then you got a red. A long, long red. Ricky's blue Mustang was almost the only car on the road in this phantom rush-hour, creeping down the long bright python two blocks at a time and then idling, idling interminably, while the sealife on the corners seemed astir with interest and attention.

  Ricky had no qualms about running red lights on deserted streets, but here it seemed dangerous, a declaration of unease.

  "Fuck this!" he said at their fourth red light, slipping the brake and rolling forward. At a stroll though, under twenty. The Mustang lounged along, taking green and red alike, as if upon a scenic country road. The bright languid people on the corners threw laughter at them now, a shout or two, and it seemed as if the whole great submarine python stirred to quicker currents. Ricky felt a ripple of hallucination, and saw here, for just a moment, a vast inked mural, the ink not dry, themselves and all around them still half-liquid entities billowing in an aqueous universe . . . .

  Out of nowhere, for the first time in three years, Ricky had the thought that he would like a drink. He was amazed at this thought. He was frightened. Then he was angry.

  "I'm not drivin much farther, Andre. Spit out where we're going, and it better be nearby, or you can call 911 and I'll take my chances. I'll bet you got a longer past with the SFPD than I do."

  "Damn you! Whip in here, then."

  This cross street was mostly houses—some abandoned—with a liquor store on the next corner, and a lot of sealife lounging out in front of it. "Pull up into some light where you can see this."

  They idled at the curb. The people on the main drag were twothirds of a block behind them, the liquor store tidepool much closer ahead of them. Andre leaned his fanatic's face close to Ricky. The intensity of the man was an almost tactile experience; Ricky seemed to feel the muffled crackling of his will through the inches of air that separated them. "Here," hissed Andre. "I'm gonna give you this, just to drive me another coupla miles up into these hills. Look at it. Count it. Take it." He shoved a thick roll of bills into Ricky's ribs.

  It was in twenties and fifties and hundreds . . . . It was over five thousand dollars.

  "You're . . . you're batshit, Andre! You make me cut you to get ten bucks, and now you—"

  "Just listen." Some people from the liquor store tide pool were drifting their way, and Ricky saw similar movement from Third Street in his rearview mirror. "What I needed," said Andre, "was money that blood was spilt for—it didn't matter how much blood, it didn't matter how much money. Your ten-spot? It's worth that much to me there in your hand. Your ten-spot and another couple miles in your car."

  The locals were flowing closer to the Mustang at both ends. Ricky fingered the money. The gist of it was, he decided, that if he didn't follow this waking dream to its end, he would never forgive himself. "OK," he said.

  "Another couple miles in your car," said Andre, "an one more thing. You gotta come in."

  "You fuck! You shit! Where does it end with you? You just keep—"

  "You come in, you watch me connect, and you go out again, scot-free, no harm, no strings attached! I gotta bring blood money, and I gotta bring a witness. I lied to you. It wasn't the ride I needed. It was a witness."

  A huge shape in lavender running-sweats, and a gaunt one wearing a lime-green jumpsuit, stood beside the Mustang, smiling and making roll-down-the-window gestures. Behind the car, shapes from the main drag were moving laterally out into the street to come up to the driver's side . . . .

  But in that poised moment what Ricky saw most vividly was Andre's face, his taut narrow face within its weedy 'fro. This man was in the visionary's trance. His eyes, his soul were locked upon something that filled him with awe. What he pursued had nothing to do with Ricky, nor with anything Ricky could imagine, and Ricky wanted to know what that thing was.

  Andre said, "Ima show you—what's your name again?"

  "Ricky."

  "Ima show you, Richie, the power and the glory. They are right here among you, man, an you don't even see it! Hell, even these fools out here can see it!"

  The Mustang was surrounded now. From behind it sprouted shapes in crimson hoods, with fists bulging inside gold velvet jacket pockets. Up to Ricky's door (its window already open, his elbow thrust out, and five K in cash on his lap) stepped two men with thundercloud hair, wearing shades, their cheeks and brows all whorled with Maori tatooing like ink-black flames. A trio of gaudy nylon scarecrows leaned on his hood, conferring, the sidethrust bills of their caps switching like blades. But Ricky also noted that all this audience, every one of them, had eyes strictly for Andre sitting there at his side. Ricky was free to scan all those exotic, piratical faces as though he were invisible . . . .

