My name is Marshall.
I work for a reporter named Jan Sleet. When I'd applied for the job as her assistant, she had asked quite carefully about my typing speed, research skills and proficiency with shorthand.
My qualifications in all of those areas were excellent, and I was hired. In the years since then, I have done very little typing, no research at all and I have taken no shorthand.
We had just arrived back in the U.S. a week before, and I'd been hoping to catch up on some movies and plays while she was writing, but she had other ideas.
Jan Sleet had wandered off on Friday night, somehow getting lost between her publisher's office and the restaurant where we were going to have dinner. I had waited for several hours, getting wired on cup after cup of espresso, and then had finally returned to the hotel. Some policemen had brought her in just before dawn. She had been battered and bruised, her clothing all dirty and ripped, and while I cleaned her up she'd told me a fairly wild and largely incoherent story about the events of the night before. Then she'd gone to bed and had apparently had some sort of magical dream. She woke up with a conviction that we had to return to the neighborhood where she had been the night before, I have no idea for what purpose.
This sort of thing was not unusual with her.
There was a coffeepot steaming on a small hot plate, a small black and white television perched on top of the refrigerator, and a thick cloud of cigarette smoke was in the air. We were there to collect Jan Sleet's new friend Vicki, who was supposed to help us in some way.
I stepped gingerly into the room. There were three people in it, besides Jan Sleet and myself, and that was enough to make it seem quite crowded.
One was a very large woman with short, iron gray hair. She sat at a high table, a large mug of coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other. She regarded us with suspicion.
There was a small man with thinning hair, wearing a bathrobe. He had let us in, following a certain amount of yelling.
The other person I first thought was a child, but when I looked more closely I saw she was a very small teenage girl. She wore a black T-shirt, black jeans and sneakers. Her body was definitely post-pubescent, but she couldn't have been more than four feet tall. It was like looking at somebody very far away.
She reached up, scowling at my scrutiny, and pushed her hair back behind her ear, which I was surprised to see was very high and pointed.
I sighed. It was starting to seem as if the stories Jan Sleet had been telling me about the night before might even be true.
Vicki tried to introduce us to the man (who was named Finch) and the heavyset woman (who was T.C.), but she was surprised to find out that we knew them already, which is a long story.
"So," Jan Sleet said, putting out a hand to steady herself. I knew what this meant and stepped behind her. "So," she started again, then her eyes rolled up in her head and she started to collapse. Her cane clattered to the floor. I caught her and Finch stepped forward, obviously concerned.
"Oh, don't worry," I said. It was no effort to hold her up, sort of like holding a big sack with some curtain rods in it. "We've been walking all day, since our car was stolen, and we haven't eaten anything since breakfast. She can't keep that up for very long. But she doesn't–"
"Is she okay?" T.C. demanded, getting down off her stool. "Because if she's going to kick off, you can–"
"She'll be fine," I reassured her. "She just hasn't any more sense than a child. Is there somewhere she can sleep for a while?"
T.C. gestured a fat arm at the door to one of the other rooms. "Take her in there. The lower bunk." Finch started to say something, but T.C. ignored him. "Nobody's going to be sleeping there tonight. Ten bucks for the bed for the night. Fifteen and I'll cook her some dinner when she wakes up."
I nodded, glad that I'd brought quite a bit of cash. "Sounds like a deal."
She grinned. "Damn right it is. I'm a good cook."
I stripped off Jan Sleet's clothes and put her in the narrow bed. She mumbled a little, but didn't wake up. Vicki sat on the other bed, swinging her feet back and forth.
"She never did say," she said suddenly," what you're doing here."
I sat down next to my employer's unconscious form, pushing her over so I could be comfortable. "Well, she'd probably better tell you about the main reason herself. But maybe you can help with one thing. She lost her briefcase somewhere last night, she thinks maybe at that bar Duffy's where she met you. We went there this afternoon but we couldn't get in. Do you remember anything about it?"
She drew in a deep breath and scratched her forehead. Then she smiled. "Yeah, I remember. What time is it?"
I looked at my watch. "Nearly seven."
She jumped down to the floor. "I've got to get to work. Come on, we can get it on the way. If it's still there."
The street looked like a disaster had happened there recently, or maybe it was still going on. There were a couple of gutted and abandoned cars in the middle of the street, and none of the buildings showed any signs of life. I could smell fire. We had passed Duffy's a block away, around the corner, and I wondered if the old man with the gun was still in the back room.
"I carried her out of the bar when the shooting started," Vicki said, "and I remember carrying her briefcase, too. Then we hid down here somewhere, and I think that's the last time I saw it."
This sounded ridiculous on the face of it, but I didn't say anything.
She pointed at a dark stairwell in front of one of the deserted- looking buildings. "That's it. Wait here," she said, and she climbed down the rickety stairs into the black. It was fully dark out by then, and none of the street lights seemed to be working.
There was some shuffling from down in the pit, then a loud metallic *CLANG*.
"Ow," she said. "You don't have a flashlight or something, do you?"
"No, I'm afraid not."
"Hmmm," she said, and then there was some more shuffling. "Can't see a – Eeewwww!" she said finally. "There's some really disgusting stuff down here. I wish . . . Hey, here it is! Catch."
