High Maintenance
Looney Tunes

Blind Shrike Page 23

"He checked out the bracelet with the bird and figured out what it was for. You see, it made no sense as jewelry. The maker had cast the bird's claws from razor sharp steel and fitted them to the underside of the piece, so that they were in contact with the skin of the person wearing the bracelet. There was also a spring mechanism to rake the claws down the wearer's arm. What use could there be for something like that?"

"Cutting. Blood," said Spyder, who'd seen his share of bloodletting and scarring rituals among the üer-hipster modern primitive crowd in San Francisco.

"Exactly. The bracelet was an instrument of sacrifice, a device for making a blood offering to my family gods. Say the right incantation and release the spring on the silver shrike. The blades would take your blood and help you get what you want. On a small scale. It's not much of a sacrifice. Only good for small favors. Like a second or two of sight."

"What do you see? Is it like normal vision?"

"Nothing at all. It's like I'm floating above the scene, looking down on everything happening. I can see myself and my opponent, plus the nearby landscape. The visions never last for long. Just long enough for me to get my bearings and a sense of an opponent. I can't do it too often. The gods get tired of these dime store sacrifices. I have to be careful not to ask for their help too often."

Spyder frowned. "I wondered why you kept that coat on, even in the heat. You're hiding the bracelet."

"And my arm," said Shrike. "It's not something to see."

"How many times have you used the bracelet?"

"I don't know. Sometimes you make a blood offering without asking for anything in return. Sometimes, when you're boxed in, say, you use it more than once. More blood sometimes mean more sight. Sometimes not. I've been using it for ten years."

Spyder reached over and pushed up the sleeve of Shrike's coat. The bracelet was on her right forearm. It was a beautiful object. Like something that belonged in a museum, he thought. He turned Shrike's arm over and worked the bracelet's clasp, sliding the thing off her arm. Shrike's skin was streaked with years of ragged scar tissue. The back of her arm was red with new scars, still in the healing process. She'd used it on the airship, Spyder thought.

He set the bracelet over his own arm. It was too small to go all the way around, so he held it in place and pushed the metal shrike back until he felt it catch. Feeling around the bird's wings, he found the release button and pushed it. The bird raked down his arm, sending an electric pain all the way up to his shoulder. When Shrike heard the bracelet snap, she started a little and felt for him.

"What did you do?" she asked.

"I wanted to know what it was like," Spyder said. He leaned down and kissed her scars before putting the bracelet back on Shrike's arm. She leaned into him and he put his bloody arm around her.

"Where I come from, this isn't your standard dating scenario," Spyder said. Shrike laughed at little. "But I guess it's one way to get to know each other."

"Excuse me."

Spyder looked up. Primo was standing over them.

"I hate to intrude, but I need to speak to madame Butcher Bird."

"Meaning you want me to take off?" asked Spyder.

Primo was silent.

"It's all right, Primo. Spyder is part of this and can hear anything you have to say."

"Yes, ma'am," Primo said. He groaned as he sat down. "There's something Madame Cinders didn't tell you, afraid that you might not agree to perform the service she requires."

"She wanted you to tell me when we were on the road and in too deep to turn back."

"Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry. I would have preferred not to do things this way."

"It's all right. I understand that it wasn't your choice. What is it that was too awful for me to know?"

"The mutinous spirits in hell, the confusion that is to be our cover?"

"Tell me."

"Some say that it is led by the Golden Bull, Xero Abrasax."

Shrike was silent. She stabbed the ground with her cane.

"Shrike?" said Spyder. "You know this guy?"

"Yes."

"He's the…"

"Yes, he's the bastard traitor who f**ked me, took my father, my sight and my kingdom."

"There's more, I'm afraid," said Primo.

"Fuck that sick bitch," Spyder said.

"Be quiet," said Shrike. "Tell me the rest, Primo."

"The key that Madame put into your body. You know that it was forged in Hell. It is not an object that is compatible with life. If you fail to reach the cage in which the book rests, the key will move through your body, as it is doing even now, and pierce your heart. You will die."

"We should turn around right now," said Spyder. "We've got the Count with us. She'd never expect an ambush. We'll kick her chair over, pull out her tubes and stand on her f**king throat until she takes that thing out of you."

