--Philip K. Dick, The Divine Invasion
Maybe he should get himself a dog.
A dog--a pet, a constant companion, something to fuss over--might help.
But then again, maybe not. It was so hard to know, to make up his mind.
Considering his unique situation. His special troubles. His extra share of suffering.
Adding any unknown factor to the sad equation of his life might disguise its solution, remove any answer forever beyond his powers of philosophical computation. (Assuming his life--anyone's life--was solvable at all.)
But how could he know for sure without trying?
Yet did he dare try?
Foolish as the dilemma seemed, it was a real quandary, seemingly his alone.
Others seemed not to have such problems.
For instance. Everyone in Thurman Swan's life had a dog, it seemed. All the people he hung with daily at the Karuna Koffeehouse. (He felt odd calling them "friends," upon such short acquaintance, even though they were starting to feel a little like that.) Shenda, Buddy, Chug'em, SinSin, Verity, Odd Vibe.... They were all dog owners, every manjack and womanjill of them. Big dogs or little dogs, mutts or purebreds, quiet or yippy, reserved or exuberant, shaggy or groomed, their dogs came in all varieties. But one thing all the animals had in common, Thurman had noticed: they were inseparable from their masters and mistresses, loyal behind questioning, and seemed to repay every attention lavished on them in some psychic coin.
Call it love, for lack of a less amorphous word.
Thurman could have used some of that.
The cheap clock radio came on then, dumb alarm-timer, unaware of Thurman's insomnia, activating itself needlessly. The device was the only item on his nightstand. There had been a framed picture of Kendra and Kyle, but when the letters and calls stopped coming, he had stored the picture of his ex-wife and child in his lone suitcase on the high closet shelf.
Thurman had already been lying awake for hours, although he hadn't had the energy to get out of bed. He didn't sleep much these days. Not since the war.
The war that had held so many mysteries in its short span, and changed so much--for him, if no one else.
Furnace skies. Sand lacquered with blood. And greasy, roilsome black clouds....
He was in one of the ammo-packed, barrel-stacked bunkers that made up the conquered fortified maze at Kamisiyah, laying the charges that would bring the place down like a bamboo hut in a typhoon. He wore no protective gear, hadn't thought he needed it. His superiors certainly hadn't insisted on it. Dusty sunlight probed through wall-slits like Olympian fingers. Sweat leaked out from beneath his helmet liner. He took a swig from his plastic liter bottle of water, then returned to work. His deft actions raised spectral echoes in the cavernous concrete room, ovenlike in its heat and feeling.
But exactly what was it baking?
So intent was Thurman on the delicate wiring job that he didn't notice the entrance of visitors.
Thurman jumped like a cricket.
Major Riggins stood in the doorway. With him was a civilian.
Civilians made everyone antsy, and Thurman was no exception. But there was something extra disturbing about this guy.
As thin as a jail-cell bar and just as rigid, wearing an expensive continental-tailored suit so incongruous in this militarized desert setting, the guy radiated a cold reptilian menace. A stance and aura reminiscent of a fly-cocked iguana was reinforced by shaved head, pasty glabrous skin and bulging eyes.
Major Riggins spoke. "As you can see, Mister Durchfreude, the demolition is calculated to leave absolutely nothing intact."
Durchfreude stepped into the room and began running a gnarly hand lovingly, as if with regret, over the piles of crated munitions. Thurman's gaze followed the ugly manicured hand in fascination, as if fastened by an invisible string. For the first time, he noticed what appeared to be a trademark stamped on many of the crates and drums and pallets.
It was a stencilled bug. A termite?
The civilian returned to the doorway. "Excellent," he dismissively hissed, then turned and walked off.
Major Riggins had the grace to look embarrassed. "You can return to your work, Swan," he said brusquely.
Then his commander left, hurrying after the civilian like a whipped hound.
Thurman went back about his task. But his concentration refused to return.
And a day later, at 1405, March 4, 1991, when Thurman and his fellow members of the 37th Engineer Battalion assembled at a "safe" distance from the bunkers, video cameras in hand, the proper signals were sent, liberating a force that shook the earth for miles around and sending up a filthy toxic plume that eventually covered thousands of surrounding hectares, including, of course, their camp. Thurman, uneasily watching, thought to see the mysterious civilian's face forming and dissolving in the oily black billows.
A commercial issued from the bedside radio. "Drink Zingo! It's cell-u-licious!"
A drink would taste good. Not that Zingo crap, but a very milky cappuccino. More milk than coffee, in fact. With half a plain bagel. No schmear. Thurman's stomach wasn't up to much more.
Now, if he could only get up.
He got up.
In the bathroom, Thurman hawked bloody sputum into the sink--pink oyster on porcelain--put prescription unguent on all his rashes, took two Extra-strength Tylenol for his omnipresent headache, counted his ribs, combed his hair and flushed the strands in the comb down the toilet. In the bedroom he dressed gingerly, in loose sweats and unlaced sneakers, so as to avoid stressing his aching joints. Halfheartedly, he neatened the sweaty bedcovers. No one would see them, after all.
In the entryway of his small apartment, he scooped up pill vials and inhalers, pocketing them. Claiming his aluminum cane with the foam back-bolster clipped to it, he left his two semifurnished rooms behind.
Another busy day of doing nothing awaited. Retiree city. Adult day care. Park bench idyll.
Not the worst life for a sick old man.
Too bad Thurman was only twenty-seven.
Shenda Moore burst the shackles of her bad dream with an actual effort of will. There was nothing involuntary or accidental about her escape. No built-in handy mental trapdoor opened automatically, no cluster of ancient guardian neurons on the alert triggered its patented wake-up! subroutine. No, it was all Shenda's own doing. The disengagement from the horrifying scenario, the refusal to participate in her subconscious's fear-trip, the determination to leave the grasping fantasies of sleep behind for the larger consensual illusion called reality-- It was all attributable to the force of Shenda's character.
Really, everyone who knew her would have said, So typical of the girl!
Sometimes Shenda wished she were different. Not so driven, so in-charge, so capable. Sure, mostly she was grateful every minute of every day to Titi Yaya for bringing her up so. Shenda liked who she was.
But being responsible for everything was really so much work! An endless roster of sweaty jobs: mopping up messes, straightening crooked lives, building and repairing, shoring up, tearing down, kissing all the boo-boos better. Mwah! And now: stop yer sobbin'.
Dancing with the Tarbaby, Shenda called it.
And there was no stopping allowed.
Especially now--with Karuna, Inc., taking off and demanding so much of her time--Shenda awoke most mornings with a hierarchical tree of chores arrayed neatly in her head, a tree where any free time hung like forbidden fruit at the farthest unreachable branch tips.
But even coming online to such a formidable task-array was better than waking like this.
Shenda's heart was still pounding like a conga, her shouted denial still bouncing around the bedroom walls. She clicked on a table lamp and swung her slim and muscular caramel legs out from under the sheets, sitting upright in her cotton Hanro nightshirt. She massaged each temple with two fingers for a while, lustrous and wavy black hair waterfalling around her lowered face, while contemplating the nightmare.
It was not the first time she had had the nightmare.
She was on a flat graveled rooftop in broad daylight, level with the upper stories of many surrounding buildings. Tin-walled elevator-shaft shack, a satellite dish, door to a stairwell, whirling vents, a couple of planters and deckchairs. Highly plausible, except that she had never been in such a place.
With her was Bullfinch.
In her hand, Shenda suddenly realized she clutched a tennis ball.
Bullfinch capered around her, leaping up for the Holy Grail of the ragged green ball, begging her to throw it.
So she threw, sidearm, expert and strong. Wildly, without care or forethought.
The ball sailed through the air, Bullfinch in hot pursuit, claws raking the gravel.
Over the parapet the ball sailed.
With a majestic leap, Bullfinch madly, blithely followed, sailing off into deadly space.
In the dream, Shenda screamed her denial.
Now she merely murmured, "No...."
The "meaning" of the dream was plain enough: her duties were getting to her, the weight of her responsibilities to those she loved was making her imagine she might easily fuck up.
Hell, she knew she was gonna fuck up sooner or later. It was inevitable. Everyone fucked up continuously. That could almost be a definition of human existence. The 24-7 fuck-up. She didn't need any dream to remind her of that.
All she prayed was that she wouldn't fuck up too bad. Be left with enough of her faculties to pick up the pieces and start again.
Luck came into this somewhere.
And luck was one of the things beyond her control.
Her heart had calmed. Rising determinedly to her bare feet (the purple paint on her toenails was all chipped--she'd have to make time to see SinSin for a pedicure--not that she had, like, any man in her life these days to appreciate such details), Shenda went about getting ready for her day.
Her first instinctive action after the nightfright was to check on Bullfinch.
She found the dog snoring in the dining room.
Disdaining his very expensive catalog-ordered puffy cushion bed, Bullfinch had made himself a nest.
Somehow he had reached a corner of Titi Yaya's antique linen cloth (remnant of old high times in Havana) where it hung down from the tabletop. He had dragged the cloth down, bringing two brass candlesticks with it. (God, she must have been dead to the world!) Then he had chewed the irreplaceable cloth to the shredded state most suitably evocative of some genetic memory of an African grass lair.
"Oh, Bully! Whatever is Titi going to say!"
Bullfinch swallowed a final snore in a gurgle, then awoke. His wattled, enfolded face peered innocently up at her. Breaking into an ingratiating, tongue-lolling smile, he wagged his stubby tail.
Shenda found her anger instantly dissipating.
Most empathetic people found it impossible to stay mad at bulldogs for long, as they were so mild mannered and goofy looking.
Especially one colored like a canary.
The employee at the animal shelter--a bearded, spectacled fellow with some kind of East European accent and a nametag reading JAN CLUJ--walked Shenda back among the cages so that she could make her choice. Ambling down the wet cement aisle, she found herself wanting to take every one of the abandoned yelping mutts home. But it was not until she saw the bright yellow occupant of one cage that she stopped decisively.
"What's the story with this one?"
"To my eyes, which are admittedly not of the most expert, our friend is the variety of English Bulldog. Was picked up on Kindred Street, near the college. Of tags, none. Meeting his maker in--" Jan Cluj checked the page slipped into a galvanized frame wired to the cage "--five more days."
"But what about that color?"
Jan Cluj shrugged, as if the matter were of little interest. "It is unnatural. Most assuredly obtained chemically. I accuse some likely college boys. They are insufficiently studious and given to madcaps."