The briefcase flew up out of the blackness, and I barely managed to catch it before it hit me on top of the head. A second later, Vicki herself jumped up to the broken railing that surrounded the shaft and then down to the street, grinning. She wiped her hands on the seat of her jeans, then stopped as she caught sight of something behind me.
"Turn around very slowly, sweetheart," a voice purred.
"Turn slowly, sweetheart," came the soft voice. I did so, Vicki moving up beside me. It was a large man, wearing a dark-colored sweat suit and boots. He had a bandanna wrapped across the bottom half of his face and another around his head. He held a gun very steady on us. Looking down the huge barrel was like driving into a dark tunnel.
"Must be tourist season," he said. "You two look like you just got off the boat." He gestured with the gun. "I'm wondering what's in that briefcase, sweetheart." He held out his other hand. "Maybe you'd like to show it to me."
Vicki took the case from my limp fingers and walked forward slowly, holding it out in front of her. The guy reached down to flip the clasp and open it, but in that instant she shoved it up, forcing his gun up as it fired. The bullet seemed to whiz through my hair as I threw myself on the ground. Then there was an awful crack and the guy screamed. I looked up and he was lying on the ground, one of his legs bent the wrong way. It was painful to look at. I got quickly to my feet and Vicki grabbed my hand. She pulled me down the block so fast I could barely keep my footing as I ran.
I had thought the apartment was squalid until I saw the Quarter.
Three months before, Jan Sleet and I had spent a long night hiding in the basement of an old cafe listening to the rumble of tanks and trucks going by outside. There had been fairly heavy shelling of the blocks all around the cafe for a couple of weeks. One corner of the building's roof was gone, and there was rubble and dust and soot everywhere inside.
The Quarter was one step up from that cafe. It still had its roof.
Standing in the doorway, I could still feel the adrenaline crashing around inside me. Vicki took my sleeve and pulled me deep into the place, to a table in a corner. "Let's sit here," she said. "I'll get us some beers."
I sat and grasped the edge of the table in both hands, trying to slow my breathing. By the time she came back, I was feeling more like myself.
"Thanks," I said as she put a beer in front of me. I took a sip and then a longer swallow. The beer tasted really good to me right then. Vicki climbed up on the chair opposite me, sitting with one leg under her to make herself a little taller in the chair.
"I should be used to that sort of thing," I said, "but I'm not. What did you do to that guy?"
"I kicked him in the kneecap," she said. "Right as he fired the gun."
"It looked like you snapped his leg in two." I sipped my beer and laughed. "Me, I'd have probably just given him the briefcase."
She shrugged. "I thought it must be something pretty important, if Jan came back to get it. Besides, I don't know, he probably would have shot us anyway."
I nodded, wondering how she could be so calm.
She nodded her head at the briefcase. "What is in there?"
I laughed. "Well, you've certainly earned the right to know. I'm afraid it's going to be a let-down, though." I looked around. "I'm not keeping you from your work, am I? I can wait until you get a break."
"I'm the bouncer," she said. "As long as things are quiet, I can do what I want."
"The bouncer?" I asked incredulously. I had promised myself I wasn't going to do that, I was going to act as if all this made sense to me, but this had caught me off guard.
She just nodded. "I'm very strong," she said.
I sighed. "I suppose the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse work here, too?"
"Hey!" she said, looking angry.
"I'm sorry," I said, trying (unsuccessfully) to see all of this from her point of view. "I'm not used to talking to someone who actually listens to what I'm saying."
She looked somewhat mollified, and I realized I'd been talking to her like an adult talking to a kid, and it was starting to seem like this kid could, if provoked, injure or kill me before she had a chance to think twice.
I laid the briefcase flat on the table and said, "Let's see what's in here." I popped the two catches and opened it up.
The contracts were on top. I picked up one copy and flipped to the last page. It wasn't signed. I threw it back. Jan Sleet's signature was in place, but the other lines were blank. They weren't going to publish the book. With everything else that had been happening, I'd successfully managed to avoid thinking about this possibility.
"What's the matter?" Vicki asked. I had almost forgotten her as I thought about what this meant. She got up on her knees on her chair and started poking through the briefcase.
"Hey," she said and pulled out a slip of paper. Her eyes widened as she read it. "Look at this," she said, handing it to me.
It was a check, from the publisher to Jan Sleet. Typical of her to have just tossed it into her briefcase and then forgotten it. I tucked it carefully into my wallet.
"What's wrong?" Vicki asked again.
I sighed. "It's a long story."
"It's a long story," I began. "Maybe it would be better–"
"Well, hi," said a voice behind me, and I turned as Vicki smiled.
It was Pete, a beer in one hand. I gestured at an empty chair and he sat down. He appeared to have changed out of the old, tattered clothes he had been wearing that afternoon into different old, tattered clothes. I closed the briefcase and put it on the floor.
"I guess you all found each other," he said. "Where's Jan?"
"Passed out. She thinks she's Superwoman, but she's not."
He nodded and glanced at the floor beside my chair. "Is that her briefcase? How did you get it out of Duffy's?" He looked impressed.