  All their eyes were grave. They showed awe, and they showed loathing too, as if they abhorred something Andre had done, but just as piercingly, longed for his nerve to do it. Ricky realized he had embarked on a longer journey than he'd thought.

  Andre scanned all these buccaneer faces, his fellow mariners of the Hood. A remote little grin was hanging slantwise across his jaw. "Check this out Rocky," he growled, "an learn from these fools. Learn their awe, man, cause what I'ma show you, up in those hills, is awe."

  He shouldered his door open and thrust himself up onto the sidewalk. He towered just as tall as the giant in lavender sweats, but he was narrow as a reed. Yet his voice fairly boomed:

  "Yo! Alla you! Listen up! Looka here! Looka me! You all wanna see something? Wanna see something about something besides shit!? See something real, just for a change? See the ice-cold, spinecrawlin, hair-stirrin truth? Looka here! Looka here, at the power! Looka here! Looka here, at the glory!"

  Ricky scanned all the dark faces that ringed them round, and every eye was locked upon that wild gaunt man in his rapture, who now, with a powerful shrug, shouldered off his nylon jacket. It flopped down on the sidewalk with a slither and a sigh, and lay there on the concrete like a sloughed cocoon. He stretched the fabric of his T-shirt, displaying it to every locked-on eye.

  Rickey's angle was still too acute to let him decipher exactly who it was who "ruled." But all these encircling faces, they seemed to know. They shared a vision of awe and terror and . . . something like hope. A frosty hope, endlessly remote . . . but hope. Ricky realized that there prevailed on these mean streets a consensus of vision. He clearly saw that all these eyes had seen, and understood, a catastrophic spectacle beyond his own imagining.

  Andre barked, hoarse and brutish as a sea-lion, "Jus look at me here! I have gone up to see Him, and I have looked through His eyes, and I have been where He is, time without end! An I'm here to tell you, all you dearly beloved mongrel dogs of mine, I'm here to tell you that it's consumed me! My flesh, and my time, have been blown off my bones, by the searing winds of His breath! I'm not far off now from eternity! Not far off from infinity now!"

  The raving seer then hiked up his T-shirt to his chest. What Ricky, from behind, saw there was like a blow to his own chest, an impact of terror and dizziness, for Andre's thorax on its left side was normal, gauntly fleshed and sinewed, but along its right side, his spine was denuded bone, and midriff was there none, and just below his hoisted shirt-hem, a lathed bracket looped down: a fleshless rib, as clean and bare as sculpture . . . .

  His rapt audience recoiled like a single person, some lifting their arms convulsively, as in a reflex of self-protection, or acclaim . . . .

  Ricky dropped the Mustang into gear and launched it from the curb, but in that selfsame instant Andre dropped into his seat again and slammed his door, and so he was snatched deftly away, as if he were a prize that Ricky treasured, and not a horror that Ricky had been trying to flee.

  Moon-silvered, lightless blocks floated past, yet Ricky never took his eyes from the gaunt shape whose T-shirt he could now, uncomprehending, read: CTHULHU RULES.

  Somehow he drove and, shortly, pulled again to a more deserted curb, and killed the engine. On this block, a sole dim streetlight shone. Half the houses were doorless, windowless . . .

  He sat with only silence between himself and a man who had, at the least, submitted to a grave surgical mutilation in the service of his deity. Ricky looked into Andre's eyes.

  That was the first challenge, to establish that he dared to look into Andre's eyes—and he found that he did dare.

  "For all you've lost," Ricky said, queasily referencing the gruesome marvel, ". . . you seem very. . . alive."

  "I'm more alive than you will ever be, and when I'm all consumed, I'll be far more alive, and I will live forever!"