Crouching, Shenda extended her fingers through the wire separating her and the yellow dog. He snuffled her fingers eagerly and sloppily. She stood.
"There's no roots showing, or normal-colored patches the dye job would've missed."
Exasperatedly: "Dear lady, the dog is as you see him, fit and active by medical ukase, most normal save for his hue. Explanations are superfluous. Will you have him?"
"I will have him."
After signing the relevant forms, Shenda took the happy bounding yellow dog straight to a grooming salon known as Kanine Klips (recommended by Pepsi, who had her poodle, French Fry, done there regularly), where she had the anomalous bulldog dipped and clipped.
Then she waited for his normally colored fur to grow out.
Three years later, she was still waiting.
The dog was some kind of genetic sport. His naturally unnatural coloration was a shade most commonly associated with avian life forms.
Shenda had resisted naming the bulldog until he assumed his true form. Called him "Hey, you!" and "Here, doggie!" for weeks, out of some kind of feeling that to name him wrongly would be to warp his personality. But when the true state of his freakish coat became evident, there was no other possible name for such a specimen.
"Bullfinch," said Shenda with weary patience, "get up off that tablecloth please. It's time for you to go out and do your business."
Bullfinch obeyed. He arose and trotted over to the back door of the house. Shenda opened it and the dog went outside into her small fenced yard.
While the criminally destructive canine was busy outside, Shenda gathered up the precious tatters, surveyed them mournfully, estimating possibilities of repair, then, clucking her tongue, chucked the rags into the trash.
Bullfinch re-entered the house. Promptly, the dog went over to the wastebasket and dragged the ruined fabric out and over to his bed. With great care and exactitude, employing paws and muzzle, he arranged the cloth atop the puffy cushion to his liking. He plopped his rear haunches down on his new dog blanket, and sat regarding his mistress.
Shenda gave up. "I don't have time to play no tug-of-war with you, Bullyboy. My day is fuller than usual. And it starts now."
As if to say, Mine too! Bullfinch nodded his weighty corrugated head several times, then lowered his forequarters and was soon asleep.
Shenda showered and groomed. Those toenails had to go! In a robe, towelling her hair dry, she flipped on the bedroom radio automatically, thinking to catch the news, but then hardly listened. She put her panties on ass-backwards, caught herself, swore, and re-donned them correctly.
Dressed in baggy Gap jeans and a green silk shirt, she ate a chocolate Pop Tart standing up at the sink, washing it down with a tumbler of chocolate milk. Her face was blank, as if her mind were vacationing in a more alluring country than her body.
"--cell-u-licious!" declaimed the radio.
Shenda snapped out of her fugue, looked at the clock, and exclaimed, "Louie Kablooie! Bully, I've got to run! You got plenty of kibbles, and tonight I'll bring you a real treat. Promise!" She scuffled on a pair of open-toed Candies, grabbed up a courier-style satchel and her car keys.
The door slammed behind her. Bullfinch opened one eye, then the other. Seeing nothing that needed his attention, he closed them and returned to sleep.
He could fly. He really could. And that airborne tennis ball was no problem.
No dreams, pleasant or otherwise, but rather a mechanical device, awoke Marmaduke Twigg from his Midas-golden slumbers.
Like every other member of the Phineas Gage League, Twigg was physiologically incapable of dreaming. The relevant circuitry, along with much else, had been chemically and surgically excised from Twigg's altered brain.
As a consequence, he was radically insane. And in the worst possible way.
The mania didn't show, didn't impede his daily functioning. Indeed, Twigg's brand of insanity increased his cunning, ingenuity, deftness, manipulative social skills and will to power. Minute to grasping minute, hour to scheming hour, day to conquering day, he appeared to himself and others as a single-minded superman, apparently a paragon of efficient, rational action. Perched on the very uppermost rungs of the social ladder, Twigg seemingly owed all his accomplishments to the secret devastations willingly wrought on his grey matter.
Yet it was as if a dam had been erected in the brains of Twigg and his compatriots, a dam behind which fetid black waters were continually massing.
A dam which must one day give way, taking not only the well-deserving Twigg and his peers to their vivid destruction, but countless others, the more or less innocent and the less or more complicit.
Right now, of course, such a fate seemed vastly improbable.
Twigg thought--rather, knew--that he was a new and improved breed of human, superior to anyone not a League member.
He knew that the world was his oyster.
The only thing left to determine was at precisely which angle one should work the knife into the hapless stubborn bivalve, and how best to twist the sharp instrument properly.
The shell halves fell apart.
And the raw meat was sucked greedily, gleefully down.
Twigg lay sleeping on his back in the exact center of the mattress of his enormous four-postered canopied bed. His chest-folded arms were clad in ebony silk salted with white dots. Beneath his crossed arms, crimson satin sheets and a crest-embroidered white duvet were drawn up in unwrinkled swaths. (The crest on the coverlet depicted a heraldic shield enclosing crossed iron rods with a superimposed eye, and the Gothic initials PGL.) Resting in the middle of a softer-than-down pillow, Twigg's unlined face seemed the ivory mask of one of the lesser pharaohs.
Suddenly, without visible stimulation, Twigg's pebbly eyes snapped open like rollershades, and he was instantly alert.
Twigg could feel the small unit consisting of pump and segmented reservoirs implanted inside him stop its gentle whirring. The same device (which regulated many hormonal functions previously so crudely performed by now missing grey matter) had sent him efficiently to sleep exactly four hours ago, during which time he had not stirred a limb.
He knew that most of his servants--especially those who had the least personal contact with him, knowing his peculiarities only through rumor--jokingly referred to him as one of the undead. But Twigg cared not.
All the lesser cattle were the true phantoms, without substance, ineffectual. Only he and his kind were truly alive.
Twigg's breakfast would soon arrive, carried to him by his loyal factotum, Paternoster. In the meantime, he flew the jetcraft of his mind over the varied terrain of his day.
Meetings, public and private: legislators, aides, ambassadors, presidents, CEOs, media slaves. Acquisitions and sales: companies, divisions, patents, real estate, souls. Phone calls: conferenced and one-on-one. Presentations: from scientists, PR experts, lawyers, brokers, military strategists. Wedged into the interstices: meals and an intensively crafted scientific workout.
All of it absolutely necessary, absolutely vital to keeping all the delicately balanced plates of Isoterm's myriad businesses spinning.
Yet all of it absolutely tedious.
But tonight. Tonight would make up for all the boredom.
For tonight was the monthly meeting of the Phineas Gage League.
Twigg smiled at the thought.
His smile appeared like fire burning a hole in the paper of his face.
Memories of his own entrance into the League trickled over his interior dam. These were not so pleasant. The initiation rituals were stringent. Had to be. No whiners or losers or weaklings allowed. Cull out the sick cattle right at the head of the chute. Still, the shock and the pain--
Twigg reflectively fingered a small puckered scar on his right temple. His smile had disappeared.
To recover his anticipation of this night's pleasures, Twigg reached up to stroke one of his bed's four canopy supports.
At each corner of the enormous imperial bed stood a life-sized naked woman, arms upstretched over her head, thus pulling her breasts high and flat. Each woman supported one corner of the heavy wooden frame that held the brocaded fabric canopy.
These caryatids were each one unique, sculpted with absolute realism, down to the finest hair and wrinkle. They were colored a uniform alabaster. Their surfaces were absolutely marmoreal, as unyielding as ice. Twigg's hand, lasciviously molding the butt of one woman statue, neither dented nor jiggled the realistic curves. Rather, his hand slid over the human rondures as if they were curiously frictionless.
The door to Twigg's bedroom, half a hundred feet away, opened. A man entered, bearing a domed tray. He crossed the carpet with measured elderly steps.
Twigg bounded out of bed lithely.
His black pajamas, it was now revealed, were embroidered with hundreds of identical white termites.
"Ah, Paternoster! Well done! On the table if you please!"
The old and crabbed servant--longish hair the shade of old celluloid--set his burden down.
The table was a large piece of gold-rimmed glass borne aloft on the backs of two kneeling naked men arranged parallel. One of the humaniform trestles was a middle-aged paunchy type; the other young and lean.
Twigg moved to an antique desk of normal construction, where a high-end computer incongruously sat. He powered it up, eager to begin his day of bending and shaping, betrayal and coercion. Simultaneously, with seeming unconcern, he questioned his servant.
"Birthday this week, Paternoster? Am I correct?"
"As always, sir."
"Not thinking of retirement yet, are you?"
A fearful tremor passed over Paternoster's worn features. "No, sir! Of course not! I served your father for his whole life, and his father before him! How could I even think of retiring!"
"Very good!" Twigg ceased his typing. As if pondering a different topic, he said, "I must find a hassock for this room! Well, I'll get around to it some day."
The servant seemed on the verge of fainting. "Any--anything else, sir?"
"No, Paternoster, you may go."
Twigg's braying laughter escorted Paternoster out.
Whipping the silver cover off the tray, Twigg disclosed his breakfast.
It was a single uncapped bottle of sinisterly effervescent Zingo, whose label featured the famous lightning-bolt Z.
Twigg grabbed the bottle and downed its bright Cool Mint Listerine-colored contents.
Setting the empty bottle down, the man picked up a device off the table. It resembled a standard remote-control unit.
Pivoting, Twigg raised the unit and pointed across the vast room.
On the far side of the interior acreage stood a full-sized statue of a Siberian tiger, absolutely lifelike save for its unvarying artificial whiteness. The beast's face was frozen open in a toothy snarl, every ridge of its pallid gullet delineated; one mammoth paw was lifted in midgesture. Separate from the statue, strapped around its neck, was a collar and small box.
Twigg pressed a button.
The tiger's anguished roar filled the room, its striped face a Kabuki mask of rage. Like an orange, white and black express train, it raced at its tormentor. Twigg stood like a statue himself.
Several yards distant from its infuriating quarry, the tiger leaped, its maw a slick red cavern, claws extended.
At the last possible moment Twigg pressed another button.
The stasis-transfigured tiger, now vanilla white, fell with a heavy thud to the deep carpet, nearly at Twigg's bare feet.
"Yes!" said Twigg gleefully. "Like to see even that cool bastard Durchfreude do better."
Naming the Dark Intercessor aloud seemed to cast a shadow on Twigg's pleasure.
The man was a valuable nuisance. Every use of his talents simultaneously decreased his utility and increased the liability he represented.
One day the balance would tip decisively on the side of liability.
