Faking It
Fortitude

Blind Shrike Page 7

Eleven

The Voice of the Sphinx

Spyder wondered what time it was. He was in another cab and trying hard to ignore the chatty driver. It pained Spyder that he hadn't ridden his bike that morning. Without the bike, he always felt tied up and weighed down.

Ever since he could ride, Spyder had always had a motorcycle of some kind. "You never know when you're going to need to get the hell out of Dodge," he'd liked to tell friends. "And you can only run so far in a cab." He told the driver to pull over.

"This ain't even near Pier 31," said the cabbie.

"I feel like walking." Spyder paid the man and got out. He looked around as the cab made a U turn and headed back the way they'd come. Spyder had lived in San Francisco for ten years and during a brief breaking and entering period in his early twenties, had prided himself on knowing every backstreet, alley and bypass in the city. Right now, however, he didn't know where the hell he was.

Ahead of him, where he was certain the waterfront warehouses should begin, well-trodden sand dunes sloped down to San Francisco Bay. A lot of the city had been built on reclaimed beach. This, he was certain, was what the waterfront had looked like a couple of hundred years ago. Spyder stood where the cab had dropped him, fighting contradictory impulses. His body told him that ahead, past the dunes, was where the piers lay. But his eyes told him that there was nothing but shifting beach and black water. Then he saw a flicker-orange light from the far side of the dunes. In that moment of illumination, Spyder could see a line of silhouettes moving along the edge of the dunes, heading over them. Some of the silhouettes carried burdens on their backs. Others were merely misshapen. It was enough. Spyder's body and mind were finally in synch and he started walking.

At the top of the last big dune Spyder looked down onto a maze of market stalls that sprawled from the where he stood to the more familiar warehouses and piers in the distance. As he got closer to the market, sounds and smells hit him: the screams of hawkers, a dozen different musics pouring from out-of-tune instruments and cracked speakers, the heavy smell of roasting meat, spices and rotten wood. There were toys and piles of mismatched shoes, fresh vegetables, dried chameleons and flowers that sighed when you smelled them. There were orerries and telescopes, cracked eye glasses and black eggs that hatched kittens who (according to their seller) spoke perfect ecclesiastical Latin. Sellers tugged at Spyder's arm and waved squirming things, glittering things and mechanical things at him.

By a stall selling decomposing medical books and sex toys made of black lacquer and amber (some with ominous-looking beetles sealed inside) Spyder bumped shoulders with a tall, handsome man.

"Sorry," said Spyder. "My fault."

"You should watch your step, little brother," said the big man. "Not everyone in the market is as reasonable as I. Some are downright belligerent." The man's voice sounded the way black velvet looked and felt. Spyder wondered if it might be some kind of magic trick. Not that he actually believed in magic, but he was beyond ruling out that much anymore.

Though they were physically the opposite, the tall man reminded Spyder of Shrike. He held himself with the kind of grace that Spyder had seen in the swordswoman. But the man was huge, more than a head taller than Spyder. His face, while classically handsome, was marked with deep scars that, at first, Spyder thought might be -ritual, but then decided were some terrible accident. Chainmail covered the man's upper body and he wore pants that seemed to Spyder like modified motorcycle leathers. Metal plates and studs had been affixed along the legs, which were tucked into heavy steel-toed boots. At his side, the man wore a wide-bladed Kan Dao sword like ones Spyder had seen in maybe a thousand kung fu movies.

"Do I know you, little brother?" asked the big man.

"I don't think so," said Spyder. "I'm new here."

"Still, you seem familiar."

"I've got one of those faces."

"Perhaps that's it."

The tall man picked up a particularly elaborate sex toy from the stall and shook it. Six little legs sprang from the bottom and some kind of spring-wound plunger popped from the top and began pumping the air vigorously. The little legs kicked as if looking for something to grab on to. When the tall man laughed at the thing, Spyder noticed that color on his face was unnaturally intense. He realized that the man was wearing makeup, trying to cover his scars. The sudden insight made Spyder feel oddly more at home. Even here, down the rabbit hole or wherever the hell he'd ended up, people still had egos and still worried about how they looked.

"I'm looking for a place called the Coma Gardens. Do you know it?" Spyder asked the man.

"Very well," he replied. "Go down this aisle and turn toward the water at the Sphinx. Be sure not to speak to her. She will never let you go. Keep walking and when you see the Volt Eater, the Coma Gardens lie just beyond. You can't miss it."

"Thanks," said Spyder desperately wanting to ask what the hell a Sphinx and a Volt-Eater were, but thinking the better of it. He knew he'd find out soon enough.