"It wasn't there," Vicki said. "She lost it between Duffy's and here."
He smiled. "Great. If it had been in Duffy's, I'd say write it off."
He turned to Vicki and I sensed a certain diffidence in his next question. "Did it work out for you at T.C.'s?"
She nodded. "She asked me about a zillion questions, then she said it was okay."
"Did you meet the rest of the crew?"
"I met Finch and that girl they call Nasty." She sipped her beer. "Finch seemed nice."
Wa lapsed into silence. I had the feeling that any two of us would have had something to talk about if only the third one hadn't been there.
I looked around the bar. My eyes were somewhat better adjusted to the gloom by then and I saw that the room was fairly large, with maybe 25 or 30 small tables. About a dozen of the tables were occupied. The tables and chairs were all mismatched and some looked very shaky.
The clientele was rather eclectic. Most were young, but a few were middle-aged or older. I saw quite a few eccentric hairstyles and colors, and quite a few people with earrings on body parts that are not ordinarily pierced.
A woman in her twenties came over. She was wearing a large T-shirt that looked like somebody had been using it to dry dishes, with a flannel shirt over that. She wore cowboy boots, but seemed to have neglected to put on a skirt or pants. Her short hair was full and straight, with bangs that nearly covered her eyes.
"Hello, Pete," she said, pulling up a chair and sitting down carelessly. It seemed people didn't stand on much ceremony in these parts. I wondered if by the end of the evening everybody in the place would be sitting at our table.
"Hi, Donna," he said. He seemed indifferent to her arrival, almost to the point of rudeness. I noticed he seemed to look at the front door quite often, as if he was expecting somebody. He jiggled his left leg up and down until he realized he was doing it, then he stopped.
"What happened last night?" she asked. "I was down in the basement, bringing up some beer, and by the time I got back it was all over and nobody could agree on what had happened."
I got the feeling Pete was telling a story that he was already tired of repeating, but I didn't know what had happened either, so I paid close attention.
"Henshaw and Owens had had a fight or something," he began.
Donna laughed. "I knew that. I saw the bruises."
He nodded. "So, during the set she broke a beer bottle on the edge of the stage and stabbed him in the leg with it."
"Oh, my God," she said. "What happened after that?"
"Randi–" he started.
"Oh, yes," she put in, "I remember Chet was here."
"Exactly. He heard sirens right then, so he got her to take us to the hospital. Henshaw will be okay."
"You should have seen Carl last night," Donna said with a giggle, "after you all left. He was all over me like . . ." She stopped. "What is it, Pete?" she asked.
He looked down for a minute. "Carl is dead," he said quietly. "He was killed early this morning."
Both Donna and Vicki looked surprised, and I realized Vicki hadn't known. I wondered if she'd known Carl.
"What happened?" Donna asked. "When he left here . . ." her voice trailed off and she rubbed her ear.
Vicki looked around. "What is that noise?" she asked as Donna nodded towards the door.
There was a sea of grim faces and leather jackets, and it was headed for our table.
Both Pete and Donna got very tense. A compact woman in black leather with dark hair came over, a tall blonde man following behind.
"Hello, Dr. Lee," Pete said. "Hi, Neil," he added to the blonde man.
"Hello, Pete, Donna," the woman said. The blonde man brought over a chair for her, then faded back a little. She sat down, straddling the chair back. "I was sorry to hear about Carl," she said. She smiled slightly. "I always liked Carl. He was always so rude to me."
Somebody cruised by the table and placed a bottle of beer in front of her.
She took it and raised it up. "To Carl," she said quietly.
We all raised our beers as well, though I felt a little awkward, as if I were intruding. We all drank.
"I don't suppose anybody will ever call me Little Big Man again," Dr. Lee said, putting the bottle down in the wobbly little table.
Donna got up quickly and said, "Frances will kill me if I don't get back to work." She gestured at the tall woman behind the bar, who didn't seem to be paying any attention to her at all, and walked quickly off.
"I think you make her nervous," Pete said to Dr. Lee, smiling.
"I think she makes herself nervous. Why don't you introduce me around?"
He gestured toward Vicki. "Dr. Lee, meet Vicki. She's the new bouncer here. And this is Marshall, Jan Sleet's assistant."
She said hello to Vicki, but it was obviously me that caught her attention. Lucky me.
"I hear your boss had a rough night last night," she said. "Has she recovered?"
"Completely recovered," I replied. "She left her briefcase, though, and I had to come and retrieve it." I patted it.
She nodded. She turned to Pete again. "Will there be a service?"
Pete nodded. "I suppose so. I can't imagine who would organize it except for me, so I'm going to have to figure out what would be appropriate. I'm no good at that kind of thing." He looked really forlorn.
"Well, be sure to let me know." Dr. Lee had a way of moving her attention from one person to the next, as if the person she was finished with would realize that they were dismissed and go away. She turned to Vicki, as if really seeing her for the first time. She looked at her so intently that Vicki started to bristle.
"Where did you find a leather jacket in your size?" Dr. Lee demanded, leaning forward. Vicki laughed as Dr. Lee pulled out the lapel of her jacket to look at the lining.
"Well," said the tiny girl, "it was kind of a gift."