And then, Twigg grimly suspected, it would take more than the easy press of a button to put Kraft Durchfreude away.
The wide, welcoming, windowed wood door to the Karuna Koffeehouse had its own unique method of announcing customers.
Mounted inside above the entrance was a Laff Bag: one of those innocuous sacks that contained a device to play tinny mechanical maniacal laughter. Every passage through the door pulled the string that triggered the abridged five-second recording.
Making a pompous entrance into the gaily-painted Karuna was practically impossible.
Not that there weren't folks who still tried.
Fuquan Fletcher for one.
Thurman had just arrived that morning, setting off his own personally impersonal gale of guffaws. This early, he had found his favorite table empty, the one by the moisture-misted south window. Taking a seat, he unclipped the cylindrical foam bolster from his cane and arranged it against the small of his back.
The fragrant atmosphere of the Koffeehouse was filled with the gurgles and chortles of various brewing devices, the chatter of the trio of workers on duty, the savoring sipping sounds of sleepy humans gradually coming up to full mental speed with the aid of friendly plant derivatives. The ceiling-mounted speakers suddenly crackled alive with the sounds of Respighi. A wide-mouthed toaster noisily ejected its crisped bagel passengers.
All was right with the world.
If not with Thurman himself.
Lining up his various prescriptions on the tabletop, Thurman tried not to feel too sorry for himself. An attitude that didn't do any good, he knew from the recent bitter years, though surely easy enough to fall into.
Looking up from his chesslike array of bottles, Thurman saw one of the baristas approaching.
Normal service at the Karuna involved placing one's order while standing at the long, oaken, display-case-dotted counter separating customers from the employees and the exotic tools of their trade, and then maneuvering with the expeditiously filled order through the crush toward an empty or friend-occupied table. The baristas generally ventured out only to clear tables of post-java debris and swab them down. (And even these incursions into the customer area were infrequent, thanks to the unusual self-policing neatness of most Karuna patrons.)
But for Thurman--and anyone else who obviously needed special attention--exceptions were easily made.
Just part of the thoughtful charm that found expression in the Karuna's motto:
The place to come when even home isn't kind enough.
The phrase Thurman always involuntarily associated with the young female barista named Verity Freestone was "pocket-sized." Pixie-cut black hair topping a seventy-five pound package of cheerful myopia.
Today Verity wore a striped shirt that exposed her pierced-navel belly, brown corduroy pants that would've fit Thurman's twelve-year-old nephew, Raggle, and a pair of Birkenstocks. Verity filled her pants, however, in a more interesting--to lonely Thurman--fashion.
Verity pushed her thick glasses up on a mildly sweaty snub nose. "Hi, Thur. The usual?"
"Um, sure. Except maybe just wave the beans over the cappuccino, okay? The old stomach--"
"Thurman, you look wicked peaked. Are you okay?"
"As okay as I'll ever get."
Verity eyed the pill vials ranked before Thurman and frowned. "All those unnatural chemicals can't be good for you. Haven't you tried any alternative healing methods? Maybe get the old chi flowing. What about vitamins? You take any vitamins?"
Thurman waved the advice away. "Verity, really--I appreciate your concern. But I can't change any part of my medical care right now. Strict doctor's orders. I'm barely holding on as it is."
Verity's expression changed from faintly hectoring to triumphantly assured. "I know just what you need, Thur."
This was more than Thurman himself knew. "And what might that be?"
"Some espresso eggs! They're not on the menu. We--the help, that is--we make them just for ourselves. But I'm gonna fix you up some special!"
The treat sounded nauseating to Thurman. "Verity, I don't know if I can take any espresso in my eggs--"
"Oh, they don't have any coffee in them. We just call them that because we make them using the espresso machine steamjet."
"Well, if they're mild--"
"Mild don't even come close!"
Before Thurman could object any further, Verity clomped determinedly off.
Thurman plucked the rumpled morning newspaper from the adjacent window ledge and unfolded it. A headline caught his attention:
DISPOSAL LOGS MISSING FROM GULF WAR
He made an effort to focus on the smaller print.
Just then the door laughed.
Fuquan Fletcher was the Karuna's coffee-bean roaster. A master at his craft, he was indispensable to the quality of the Karuna's drinks, and thus responsible for much of its success.
That single and singular virtue failed to compensate for the fact that he was an utter prick.
At least in Thurman's eyes. But not, he suspected, in his alone.
Always dapperly dressed and impeccably groomed, the trim mustachioed Black man had no admirers more fervent and appreciative of his immense hypothetical charms than himself. He was a loud walking arrogant billboard for his own athletic, sexual, financial and terpsichorean prowess.
"Ladies!" bellowed Fuquan from the door. "Show me a hot oven, and I'll get right down to some sweaty work!"
Returning to Thurman's table, an unfazed Verity passed by her coworker. "Morning, Fuquan."
The man made as if to embrace her, a move Verity deftly eluded with a twist and a skip, all without spilling a drop of the drink on her tray.
"Freestone! I got you pegged, girl! You're one of them sex elves like I seen in a comic once! Show the world your pointy ears, girl! Let them puppies out to play! Then you and me will go into your fantasy world!"
Thurman was highly embarrassed by this display. For the nth time, he pondered putting Fuquan in his place. Once he would have done it automatically. Visceral memories of R&R barroom brawls tweaked his flaccid muscles. But now he had neither the energy nor the ability.
Verity was unfazed by the familiar routine. "Fuquan, you'd better cut the talk and get to work. We're running low on Jamaican."
"One day you're gonna give me some of your good stuff, Miss Peanut."
"Don't count on it. Thurman, here's those eggs I was talking about."
Moving irrepressibly on to other equally futile love conquests and bouts of braggadocio, Fuquan went behind the counter where Thurman could see him donning a neck-to-knee apron.
"Don't you ever get sick of him?"
"Oh, he's harmless. It's the ones who don't say anything you have to watch out for."
Thurman instantly felt that perhaps he was one of those suspiciously quiet ones, and fumbled for some sort of conversational tidbit, as Verity disburdened her tray onto the table.
"Uh, how's your dog doing?"
Verity owned a long-haired dachshund (referred to by Fuquan as, of course, "Hairy Weenie"). "Slinky Dog is just fine. He goes out to stud next week. Slinky makes his girlfriends happy, and I make a little extra cash."
The mention of even canine stud duty saddened and embarrassed the unstudly afflicted Thurman. "Um, great, I guess...."
"Now, try these, Thur, and tell me what you think."
Before him, fluffy white-flecked yellow clouds of whipped and steam-cooked eggs seemed to float an inch off their plate. Thurman had never seen such ethereal scrambled eggs. Plainly, there was a component of antigravity to their recipe.
Thurman forked some up and delivered them to his taste buds.
There was not even any sensation of them resting on his tongue. The sweet creamy taste of the eggs seemed to suffuse directly into his bloodstream. Chewing was definitely superfluous.
"These--these are the best eggs I've ever had!"
Verity smiled and patted his shoulder. "Part of your regular order from now on, Thurman. We'll get a little flesh back on those bones."
Thurman finished his eggs with gusto, as well as his usual plain bagel half and cappuccino (oh, all right: weakly flavored hot sugary milk). Feeling better than he had in months, he settled back to absorb the busy evolving scene around him.
People-watching was Thurman's main recreational activity these days. Cost nothing, and took little strength.
Odd Vibe came in. A quiet and generally unsmiling Norwegian who bore the unfortunately twistable name of Otto Wibe, he was the Karuna's baker.
Thurman could hear Fuquan greet his backroom coworker.
"Odd Vibe, my man! You sleep in those clothes or roll a bum and strip him?"
"Fletcher, you go and sit on a biscotti, by gosh!"
"Oh, sharp one, Oddy! We'll have you playing the dozens yet!"
Around eleven, Tibor "Chug'em" Gruntpat made his daily appearance. Chug'em was a sanitation worker, fiftyish and gnarled, just coming off shift. He had been up since about 3:00 A.M. Without a word, Buddy Cheetah--drummer for a struggling band called the Beagle Boys, who was working the counter with Verity--lined up four double-mochaccinnos in front of the grey-haired muscular man, who knocked them back in a total of sixteen seconds. Then Chug'em left to sleep through the day.
Others less and more memorable came and went, the latter category featuring SinSin Bang and Pepsi Scattergood from the Kwik Kuts salon three doors down the block. As usual, the brace of beauticians were impeccably trigged out. The Misses Mode O'Day. And, natch, their hairstyles had changed since last week.
Nelumbo Nucifera, good-looking Italo-American boy who kept all the females happy with his tight T-shirts, came out from behind the counter to clear Thurman's dish and refill his cup.
"Hey, want to hear a joke, man? This guy walks into a bar with an alligator on a leash...."
In the buttery sunlight after Nello's departure, Thurman began to grow sleepy.
And then the door's chortles, sounding somehow lighter and more vibrant, announced Shenda Moore.
Her arrival had the same effect on Thurman's nerves as a Scud missile intersecting the Aegis defense system. He came instantly awake, his heart thumping to a salsa beat.
Wasn't she just so achingly damn beautiful?
Peeking out of her open-toed shoes--
Those Easter-egg nails!
The Tarbaby wanted to tango today!
Shenda's hasty departure from her apartment had set the tone for the rest of her morning. From one appointment to another she had raced. Suppliers and building contractors, City Hall and DEM, office supply stores and printshops, the homes of employees out on long-term sick leave. The odometer on her little green Jetta seemed to revolve madly like one of those movie time-machine displays as the decades whipped by. Shenda's Day-Timer was thick as a slice of Sequoia, stuffed with loose business cards that took flight at the slightest provocation, making her feel like an utter idiot as she stooped to recover them under the noses of leering sneering straight-edge white guys in suits!
(Whenever Shenda heard this putdown tone in her mental monologue, she would automatically pause, disengage the gears on the aggression machinery, and try to radiate a little human warmth, the way Titi Yaya had taught her when she was a little girl. The practice had been hard at first, gotten easier over the years--although the mental trick never ceased to be something she must consciously invoke as a counterweight to natural human impatience. This refusal to hate or impose false separations lay at the heart of Shenda's personal MO, and at the heart of her vision for Karuna, Inc.)
As she dashed about town, attending to all the daily hassles associated with running the expanding set of enterprises loosely linked under the umbrella of Karuna, Inc., Shenda felt a twinge of irreducible guilt.