  Ricky fingered the little bale of cash in his hand. "If you want me to go on, you have to tell me this. Why do you have to have a witness?"

  "Because the One I'm gonna see wants someone new to see Him. He doesn't wanna know you. He wants you to know Him." In the darkness, Andre's polished eyes seemed to burn with this thing that he knew, and Ricky did not.

  "He wants me to know him. And then?"

  "And then it's up to you. To walk away, or to see him like I do."

  "And how is that? How do you see him?"

  "All the way."

  Ricky's hand absently stroked the gearshift knob. "The choice is absolutely mine?"

  "Your will is your own! Only your knowledge will be changed!"

  Ricky slipped the Mustang into gear, and once more the blue beast growled onward. "Take a right here," purred Andre. "We going up to the top of the hills."

  It was the longest "couple miles" that Ricky had ever driven. The road poured down past the Mustang like time itself, a slow stream of old, and older houses, on steepening blocks gapped by vacant lots, or by derelict cottages whose windows and doors were coffined in grafittied plywood.

  They began to wind, and a rising sense of peril woke in Ricky. He was charging up into the sinister unknown! There was just too much missing from this man's body! You couldn't lose all that and still walk around, still fight with knives . . . could you?

  But you could. Just look at him.

  The houses thinned out even more, big old trees half-shrouding them. Dead cars slept under drifts of leaves, and dim bedroom lights showed life just barely hanging on, here in the hungry heights.

  As they mounted this shoulder of the hills, Ricky saw glimpses of other ridges to the right and left, rooftop-and-tree-encrusted like this one. All these crestlines converged toward the same summit, and when Ricky looked behind, it seemed that these ridges poured down like a spill of titanic tentacles. They plunged far below into a thick, surprisingly deep fog that drowned and dimmed the jeweled python of the Hood.

  Near the summit, their road entered a deepening gully. At the apex stood a municipal watertank, the dull gloss of its squat cylinder half-sunk in trees and houses.

  "We goin to that house there right upside the tank. See that big gray roof pokin from the trees? The driveway goes down through the trees, it's steep an dark. Just roll down slow and easy, kill the engine, an let me get out first an talk to her."

  "Her?"

  Andre didn't answer. The road briefly crested before plunging, and Ricky had a last glimpse below of the tentacular hills rooted in the fogbank—and rooted beyond that, he imagined, more deeply still into the black floor of the Bay, as if the tentacles rummaged there for their deep-sunk food . . . .

  "Right there," said Andre, pointing ahead. "See the gap in the bushes?"

  The Mustang crept muttering down the dark leafy tunnel, just as a wind rose, rattling dry oak foliage all around them.

  A dim grotto of grassy ground opened below. There was a squat house on it, so dark it was almost a shadow-house. It showed one dim yellow light on the floor of its porch. A lantern, it looked like. A large dark shape loomed on one side of this lantern, and a smaller dark shape lay on the other.

  Ricky cut his engine. Andre drew a long, slow breath and got out. Leaves whispered in the silence. Andre's feet crackled across the yard. Ricky could hear the creak of his weight on the porch steps as he climbed them, halfway up to the two dark shapes and their dim shared light. And Ricky could also hear. . . a growly breathing, wasn't it? Yes . . . a slow, phlegmy purr of big lungs.

  Andre's voice was a new one to Ricky: low and implacable. "I'm back again, Mamma Hagg. I got the toll. I got the witness." Then he looked back and said, "Stand on out here . . . what's your name again?"

  Ricky got out. How dangerous it suddenly seemed to declare himself in this silence, this place! Well, shit. He was here. He might as well say who he was. Loudly: "Ricky Deuce."

  When he'd said it, he found his eyes could suddenly decipher the smaller dark shape by the lantern: it was a seated black dog, a big one, with the hint of aging frost on his lower jaw, and with his red tongue hanging and gently pulsing by that frosted jaw. The dog was looking steadily back at him, its tongue a bright spoon of greedy tissue scooping up the taste of the night . . . .