The guy's voice came from the other side of the room, and Vicki climbed up on her chair, putting her beer on the table. She didn't move as she watched the guy pick up a drink from the table and toss it in the woman's face. The other woman at the table got up, but he ignored her. Vicki glanced at the bar, and the bartender jerked her head towards the door. Vicki jumped off her chair and moved forward quickly, slipping through the circle of people who were starting to surround the scene. I followed, trying to keep her in sight.
As the guy picked up a beer bottle from the table by the neck, Vicki reached down and pulled one of his feet out from under him. He fell forward, but she pulled so quickly that he fell short of the small table, crashing to the floor with a curse as she grabbed his other foot as well. Not stopping, she pulled him towards the door, moving so quickly he seemed to bounce along the floor.
"Hey, shit, Goddamn it, who–shit! Wait a m– Oh!, Goddamn cock-su–Ow!" By that time they were outside, the doors swinging closed behind them. When she came back in, a couple of people said approving things, but then the doors swung open again and the guy came back in. "Look!" he began. "I'm–"
She turned and grabbed the waist of his jeans with both hands, pulling down so sharply that his belt snapped and there was a loud ripping sound, and suddenly his pants, or what remained of them, were down around his ankles. She turned him around and sent him out again.
That time he didn't return.
I went to the bar to get another beer, and found myself standing next to Pete. He nodded a greeting. "Did that woman come back after Jan Sleet and I left?" I asked.
Pete looked startled. "Hmmm? Oh, Jenny Owens. No, I didn't see her again. I think she probably went back to the hospital." He gave a half-smile. "To tell you the truth, I'm hiding from her a little. This is the one place I'm sure she won't show up."
"Why is that?" I asked. I was already getting the impression that nobody ever went anyplace else.
"She stabbed my friend Henshaw last night, I think I told you about that. Well, the Jinx are big fans of Henshaw's." He gestured at the bar, where several of the motorcycle gang members were drinking. "They nearly caught up with her at the hospital last night. She won't come here and give them another chance at her."
I sipped my beer. "Why are you hiding from her?" I asked.
He shrugged. "She's very upset," he said finally.
I seemed to be making Pete uncomfortable, so I left him at the bar and went back to the table, after getting another beer for Vicki. She took it and drank some, but then we were silent for a minute. I seemed to be making everybody uncomfortable. Then she looked up, smiling an impish smile. "Oh, go ahead, ask," she said.
I laughed. "Remind me not to play poker with you. Okay, I've been trying to . . ."
"You don't want to be rude, but you're dying to ask what I am," she said.
"The question did occur to me."
She drank some beer. "I've been wondering, too," she said quietly. "You know, you're the first person I've met here who really wanted to ask me." She smiled. "I like it here. People don't ask a lot of questions. Even T.C. She just asked me where my money was going to come from, and whether I smoked, but she didn't ask anything about the other stuff. I like that. It's like . . ." She paused, thinking. "It's like, everybody has their secrets. They don't ask yours, so you don't ask theirs. And that's okay with me."
Then she climbed down and moved her chair a little closer to mine. "You want to know the truth, I think maybe this is all a dream," she said quietly. "I mean, I remember where I live, my family, and it's nothing like this. And I'm not so short like this, and I know I've never been strong like this before."
"How did you get here?" I asked.
She paused, as if trying to figure out how to put something into words. "I remember being home, and being . . . just not being able to stand it. I was lying in bed, and I felt something." Her hand slipped up to the nape of her neck, under her long hair. "Back on my neck here, like an opening, and I climbed up inside. And here I am."
It sounded deranged, but she obviously at least half believed it. I shrugged. "I don't think this is all a dream, because then I'd be a dream, and I think I'm real."
She sighed. "Then I don't know what the hell is going on. But I do know that it's better than where I was before. If it's a dream, I hope it's a long one."
I had not intended to get drunk.
In fact, I had specifically planned not to get drunk. However, I hadn't eaten since breakfast, and it had been a while since I'd done much heavy drinking, so it was hitting me pretty hard.
I offer this as (at least) a partial excuse for some of the events I am about to recount.
A tall woman wearing black leather and ripped jeans was standing by our table. She looked possessed by some powerful emotion. She didn't speak, though, until Dr. Lee said, "Yes, CJ?"
"I want to ride." She gave the last word strange emphasis.
Dr. Lee considered this for a moment, then stood up. Neil appeared from somewhere. "Okay," Dr. Lee said slowly, "but remember, we're not in good shape. Between the battle at the hospital and that incident with the police car last night, we'd better keep our eyes open." She turned to me. "Would you like to come with us, Marshall?" she asked. I rubbed my ear, wondering again at the strange ringing sound.
I smiled and shook my head. "I don't really think so. My–"
She smiled. "Oh, come on," she said, and I found myself following them toward the door.
I suddenly stopped moving. My legs were continuing to make the motions of walking, but I wasn't getting any closer to the door. It was as if I was now living under the laws of physics as they apply in cartoons.
I thought "Oh, God, I really must be drunk," but when I looked down it turned out that Vicki was holding my sleeve.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
I nodded. "I think so. I'll be back."
