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Blind Shrike Page 24

"Countdown, you get one side and I'll get on the other. We'll put Shrike and Primo between us. Make sure no one wanders off course or sinks," said Spyder.

The Count smiled. "A good idea, little brother."

"Primo, are you all right swimming with one arm?" asked Shrike.

"I'll be a little slow, I think," he said.

"Slow's fine. No one's in a rush to find their lost retainer," said Spyder.

Shrike took Spyder's arm as they waded into the river. When she swam, she did so with ease and confidence. Spyder realized quickly that she didn't need much looking after. He kept an eye on Primo, who was doing a kind of modified dog paddle with his one good arm. The swimmer Spyder kept wondering about was the Count. How he managed to stay afloat while still wearing his chainmail amazed Spyder. Lulu was ahead of them, a strong, steady swimmer. She'd tied her jacket around her waist and on certain strokes, her Hello Kitty shirt slid up her body, letting the morning sun glint off the glass and metal she'd inserted into her wounded flesh.

Something brushed along Spyder's legs. Fingers touched his chest, tugged at his arms as they entered the water on each stroke. "What the f**k is happening?"

"They can't hurt you," Shrike said. "They're just memories. Drowned sailors, soldiers, anyone who died in water."

Suddenly, Spyder wanted very much to be out of the river and out of Berenice. The towering city walls, through which they soon passed, also seemed to be made of water. Not ice, but liquid water, pulled upward and carved into imposing barriers. If all that water ever came down, Spyder thought, it would wash the city away.

Lulu was already out of the river when the rest made it to the walkway. She helped Spyder out and he grabbed Shrike. The Count leaned down and practically lifted Primo from the water. The little man bowed in thanks.

"Where to?" Spyder asked.

"Uptown Saturday Night," said Shrike.

"You know some weird shit, girl."

"I just remembered the name. That happens here."

As they walked along the masonry concourse beside the canal, Spyder asked, "Earlier, why did you say that we're lucky we followed the river?"

"There are four entrances to Berenice. Water, air, fire and earth. Fire is the memory of violence and war. Air is the perpetual hurricane of anger and lost souls. Earth is a freezing mountain of despair and fear."

"The memories of the drowned are like the welcoming arms of your family compared to what lives in those other places," said Count Non.

"Wonder what would happen if I dropped a bunch of Alka Seltzer in back there?" asked Lulu. "Would it piss those drowned guys off or make 'em feel better?"

Thirty

A Universal Joke

Their clothes dried quickly in the bright sun, and by the time they reached one of the great boulevards that divided Berenice into its local parishes, no one would have guessed that they'd had to swim into the city.

From the interior, Berenice was much more impressive than it had seemed on the approach. At each corner of the boulevard was a whitewashed ziggurat topped with a gilt sun, angled to catch the light at different time of the day. Crystal globes hung from polished street lamps. Spyder counted a dozen large bronze statues to different gods on the one street. Who knew how many there were on the others? Handsome residents came and went from temples and tailor shops, butchers and herbalists, paying no attention to the travelers. The street on which they stood was paved with pale pink flagstones, but green, yellow and sky blue streets intersected it.

"Okay, we're here, somewhere. What do we do now?" asked Lulu.

"Let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for a helmet, the hope of salvation," Count Non said.

Spyder looked hard at the Count.

"St. Paul's First Epistle to the Thessalonians," he said.

"Yeah, I was just about to say that."

"We need to find stables or a market," said Shrike. "Some place big, with professional traders. And remember that you can't tell the wandering memories of people from real humans simply by looking at them."

"Then how do we know who we're talking to?" asked Spyder. "How do we trade for anything?"

"It's a question of attitude," Shrike said. "If you're talking to the memory of a trader, his responses will be mechanical and rote. A memory isn't active. It can't really do or say anything new or original. A human trader will be more eager and unpredictable."

"Makes sense."

"I'm going to go alone," said Shrike. "A poor, lost blind girl can usually count on a pity discount."

"You'll be able to find your way back here?" asked Spyder. "Maybe you should take Primo as backup."

"I'll be happy to accompany you, Butcher Bird. And a one-armed man with a blind woman might evoke even more pity from an anxious trader."

"All right," said Shrike. "We'll rendezvous here in two hours. Can I trust you three to find your way back?"

