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Blind Shrike Page 6

"Pardon us?" said the banker, and all three men started toward the back of the shop.

"Hey, Barry White, tell me something," said Spyder. "You knew she wasn't alone, didn't you? This whole scene was just a vaudeville act. You weren't here to collect from her, but to rope in someone new."

The middle banker nodded to his companions, then to Spyder. "You. The girl. This does not matter. The debt matters. The restoration of balance? This is our burden." One by one, the three men entered the little bathroom at the back of the studio. When Spyder opened the door a moment later, they were gone.

"What was that word he called you just now?" Spyder asked Lulu.

"Oblation," she said. "It's a kind of sacrifice. The kind you're supposed to give with thanks."

"It's not enough they zombifie you. You're supposed to send them a thank you card, too?"

"Pretty much. You wouldn't think it to look at them, but the Black Clerks are all about having a good time." Lulu put her hand lightly on Spyder's shoulder. "You have no idea what you just got yourself into."

Spyder kissed the top of her head. "It's all right. I think I know someone who can help."

Ten

DOA

After dropping Lulu at home, Spyder took at cab to the Bardo Lounge. He'd always -preferred the night, but now he was falling in love with it.

Spyder couldn't really deny the angels in the sky or the anacondas with the faces of crying children hiding in the palm trees along Dolores Street, but in the dark smaller oddities were swallowed and invisible. Besides, night had always seemed a time of madness and possibility. The visions just felt more natural at night.


The neighborhood around the Bardo Lounge had taken on a heavy, wet jungle feel, as if the cab had stumbled into the abandoned set of some expensive dinosaur movie. There were always a lot of film crews in town and for a moment, Spyder thought that they might have genuinely rolled onto a set. But sacrifice poles dotted the corners, animal heads and flowers dripping in the thick, humid air.

The Bardo Lounge was packed. Rubi was serving drinks. She gave Spyder a kiss on the cheek and bought him a tequila. He was relieved to see that she was entirely normal, with none of Lulu's mutilations.

The bar was alive with a happy, drunken weekend crowd. Leather-clad boys and girls with hair in cotton-candy colors and lips shining brighter than their vinyl skirts. Spyder wanted to wade out and dive into their beauty, and be baptized by their sweat and saliva. But for the first time since he was an awkward teenager, he couldn't think of anything to say to them. He felt as removed from the crowd as the monsters he'd been seeing in the streets all day. Spyder turned away and drank his tequila.

There was a demon sitting on the stool next to Spyder. It was a huge bare-chested olive-skinned man, his features lost beneath cascading rolls of glistening fat. White geometric designs covered his arms and chest, some kind of tribal markings. Considering everything, he didn't look too bad, Spyder thought. Pretty human, in fact. Not at all like the monsters in Jenny's mythology textbooks. The demon stole the beer of the girl sitting next to him and poured the whole thing into a wide, toothless mouth that split open in the middle of his chest.

Spyder sighed and the demon caught him looking. The demon leaned in close and said, "How do you get twelve humans to wear one hat?"

"How?" asked Spyder.

"You bite the heads off eleven."

Spyder turned back to his drink. "Sorry for not laughing, but I'm going to be over here ignoring you."

"I'm Bilal," said the demon, " You're the little prince, aren't you? The one Shrike killed for. What's your story?"

"There is no story. I'm just an inker who had to take a leak."

"That's beautiful. Maybe they'll carve that on your tombstone? You'll be an inspiration to future generations." A stoned couple stumbled by and Bilal delicately plucked the cigarette from the mouth of a cadaverous, lavender-lipped boy. The demon sniffed the cigarette once and dropped it into his chest-mouth. "Though I was really hoping you could justify your existence. Like maybe you were some minor deity on pilgrimage. Or a diplomat off to a secret rendezvous to stop a war."

Bilal blew out a long puff of smoke out through the mouth in his face.

"What's it like being a demon here in a place like this?" asked Spyder.

"I don't know. What's it like being a human?"

Spyder looked in the mirror behind the bar, taking in the crowd. There were other demons, mostly talking to each other. A couple of guys playing pool were cut up in a way that looked like the work of the Black Clerks. "Scary and Salvador Dali weird," Spyder said. "Wrath of god weird. The kind of weird where you think if you see one more shadow or hear one more bang, your heart's going to explode."