She had not taken Bullfinch for a walk in days. (That dream--) The dog was uncomplaining, but Shenda knew that he missed the exercise. Hell, so did she!
If walking with Bullfinch pleased them both, then why hadn't they done it in too long?
Was her life becoming the kind of White Queen's Race she had always derided in others?
Was she forgetting what was really important in life?
She hoped not. Natural optimism made her ascribe this unnaturally busy and stressful period to the fact that now, after three hard years, Karuna, Inc., was really taking off.
Maybe soon now she could even hire a helper!
Stopped at the traffic light at the corner of Perimeter and Santa Barbara Streets, Shenda looked idly to her left and saw a big truck emblazoned with some kind of insect logo.
Must be exterminators....
The light went green. Shenda wheeled right on Perimeter toward her final two stops before lunch. (Both stops had been planned to mix pleasure and business, one of Shenda's survival tactics. At Kwik Kuts, she'd get her pedicure and instead of dishing dirt, discuss business. Then, at the Karuna, she'd lunch after tending to their affairs.)
As she expertly threaded the traffic, she thought back to the beginnings of this whole unlikely scheme.
Three years ago, she had been a business major fresh out of the university, temping in a series of dead-end jobs, unsure of the path before her. The what and why of her life were plain enough, but the how was shrouded in mystery. Then Titi Yaya had phoned, a day in advance of her standard weekly call.
"Shen-Shen, dear." Only Titi Yaya called her that old childhood name anymore. "You remember Titi Luce?"
"Of course, of course. I saw her once when I was six. She visiting from Miami?"
"Not anymore, dear. She's dead. Nine days ago. I just got back."
"Oh boy. ... Sorry to hear it, Titi."
"I know you are, dear. Now, pay attention. I can't get out of the house today. Too much to make ready. So I need you to pick up a few things for the oro Ilé-Olofi ceremonies tonight. Seven white candles, a pigeon, eight coconuts, some cascarilla, Florida Water...."
Shenda scribbled dutifully, although she was not truthfully looking forward to attending the oro Ilé-Olofi. Titi Yaya and the other santeras would ask when she was at least going to take the Necklaces, embrace the Warriors--never mind making the saint!--and they would press upon her protective bracelets at the very least--the idé--which she would have to refuse, saying that she didn't follow the Religion anymore, had never really done so since reaching adulthood. Unpleasantness would result.
Titi Yaya finished her list. "And be here sharply at nine, dear. Oh, by the way: Luce left you a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Goodbye till nine."
The connection was severed on Titi Yaya's end but not on Shenda's, as she held the phone stupidly in her hand until the recorded operator's voice came on.
The first thing Shenda did was press the disconnect button on the handset, then dial the temp agency and resign.
The second thing she did was walk (no car then) to the Karuna, where she could sit and have a coffee and think.
In those days, the Karuna looked nothing like its current self. Didn't even have the same name, but was known instead as the Corona Coffeehouse. Drab, dirty, dusty and disagreeable, it was mismanaged by absentee tax-finagling owners and patronized by shady types, the yuppies they preyed on, and a clique of arty poseurs.
Liars and strivers and bores, oh my!
Only a handful of the employees redeemed the joint. Folks glad to have a job and trying their best to overcome bad conditions.
Sitting with a cup of acidic, burnt coffee, thinking alternately of the nameless yellow adopted dog back home in her tiny walk-up and the bequest so cavalierly dropped in her lap by her ever-surprising aunts, Shenda tried to imagine what she might do with the money, how best to put it to work.
There came an unbidden moment then--a moment most incommensurate with the tawdry surroundings, a self-catalyzing timeless nanosecond Shenda would never forget--when the whole world seemed to blossom, to split open like a fruit, revealing the seeds of her whole future.
Shenda was at the bank the next day.
Depositing the bequest and using it as collateral, she took out a loan. With that money, she bought the Corona from owners eager to dump it cheap and write off the loss.
Rechristening the place was easy. Somehow the sound-a-like new name surfaced, recalled from a college philosophy class.
Shenda wasn't quite sure what the exact definition of "karuna" was. But it had something to do with warmth and spaciousness, and it sounded suitably exotic. Plus, anyone who went looking for the old "Corona" would likely end up at the new "Karuna."
Firing the incompetent and surly employees had been positively pleasant. Shenda was not one to flinch from necessary triage. The girl could be positively brutal when brutal was called for. (She would have made a good nurse or general, and had in fact become a mixture of both.)
Once the Karuna was running on a steady footing (about six months; guess those business courses were worth something after all), Shenda incorporated a holding company that also utilized the Karuna name.
This parent company had but one purpose. Its short prospectus was perhaps unique in the history of capitalism. Shenda was very proud of it. She had written all of it herself.
"Karuna, Inc., is a cooperative overseeing entity whose sole purpose is to facilitate and maximize the functioning of its subsidiaries through any ethical means available, including but not limited to group purchasing agreements; joint bargaining and sales forces; intersubsidiary loans and personnel exchanges; healthcare coordination; shared management, training and education; pooled charitable donations and grants; mutual information sharing; etc., etc.
"A company wishing to become a subsidiary of Karuna, Inc., must first redefine its sole business mission to be the creation of environmentally responsible, non-exploitive, domestic-based, maximally creative jobs to be filled without prejudice or favoritism. The performance of all employees shall be regularly evaluated, partially on accomplishment of defined goals and partially on native abilities and attitudes of employees, with the latter considerations outweighing the former in cases requiring arbitration. While maximum product and service quality are to be always striven for, the primary goal of the subsidiaries shall always be the full employment of all workers meeting the qualifications of goodwill and exertion of individual levels of competence. It is to be hoped that the delivery of high-quality goods and services will be a by-product of such treatment.
"Upon demonstration of such a redesign, a company will be admitted as a subsidiary, with all rights and obligations pertaining thereto, upon a positive vote of the Karuna, Inc., board.
"Profit making is naturally encouraged. Each subsidiary shall pay a tenth of its profits to the parent corporation for the furtherance of the shared mission as outlined above.
"All owners of subsidiaries become members of the board of Karuna, Inc., and at regular meetings--open also to all subsidiary employees and their relatives, as vested shareholders--the board members shall vote to determine any future corporate actions outside the stated scope of this document, or amendments thereto. A simple majority shall carry all votes. In the case of ties, the vote of the President (Shenda Moore, undersigned) shall be called on. The President may also veto any board decision in the best interests of Karuna, Inc."
Shenda wavered a little over that last bit. It sounded kinda dictatorial. (Especially since she really had two votes: one as the owner of the Karuna Koffeehouse, the first subsidiary, and one as president.)
Hell! It was her idea, her money and her effort!
Let anybody who wasn't satisfied stage a coup!
Smith and Hawken. Ben and Jerry's. Tom's of Maine. The Body Shop. Sure, they all tried to live up to some of the same principles Shenda had outlined in the formation of her company. But none of these others had as their primary mission the simple creation and sustainment of good jobs for those who needed them. (Perhaps the national figure who came closest to Shenda's conception of how to treat people was Aaron Feuerstein, the owner of the fire-destroyed Malden Mills in Massachusetts, who had maintained his idled help on a full payroll throughout reconstruction.)
In each of those other companies, the ultimate emphasis was on the product, on making and selling it, grabbing market share. Whatever the company rhetoric, when push came to shove, the workers drew the short straw.
"Doing well by doing good" was their motto.
"Doing good and maybe doing well" was Shenda's.
It was a real, although subtle, difference.
(And in the end, there didn't even seem to be any maybe about it. Loan paid off, house and car bought, the Karuna turning a nice monthly profit. Louie Kablooie! What more could you ask of a business plan?)
Shenda didn't really give a flying fuck about product. People were drowning in products, they bought too much too cheaply anyway. It didn't take a genius to turn out quality goods. That part was simple.
What took skill and talent and vision and general resourcefulness--qualities Shenda was a little surprised to find out she had in abundance--was promoting conditions that opened up satisfying, decent-paying vocational niches for everyone. Getting people into a harness that didn't bind and having them all pull together, for the common good.
General Shenda, jetting in her Jetta toward a pedicure and lunch.
Never thought being a general might someday mean having to fight an actual war.
Marmaduke Twigg adjusted the bib of his black rubber apron, smoothing the cord where it passed around the collar of his five-thousand-dollar suit. The long, butcher-style garment bore the PGL crest in the middle of the chest.
Unlike the Masons and their aprons, the Phineas Gage League had adopted theirs for strictly practical reasons.
The lovely expensive fabrics favored by the League members reacted so poorly to bloodstains!
Confident he was looking his best, Twigg walked forward to the clustered PGL members who had arrived before him.
They stood on a subway platform, lit by a single scanty light. The dusty station was a deserted one, off the maps, reachable only through a certain subbasement's concealed door.
Of course, a League member owned the building that included that subbasement.
Empty for over ninety years, the station possessed a certain Victorian feel to it, wonderfully consistent with the period of the League's founding. Twigg could almost believe that he had traveled back in time, back to that romantic age of the great industrialist Robber Barons: Carnegie, DuPont, Rockefeller, Getty, Rothschild, Hearst, Krupp--
Not that he would have traded places with any of those legendary figures. Sure, they had had a few nice perks. No inflation, no taxes, no government regulations. Truly classy playgrounds like Newport and Saratoga and Baden-Baden. Half the world's resources and population subjugated as colonies under their boots. The respect and ass-kissing admiration of society.
But taken all in all, the present offered so much more!
The assembled members--eleven, Twigg quickly counted, making him the last to arrive--hailed him with varying degrees of civility and enthusiasm. Here were important personages--competitors and rivals--who would, upon receiving any news of Twigg's painful demise, lose not a minute in popping their finest champagne, toasting his anticipated afterlife roasting, and pissing the metabolically transformed fluid on his grave. Yet they were constrained by the rules of the League from doing more to his person now, or elsewhen, than uttering a mildly cutting bon mot.
Such was the strength of the bond between them.
The League members were a motley assortment of international figures, most of whose faces would be instantly recognizable to the average newspaper reader or television viewer, all leaders of enormous, globe-girdling enterprises, media talking-head sources of quotes and advice.
Twigg catalogued his peers.
Sasha Kapok, of Kalpagni, Ltd.
Ernest Firgower, of Stonecipher Industries.
Isabelle Fistule, of Burnes Sloan Hardin Hades.
Jack Burrows-White, of Crumbee Products.
Nick Potash, of Harrow & Wither.
Edouard Ensor, of Somnifax et Cie.