  It was not the brute's breathing Ricky had heard. It was Momma Hagg's, her voice deep now from the vault of her cavelike lungs:

  "Then show the toll, fool."

  Andre bent slightly to hold something toward the hound. And above his bent back, the woman in her turn became visible to Ricky. Within a briar-patch of dreads as pale as mushrooms, her monolithic black face melted in its age, her eyes two tarpools in this terrain of gnarled ebony. The shadowy bulk of her body eclipsed the mighty chair she sat in, though its armrests jutted into view, dark wood intricately carven into the coils and claws and thews of two heraldic monsters. Ricky couldn't make out what they were, but they seemed to snarl beneath the fingers of Momma Hagg's immense hands.

  The dog's tongue was licking what Andre held up to it— Ricky's tenspot. The mastiff sniffed and sniffed, then snorted, and licked the bill again, and licked his chops.

  "Come on up," said Momma. "The two of you." The big woman's voice had a strange kind of pull to it. Like surf at your legs, its growl dragged you toward her. Ricky approached. Andre mounted to the porch, and Ricky climbed after him. He had the sensation with each step up that he entered a bigger and emptier kind of space. When he stood on the porch, Momma Hagg seemed farther off than he had expected. From her distance wafted the smell of her—an ashen scent like the drenched coals of a bonfire that had included flesh and bones in its fuel. The dog rose.

  The porch took too long to cross as they followed the hound. His bright tongue lolling like a casually held torch, with just one back-glance of one crimson eye, the brute led them through a wide, doorless doorframe, and into a high dark interior that gusted out dank salty breath in their faces.

  A cold gray light leaked in here, as if the fog that had swallowed the Hood had now climbed the hills, and its glow was seeping into this gaunt house. They trod a rambling, unpartitioned space, the interior all wall-less, while the outer walls were irregularly recessed in alcoves, nooks, and grottos. In some of these stood furniture, oddly forlorn, bulky antique pieces—an armchair, a setee, an escritoire crusted with ancient papers. These stranded little settings—like fossils of foregone transactions whose participants had blown to dust long since—seemed to mark the passage of generations through this rambling gloom.

  Ricky had the disorienting sense they had been trekking for a long, long time. He realized that the stranded furniture had a delicately furred and crusted profile in the gray light, like tidepool rocks, and a cold tidal scent touched his nostrils. Realized too, that here and there in those recesses, there were windows. Beyond their panes lay a different shade of darkness, where weedy and barnacled shadows stirred and glinted wetly. . . .

  And throughout this shadowy passage, Ricky noted, on every stretch of wall he could discern, wooden wainscottings densely carven. The misty glow put a sheen on the sinuous saliences of this dark chiselwork, which seemed to depict bulbous, serpentine knots of tail and claw and thew—or perhaps woven cephalopodia, braided greedy tentacles, and writhing prey in ragged beaks . . . .

  But now the walls had narrowed in, and here were stairs, and up these steep, worn stairs the hound, not pausing, led them. The air of this stairwell was slightly dizzying. The labor of the black beast climbing before them seemed to pull the two men after, as if the beast drew them in an executioner's tumbril. They were lifted, Ricky suddenly felt, by a might far greater than theirs, and Andre, ahead of him, seemed to shiver and quake in the flux of that dire energy. It gave Ricky the sensation of walking in Andre's lee, and being sheltered by his body from a terror that streamed around him like a solar wind.

  From the head of the stairs, a great moldy vacancy breathed down on them. They emerged into what seemed a simpler and far older structure. High-beamed ceiling, carven walls. . . it was no more than a grand passage ending at a high dark archway. The floorplanks faintly drummed, as if this was a bridgeway, unfoundationed. That great black arch ahead . . . it was inset in a wall that bowed. A metallic wall.

  "The tank!" said Ricky. It jumped out of him. "That's that big water tank!"

  The hound halted and turned. Andre too turned, gave him eyes of wild reproof, but the hound, raising to Ricky his crimson eyes, gave him a red-tongued leer, gave him the glinty-pupiled mockery of a knowing demon. This look set the carven walls to seething, set the sculpted thews rippling, limbs lacing, beaks butchering, all brutally busy beneath their fur of dust . . . .

