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Blind Shrike Page 18

"She's not one of your little harem girls?"

"Lulu's my oldest friend in the world. And if she was going to do the Dance of the Seven Veils it would be for you, not me."

"Ah. A girl's girl."

"She'd likely prefer `Soft Butch,' but yeah. You're not jealous or anything are you?"

"You're the one whose penis has its own answering machine. I heard and smelled a woman coming on board…"

"And thought I was bringing a snack? Thanks for letting me know you still think I'm an idiot."

"I don't think that. We just don't know each other that well, yet. In my kind of work, trust is important. And I don't give it easily."

"Neither do I, and I'm not even a killer."

"Then, you should understand that I'm enjoying your company, but am not entirely at ease with it yet."

"I'm right with you there, Calamity Jane."

"We'll know more by the end of the trip."

"Not me. Aside from meeting you, I want to forget every bit, every minute of this," said Spyder. He lit an American Spirit.

"It doesn't work that way," Shrike said. "When you lose the sight, I'll be gone, too. I'm from another Sphere. If you saw me at all, it would be as a ghost."

"Bollocks. Madame Cinders said her book has the power to create and uncreate things. She should be able to bend a few rules about what can and can't be seen. I want to see you. I don't want to see anything that's going to eat me; I don't want to see demons or talking snakes; and I don't ever want to see anyone with horns or wings. "

"Some of my best friends have horns and wings."

"I'll be your hillbilly boyfriend. Tell your magic buddies I'm pretty, but kind of slow."

"No problem there."

"See? We're halfway home."

"And if Madame Cinders can't bend the rules? What if, to regain your precious ignorance, we never see each other again?"

"We'll deal with that when it comes up. And it won't. Besides, I don't know what the hell I'm doing out here. I'm going to get eaten by a demon dachshund or shanked by a fire-breathing tea cozy."

"Stick with me, pony boy. The talking dogs will have to get through me to get to you."

Shrike laid her hand on Spyder's chest. He didn't move, but became aware of his heart beating and the movement of blood through his body.

"I think you're sexually harassing me again, but I'll let it go for now," he said.

"Did you bring your books?"

"Jenny took 'em all. But I know the big stuff, the grand schemes. The first, most important thing you need to understand about Hell is what the alchemist Hermes Trimegistus said: `Hell is like anywhere else. Only worse.' Course, that sounds a lot better in Latin."

Spyder talked into the night, telling Shrike about the pits and traps of Hell-the cunning lies demons tell, the slowly spinning trees full of knives in the abattoir forests. Lulu slept nearby in the hold. Spyder checked on her from time to time and made her drink water. They sailed west all day and all night. Like bright toys, airships drifted in the distance.

Twenty Three

Death is not the End

Among the greatest lies ever told, probably the greatest is that death only comes in one flavor.

Depending on the time, the place, the species of the deceased and its general standing in the universe, the nouveau-dead can find themselves experiencing any number of different types of death.

Most often, the classes of death experienced by humans fall into three categories:

Total Death. This is the typical human death. Sleeping the big sleep. Taking a dirt nap. The spirit has moved on and the body is empty meat in the cold ground. Nothing, short of some expensive special effects or an act of god, is going make a Total Death any but a common separation of spirit and a feast for worms.

Hungry Death. This is a loathsome kind of half- death. Typically, the hungry dead end up as zombies-slow-witted, gluttons for human flesh and smelling like an abandoned pig farm. This is the category where you never want to find yourself. Too deranged for Heaven and too unstable to accept damnation in Hell, there's no love lost in any Sphere for the Hungry Dead.

Petit Mort. The little death. This is the most elusive, but perhaps the most sublime human death. It's reserved for those enlightened souls to whom death and life aren't separate states, but the continuation of a single thought. Once they've made that initial transition between life and death, your typical Petit Mort spirit slips continually been the Land of the Dead and the Living Earth, wherever the action happens to be at the time.

Each state of death has a very different cast. Not all bad ones are punished. Not all good souls are rewarded. Luck or the lack of it, timing and intelligence are as important in death as they are in life.

A few of the humans who've experienced Total Death are musicians Buddy Holly and Bob Wills (plus most of his Texas Playboys); comedian Andy Kauffman; aviatrix Amelia Earhart; Picasso; cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova; Marilyn Monroe; and Hitler.