She looked uncertain, but she released me, and I ran to catch up with the others.
Outside the bar, there were fifteen or twenty motorcycles parked in a row. Each had a crimson "J" on the side, except for the one Dr. Lee mounted. The "J" on the side of her was gold.
The ringing in my ears was louder than it had been inside.
There were six of us in all. Dr. Lee, Neil, CJ, a red-headed girl named Christy, a rather seedy-looking man named Rex and myself. I had acquired a leather jacket somehow. I started my cycle and took my place in the procession.
Dr. Lee rode first, Neil always right behind her. It didn't seem like we were going anywhere specific, just riding for the feeling of motion.
I have no idea how long we rode around the deserted streets of the city. The streets we were roaring through varied little one from the next. Mostly I saw dark buildings, occasionally a sliver of light next to a heavy curtain, abandoned cars, small fires. Very few people, very few moving vehicles. I felt the wind whip my hair around and wondered how fast we were going. My cycle didn't have a speedometer.
Dr. Lee suddenly turned a corner, her cycle tilting way over, and Neil, right behind her, followed suit. I was next, and instead of prudently slowing down, I poured on the gas as I turned, nearly cracking up. I pulled up next to Dr. Lee, feeling Neil's disapproving glare play across my leather back, and suddenly she turned and flashed me a beautiful grin.
At a signal from Dr. Lee, we pulled up in front of an abandoned, half-collapsed factory building and dismounted. Walking single file, we wheeled the bikes down a narrow alley and into a little cul-de-sac where there were about a dozen bikes already. Dr. Lee said, "Christy, stay with the bikes." The rest of us went inside. We proceeded single-file along a dark, dusty hallway, and up a flight of rickety wooden stairs.
"Careful of the floor," Dr. Lee said as I put my foot in a hole. CJ grabbed my upper arm and carried me to the next place where the floor was solid.
We ended up in a large room, lit by many candles. The windows were covered by thick black paper, taped carefully around the edges. About a dozen Jinx were sleeping, playing cards, reading, making out, or looking out the windows. The room also contained piles of olive-drab sleeping bags, bottles of wine and whiskey, remnants of fast food meals, endless cigarette butts, newspapers, and, surprisingly, lots of loose money lying around, bills, and some of the ones I could see were large.
There were other strange touches as well. The man I'd thought was just staring out the window was actually talking rhythmically under his breath, his eyes closed. Chanting, apparently.
On the wall, in large, red spray-painted letters, someone had written: ". . . feel like a soldier, look like a thief."
"This, for the moment, is our home," Dr. Lee said. "We were thrown out of the Plaza for being too cool. Look, I want to talk to you." She addressed her next remark to the room as a whole. "Somebody get us some wine."
She led me into the next room, which was much smaller. In addition to the neat pile of twenty-dollar bills by the door, there was a small cot, and several piles of hard cover books and newspapers. Also, near the head of the cot, there was a short wave radio.
"I sleep," she said quietly, "listening to the police bands. It seems to help keep me in touch with the enemy. Sit down."
I complied, sitting on a tattered sofa cushion. She sat opposite me, and someone brought in an open bottle of white wine and placed it between us. Dr. Lee lifted the bottle and drank some, then handed it to me. I drank deeply, finding that I was very thirsty, then put the bottle down.
"What do you want to talk about?" I asked.
She smiled. "A lot of things. The future, for a start."
I laughed. "That's pretty general. You want to narrow it down?"
"What comes to your mind?"
"You'd better be more specific about what you want to know."
"What is Jan Sleet doing here?"
"I didn't say she was here," I said quietly.
She smiled. "Pete told me. It's not just the briefcase, is it? That, I'm sure, you could have handled by yourself."
"What makes you think I'd tell you any of her secrets?" I asked quietly, taking the bottle from her small, outstretched hand.
"It might be to your benefit to have me know more than I know now." She smiled. "For example, Philip Henshaw asked us not to come to his band's gig last night. He thought we'd attract trouble. So, even though I didn't agree, we stayed away. And I can tell you this: If we had been there, that bitch would never have been able to stab him, and he wouldn't be lying in a hospital bed right now."
I put the bottle down. "Possible, I suppose."
"Three things: One, you've just spent half a year helping your employer write a book that no publisher in this country will touch. Now, she's appeared here in u-town. Is she going to write another book? About what's going on here?"
I leaned back against the wall, sipping the wine, thinking. It came to me that something was going on that had very little to do with me or Jan Sleet or the exchange of information. Somehow, for some reason, it seemed as though Dr. Lee was trying to find out something about me. The effort of trying to get me to speak had been more a game than anything else, and she couldn't hide the twinkle deep in her green eyes. She had known I wasn't going to answer the question before she'd even asked it.
"I hate metaphors," she said, "but I'm about to use one anyway. When I was a girl, the government sent a lot of rockets up into space. I don't really remember why they did it, but it was a big deal at the time. You probably remember. Well, I was quite a tomboy, so I read up a lot on the rockets and the whole space program.
"The point is escape velocity. If you're sitting on the ground, that's fine, you don't have to exert any energy. If you're in orbit, you can stay up there for years without exerting any energy. But in between, say a mile or two up, you have to exert enormous energy not to fall back down to earth, let alone to get up and into orbit."