Alba Cumberbatch, of Asura Refineries.
Osada Sarakin, of Preta-Loka Entertainments.
Abruptio Placentae, of Culex, SA.
Cooper Stopford, of Brasher Investments, Plc.
Klaus Kunzi-Fuchs, of Rudrakonig, GmbH.
Lastly, of course, came the nervous-looking new recruit, Samuel Stanes, of LD-100 Pharmaceuticals, whose initiation would bring the League up to its full strength of thirteen.
After greeting his compatriots, Twigg moved to the absolute edge of the platform and looked down the tunnel for the train. Not seeing it, he made a dismissive noise and stepped back, joining the rest.
Like a group of commuting meat cutters, they waited silently.
At last the train arrived.
Not modern subway cars, nor even antique carriages, but rather primitive open mining cars like riveted iron buckets with seats, pulled by a tough little engine, at the helm of which sat the Dark Intercessor.
Durchfreude was one of the League's rare failures. Something had gone wrong in the procedure that would have made him a full-fledged League member. A portion of his higher individualism and initiative had been unfortunately excised. The team and head surgeon responsible for the screw-up had soon come to wish they had never seen a scalpel. Durchfreude himself had been declared officially dead, and his corporate empire had devolved to a son, who knew nothing of his father's actual fate, nor of the League.
Yet a use and further half-life had been found for Durchfreude. Unwaveringly loyal and obedient, he made an excellent cat's-paw, a unique tool, disposable if need be, rotating his services among the League's initiates as requested.
And in fact, if no one had a more pressing need for Durchfreude's services, Twigg himself intended to borrow the creature soon for a short and simple private assignment on behalf of Isoterm.
Stepping carefully, the PGL'ers filtered into the various cars, except for the caboose.
That car was filled with bound unconscious bodies.
Men, women, children. Some animals.
Once they were all aboard, Durchfreude rang a little mechanical bell (with what mix of sardonicism and actual childlike glee, Twigg could not discern in the dimness), and the train chugged off, its single kerosene lamp the only illumination.
Not far beyond the station, the tracks began to slope to a non-negligible degree. Soon, the train's brakes were squealing, the engine's gears in low, as they dropped into the earth's depths, torturing rasping shrieks from the rails.
After a time, the tracks leveled out. A light at the end of the tunnel appeared after they rounded a bend.
The train emerged into a cavernous room hewn from the living rock, and stopped. Naked flames from bracketed torches illuminated the rough clammy walls. Hidden vents created slight air currents that caused the flames to jump and lick like hungry tongues. Thick Persian rugs--stained despite the best cleaning attempts--softened the hard floor.
Durchfreude leaped down and hustled carpeted wooden steps up to the cars so that the thirteen passengers could dismount.
The room was furnished with various comfortable chairs and couches--as well as shrouded equipment whose shapes implied a more sinister nature. Scattered tables were laden with fine gourmet food and vintage drink, as well as various recreational pills and needles. Full sanitary and ablutionary facilities were half-visible behind a folding screen.
At one end of the room was a kind of dais supporting a lectern. On the wall behind the podium hung a large reproduction of the PGL crest as well as a framed portrait. The painting depicted a mustachioed white man with the looks typical of the mid-1800s. There was, however, a curious deformity to a portion of his skull.
The members dispersed among the furniture, helping themselves to the refreshments, making small talk. After unloading the unconscious cargo, stacking the hogtied bodies like cordwood, Durchfreude had vanished somewhere, down the tunnel or behind the screen.
When the men and women of the League had settled down, business began.
As the oldest member, Ernest Firgower ascended the dais to conduct the meeting. Behind the podium, not much of the short elderly man was visible save for his vigorous shock of silver hair towering over his wrinkled brow (where that same small scar, which Twigg and the others shared, leered obscenely), and his green eyes shining like the tips of poisoned stakes. Twigg fancied that his countryman resembled Bertrand Russell, had that philosopher ever included in his CV the management of, say, a concentration camp.
Firgower coughed, began to speak in a reedy voice. "Fellows of the Rod, let us commence our business. The first matter on the docket is the division of Zairian natural resources--"
Twigg listened with only half his attention. The rest was focused on a blonde woman sprawled atop the pile of warm and gently respiring bodies. Her immaculate features and contorted limbs evoked the air of a Renaissance martyr portrait.
Twigg sucked in her delicious helplessness, tuning Firgower out. Twigg was a man who believed firmly in granting business and pleasure equal status.
At last the humdrum League affairs had all been dealt with. Twigg suppressed a yawn. It was hours before his normal sleep period. Was his onboard pump working as well as it should? He made a mental note to have it checked.
Now Firgower had begun the ritual preface to the initiation of Samuel Stanes, the last duty before they could all cut loose in that hot red festival that was a simultaneous abandonment and affirmation of their unique privilege.
Twigg perked up in his seat and listened. The old story never failed to enthrall.
"We are gathered together tonight in honor of our symbolic founder, the hapless yet lucky Phineas Gage. While he did not literally lay the first bricks of our organization--that honor belongs to the farsighted entrepreneurial visionaries of our great-grandparents' generation--Gage provided the actual inspiration for our magnificent accomplishments.
"Phineas Gage was a simple untutored manual laborer during the middle of the last century. At the time of his remarkable transformation, he was helping to construct a railroad. The blasting of interfering rock ledges was underway. Gage was assigned to make sure the explosive charges were well in place. Taking his tamping rod, he went to work."
Firgower waved a thin arm backward at the crossed bars of the PGL crest, then almost toppled. He righted himself and continued.
"Gage performed his task a trifle too enthusiastically. At one drill hole in the stone, he created sparks and ignited the powder charge.
"The iron rod was sent rocketing upward, out of the channel as out of the barrel of a gun, through Gage's right eye, blazing a trail of gorgeous destruction across his lobes, and emerging in its entirety out the top of his cranium.
"Let us leap ahead, over the confusion attendant on this accident and the subsequent primitive medical treatment. Gage survived his wonderful injury. But as all his old friends attested, he was utterly changed. From an easygoing, laughing, careless sort, he turned moody and unpredictable and demanding. He seemed to be without the normal constraints of civilization. Regard for his fellow humans, he had none. Completely self-centered, his actions--reprehensible to an ignorant milksop society--led to a life of ostracism and despair.
"We now know, of course, that along with much needless peripheral damage, Gage was the first man to undergo the removal of his brain's ethical nucleus. Or, as some of the more old-fashioned among us refer to it, his conscience.
"Lacking all power, occupying the wrong social stratum, Gage never benefited from his inadvertent surgery. He could not fully make use of the miraculous ease and fluidity of action which one who is blessed with the destruction of one's conscience experiences. Never to doubt, never to allow pusillanimous sentiments for human cattle to interfere with one's own self-interest, never to waste a moment of one's precious time in introspection. To see clearly the quickest path to one's own ascension. Such is the legacy given to those of us who have undergone the perfected operation."
Firgower stepped out from behind the lectern. "And now, Samuel Stanes, we of the Phineas Gage League invite you to join our ranks. What sayest thou?"
Stanes stood on visibly weak knees. "I--I accept!"
Durchfreude had appeared from nowhere.
"The Dark Intercessor will administer the sacrament," intoned Firgower.
Twigg watched as Durchfreude fastened a stasis box to Stanes's wrist. The leader of Isoterm found his finger straying almost of its own accord to his own temple, and restrained the traitorous digit with an act of will. Someone else flicked a wall-mounted switch, and the hissing of an electric-powered air compressor resounded.
Sweat like an oily evil dew spontaneously broke out on Stanes's brow. He closed his eyes.
Durchfreude brought into view a heavy-duty carpenter's nail gun, its tumescent hose trailing. He placed the muzzle against Stanes's right temporal ridge and squeezed the trigger.
The pop of the gun was followed by the crunching sound of the short nail driving through flesh, striking and partially penetrating the skull.
Stanes turned then into a rigid snowy sculpture of himself, as the stasis box was activated by the control in Firgower's veined hand.
Durchfreude caught the unstable toppling figure, hoisted it and loaded it into the train. Mounting the engineer's seat, he drove Stanes off to the awaiting surgery.
No ride home for the others would be needed for hours.
For now the fun commenced. Already, as planned, the victims were waking up.
Twigg moved swiftly to claim the blonde.
But he need not have rushed. There were plenty of subjects to go around.
When Twigg next looked up amidst the screams and howls and guttural roars--the animals sounding human, the humans animal--he saw Cumberbatch with her mouth incarnadined, a wide red clownlike smear, Ensor holding a fluid-darkened saw, Sarakin pulling tight a noose, Fistule with her arm imbrued, buried inside a dog's split mortal shell.
Not jealous in the least, the superman returned to his own pleasures.
Alert, almost vibrating, Thurman watched the regal and youthfully glamorous Shenda Moore stride swiftly across the Karuna's polished floorboards and pass behind the counter. She set her courier's case down with visible relief.
Verity eagerly started up a conversation with the Karuna's owner, of which Thurman caught only the opening.
"That sleazy new distributor came to the delivery door again, Shenda. This time he had a couple of greaseballs with him. Heavy muscle. Thought I'd be scared or something. Huh! I told them to go fuck themselves--"
Shenda's face darkened into a scowl. Thurman thought her intense and concentrated protective wrath was nearly as attractive as her general wide-focus warmth. She opened her mouth to speak, but her reply (beyond a prefatory "Those bastards--") was lost to Thurman in a sudden swell of noise: kitchen clatter, door laughter, street traffic, patron hooting. By the time things had quieted somewhat, Shenda had disappeared into the rear of the shop.
Thurman slumped down in his seat, cut off from the source of his momentary invigoration. For a moment, he had actually forgot his illness, succeeded in imagining himself whole again.
What he wouldn't give to get a little closer to this intriguing woman! He envisioned the way their conversation would swiftly flow, from easy early friendliness to gradual whispered intimacy. And then, in some quiet, private setting--
At that moment Thurman began to cough. Not a polite, out-in-public cough either, but one of his regularly occurring TB-victim-in-the-isolation-ward, lung-ripping, throat-searing gaspers. Clutching a sheaf of napkins for the expected expectoration, he tried to turn his body toward the window, away from the other customers. His knee jerked involuntarily, bumping the small table and sending his pill vials tumbling to the floor.
In the midst of his agony, Thurman felt waves of searing humiliation.
Nothing could make his embarrassment any worse.
A soft yet strong hand descended on his shoulder, followed by a familiar voice.