The Hungry Dead also include a number of musicians, most notably Jim Morrison; also actress Jayne Mansfield; serial killer (and the real Jack the Ripper) Frederick Bailey Deeming; author Ayn Rand; big-eyed child painters Margaret and Walter Keane.

The small Petit Mort roster includes most of the major prophets, plus a few artists, such as the painter Marcel Duchamp; singer Robert Johnson; inventor Nikolai Tesla, and Lilith, the first wild wife of Eden. Also in this category is a peculiar class of being, not quite human and not quite divine. These are the Tricksters. They slip between life and death for the simple reason that they refuse to take either state seriously. The Tricksters-Loki, Legba, the Painted Man, Coyote, Kubera and others-are pure chaos. Some cultures are certain that the Tricksters created the universe as a colossal practical joke, while others believe that as a joke is how they will end it.

Twenty Four

Amazing Grace

Spyder awoke sometime around dawn. Lulu was curled up next to him under a -blanket on a big love seat. Spyder looked around for Shrike, but she wasn't anywhere in sight. Water was boiling on the little stove.

He got up carefully, trying not to wake Lulu, and went -outside. The steady wind was wet and frigid. Spyder wrapped his arms around himself and went to the bow where Primo and Shrike, in her heavy coat, were talking. As he rounded the corner of the cabin, Spyder saw what the two were talking about. Another airship was hanging twenty or so yards off the port bow. It was shaped like an immense black scorpion. A metal cable was slowly extending from the scorpion ship's gondola, which hung from the end of the stinger.

"What's going on?" asked Spyder.

"According to Primo, they've been shadowing us all morning," said Shrike.

"What's that line they're sending over here?"

"A communication device," said Primo. "I believe."

"You don't know?"

"It's similar to devices I've seen, but I can't be sure."

"In any case, they'll be tethered to us. I don't like that," said Shrike.

"What's up, Spyder?" came a voice. He turned to see Lulu coming from the cabin.

"The neighbors want to borrow a cup of sugar."

"Holy shit," Lulu said, coming up behind him. "Are we happy about this?"

"I don't think we have any choice," said Shrike. "Spyder, not that I want you doing anything crazy, but would you go into the cabin and get that demon blade that Madame Cinders gave us?"

"Apollyon's knife?"

Shrike nodded. "It's wrapped in a silk scarf. If anything comes off that ship, I want to know we can kill it."

"We going Texas Chainsaw on the other blimp, too?" asked Lulu. She pointed off to starboard.

"Spyder…?" said Shrike.

"Another ship's coming out of the clouds," he said. "A burning heart wrapped in thorns. It looks like a Christian sacred heart."

"It's the Seraphic Brotherhood," said Primo, "pledged to the archangel Michael. They're warrior priests."

"Are they approaching us?" asked Shrike.

"No," said Spyder. "They're just hanging parallel a mile or two away."

"There's others out there, too," said Lulu.

"She's right. I can see a half dozen other ships, but they're mostly just dots."

"Get the blade, Spyder," Shrike said.

He ducked back below deck and Lulu followed him.

"Lulu, I want you to stay in here," said Spyder. He stalked around the cabin looking for the silken bundle.

"I'm no cotillion queen, Spyder. I can take care of myself."

"Not when you're coming off junk."

"I wasn't that deep in this time."

On the kitchen counter, he spotted the bundle. "In any case, I'll feel better knowing you're safe." Spyder found a butcher knife on the stove and tossed it to her. "But if anything with more than one head comes through the door, feel free to stick it."

"That's pretty much always my policy."

"That's my girl." Spyder grabbed his leather jacket and headed back onto the deck.

"Hey, Spyder!"

"Yeah, Lulu?"

"Your kamikaze girl outside? She's a sweet slice of honeydew."

"That she is."

When Spyder got back to the bow of the ship, the cable that had been spooling from the scorpion had settled onto the port railing, clamping itself in place with a single golden claw. A rotating disc had flipped open at the top of the claw and there was a grainy image of a young man flickering on a small screen before the wheel. The young man's face was cut through with snowy scan lines. He wore a dark uniform of a severe cut (and marked with numerous medals and campaign ribbons) and a kind of silver ring around his head. To Spyder's relief, he was clearly human. The young man and Primo were speaking rapidly in a language Spyder didn't understand.

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