"I can't do that. Loyalty is all people in my profession have."

"Excuse me, ma'am, but Mr. Spyder has a point. Whatever you decide, this I'm telling you as a friend and a Gytrash: Madame Cinders does not always honor her bargains gracefully. When this is over, you must be wary."

"Swell," said Spyder. "If we fail we're screwed and if we succeed we're f**ked."

"Thank you for telling me. You're a true friend," said Shrike. She reached out and squeezed the little man's hand.

"What are you going to do?" he asked.

"We have to go forward. Without the book, we have nothing to bargain with. With it, we have a chance."

"We can cut and run," said Spyder. "Disappear into that city ahead. Or trade for a ship and go somewhere."

"There are too many people looking for us," said Shrike. "There's no ship that can sail us away from this mess. And I need to get this key out of my body. The only way to do that is to get to Hell and succeed."

"I'm going with you," said Spyder.

"You can't. One glimpse of the underworld and you'll be trapped there forever."

"I'm not going to sit by the door reading the funnies, wondering what time you're getting home from work."

"This is just stupid and dangerous. Why are you doing this?"

Spyder kissed Shrike's cheek. "Didn't you get the memo? Heroes are coming smaller this year."

They went and sat back down at the fire with Count Non and Lulu. The Count had his long legs propped against the far wall of the cave. Spyder watched as a tarantula worked its way down from the ceiling, stepped onto to Count's boot and crept up his leg. When it reached his hip, Non grabbed the tarantula and tossed it into the fire, where it writhed and sizzled. Spyder looked at the man.

"When you cut out the poison sac, tarantula tastes a lot like crab," the Count said.

"There must be some seriously f**ked up Boy Scouts where you come from," said Spyder.

Lulu was making shadow animals on the wall. She wiggled her fingers to create a giant spider.

"The Count and I were having a chat, and we agree on the whole Elvis thing. `Suspicious Minds' is a fine song, but Tom-fucking-Jones could've sung it just as well. Probably did, too. I'd know, only I don't have any Tom Jones CDs."

"I have a bootleg of Elvis doing `Suspicious Minds' live that I'll play for you when we get back," said Spyder. "You'll see that the song is worth enduring a few white leather jumpsuits. For the truly great moments in this life, you've got to take the good with the bad."

Twenty Nine

Berenice

"It's Berenice," said Shrike. "We're lucky we followed the river."

"Now we know what town it is," said Spyder. "We could have just walked here from through some sewer pipe and skipped the whole Hindenburg drama."

"No. Berenice isn't like other cities. That's why it's not on our map. The city isn't really here. Only the memory of the city."

"A city like the Coma Gardens?"

"Berenice is where memories live when we're done with them. It's where they're born and it's where they eventually die."

"What good does it do us? We can't ride the memory of horses to the mountains."

"There are humans in Berenice," said Count Non. "Someone has to be there to witness the memories. If not, they fade away. To make money, the human inhabitants trade with travelers."

"Trade what?" asked Lulu.

"Horses, lost keys, lost shoes, lost spells," said Shrike. "The clever ones trade dreams, memories of lost love, lost hope."

"Sounds like Disneyland on Ketamine," Spyder said.

"I passed through there once before. It can be dangerous. Psychically. You don't want to turn a corner and run into your own lost virginity."

"Speak for yourself. I'd do me at fourteen," said Lulu. "Let's follow the goddam yellow brick road."

"There's no road, Lulu. Just the river," said Spyder.

"Shit."

"We'll swim," said Shrike. "We just have to get inside the city walls. There are walkways along all the canals."

"You cool with swimming, Lulu?" Spyder asked.

"Excuse me, son. You were the civilian. I was a lifeguard at YMCA camp, remember?"

"Yeah, but that was a while back. Before you had your troubles."

"You think my empty little eye holes and gut holes are going to fill up with water and drown me? That ain't going to happen. But thanks a shitload for making a thing of it."

"I'm just concerned is all."

"I'm fine," Lulu said and waded into the river. When she was knee deep, she turned back. "There aren't any sharks or things with stingers out here, are there?"

"Nothing that can hurt you," said Shrike.

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