I had expected more, but she just leaned back and drank some wine.
I finally had to say, "I will admit that I have no idea what you're talking about. It is possible that I'm drunk."
She laughed. "You definitely are drunk, but that's not really the problem. It's like I told you, metaphors are just no damn good." She pulled a pocket-watch from her leather jacket. "Come on," she said, getting to her feet, "it's time we were getting back."
We Rode again through the city streets. I found myself regretting that this was probably the only time I would ever get to do this.
I had no idea where we were, so it surprised me when we turned a corner and there was the Quarter. Pulling to the curb in front of the club, I felt great, as though I had electricity running through my veins instead of blood. Or maybe it was gasoline.
I stopped my borrowed cycle at the end of the line of Jinx bikes, turned off the motor, kicked down the kick stand and dismounted. And fell flat on my face. CJ lifted me up like a rag doll. I was weak, my muscles all ached, my eyes were watering, and I was covered in a cold, clammy sweat.
"Common reaction," Dr. Lee said. She and Neil and Rex went inside as CJ propped me up against the brick wall of the club.
She turned to Christy. "He's all yours. I've got things to do."
Christy smiled as she wiped my brow. "How do you feel?"
"Dead," I croaked. "Worse, even." I tried to catch my breath. "How am I supposed to feel?"
"Well, this is about average. My first time wasn't quite this bad, but that was years ago. You able to walk?"
"I think so." She put her arm around my waist anyway, and I was glad to be able to lean on her.
Inside, the place looked about the same, which surprised me since I felt as if we'd been gone for a long time. As I came in there was a crash of broken glass from the rear somewhere. I saw Vicki standing on a barstool, leaning over to talk with Frances, who was behind the bar. They seemed to be arguing. I went over quickly, looking towards the sound in the rear of the bar, and nearly tripped on the uneven floor. Christy steadied me at the last minute.
"What's going on?" I asked Vicki.
Frances ignored me. "Okay," she said to Vicki, "but one more peep out of that woman and you throw her out, or you're out of a job."
Vicki nodded, her face angry as Frances walked away. She turned to me, climbing down so she was sitting on the stool. I sat next to her, and I saw her gaze flick around before she spoke. She was obviously calming herself down. I followed her eyes, and saw Pete still sitting at the same table, and also realized that Dr. Lee was standing beside me. There was a blonde woman sitting at Pete's table, her back to us. Pete looked upset.
"What's going on?" I asked again.
The blonde woman at Pete's table stood up and looked around before storming off toward the back, where the bathrooms were. It took me a moment, then I realized that she was Jennifer Owens, the woman who had come to see Pete that afternoon at the tea store.
"She's his girlfriend, or something," Vicki said. "Anyway, she just came in and told him that she's pregnant, really loud. But I don't think he's the father. Anyway, Frances wants me to throw her out for causing a scene, but I don't think it's right. She's not just some drunk, she–"
"Frances doesn't like Jennifer Owens, never mind why," Dr. Lee put in. "You were right not to throw her out. I don't like her that much either, she stabbed a good friend of mine last night, but people don't usually get thrown out of here without a good reason."
Pete looked up and motioned me eagerly to a seat. "Marshall," he said, "how was the ride?"
"Well, I must say–"
"Let me get you a beer." He turned and gestured as Donna appeared and put a cold beer in front of me. "It's from the red-headed gal at the bar," she whispered. I looked over and Christy waved.
Pete was oblivious to this. "Great service, huh?" he said. "Drink up." He looked around. "So, how was the ride?" he asked again. "I tell you, the one time–"
"I've got to talk to you," Jenny Owens said from behind me, her voice as tight as the jaw muscles I saw when I looked up over my shoulder.
I started to stand up, but Pete said, "Oh, don't – we have nothing to – it's okay – I'm talking to –" it was as if he was speaking in stereo, trying to get me to stay and her to leave, all in one breath.
Her plan (if she had one) was obviously just to ignore me. She sat between us, facing Pete, her back to me. "I went to the clinic before," she started, "and there's some sort of fucking protest going on and they've blocked the doors. No one can get in. It's the only free clinic left in the city. I don't have any money, do you?" He started to answer, but she went ahead. "You've got to help me get in there. Damn it, there isn't anybody else, Pete."
Despite Pete's pleading eyes, that was enough for me. I grabbed my beer and almost ran for the bar.
"This is an ugly situation," Dr. Lee said calmly. By this time everybody in the place was watching Pete and Jenny, and not even bothering to pretend otherwise. I stood at the bar with Vicki and Dr. Lee.
"Where's the father, if it's not him?" Vicki asked.
"In the hospital," Dr. Lee said. She looked like she was about to say more, but then she didn't.
"You didn't mind when you were fucking me against that wall there last week!" Jenny Owens yelled.
"Oooh," Donna said as she sailed past, tray held over her head, "too much information."
I put down my empty beer bottle. "This is all too much information for me, I'm afraid," I said. "I'll see you folks later."
"Oh, why–" Christy started, but the Frances appeared behind her. She pointed at Jenny Owens and said angrily to Vicki, "That's it, out she goes. Now."