"Don't worry, I'll look after Lulu and the little brother," said the Count.

Spyder felt a pang of awkwardness as he and Shrike went off in different directions. He felt, somehow, that he should give her a goodbye kiss or something, but simultaneously wondered if he was supposed to acknowledge anything between them at all. In the end, they both went their own way.

They walked three abreast through the strange town, Spyder near the street and Lulu near the buildings. Count Non walked between them. "The first time I ever went to Tijuana on my own, I got lost," said Spyder. "Ended up in this shantytown somewhere up in the hills. This place went on and on. Plus, it was one of those days where you don't wake up hungover, you wake up still drunk. So, I'm wandering around, trying to figure out a way back to town, and this kid, a student, starts chatting me up. He wants to practice his English. Only whenever I ask him how to get back downtown, he suddenly can't understand me. I tell him to f**k off and keep walking. But these Tijuana shantytowns are like a goddam anthill. Houses made of broken cinder blocks, cardboard and big cans of vegetable oil pounded flat.

"Fast forward a few hours and I'm somewhere, but nowhere I've ever seen before. And now the sun is going down. Out of nowhere comes the kid who wanted English lessons. At first I think that I've just walked in a big circle. Then, I realize that the little f**ker's probably been shadowing me all day. My eyes are red and my head's full of broken glass and dust bunnies. I was wearing a brand new shiny pair of two hundred dollar New Rock boots. I had to trade 'em to the kid to get out of there, and walked back to my hotel barefoot."

Spyder couldn't quite figure out a pattern to the city. A street would be laid out like an ordinary one in any town, but then a building would be gone and in its place would be a pile of junk. Lost things, Spyder guessed. Not objects, but the memory of them. There were mounds of keys, piles of every kind of money, great meals laid out on endless banquet tables, the wan clowns and listless trapeze acts from forgotten circuses, lost limbs (fingers still trying to grasp some long lost something, feet flexing with somewhere to go). There were packs of dogs, flock of birds, colonies of house cats and stacks of dirty aquariums holding every kind of fish imaginable, lost pets all.

They stopped to look at the trinkets laid out on tables in a small street market on a yellow boulevard that intersected theirs. A trader with leathery skin and blue, chapped lips clasped his hands and greeted them eagerly. He stared at Lulu. "I see you've been doing some renovations, my dear." He took a bite of a juicy, green-skinned fruit. "What will you take for her?"

Spyder didn't bother looking up at the man, but kept studying the charms on the table. "She's not for sale."

The merchant leaned in close and spoke in intimate tones. "You think I won't keep her well because she lacks eyes and perhaps a liver. But don't worry. Those are not the organs that concern me."

Spyder tucked his hands in the waist of his jeans, pushing back his jacket to make sure the man saw Apollyon's knife. "I missed that. Say it again," Spyder told the man.

The merchant's gazes flickered from the knife to Spyder's shoulder. "You misunderstood me, friend. There is no business here," said the merchant, licking his thin lips. "Thank you. Have a good day." He walked quickly away.

Spyder turned to Count Non, who loomed close behind him. "I was doing all right, you know. I don't need you doing Hulk Hogan over my shoulder."

"Perhaps neither of us frightened him," said the Count. "Perhaps for once he heard his own words and thoughts and appalled himself."

Lulu said nothing, but pushed the merchant's wares off his table and onto the pavement.

"He seemed like the real reflective type," said Spyder.

"`God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.'" The Count laughed, "I like you, little brother. You disguise your nobler qualities to play the fool well."

"Uh, thanks."

"Would you take some advice from someone with more experience of the world?"

"You don't look that much older than me."

"Trust me. I am."

"Are we talking Michael Douglas old or Bob Hope old?"

"More like those mountains we're heading to."

"You must get great senior discounts on the bus."

"Be quiet, little brother."

"What the f**k did you say?"

"Be quiet," repeated Count Non. "It's not necessary to fill every moment with your own voice. Silence terrifies you. Your see your own existence as so tenuous that you're afraid you'll pop like a soap bubble if, at every opportunity, you don't make a noise to remind the world that you're alive. But wisdom begins in silence. In learning to listen. To words and to the world. Trust me. You won't disappear. And, in time, you might find that you've grown into something unexpected."

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