"Are you all right? What can we do?"
Oh, Sweet Mary!
It was her!
Thurman struggled to get his body under control. He finished gagging into the napkin wad, then instinctively stuck the filthy mass of tissue (paper) and tissue (cellular) into the pocket of his sweatpants. Trying to compose his mottled features into a semblance of normality, Thurman turned to face a standing Shenda Moore.
A sweet floral scent wafted off her. She clutched half a bite-rimmed sandwich unselfconsciously in one hand. Her exquisitely planed Afro-Caribbean face, framed in lax layered Fibonacci curves of thick hair, was a blend of alarm and curiosity, her taut body poised for whatever action might prove necessary.
Weakly, Thurman found a joke. "I--there was a fly in my coffee."
Shenda laughed. The sound was like temple bells. In a bold tone she completed the old joke: "Well, don't spread the word around, or everyone will want one!"
Then, just when Thurman expected the Karuna's proprietor to turn and walk off, she pulled up a chair and sat down beside him. Now she spoke in more confidential tones, and the watchers attracted by Thurman's discomfort turned back to their own business.
"Do you mind if I finish my lunch here?"
"No, never! I mean, sure, why not? It's your place."
This hardly sounded the note of gracious invitation Thurman intended. But Shenda seemed not to take offense. She waved over Nello.
"Nello, I'll have a Mango-Cherry, please. And--what's your name?"
This information was not immediately retrievable. After a dedicated search, however, involving all his processing power, a few syllables surfaced. "Thurman. Thurman Swan."
"Get Mister Swan whatever he wants."
Thurman had never tried any of the many Tantra-brand juices available at the Karuna. "Um, I'll have the same."
Nello left. Shenda took a bite out of her sandwich, meditatively studied Thurman while she chewed. Their juices arrived. Shenda uncapped hers and drank straight from the bottle, her lovely throat pulsing. Thurman took a tentative sip, cautious as always when introducing new acquaintances to his hermit stomach. Not bad.
Shenda finished her sandwich with deliberation and obvious enjoyment, washing it down with the rest of the sweet juice. She set the empty bottle decisively down. Still, she said nothing. Thurman was dying.
But when she finally spoke, he almost wished she hadn't.
"What's wrong with you?"
Of course. She wouldn't have been human if she hadn't zeroed in on his obvious sickly condition. Still, Hunchback Thurman had hoped the pretty gypsy girl could have avoided the touchy subject.
He wearily started to recount his sad and baffling tale with its lack of a clear conclusion or moral.
"Well, you see, I was in the Gulf War--"
Shenda impatiently waved his words away. "I don't care about that shit! That's old shit, kiddo! I assume you got a doctor for whatever happened to you there. Maybe not the best doctor or the best kind of treatment. That's something you gotta look into some more maybe. But what I want to know is, what's wrong with you?"
His mouth hanging open, Thurman couldn't answer.
Shenda leaned closer, drilling him with her unwavering gaze. "Look. I see you in here every day of the week, any hour I come in. Now, I certainly don't bitch about anybody taking up space without spending a lot. Hell, that's one of the things this place is for! And I'm flattered that you find this joint so attractive. But no one should be so desperate or lonely or unimaginative that they've only got one place to go! I mean, like Groucho said, 'I love my cigar, but even I take it out of my mouth sometimes!' "
Thurman struggled to recover himself. "Well sure, I agree, if you were talking about a normal person--"
Shenda banged her hand flat down on the table, raising a gunshot report. "Where's your tail? You got a tail? Show me your tail! Or maybe you're hiding a third eye somewhere?"
Shenda pressed a finger into his brow.
"No, I didn't think so. Thurman, you are normal. Maybe a struggling kind of normal, but who isn't? No, you've let your spirit get a kink in it, Thurman. You've been dealt a lousy hand, but you're still supposed to play it. Instead, you're down a well of apathy without a bucket to piss in! You need to get out and around, my friend."
The word "friend" was like a life raft. "I--what could I do?"
"How about a job?"
"A job? What kind of job could I possibly handle?"
"There's a job for everyone. Wait right here."
Shenda got up and walked to the counter, where she retrieved her bag. She strode briskly back, dropped down, and removed her appointment book from within the satchel. A single business card shot out under its own volition onto the tabletop. Shenda picked it up and read it.
"Perfect! Go to this address today. This very afternoon, do you hear me? Tell Vance I sent you and said for him to put you to work."
Shenda stood then, extended her hand. "Welcome to the Karuna family, Thurman."
Thurman found himself standing somehow without reliance on his cane. He took Shenda's hand. Her grip was a pleasant pain.
When she was halfway across the room, Thurman impulsively called out, "Shenda Moore!"
She stopped and whirled. "Yes!"
"I like your toenails!"
Shenda eyed Thurman with new interest. Coyly angling one foot like a model, she said, "Me too!"
And then she was out of the Koffeehouse, force of nature dissolving in a burst of laffs.
Thurman sank back down gratefully into his seat, feeling his face flushing. He was almost glad she was gone.
Now that he had gotten some small fraction of his crazy wish fulfilled, however unpredictably, he wasn't sure how much of Shenda Moore's intense company he could take!
Someone else was now standing by his table.
Fuquan Fletcher was smiling. But the smile was not pleasant, nor meant to be.
"Big man. Likes the lady's toenails! Gonna let the world know it!"
"Fuquan, what's your problem?"
"You my problem, man, you try to move in on Shenda Moore. That girl is mine! She got her nose open for me!"
"Is that so? You sure she feels that way?"
"Sure? I'll show you sure, man!" The irate coffee roaster jabbed a finger into Thurman's chest.
This was the second time Thurman had been poked in the space of a few minutes. Unlike the first educational prodding, this poke made him mad. So--after he did not respond with immediate belligerence, causing Fuquan to laugh coarsely and turn to leave--Thurman felt completely justified in using his cane to hook one of the Black man's ankles and pull his foot out from under him, sending him crashing to the floor.
Fuquan was up and heading with bunched fists for a risen shaky Thurman when Buddy and Nello and Verity intervened, referee baristas holding the opponents apart.
"Hey, c'mon, guys, who started this?"
Neither antagonist said anything. After a tense moment, Fuquan brushed himself off and stalked into the back.
Gathering up his pills and accoutrements, feeling that his life was becoming more interesting by the second, Thurman departed the Karuna.
Outside, he studied the business card.
KUSTOM KARS AND KANVASES
VANCE VON JOLLY, ARTIST IN RESIDENCE
"HOUSE OF THE WINGED HEART"
1616 ROTHFINK BOULEVARD
Thurman checked his wallet. Not a lot of green. But hey--he had a job now!
In the cab, Thurman speculated on what he would find at the end of the ride.
Disembarking, he discovered the wan products of his imagination to be a pale shadow of reality.
He stood facing an old garage: four cinderblock bays flanked by an office space. The entire nondescript structure, however, had been studded with brightly colored glazed ceramic objects in bas-relief, executed in a zippy cartoon style. Animals, trees, people, cars, toys, musical notes.
Above the office door was the biggest piece of pottery, big as a sofa: an anatomically correct heart sprouting white-feathered angel wings.
Thurman entered the cluttered office. No one home. He moved into the bays.
The first three were occupied by exotic cars: hotrods in various stages of being gaudily decorated. The last bay was filled with easels and wall-leaning stacks of canvases, also in various stages of completion. The paintings exhibited the same daffy sensibility as the outdoor ceramics. A beat-up workbench held brushes, tubes of color, tins of thinner and crusty rags. A tatty couch with mussed blankets, a metal-topped kitchen table and a small refrigerator seemed to hint at regular overnight human occupancy.
A toilet flushed. Through an opening door--whose frosted glass bore the calligraphic legend INSPIRATION: TEN CENTS--walked a very pale muscular man with a trendy arrangement of dark facial hair offset by a thinning on top. One earlobe, his left, was studded with segments of a severed silver snake, like the colonial DON'T TREAD ON ME. He was concentrating on tucking his paint-splattered green mechanic's shirt into his Swiss Army-surplus wool pants, and so did not immediately notice Thurman. Lacking sleeves, his abbreviated shirt revealed several tattoos, including a winged heart.
The guy stopped and looked up with neither welcome nor discouragement. "Who're you?"
Thurman, growing more and more doubtful, volunteered his name. Then: "I was sent by Shenda Moore. She said you'd have a regular job for me ... ?"
"You know kandy-flake? Or striping? I could use some help striping. How about bodywork? Can you do bodywork?"
"Well, I'm good with tools, and I picked up a lot of special skills in the Army."
"Yeah? Like what?"
"Well, basically I was a demolition expert. But I can learn new things quick."
Vance von Jolly had gotten his shirt stuck in the zipper of his pants, and was now struggling mightily to restore his apparel to its proper functioning. Thurman wondered if he should offer to help.
"Jesus! That Shenda! She drives me nuts! All right, I suppose you can start by washing brushes. Any thumb-fingered idiot can wash brushes."
Thurman was hurt. "Wait just a minute now--"
"Oh, did I mention I can't work with anyone who gets pissed off at my dumb mouth?"
"No. Unless that was the warning just now."
Unable to free his shirt from the toothy tangle, Vance ceased struggling and moved to the workbench. Buttoning his waistband, he found an alligator clip and pinched shut the upper open portion of his fly. The clip projected outward like a small groin antenna.
"It was. Okay, let's start by showing you where everything is."
Thurman had one question. "Vance--will I be working with a lot of chemicals? I've had some bad luck with chemicals in the past."
Vance seemed to see Thurman and his condition for the first time. He shook his head ruefully. "Man, someone really fucked you up, didn't they?"
"I guess you could say that."
The painter moved to Thurman's side, hanging an arm over his shoulder. A complex odor of sweat, garlic and solvents wafted off the man.
"Thurman, my pal, I want to let you in on a little secret. The Army made you handle the chemicals of death! But here we work with the chemicals of life!"
"What's the difference? Chemicals are chemicals, aren't they?"
Vance von Jolly merely tapped a finger against his head and winked.