"Welcome to the world, boy. As for my personal complaints, you can add having to deal with idiot talking meat like you." Bilal pocketed a two dollar tip someone had left for Rubi. "See, that demon who died last night was Nebiros. He was a friend of mine. In fact, my best friend in this sorry Sphere." Bilal put his hand on Spyder's arm. Each of the demon's fingers was tipped with a scaly lizard mouth lined with tiny needle teeth. The lizards bit into Spyder as Bilal squeezed his arm. "You owe Nebiros a life and me, well, I miss my friend and that makes me mad. You know what I mean?"

The enormous mouth opened wetly in the demon's chest and he pulled Spyder closer. A leathery, black tongue darted out, licking Spyder's face. "Shit!" yelled Bilal, slurping the enormous tongue back into his chest. He turned Spyder's arm over, revealing the Black Clerk's mark.

"You must shit candy and piss champagne, son. Everyone wants a piece of you," said Bilal.

"You mean you can't hurt me because of this mark?"

"I didn't say that."

"It sure as hell looked like it."

"Smile while you still have lips. The Clerks have you penciled in. What they'll do to you is a hundred times worse than what I had planned."

"I'm looking for Shrike," said Spyder.

"Just because I'm not eating you doesn't mean I'm helping you."

"Yeah, but if I find her and get her to help me, maybe she'll get in trouble with the Clerks, too. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

"Shrike's not that stupid," Bilal said. He took the last of Spyder's tequila and swallowed it, glass and all. "Still, she likes them pretty and dumb. You might drag her down to your level." Bilal spat broken glass onto the ground at Spyder's feet. "She's got a room at the Coma Gardens. It's a bordello down by pier 31."

"I've never heard of it."

"It's not for your kind."

"Right. Thanks."

"Go to Hell."

Rubi asked Spyder if he wanted another drink. He shook his head. "You okay?" she asked. "You've been here muttering to yourself all night."

"Just replaying that last fight with Jenny. I keep trying it different ways hoping it comes out another way."

"You poor thing," said Rubi.

"I've seen you in here a hundred times before. I've stolen your drinks and I've spit in them. But you've never seen me," Bilal said to Spyder. "How does it feel to suddenly have to live in the real world?"

"It's the worst thing that ever happened to me."

"Good." All the demon's mouths smiled. "I've been around for a while and I can tell the ones who are going to make it once they get the Sight and you're not one of them. You'll be dead by Christmas. A bullet. Maybe poison. I don't see you as the hanging type."

"I'm going to kill myself just because I see uglies like you? In your wildest dreams, Cinderella."

"No, you're going to kill yourself because you can't stand the real world. Reality has a special weight. It's a burden like no other, and it just keeps getting heavier."

"I'm going back to ignoring you now."

"I've seen it a thousand times. It's like when you first learn that you have colonies of dust mites living on your eye lashes and in your bed, eating flakes of your dead skin. You never look at yourself or the world the same again. That's the weight of reality. Once you take on that burden, the world looks at you differently, too. Check out the crowd. All those pretty girls who used to flirt with you, your friend behind the bar, they're all watching you having a nice chat with an empty barstool. They're already starting to wonder about you. Tomorrow they'll tell their friends. Maybe I can't hurt you, but I have connections who can influence mortal minds. Reinforce the doubt that's already there. By Monday, you're going to be Jeffery Dahmer to these people. They'll crucify you for blinking at them," said Bilal. "Yeah, you're going to kill yourself."

"Tell me something, when you jerk off, do those little lizards on your hands bite? I bet you like that."

"And then there are the Clerks. They've claimed you and you know what that means. They're going to pick you apart like a maggot-covered carcass. Could you feel them slicing you up with their eyes, deciding what piece they'll take first?"

Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand" came on the jukebox. A girl whooped drunkenly and Rubi turned the song up loud.

"I take it back. You won't make it till Christmas," said Bilal. "You won't even make it to Halloween."

"Get a costume and come on over. I'll put razor blades in some apples for you. Enough for all your mouths."

Bilal leaned over the bar and used the lizard mouths on his fingertips to spear some cherries from Rubi's drink set-ups. The demon popped the cherries into his face-mouth one at a time. "Give Shrike a big kiss from me. She'll be so happy to see you, little prince."

Spyder got up from his stool and started for the door. He couldn't help noticing that people were pointedly getting out of his way. At the door Spyder heard Bilal yell, "An OD! You're going to OD! How could I have missed that?"

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