7th Heaven
8 out of 10 Cats

Blind Shrike Page 15

"A hellspawn stole from me, so before I left that cursed place I returned the favor," Madame Cinders wheezed before lapsing into a coughing fit. "That is the knife of Apollyon, also called Abbadon. Do you know of him?"

"His name means `The Destroyer'," said Spyder.

"The Destroyer," repeated Madame Cinders. "The blade will kill anything in this world or the next."

"Why would a powerful demon need such a weapon?" asked Shrike. "What aren't you telling us?"

"Clever girl," said Madame Cinders. "You see far beyond your blindness."

"Answer the question, please."

"Apollyon is a general in Lucifer's army. He is part of a loyal faction that opposes Asmodai and the ambitious wizard. You see, Hell is in turmoil, Butcher Bird. The devil's throne is no longer secure. The wizard and his followers are sewing discontent among the other fallen angels. This mutiny has thrown the entire Underworld into confusion. While it makes Hell a more dangerous place to dwell, it also makes it an easier place to enter and from which to escape. I'm asking you be my thief in the land of the dead, but there should still be killing enough to satisfy even a Butcher Bird."

"Where is the book now?"

"Lucifer captured it and it now rests in his palace, -Pandemonium."

Shrike slid the demon knife back into its scabbard. "If that book can save my father, I'll go," she said. "I accept your commission."

"Bring me back the book," said Madame Cinders. "The killing, I leave to you discretion. Slaughter armies or creep in and out like a church mouse. It doesn't matter to me. But remember this, Lucifer's ambitions are simple: He rules in Hell and wants vengeance on Heaven. There are revolutionaries in Hell whose ambitions are more like a man's, rooted in hunger and animal desire. Given the chance, they will use the book to overthrow Hell and then bring Hell to Earth. Fail to rescue the book, child, and we may all end up like your father."

"I won't fail," said Shrike. "I'll get your book and free my father. And keep Hell in its place."

"You leave tomorrow at dawn," said Madame Cinders, reversing in her wheelchair and leading them back to her quarters. "Primo will go with you. He has a map showing your route to the Kasla Mountains, through whose highest peak, Hell is accessible."

"There are things I need from the city," said Shrike.

"Go back, by all means. I've arranged a tuk-tuk for you. A more secure one, this time."

"Do you know who arranged the attack our first ride?" asked Spyder.

"Wizards in league with the mad man in Hell. Rebel angels, perhaps, knowing that I am coming for the book. I have a key forged by Lascaux imps, the greatest thieves on the mortal plane. It will open any lock, even in Hell. Come closer, child, so that I may give it to you."

Shrike went to the old woman, but instead of putting the key into her hand, Madam Cinders slid both her hand and the key into Shrike's chest. Shrike gasped and pulled away. Spyder held Shrike as she fell back. Madame Cinders' hand was empty.

"What have you done to me?" screamed Shrike, her sword up and at the old woman's throat.

"It's all right, girl. I've put the key somewhere no one can steal it. It will travel through you, with your blood. When you reach the cage where the book is housed, you will find the key again in your hand. Until then, it is safe."

"And unrecoverable, right?" spat Shrike. "This way, I can't betray you."

"Unless you fancy evisceration. And you can't live forever with that thing in your body. You must complete the task you have agreed to."

"Or she'll die," said Spyder.

"It's what we mortals do best," said Madame Cinders. "Don't fool yourself, boy. I haven't betrayed the girl. I'm merely holding her to our bargain. She's a woman and knows the difference between bargaining and treachery, something men never seem to understand."

"Fuck you, you twisted old bitch," said Spyder. Shrike laid a hand on his arm and stood up.

"She's right," Shrike said. "It's just part of bargaining and as fellow women we can, of course, trust each other." She gave Cinders a thin smile.

"You see?" said Madame Cinders. Though he couldn't see her face, Spyder knew she was smiling, showing black, rotten teeth under her veil.

"And here is my last bargain," said Shrike, holding up Apollyon's knife. "When we've returned your book, if you don't deliver everything you've promised, I'll make sure this gets back to it's original owner with the name of the person who took it and where, precisely, to find her." Shrike bowed to Madame Cinders. "I promise this to you. As a woman."

Shrike turned and walked out, with Spyder following her. Primo trailed along behind, keeping his distance, clearly nervous.