Before Vicki could move (if she was going to), Dr. Lee said, "Frances!"
The taller woman turned and Dr. Lee said, "I'll deal with this."
"Look, I'm the manager here, and–"
Dr. Lee's voice got very soft. "I will deal with this."
For a moment it seemed as if Frances was going to argue, but then she just turned and walked away towards the front of the bar. I was about to follow when Dr. Lee turned to me and said, "I'd appreciate it if you'd stick around, Marshall. I think I'm going to need your help. Come on."
She started out for the table where Pete and Jenny Owens sat. Christy and I followed. "I'm sorry I'm so fucking inconvenient!" Jenny said bitterly.
Pete shrugged. "What can I do?" he asked. "I can't get you into that clinic."
"You know people who can."
Pete shook his head. "Be reasonable. I can't just–"
Dr. Lee was standing behind Jenny. "What do you need?" she asked her.
"What do I need!?" Jenny demanded, turning on her. "I need . . ." Her voice trailed off and she waved an arm helplessly.
Dr. Lee was impassive. "What do you need?" she repeated.
Jenny Owens sighed. "I need somebody to get my fucking unreasonable inconvenient ass into that clinic."
Dr. Lee nodded. "Okay. Come on," she said, turning. She walked quickly towards the door, Neil right behind her. As she walked, she held up her hand and snapped her fingers. The sound echoed through the bar like a firecracker.
A Jinx who was about to take a shot at the pool table dropped his cue and followed her towards the door. Others put down drinks they hadn't finished, conversations and food to follow. A male Jinx came quickly out of the Ladies Room, zipping his jeans, his face flushed.
Outside, I found myself standing with the others. Dr. Lee saw me but didn't react. Jenny stood next to her, and I could tell some of the Jinx were not happy.
"I've enrolled Ms. Owens in Dr. Lee's Medical Plan," she said firmly. She turned to Jenny, whose face was rigid. "What did the protesters look like?"
She squinted slightly, remembering. "They were all dressed in white, robes or something, with strips of cloth over their eyes, like bandages." She gestured across her eyes.
"Witnesses," Neil said.
"How many of them were there?" Dr. Lee asked.
"Oh, God, I don't know. A dozen or more, I guess. No, more like fifteen or twenty, I think."
"Cops?" Neil asked.
"A bunch, but not right in front of the clinic."
"How many?" Dr. Lee asked.
"I don't know. A lot."
"How many cars?"
She sighed. "Three, I think. And a big van."
Neil nodded as if picturing this. "Did they have the street blocked off?"
"No, but the cop cars were parked every which way, so no traffic was going through."
Dr. Lee looked at Neil. "This will take some planning. Is the clinic twenty-four hours?"
"Not usually, but for the past two days it's been a bit of a stand-off. None of the staff will leave as long as the Witnesses are there, because they won't be able to get back in."
She nodded and they moved off a little to confer in whispers. After a few moments, Neil gestured for one of the Jinx to come over. They gave him some instructions and he jumped on his bike and rode off. A few moments later they summoned the man Rex over and dispatched him as well.
It should have been light, but it was nearly as dark as it had been at midnight. We crouched around the corner from the clinic, at the north end of the block. We'd left the motorcycles a few blocks away, with Christy standing guard.
Neil stuck his head out and looked around the corner. He came back to the doorway where Dr. Lee and I stood, his face expressionless. "There are about fifteen of the Witless, and twenty cops, in full gear. The cops are on the other side of the street, but they're ready. Three cop cars and a van."
Dr. Lee nodded and checked her watch. Jennifer Owens stood a little bit back from us. She hadn't said a word since we'd started out.
Dr. Lee put her watch back in her pocket. "Should be coming any time now," she said.
There seemed to be a commotion from around the corner and Dr. Lee motioned for me to go up and take a look.
I don't know what I expected, but I was surprised at how suburban the block looked. Looking south, the right hand side was a row of nice houses with small lawns. Most of the houses were white, some were a little shabby, but mostly it was a very pleasant sight.
The left hand side of the street was a couple of large apartment houses, eight or nine stories tall, with balconies. There were no cars parked on the block.
Except police cars, and they were "parked" only in the sense that they weren't moving.
The white-robed Witnesses were clustered around a small white clapboard house near the far corner on the right-hand side of the street that must have been the clinic. They seemed quite calm, but the police were the opposite. One was talking into a small walkie-talkie, another was standing by one of the cars talking on the radio. Both started yelling at once, which resulted in quite a bit of running around, engines being started, several motorcycles appearing from between the apartment buildings.
I turned and ran back to the others. "They seem a little disorganized," I said quickly, "but as soon as they get straightened out some of them will be coming this way." The Jinx immediately started to scatter, melting into doorways, alleys and into abandoned cars. A police car and two motorcycles roared out of the street and away.
Neil and I stepped out of concealment at the same time, and I said, "I don't think this is a coincidence."
He snorted, looking around as if he was taking attendance. "Not likely. No, we have some people here and there causing a rumpus. The cops don't have much in reserve these days, they're spread pretty thin."