He wasn't disappointed. Following the crowd in the direction the mercenary had pointed, Spyder saw a Sphinx. A living, breathing Sphinx, like the sculptures in Golden Gate Park. The Sphinx sat up on its haunches, its lion body acorn brown, muscled and sleek as a cruise missile. Gathered around the Sphinx was a rapt crowd. They were clearly in awe, maybe hypnotized, thought Spyder. The Sphinx's face-the face of a human woman-was easily the most beautiful he had ever seen. Spyder looked away when he caught himself staring, but the Sphinx had already noticed him.

"Don't be shy, my friend. Come closer. I can answer all your questions and tell you your destiny."

Spyder half-turned in her direction. "Nope. Sorry. No thanks," he said.

The Sphinx's eyes narrowed with sudden interest and the crowd turned to see who she was looking at. "Yes, you should keep moving," she said to Spyder. "Don't let anything or anyone stop you from getting where you're going." Lowering her voice, the Sphinx spoke to her adoring crowd. Spyder slowed his gait, listening to her words. "See what passes, my children. A blind fool. A golden champion. What could he be seeking under heaven's rough gaze? We have a mystery in our midst." When Spyder turned to sneak a last look at the Sphinx, she was staring him right in the eye. The beautiful beast gave him a smile and a wink. "It looks as if heroes are coming smaller this year."

Spyder's head spun. He turned away and hurried down the aisle. At the end, he found what he figured must be the Volt Eater. An exotic bare-breasted beauty, her skin oiled and gleaming, she was inhaling in long draughts from a wrist-thick cable attached to a gas powered generator. After each breath, she spat lighting bolts, snaking and crackling, over the heads of the happily screaming crowd. People threw money at the Volt Eater's feet after each demonstration of her electric skills. It made Spyder a little sad to see her. On any other night, she would have been the hands-down highlight. He would have been in temporary love and dreamed about her as he went home with whomever he was with that night. Tonight, however, the Volt Eater was just a pretty girl spitting watts, no more or less miraculous than Bible-quoting kittens or the lion-woman who'd just pronounced him both a fool and a hero.

Just when Spyder thought he would never be surprised again, he came to the edge of the market and saw the Coma Gardens. Bathed in light the color of blood and pumpkins, the whole building was engulfed in a spectacular fire. Part of the roof collapsed and flames shot fifty feet into the night sky. The only thing more shocking than the fire was the fact that no one in the market was paying the slightest attention to it. They went on with their selling and haggling even as the whole structure cracked and caved in on itself.

Twelve

Cyanide Recall

The Coma Gardens kept on burning. The beams glowed as if they'd been injected with magma, shedding hot jets of flame and debris over the sales stalls. Spyder walked along the cement broadway between the market and burning hotel, unsure what to do.

If Jenny hadn't taken the cell phone, Spyder thought, he could call 911. Of course, he wasn't sure exactly where he was. Still, all he'd have to tell them is that there was a burning building on the pier. The fire trucks would be able to see it from all the way down at Fisherman's Wharf. In fact, someone had probably already called the fire in, which was both good and bad. It was good in that the fire department would put it out. It was bad in that it bought Spyder back to the fact that he had no idea what he would do if Shrike was inside the burning building. He didn't want to think about it. Spyder turned around one more time to see if anyone in the market was forming a bucket brigade. The market went on as it had all -evening--oblivious, a world unto itself.

Then Spyder saw someone at the edge of the crowd. She was talking to a man wearing an enormous, jeweled bird mask, one that covered his entire head (or actually was his head, Spyder later thought). The woman wore her shades, and moved her white cane from one hand to the other so she could shake the bird man's feathered mitt. Spyder ran to her through the smoke of the smoldering Coma Gardens.

"Shrike!" he yelled. The woman turned her head toward him as the bird man walked away. Spyder ran up and grabbed her happily by the shoulders. "It's me, -Spyder. You saved my life the other night."

The blind woman gave him a crooked smile. "Oh yes. The pretty pony boy. How are you?"

"I'm…" He started to answer, but realized he had no idea what to say. He felt giddy at having found her, but there was the accumulating wreckage of the rest of his life. "I'm fine," he said. "I can see things now. The real world. That's how I found the market. And you."

"Good for you," she said. "Maybe you're more clever than I thought. A trick pony. Me, I'm off to find new -lodgings."

"I can see why," said Spyder.

"What do you mean?"

"What do I mean? Look! Your hotel is an in-fucking-ferno."

"No, it's not. I would be able to feel the heat."

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