Madame Cinders had been right about their trans-portation. A tuk-tuk, a loud, three-wheeled motorcycle that spewed black exhaust and rattled like a glorified lawnmower, was waiting for them in the tunnel. Spyder, Shrike and Primo rode in silence until they came to the wet crossroads where they'd paused earlier. Primo led them back on foot through the passages to Alcatraz. Shrike didn't say a word on the way back, but on the windy deck of the tourist boat back to San Francisco, she turned to Spyder and leaned against him. He put his arms around her and held her there. She sighed and relaxed into him.

"This is nice," Spyder said. He felt her nod. "You warm enough?"

"Yes," she said.

"I'm not going with you," Spyder blurted. "I thought I could, but I can't. I drank tequila with a demon. I talked to a sphinx. I almost got hacked into fertilizer and fed to man-eating daisies. And now I'm supposed to go to Hell. Only I'm not going. Somewhere between the alligator men and the demon knives, I hopped off this train."

"It's all right to be afraid," Shrike said. She pulled away from him. "I'm afraid, too."

"You're a killer. You've trained for this. A couple of days ago, my greatest fear was leaving a message for one girl on another girl's answering machine."

"This is funny. I'd planned on ditching you after Madame Cinders offered us the job. I didn't want you to get hurt. But I don't know anything about Hell and I need your help."

"Why? So demons can use your skin to shine their boots? This isn't sneaking into the drive-in with your f**k buddies. This is putting one over on the Prince of Darkness and an army of fallen pissed-at-god-and-the-universe angels."

"You know I have to go."

"You're a cute girl, Shrike. I can say that because your intestines are still on the inside."

"I have to save my father."

"I don't save fathers. I couldn't save mine from drinking himself to death and yours looked pretty far f**king gone, too."

"You don't have to enter Hell itself. It'll take days getting to the Kasla Mountains. Tutor me. Bring your friend's books and teach me so I won't get lost in the underworld."

"That thing in a wheelchair said that if I see Hell, I'll be stranded there forever."

"You won't see it, I promise. I know this isn't your problem. I know you fell into this. But I need you now."

Spyder leaned against the rail and closed his eyes, feeling the rocking of the ship as they docked at Fisherman's Wharf.

"If you're coming, meet me at dawn. Primo will be here with our transportation. You hear me, pony boy?"

Spyder kissed Shrike on the cheek. "Good luck, Alizarin. Come back safe. And thanks for trying to help me out." He turned and walked away.

Twenty

Badlands

Spyder grabbed a cab at Fisherman's Wharf and took it back to his warehouse.

When the driver tried to engage him in tourist chit-chat, Spyder ignored him and stared out the window. It was dusk. The sky was midnight blue and shot through with glowing stripes of salmon. Lights were coming on as they drove through North Beach. Strip clubs, punk clubs, sports bars and Italian restaurants hissed by. On the corners were groups of tourists shivering as fog came down them in their Alcatraz Swim Team T-shirts. Fidgety clusters of students, street kids and sailors in dress whites ran through the traffic, eager to get on to the next good time.

And there were the mutilated, sipping cappuccinos at sidewalk cafes. The beautiful Volt Eater from the night market was being ferried down Broadway on a glittering sedan chair. Outside a sex shop at Broadway and Columbus, a blue-robed angel sat atop a sacrifice pole holding a dead kitten in its arms and weeping.

Spyder dug the crumpled pack of American Spirits from his pocket and lit one. He thought of something Lulu had said when he first discovered her awful secret, "If you wait long enough, everything becomes normal." There's a lot of truth in that, he thought, watching the animal-shaped airships drift through the evening sky. Nothing was bothering him at that moment. With a little practice, he was certain that nothing would ever bother him again.

At the warehouse, Spyder handed the driver a wad of bills and got out of the cab without waiting for change. Inside, the warehouse was cold and not all that comforting. As much as Spyder loved to travel, he was always thrilled and relieved to be back in his own comfortable, messy rooms. As he flicked on the light, however, the familiar piles of books and videos, the scattered clothes, felt odd and alien. He grabbed a fresh pack of cigarettes from the kitchen counter and hit the button that rolled up the big garage door that took up most of the west wall of the warehouse. Dropping on to the seat of the Dead Man's Ducati was the first thing that felt right to Spyder since leaving the boat at Fisherman's Wharf. He gunned hit the button to lower the door and popped the clutch. Ducking at the last possible moment, Spyder cleared the weather stripping on the bottom of the door by an inch. He roared onto the 101 freeway.

Shooting off the Fell Street exit, Spyder headed up to Haight Street with the throttle wide open, blowing red lights and slow traffic the whole way. He didn't let up on the gas until he was a block from the tattoo parlor. Fog was drifting in when he rolled the bike between an SUV and a battered El Camino with NUESTRA RAZA stenciled high on the windshield.

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