  The hound turned again and led them on. Now they could smell the water in the great tank—an odor both metallic and marine—and the hound's breathing began to echo, to grow as cavernous as Mamma Hagg's had been. Within that archway was a blackness absolute, a darkness far more perfect than the gloom that housed them. As they closed with it, the hound's nails echoed as on a great oaken drum above a jungle wilderness. The beast dropped to its belly, lay panting, whining softly. The two men stood behind.

  Within the portal, a huge glossy black surface confronted them, a great shield of glass, a mirror as big as a house. There they were in it: Ricky, Andre, the hound. The brightest feature of their tiny, distorted reflection was the bright red dot of the hound's tongue.

  Andre paused for a few heartbeats only. Then he stepped through the arch, with an odd ceremonial straightness to his posture. He gestured and Ricky followed him, seeing, as he did so, that the aperture was cut through a double metal wall that showed a cross-section of struts between.

  They stood on a narrow balcony just within the tank and felt a huge damp breath of the steel-clad lake below them, and gazed into the immense glass that was to afford them their Revelation of the Power and the Glory. . . .

  Andre stared some moments at his reflection, then turned to Ricky. "Now I tell you what it is . . . you say your name was Rocky?"

  "Ricky."

  "Ricky, now Ima tell you what it is. I came to see, and be seen by Him. When He really sees you, you can see through His eyes, and you can live His mind."

  "But what if I don't want to live his mind?"

  "You can't! You didn't pay the toll! You'll see some shit, though! You'll see enough, you'll know that if you got any adventure in your soul, you got to pay that toll! But that's up to you! Now look, an learn!"

  He faced the mirror again, and in a cracked voice he cried, "Iä! Iä! Iä fhtagn!"

  And the mirror, ever so slightly, contracted, and the faintest circumference of white showed round its great rim, and encompassing that ring of pallor, something black and scaly like a sea-beast's hide crinkled into view . . . and Ricky realized that they stood before the pupil of an immense eye.

  And Ricky found his feet were rooted, and he could not turn to flee.

  And he beheld a dizzying mosaic of lights flashing to life within the mighty pupil. A grand midnight vision crystallized: the whole of San Francisco Bay lay within the black orb, bordered by the whole bright oroboros of coastal lights . . . .

  He and Andre gazed on the vista, on the Bridges' glittering spines transecting it, all their lengths corpuscled with fleeing lights red and white. The two men gazed on the panorama and it drank their minds. Rooted, they inhabited its grandeur, even as it began a subtle distortion. The vista seemed tugged awry, torqued toward the very center of the giant's pupil. And within that grand, slow distortion, Ricky saw strange movements. Across the Bay Bridge, near its eastern end, the cargo cranes of West Oakland—tracked monsters, each on four mighty legs—raised and bowed their cabled booms in a dinosaurian salute—obeisance, or acclaim . . . while to their left, the giant tanks on Benecia's tarry hills, and the Richmond tanks too in the west, began a ponderous rotation on their bases, a slow spin like planets obeying the pupil's gathering vortex.

  Andre cried out, to Ricky, or just to the world he was about to leave, "I see it all coming apart! In detail! Behold!"

  This last word reverberated in a brazen basso far larger than the lean man's lungs could shape. And the knell of that voice awoke winds in the night, and the winds buffeted Ricky as though he hung in the night sky within the eye, and Ricky knew. He knew this being into whose view he'd come! Knew this monster was the King of a vast migration of titans across the eons of the countless Space-Times! Over the gale-swept universe they moved, these Great Old Ones. Across the cracked continents they trawled, they plundered! Worlds were the pastures that they grazed, and the broken bodies of whole races were the pavement that they trod!

  It astonished him, the threshold to which this Andre, nightwalking zealot, had brought him. He looked at Andre now, saw the man utterly alone at the brink of his apotheosis. How high he seemed to hang in the night winds! Look at the frailty of that skinny frame! The mad greed of his adventure!

