5º episódio American Crime Story Series 8.6
2º episódio Channel Zero Series 7.3

Blind Shrike Page 14

"Since when are you an expert on demonology?" she asked. "You didn't even believe in demons until two days ago."

"My daddy used to say, `Just because T-bones are better eating, doesn't mean you shouldn't know the zip code of the brisket.'"

"What the hell does that mean?"

"It means, that even a useless tattooist can pick up a few facts that aren't about girls or ink," he said. "Jenny was an anthropology major. Studying medieval Christianity. I used to read her textbooks when she was finished. You'd be surprised how hot and bothered a little demon and saint talk gets Catholic girls. I still know Hell's floorplan, all seven Heavens and which angels rule each one."

"You saved us back there."

"That sword trick helped. Someday you're going to have to show me how that thing goes from a cane to a blade so fast."

"Stay useful and I will."

They entered Madame Cinders' private quarters. The room was dark, as the shutters, which were carved in traditional Muslim geometrics, were closed to keep out the heat. Enough light came through the skylights that the opulence of the room was unmistakable. The walls were hung with tapestries and dark purple velvets. The furniture, a mixture of low Middle Eastern style pillows and benches, was mixed with elegant European pieces and upholstered in rich brocades. Delicate lamps of brass and milky glass dotted the room. Above an Empire-style desk was an oil portrait of a young woman. Her skin was creamy and pale, like liquid pearls, and her hair long and dark. She wore a high-necked turquoise gown of a simple cut, but even in the painting it was obvious that it was of exquisite material and expertly made. In her hands, the girl held a book whose tattered cover and cracked spine indicated its great age and constant use. Spyder wondered if the girl in the picture was Madame Cinders in earlier, happier times. It was hard picturing the wheezing wreck in the wheelchair as a girl, much less a pretty one getting her portrait painted on her birthday.

"Yes, young man," said Madame Cinders. "A book. That is what I've brought you here for."

"You want us to steal a book, Madame?" asked Shrike.

"The one in this painting?" Spyder asked.

Madame Cinders shook her head, moving the fabric of her hajib slightly. Spyder realized that the awful stench back at the greenhouse wasn't the exotic plants, but Madame Cinders herself. The heavy incense in the tower couldn't disguise the stink of her flesh.

"You're right, I am rotting." Spyder looked at the woman. He realized that she could read his thoughts. Or was she just picking it up from body language? He resolved to stand completely still and look directly at her.

"Do that, if it comforts you." Madame Cinders nodded toward Shrike. "She has no such worries, you see. Her world is black and full of secrets buried in darkness and deeper darkness. That's why she's so valuable to me. What's an affliction to some, is a weapon for others." Madame Cinders paused as her pump started up again. "I know you both have a questions, but let me tell you how the girl in that portrait became the creature you see before you.

"Since the time of the Great Divide, when all the Spheres of the World broke each away from the other, my family has guarded a book. The first book. It contains the true names of all things. Someone with the understanding to use the book could blot out the sun. Turn the oceans to blood. Or close forever the doors of existence.

"The book was stolen from this very room and spirited to Hell by a demon. The same Asmodai I asked you about earlier. Asmodai is known to possess vast and arcane knowledge, so I assumed he had stolen the book for himself. After years of trying, I managed to pursue him into Hell to retrieve the book that was my responsibility to guard.

"In Hell, I learned that Asmodai was now in the employ of a powerful wizard who now makes his home in that dank and depraved realm. It was he who transfigured me from the young girl in the painting to the half-alive thing you see now. All of my strength and knowledge goes into keeping myself alive. I haven't the power to fight for the book anymore."

The pump stopped and Madame Cinders seemed to sag for a moment, then sat up straight in her chair, renewed by whatever potion or tincture had entered her dying blood stream.

"I was arrogant," she said. "Full of pride in my magic and fury at losing the book. I forgot a fundamental law of the universe: that no mortal may look upon Heaven or Hell and walk again among the living. What power the enemy wizard didn't bleed from me, I used up weaving a spell to escape that horrid place."

"That's why you sent for me," said Shrike. "Not because I'm the best assassin, but because I'm blind."

"Because you are both, Butcher Bird."

"I'm not blind. What about me?" asked Spyder.

"You keep her on course, it's easy to see. She's a burning fuse. You keep her from burning out. And you can be made blind temporarily, with a simple spell."

"No way."

"Then blindfold yourself and hope for gentle winds in the underworld."