Sun like a fusion-powered pomegranate in a pristine blueberry sky. Whipped cream clouds. Breezes holding kites and balloons aloft and trying to tug high women's skirts and slither up men's pants legs. Acres of open lawn green as celery, with shaded patches the color of new money. Shouts and squeals of running playing wild children. Over-the-top, can't-stand-myself canine pack yelping. Bee-buzz adult chatter: gossip, business, philosophy and seduction. Teenage odd-stressed argot in the perpetual search for cool. Pointillistic laughter. Competing music from half a dozen boomboxes, holding the sonic fort until the Beagle Boys finished their cable-laying, equipment-stacking preparations underway 'neath a Sgt. Pepper bandstand. Smell of mesquite burning down to perfect grilling coals, and aromatic dope leaves combusting.
Just another partially organized, partially spontaneous monthly shareholders' meeting of Karuna, Inc.
Shenda thought back to a poetry class.
Rip those boardroom doors from their jambs, rip the executive jambs from the walls, then rip down the corporate walls!
You go, Walt!
Amidst and amongst the several hundred people and several score dogs assembled in Morley Adams Park, Shenda circulated happily, Dame Kind with her flock.
Mama! These festivities always made her high!
Every face smiled to see her, every adult hand juggled drinks or spatulas or books or tapes or purses or babies in order to clasp hers. Children hurled themselves at her as if she were some natural feature of the landscape placed here for their rightful pleasure: a tree, a mountain, a beach. Shenda caught them up, whirled them and set them down. Fur and tongue and tail foamed around her like breakers, then raced away.
A splash of lemon yellow, a flash of jell-o wattles: Bullfinch scampered to keep up with his fleeter cousins.
This was what Shenda lived for. Not all the petty details of running her brainchild, the squabbling altruistic quasi-corporation known as Karuna, Inc. Certainly not all the hourly, daily, weekly headaches and stress. They all faded like phantoms in the sunshine of this assemblage. Here, under her watchful, beneficent gaze, she could gauge the actual good she had accomplished, count all the people she had helped and observe how that help had spread--was continually spreading--outward in circles of big-heart, wide-mind action.
Shenda really wanted nothing else. (A man, a mate, hell--a date? Well, perhaps....) This gathering was her total and complete yardstick of satisfaction.
This very day would have been perfect, in fact, if not for one matter.
Zingo, that cell-u-licious horsepiss.
The actual owner of Maraplan Importing--this brashly illegitimate distributor new to their city--had visited the Karuna Koffeehouse several times since that day Verity had told his men unequivocally to fuck off. At last managing to snare Shenda, he had delivered one final classic performance of intimidation and blustering. Ignorantly self-assured, crudely sly and warthog-aggressive, he refused to take Shenda's "Blow me!" reply-in-kind for an answer.
"Little lady," said Faro Mealey in their ultimate interview, rasping a simian hand across his chin stubble, "you are not being very smart."
Shenda was a little scared at this confrontation. But stronger emotions were a sense of the scene's absurdity, and utter infuriation at the nerve of this guy!
"On the contrary, Mister Mealey. It's you who's acting like a juvenile dumbshit schoolyard thug! You come in here and practically order me to drop my old distributor and replace him with you. Then you tell me that I'll have to take just as many cases of that poisonous antifreeze you call soda as you decide is good for me. Moreover, I'm not the only business you're trying to pull this scam on. You've been to some of my friends, as well as dozens of unrelated concerns throughout the city. Does the word 'shakedown' hold any meaning for you, Mister Mealey? Do you know what would happen to you if I went to the cops?"
Mealey unsealed a sporadically gold-capped grin. "Not a fucking thing, babe, I assure you."
Shenda looked the man up and down. Clad like a cheap racetrack tout, Faro Mealey seemed an unlikely type to actually command the clout he now boasted of. Still, Shenda probed for more information.
"Oh, yeah? Who's gonna come bail your ass out? The International Brotherhood of Slimeballs?"
"Very funny. I like broads with a sense of humor. They're always good in bed. No, my business has some important backers. Let's just say that the makers of Zingo take a big interest in insuring their product gets top placement in the marketplace. Now, why doncha think about my proposition for a few days? I should warn you that our terms in the future might not be so generous."
"Mister Mealey, you can take a fucking Zingo enema. Now, get the hell out of here!"
Over the next few days, Shenda had done a little financial-pages, web-searching, library-stack sleuthing, following a not-too-shadowy paper trail.
The company that perpetrated Zingo was owned by another. And that one was owned by yet another. But beyond that level, the path seemed to lead conclusively to something called Isoterm. Who or what motivated them, Shenda had been unable yet to learn.
A Nerf football hit Shenda in the side of the head.
"Sorry!" called out little Tara Vadeboncoeur, her face a mix of horrified chagrin and stifled delight.
"No malo, chica! That's what I get for daydreaming in a rowdy crowd!" Shenda lofted the ball back, and moved on.
She stopped and talked with Joe Ramos of Kan-do Konstruction for a while. His firm planned to bid on part of the new Westside highway job. Shenda gave him a rundown on what she had picked up on his likely competitors through the grapevine. After a gleeful handshake, she left Ramos crunching numbers on a calculator.
Mona Condeluccio staggered by under the weight of two aluminum pans, each as big as an unfolded Monopoly board and deep as a footbath. Shenda quickly relieved her of one, and peeked beneath the foil lid.
"Mmm-mm! Potato salad!"
"And this one's macaroni. I got six more in the truck!"
Mona ran Kozmic Katering. She was providing about half the food for today's bash, partially in lieu of her tithe. The rest was all deliciously homemade. Oh, except for the donuts from Krishna Murphy's Krispy Kreme franchise.
Following Mona toward the picnic tables, Shenda said, "Louie Kablooie, I wish the business part of the day was over already!"
After a few spectacular failures, Shenda had mandated that Karuna, Inc., finish discussing all its outstanding business matters prior to falling like wolves and vultures and savages on the food and alcoholic beverages. Otherwise, not a hell of a lot got done. And also, while Shenda didn't mind being heckled, she found that the intellectual quality of the catcalls and witticisms was higher when the audience was sober.
The women deposited their burdens on the groaning buffet. Shenda grabbed the first teenager to fall within her reach. "You, Haley Sweets! What you thinking, standing there like a goofball statue when there's work to be done? Help Mona! Right now!"
Haley Sweets--acne like strawberry fields--gazed at Shenda with besotted puppy love. He gulped, sending a hypertrophied Adam's apple yo-yoing, said without satire, "Yes sir!"--then trotted obediently off.
Shenda laughed silently. Boy--we got to find you a woman!
And then she saw Thurman Swan.
Thurman sat on a folding plastic-basketweave lawn chair, his cane hung from the armrest. If his seat had been a gold throne in a Byzantine palace, his enjoyment would obviously not have been increased one iota.
On either side of him stood the gorgeously decorative SinSin Bang and Pepsi Scattergood, owner-beauticians of Kwik Kuts. SinSin was half-Vietnamese, half-Chinese, one of the few good things to come out of the last border war between those two countries. Pepsi was a Nordic-Anglo mix who--Shenda had always privately observed to herself--resembled no one so much as that infamous comix icon, Cherry Poptart.
The two women were fussing inordinately over Thurman. All they lacked for their role of houris were giant palm fronds to fan him with.
"Can I get you some more juice, Thurman?"
"Would you like another cushion, Thurman?"
"Is that sun too much for you?"
"Have some potato chips, Thurman! They're fresh!"
A burst of jealousy ignited like a Roman candle in Shenda's chest. What did those two think they were doing!
Ever since Shenda had told Pepsi and SinSin that Thurman had admired her pedicure--Shenda's footwork their handiwork--they had taken a silly fancy to him.
"You know how rare it is for a man to notice something like that, Shenda?"
"And then to say it out loud in a public place!"
Additionally, Thurman's sickly condition had sent their unfulfilled maternal nursing instincts into overdrive.
It was all very innocent and probably good for them all.
But somehow, today, it made Shenda's blood percolate!
Shenda marched over.
When Thurman spotted her, he got guiltily to his feet.
"Un, hi, Shen--"
Shenda cut off the feeble greeting. "You, Swan--come with me!"
"I'll be right back--"
"No, you won't! Hurry up!"
Shenda stalked off, leaving Thurman to stump after her.
When they were some distance away, Shenda stopped under the semiconcealing foliage of a willow. Fronds whispered at her passage. Thurman caught up and leaned gratefully against the trunk, out of breath.
"Do you know what those two are?" demanded Shenda. Without waiting for an answer, she spat, "They're lovers! Lesbians! Lipstick lesbians!"
Thurman looked puzzled. "So what? I can't be friends with them? It's not like I want babies or anything."
Shenda's ire deflated. She lowered her head and pinched her brow. "Oh my god, what am I saying? They're my friends too. I don't care they're lesbians. I never even thought twice about it before! I swear it! That's not me!"
Thurman moved next to Shenda. Cane in his right hand, he took her left in his. He didn't press any advantage that her confusion provided, but simply said, "Don't worry about it, Shenda. You must have a lot on your mind."
Shenda felt immense gratitude for the sympathy. The same tactical pause she employed not to prejudge others, she now used to forgive herself. "I do, I do! In fact--" she consulted her watch "--I've got a meeting to call to order that's already late!"
"Let's go then."
People were already gathering expectantly about the central focus of the bandstand, growing quiet and alert. The crowd parted for Shenda, and she found Thurman somehow still behind her, his face drained from the small exertions.
"Oh, shit, I am so sorry I dragged you around like this!"
"I--I wouldn't have missed it for anything."
"Listen--you can't stand for the whole time, and the only seat is up there with me. Do you mind?"
"Nuh-no," panted Thurman.
They ascended the three stairs, finding themselves amid the band's equipment and instruments. Thurman collapsed onto Buddy Cheetah's drumset stool. Shenda picked up the microphone and tested it. It was on. With a backward glance to make sure Thurman was okay, she shifted into business mode and began.
"This meeting of Karuna, Inc., is now officially underway. Can I have the minutes of the last meeting, please? Ellen Woodrose, are you out there?"
Business was conducted. People ascended the stage as called. Officers read reports. Motions were proposed. Yays and nays were tallied. People were praised or confronted. Plans were debated and modified. Arguments expired in compromise. Agreements were reached. No blood was spilled.
At last Shenda was able to utter one of her favorite sentences. "If there is no more business, then this meeting is adjourned--"
Chef Mona called loudly out from the mass of people. "Shenda, I got a shortage of help and grill space today! Which should I cook first? The veggie burgers or the meat?"
The crowd went into noisy spasms. "The meat, the meat!" "No, the falafel first!"
Then an anonymous voice called out: "Let the dogs vote!"
The whole crowd took up the absurd chant: "Let the dogs vote! Let the dogs vote!"