  Andre seemed to shudder, to gather himself. He looked back at Ricky. He looked like he was seeing in Ricky some foreigner in a far, quaint land, some backward Innocent, unknowing of the very world he stood in.

  "On squid, man," he said, ". . . on squid, Ricky, you get big! All hell breaks loose in the back of your brain, and you can hold it, you can contain it! And then you get to watch Him feed. And now you'll see. Just a little! Not too much! But you going to know."

  Andre turned and faced the eye. He gathered himself, gathered his voice for a great shout:

  "Here's my witness! Here I come!"

  And he vaulted from the balcony, out into the pupil—impacted it for an instant, seemed to freeze in mid-leap as if he had struck glass—but in the instant after, was within the vast inverted cone of light-starred night, and hung high, tiny but distinct, above the slowly twisting panorama of the great black Bay all shoaled and shored and spanned with light. That galactic metropolis, round its core of abyss, was—less slowly now—still contorting, twisting toward the center of the pupil . . . .

  And Ricky found that he too hung within it, he stood on the wide cold air in the night sky, he felt against his face the winds' slow torque toward the the center of the Old One's sight.

  And now all hell, with relentless slow acceleration, broke loose. The City's blazing, architected crown began to discohere, brick fleeing brick in perfect pattern, in widening pattern, till they all became pointilist buildings snatched away in the whirlwind, and from the buildings, all the people too like flung seed swirled up into the night, their evaporating arms raised as in horror, or salute, crying out their being from clouding faces that the black winds sucked to tatters . . . .

  He saw the great bridges braided with—and crumpling within—barnacle-crusted tentacles as thick as freeway tunnels, saw the freeways themselves—pillared rivers of light—unraveling, their traffic like red and white stars fleeing into the air, into the cyclone of the Great Old One's attention.

  And an inward vision was given to Ricky, simultaneous with this meteoric overview. For he also knew the Why of it. He knew the hunger of the nomad titans, their unappeasable will to consume each bright busy outpost they could find in the universal Black and Cold. Knew that many another world had fled, as this one fled, draining into the maw of the grim cold giants, each world's collapsing roofs and walls bleeding a smoke of souls, all sucked like spume into the mossy curvature of His colossal jaws . . . .

 
 
It was perfectly dark. It was almost silent, except for a rattle of leaves. The cold against his face had the wet bite of fog . . . .

  Ricky shook his head, and the dark grew imperfect. He put out his hand and touched rough wooden siding. He was alone on the porch, no lantern now, no armchair, no one else. Just dead leaves in crackly little drifts on the floorboards as—slowly and unsteadily—he started across them.

  He had seen some shit. Stone cold sober, he had seen. And now the question was, who was he?

  He crossed the leaf-starred grass, on legs that felt increasingly familiar. Yes . . . here was this Ricky-body that he knew, light and quick. And here was his Mustang, blown oak leaves chittering across its polished hood. And still the question was, who was he?

  He was this car, for one thing, had worked long to buy it and then to perfect it. He got behind the wheel and fired it up, felt his perfect fit in this machine. Flawlessly it answered to his touch, and the blue beast purred up through the leaf-tunnel as the house—a doorless, glassless derelict—fell away behind him. But this Ricky Deuce . . . who was he now?

  He emerged from the foliage and dove down the winding highway. There was the fog-banked Bay below, the jeweled snake of the Hood glinting within its gray wet shroud, and Ricky took the curves just like his old self, riding one of the hills' great tentacles down, down toward the sea they rooted in . . . .

  There was something Ricky had to do. Because in spite of his body, his nerves being his, he didn't know who he was now, had just had a big chunk torn out of him. And there was something terrible he had to do, to locate, by desperate means, the man he had lost, to find at least a piece of him he was sure of.

  His hands and arms knew the way, it seemed. Diving down into the thicker fog, he smoothly threw the turns required . . . and slid up to the curb before the liquor store they'd parked near. . . when? A universe ago. Parked and jumped out.