"Excuse me, Madame Cinders," said Shrike, "I don't want to be crass, but what will be our payment for perform-ing this service for you?"

"Why, child, I'll give you back your eyes."

"Can you fix mine? Make me the way I was before, able to forget all this?"

"It is an odd request and I will not be so rude as to ask why, but, yes, with the book I could do that for you."

"It's not enough," said Shrike. Spyder looked at her. "You're asking us to go to the most awful place imaginable and face both the legions of Hell and the wizard who almost killed you, a sorceress with more magic than I could ever hope to summon. And our payment is to be nothing more than becoming who we used to be? Madame, there must be something more you can offer us or, despite whatever threats you might care to make, we will have to refuse your offer." Spyder was surprised by Shrike's tone, but could tell that she was in full-on haggling mode. The traders in Tangiers had been the same way. It wasn't the easy-going bargaining of Nepal or Mexico, but a verbal fist fight. Spyder looked at Madame Cinders, waiting for her counter.

"What would be enough, Butcher Bird? Your kingdom back? Revenge on your enemies? Your father?"

"I barely recall my kingdom and my enemies will be damned in time. But to taunt me with my father's death, I didn't expect such low behavior from a lady of your standing, Madame."

Madame Cinders laughed and it sounded like bubbling sludge. "But your father isn't dead, Butcher Bird. He's merely mad. Would you like to see him? He's here, not two rooms away from us."


What Men Never Understand

Whirring ahead in her wheelchair, Madame Cinders led Spyder and Shrike to a padlocked room where the walls were -padded with thick, stained silk.

Primo unlocked the door. In the darkest corner of the room, away from the light cast by the lone window, a man lay in a fetal position. His gray hair was greasy and wild. With dirty, bandaged fingers he mindlessly picked at the white padding that spilled out from a rip in the wall. The man's eyes were unfocussed, wide and wild.

From the door, Shrike said, "Father?" She stepped into the padded room, but Madame Cinders put up an arm to bar her. Shrike grabbed Spyder's shoulder. "What does he look like?"

"He's a mess," said Spyder. "Like those homeless guys you see eating out of dumpsters. I'm sorry."

"He is not in his right mind, child. He is quiet now, but can be quite dangerous."

Shrike pushed past Madame Cinders and felt along the wall until she found the huddled man. Spyder moved into the doorway, but hung back. He heard Madame Cinders muttering, "Brave girl. Stupid girl. She has to see everything for herself."

Shrike knelt by the old man and put her hand on his bony chest. "Father? It's Alizarin…"

The old man screamed and his hands flailed out, knocking Shrike back. Spyder darted across the room and pulled her back to the door. The old man kept on screaming, batting at invisible attackers, kicking at the empty air. Deep scars lined his cheeks where he'd clawed his skin away. He was reaching for something and if he hadn't been chained to the wall, he looked like he would be clawing past Spyder and Shrike and anything else he could get hold of. What is he trying to grab? wondered Spyder. He described all this to Shrike.

"What's wrong with him?" Shrike asked Madame -Cinders.

"We found him in an asylum in Persia," she said. "He's been made mad by a curse, just as you were blinded by one. Only what your father is suffering is much, much worse."

"What is he fighting? What does he see?"

"He is seeing Hell, child, dwelling in two Spheres at once. His body is here, but his mind is chained below in some abyssal dungeon. What he is fighting off are the demons that torment him."

Shrike stood facing her father, though Spyder knew she couldn't see him. Still, he could feel her body shaking almost imperceptibly. She was trying to see him, trying to will his face into her mind.

"There is only one way to restore your father. And that is to free him from the diabolical shackles that keep him bound below. Otherwise, this is his fate until his heart or his mind finally crack forever."

"I understand," said Shrike, cutting off the other woman. "But I have to ask you again-and I don't ask this arrogantly, but out of fear that I can't truly help my father-how do I assassinate spirits? I fight the living."

"You kill the dead with the weapons of the dead," said Madame Cinders. "Give it to her," she told Primo. The little man came forward and pulled a long-bladed knife from an inner pocket of his jacket. He pressed the knife into Shrike's hand and stepped courteously back. Spyder could see by the way Shrike held the weapon that it was heavier than it looked. The hilt was some kind of black horn inlaid with fine silverwork and a blood red ruby on each side. Shrike slowly pulled the blade from its scabbard, getting the feel of the thing.

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