Dr. Lee trotted up. "Let's get this started before somebody figures out what we're up to."
The block looked eerie in the early morning light.
There were three cops left, with two police cars. They wore so much leather and chrome that it was difficult to tell if there was a living person inside the armor or not.
There were at least fifteen Witnesses, all in white with bandages covering their eyes. From they way their heads moved, it was clear that they could see perfectly well.
Suddenly the block was filled with the eerie wail that always accompanied the Jinx. Then there was the roar of motorcycle motors from the north end of the block and two motorcycles came slowly around the corner, and then two more behind them. Dr. Lee and Neil rode in front.
The cops and the Witnesses all turned, and one of the cops spoke into his radio. The four motorcycles came slowly up the block. Two of the cops stepped out into the middle of the street. They held their shotguns loosely in their arms, impassive behind their face shields.
Dr. Lee stopped a little short of the cops, the others following her lead. She indicated the blonde woman on the motorcycle behind hers. "This woman is seeking medical treatment."
"Murder!" one of the Witnesses blurted out, but she ignored him.
"The clinic is closed for the day, in order to protect the people who work there," one of the cops said.
"Suppose we ask them about that," she said quietly.
"Orders of the Commissioner."
There was a roar from around the corner and more motorcycles started to come slowly into view.
"One way or another," Dr. Lee said.
Several of the Witnesses ran forward and started lying down in the street, end to end, forming a human chain from one curb to the other directly in front of the two lead motorcycles.
Dr. Lee ignored this. "We don't want this to get ugly, but it is possible that it will if you continue to allow these people to block the entrance of the clinic."
The cop shrugged. "Some of our men were just called away," he said. He looked at the Witnesses lying across the road and the others still lined up in front of the doorway of the clinic. "I don't think I have the manpower to remove these people at this time." He motioned and the other two cops followed him to the far side of the street, where they leaned against the police car. They cradled their shotguns calmly.
Dr. Lee and Neil moved forward slowly until they were nearly at the human divider. Other Jinx were starting to come up behind them, moving into a V formation.
One of the Witnesses came over from the group by the entrance of the clinic. He stood facing Dr. Lee, the row of prone bodies between them. He pulled the bandage from his eyes. He looked older than the others, grave with clear eyes and silver hair.
"We cannot be stopped," Dr. Lee said quietly.
The man looked around slowly. "We still have to try."
"Pointless. I don't want anybody to get hurt–"
"Except the child, apparently," he said, looking at the blonde woman, who was looking at the ground.
Dr. Lee waved a hand. "We could debate the question all night. You'd love to distract us into that. I repeat, we don't want to hurt any of your people, but we will if we have to."
The man clasped his hands in front of himself and bowed his head.
"You deplore the use of force," Dr. Lee said, "once it turns out that someone has more of it than you do. When this woman came here alone, she didn't even make it this far."
Suddenly, all the Jinx except Dr. Lee jumped off their motorcycles and surged forward, starting to pick up the Witnesses from the street and haul them to the sidewalk.
The remaining Witnesses rushed forward from the entrance of the clinic to replenish the barricade.
Of course, that was what we'd been waiting for.
Jennifer Owens, Vicki and I had been waiting around the corner at the south end of the block, the clinic entrance between us and the melee. We broke from cover, running the hundred yards or so to the clinic entrance.
Two of the Witnesses had held back a little from joining the free-for-all that now filled the center of the street. Maybe it had been from fear, maybe from a last minute hunch that this was a set-up, but in any case they saw us and turned. They tried to shout to alert the others, but the howl of the Jinx filled the block completely by then, so no one heard their shouts except us.
Vicki dispatched the first one (a man, I think, though the white robes made it hard to tell) with a hard shove that knocked him against a lamppost.
Jennifer herself belted the other (definitely a woman) with a hard right to the jaw. We reached the clinic porch. The door opened for us. There was a shot. Jennifer Owens stumbled and fell.
In that moment the howling became deafeningly loud, and a sudden wind came up from the north, roaring down the street from the far corner. I lost my balance and grabbed for the bannister of the porch stairs. I suddenly felt very light-headed and had trouble getting my balance. I might have passed out except that Vicki bellowed "Marshall!!" in a voice loud enough to shatter windows, and I tried to focus on her.
She was standing in the doorway, Jennifer Owens in her arms, a couple of figures in medical green towering over her, one reaching for the door to close it. I pushed off from the bannister, lurching across the porch and through the door before it slammed closed.
A few minutes later they told us Jennifer Owens was dead. I half-expected Vicki to explode in rage and destroy the place, but she just looked down at the floor for a minute, then looked up at me and said, "Come on, Marshall, let's go home."
I knocked at the apartment door and after a moment Finch opened it. "Oh, there you are," Jan Sleet said as we came in. She was sitting at the kitchen table with T.C., both drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. "I thought you were never coming back. I was just saying . . ." Then she caught sight of our expressions. "My god," she said, "what happened?" I couldn't quite find the right words. Vicki just went over and put her arms around her friend.
Jan Sleet looked at me in alarm, awkwardly putting her arm around the small, leather-jacketed figure. Idiotically, at that moment, I realized that I had no idea where the briefcase had ended up.