  Ricky was terrified of what he was going to do, and so he moved swiftly to have it done with, just nodding to his recent companions as he hastened into the store—nodding to the Maoris in shades, to the guys with the switchblade cap-bills, to the guys with the crimson hoods and the golden pockets. But rushed though he was, it struck him that they were all looking at him with a kind of fascination . . . .

  At the counter he said, "Fifth of Jack." He didn't even look to see what he peeled off his wad to pay for it, but there were a lot of twenties in his change. The Arab bagged him his bottle, his eyes fixed almost raptly on Ricky's, so Ricky was moved to ask in simple curiosity, "Do I look strange?"

  "No," the man said, and then said something else, but Ricky had already turned, in haste to get outside where he could take a hit. Had the man said no, not yet?

  Ricky got outside, cracked the cap, and hammered back a stiff, two-gurgle jolt.

  He scarcely could wait to let it roll down and impact him. He felt the hot collision in his body's center, the roil of potential energy glowing there, then poked down a long, three-gurgle chaser. Stood reeling inwardly, and outwardly showing some impact as well . . . .

  And there it was: a heat, a turmoil, a slight numbing. No more. No magic. No rising trumpets. No wheels of light . . . . The halfpint of Jack he'd just downed had no marvel to show like the one he'd just seen.

  And so Ricky knew that he was someone else now, someone he had not yet fully met.

  "'Sup?" It was the immense guy in the lavender sweats. He had a solemn Toltec-statue face, but an incongruously merry little smile.

  "'S happnin," said Ricky. "Hey. You want this?"

  "That Jack?"

  "Take the rest. Keep it. Here's the cap."

  "No thanks." This to the cap. The man drank. As he chugged, he slanted Ricky an eye with something knowing, something I thought so in it. Ricky just stood watching him. He had no idea at all of what would come next in his life, and for the moment, this bibulous giant was as interesting a thing as any to stand watching . . . .

  The man smacked his lips. "It ain't the same, is it?" he grinned at Ricky, gesturing the bottle. "It just don't matter any more. I mean, so I understand. I like the glow jus fine myself. But you . . . see, you widdat Andre. You've been a witness."

  "Yeah. I have. So . . . tell me what that means."

  "You the one could tell me. Alls I know is I'd never do it, and a whole lotta folks around here they'd never do it—but you didn't know that, did you?"

  "So tell me what it means."

  "It means what you make of it! And speakin of which, man, of what you might make of it, I wanna show you something right now. May I?"

"Sure. Show me."

  "Let's step round here to the side of the building . . . just round here . . . " Now they stood in the shadowy weed-tufted parking lot, where others lounged, but moved away when they appeared.

  "I'm gonna show you somethin," said the man, drawing out his wallet and opening it.

  But opening it for himself at first, for he brought it close to his face as he looked in, and a pleased, proprietary glow seemed to beam from his Olmec features. For a moment, he gloated over the contents of his billfold.

  Then he extended and spread the wallet open before Ricky. There was a fat sheaf of bills in it, hand-worn bills with a skinlike crinkle. It seemed the money, here and there, was stained.

  Reverently, Olmec said, "I bought this from the guy that capped the guy it came from. This is as pure as it gets. Blood money with the blood right on it! An you can have a bill of it for five hundred dollars! I know that Andre put way more than that in your hand. I know you know what a great deal this is!"

  Ricky. . . had to smile. He saw an opportunity at least to gauge how dangerously he'd erred. "Look here," he told Olmec. "Suppose I did buy blood money. I'd still need a witness. So what about that, man? Will you be my witness for . . . almost five grand?"

  Olmec did let the sum hang in the air for a moment or two, but then said, quite decisively, "Not for twice that."

  "So Andre got me cheap?"

  "Just by my book. You could buy witnesses round here for half that!"

  "I guess I need to think it over."

  "You know where I hang. Thanks for the drink."

  And Ricky stood there for the longest time, thinking it over. . . .

 

 

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