Children ran off screaming to herd the romping packs up to the tables. Like a madman's cattle drive, the dogs were chivvied toward the food tables.
Shenda knew them all by sight. Spaniels, briards, whippets, shepherds, Scotties, terriers, Great Danes, greyhounds, sheep dogs and many a miscegenetic mongrel. Hounds and lapdogs, hunters and retrievers. Ten thousand years of human-inspired breeding. There was French Fry, Slinky Dog, Muzzletuff, Oftenbark, E. Collie, Dogberry, Wagstaff, Nixon, Tuff Gong, Gromit, G-Spot, Snake, Whiskey, Deedles, Subwoofer--and dozens more.
And of course, sticking out like a bright bouncy beachball, the resplendent Bullfinch.
The kids had succeeded in massing the dogs around Chef Mona. In her hands, she held two patties: one meat, one bean. The crowd fell still as Arctic night.
Strangely, the dogs too had grown calm and composed. They seemed aware of the responsibility that had devolved on them.
Mona bent and offered the patties.
Not a single dog moved forward out of the ring. Instead, they seemed to consult with muted growls and ear prickings among themselves.
Then one animal emerged from the pack as if nominated by the rest, strutting with immense dignity right up to his own personal canine Judgment of Paris.
And without a second's hesitation he chose the falafel.
Half the crowd applauded, half booed, before dissolving into a disorganized surge toward the buffet.
On the stage Shenda turned to Thurman, whose face was wreathed in amazement.
"And that's how we do things por la Karuna!"
In his vast, statue-littered bedroom, before his official busy day began, Marmaduke Twigg sought to fortify himself for his off-the-record meeting with Kraft Durchfreude. The guiding black light of Isoterm lifted his silken pajama top, revealing a small titanium port like a robot's nipple implanted in his side. He attached a transparent feedline leading to an IV sac hanging on a stand. Triggered by the connection, his inner pump began to hum. Blue fluid flowed directly into his veins.
No time to get the Zingo through his slow digestive tract now! Durchfreude would be here any moment.
Twigg dreaded the meeting. All he could picture was Durchfreude holding the nail gun and firing into Stanes's head. The expression on the creature's face! Something not present at previous initiations--a trace of deadly disengagement, of schizoid withdrawal--had crawled beneath the tightly held surface of the Dark Intercessor's face.
Twigg suspected that Durchfreude's unstable brain was finally fractionating. As when a glacier meets the sea, parts were calving off, achieving or struggling for autonomy. The jigsaw pieces of Durchfreude's mind were twitching with a life of their own, hopping out of their former plane of alignment.
Of course, this made the cat's-paw of the PGL highly unreliable--dangerous in fact--and subject to immediate termination.
Still, Twigg hoped to get just one more assignment out of him. A simple one, to be sure, but necessary.
As the IV bag collapsed with an accompanying mechanical sucking sound from Twigg's thorax, he felt a twinge of regret at Durchfreude's disintegration and imminent demolition. None of this had been the man's own fault, of course. Why, Twigg remembered when Kraft Durchfreude had been the ultra-competent head of Squamous Securities, a legend in the world of cutthroat business dealings. And even after the surgical bungle he had lived a useful life, performing with eclat and brio the dirtiest tasks the PGL members could dredge up for him. Why, even as far back as six or seven years ago, when Twigg had sent the Dark Intercessor to the Persian Gulf, the monster had still been at the top of his form. Look how ingeniously he had raked Isoterm's nuts from the fire, destroying all evidence of the company's sales to Iraq of CBW materiel. Even the highly over-rated CIA had been unable to prevent Durchfreude's access to pertinent records of theirs, which had forever after gone conveniently missing....
But now--now was a different story.
After this job, Twigg would present his suspicions and proofs to the godsons and goddaughters of Phineas Gage. Surely they all must have noticed the falling-off in Durchfreude's performance, the strains in his behavior, and would agree on his lethal disposition, despite any temporary inconveniences.
Twigg suspected that only one real issue, never made explicit, had stayed their hands thus far.
Where would they ever find a successor with Durchfreude's exquisite taste in kidnap victims for the monthly rites?
The bedroom door opened as Twigg was unsnapping his feed. A quivering Paternoster ushered in the bald and skeletal Kraft Durchfreude, then hastily backed out, as if from the vicinity of a cobra.
Dropping his pajama shirt, Twigg manufactured affability out of unease. "Kraft, my good man! Come right in. I hope they fed you well downstairs."
The thing's voice was as uncontoured as a worm. "I ate."
"Wonderful! Never conduct negotiations on an empty stomach, that's my rule. Makes one too eager to have them over! Not that we're performing what one might term negotiations, of course."
Unnervingly, Durchfreude's popeyed gaze never strayed from Twigg's mouth, as if the Dark Intercessor were contemplating cruel refinements in the form and function of that organ. Twigg stammered, "Yes, well, be that as it may." He tried to project authority. "Here is your assignment. I have recently encountered several nuclei of resistance across the nation, holdouts fighting the introduction of a new Isoterm product. Zingo, a soft drink. I'd like you to visit each of these sites and insure that they are permanently removed as sources of opposition. You should start with one in particular, more organized than most. It's at the head of the list. You'll find the specifics in these papers."
Twigg handed over a file folder. "Is everything clear?"
The simple word stopped Twigg like a wall. He couldn't recall Durchfreude ever uttering that syllable before. Further sign of his slide into mental chaos.
"'Why?' What do you mean?"
The monster struggled to cloak nebulous thoughts in the proper words. "Why must--why must you go where you aren't wanted? Can't you purchase those who would be purchased, and--and leave the others alone?"
"Kraft, my good fellow, surely you jest! It is my absolute nature to flow into all available niches, to drive out and break all competition, to smash and burn and crush, to grind the faces of the conquered into the dust, until only I alone am left standing, regnant over all I survey, even if that should be a smoking wasteland of my own devising! My categorical imperative is that all my actions must conduce toward the magnification of my supreme presence. Why, had I infinite time and infinite space to fill, it would still not be enough to hold my tremendous vitality! It's not that I particularly want to sell soda pop! Great Satan, no! And there is nothing sinister about Zingo, no addictive properties or brainwashing qualities. In fact, the drink is a not completely unhealthful, if nasty tasting mix of electrolytes, Olestra, Nutrasweet, and some artificial flavors and coloring. Good for keeping the masses fit for the assembly line. And of course, the money is trivial. No, it's simply a matter of not allowing my will, however arbitrary and capricious, to be thwarted."
Twigg clapped a hand on Durchfreude's shoulder. "Of course you see. You may do no other."
Twigg's shifted line of vision now encompassed the stasis-control device on the tabletop. On a powerful whim, he picked it up, aimed and brought his tiger nemesis instantly to life. At the same time he stepped behind Durchfreude as a screen, so that the tiger would spot that man first.
The enraged wild tormented beast rocketed toward Durchfreude. But the Dark Intercessor never so much as flinched.
Twigg froze the big cat only when its whiskers were nearly touching Durchfreude, who--only upon seeing the threat neutralized--stepped deftly aside to allow it to crash to the carpet.
Durchfreude regarded his employer emotionlessly. Then he turned and left.
Twigg sensed then that he should have let the Siberian finish the job.
But now it was really rather too late.
Thurman really could not think of much he would want to change right now in his life, except of course for the state of his health, the less-than-optimal condition of his tainted organs and flesh and bones. A collection of mismatched parts barely holding together (although seemingly, thankfully, not getting worse).
And yet--even with that grim toe-stepping partner, Miss Function, he was learning to dance, to shuffle gamely around life's ballroom.
After all, as Shenda had said, his problems were old shit.
He was really getting his act together at last, after the disastrous end to his Army career. Coming out of his shell, turning over a new leaf, climbing every mountain, and a raft of other natural metaphors.
Why, one day it seemed possible he might even own a dog!
Things looked sweet.
Every morning he arose early after a semidecent night's sleep. (His joints still pained him, his stomach still often rebelled against supper, but somehow his mind was more at ease, and that helped a lot.) Dressed, he measuredly walked the ten blocks to the Karuna Koffeehouse and through the laffing door, where he was treated to Verity-whipped espresso eggs and the latest creation of that baking genius, Odd Vibe: a buttery, cheddary croissant with fractal flaking layers.
"You eat good now, Tor-man, you betcha!"
"Very good, Odd Vibe. Thanks!"
The familiar faces and repeated rituals of the place soothed him. There resounded Chug'em's fourth long slurp, here came Nello with his latest dirty joke, there was Buddy executing intricate rhythms on the countertop with two wooden spoons.
Even the mean scowl and mimed expressions of distaste directed his way each day by Fuquan Fletcher (who had never again verbally or physically accosted Thurman) were an integral part of his daily routine.
The place to come when even home isn't kind enough.
At a quarter to nine, the taxi from Kall-a-Kab would pull up and beep for him, and he'd ride to his job.
Vance von Jolly had proved to be a decent boss. Any sternness or disdain exhibited by the man was a tartness solely in service to his art, and would just as likely be turned toward himself.
"Thurman, I ask you--have you ever seen such a pitifully derivative waste of canvas? If Big Daddy or the ol' Kootchie-Koo hisself could see this sad excuse for a painting, they'd break all my brushes in half and throw my ass out on the street. Scrape it down, will you, before I barf. I'm gonna go sand down that T-bird."
Having no artistic talent or insight, Thurman simply did as he was told. (When working with potentially noxious chemicals, he wore full protective duds: respirator, gloves, smock. The proximity to pigments and sprays and solvents seemed not to be worsening his ailments anyhow.) His natural obedience and alacrity, modified by his body's limits, seemed to suffice. For the past two weeks he had collected a more than generous paycheck.
And many times a week, he got to see Shenda Moore.
The vibrant, seemingly inexhaustible leader of the Kompassionate Konglomerate (as Thurman had mentally dubbed Karuna, Inc., inspired by its treatment of himself and all others) blew into the garage like an hourglass-shaped twister at unpredictable intervals, bearing directives, advice, questions, checks, official forms, gifts of food and flowers. And she always offered up a personal comment or two, out of that massive Rolodex concealed in her pretty head.
Whenever she wasn't around, Thurman thought he had no illusions about Shenda ever being more to him than a not-too-intimate friend. That moment of connection under the willow tree had been a fluke, never referred to again.
But when her warm and radiant body and blithe spirit actually occupied the same room as Thurman, he was convinced he loved her and always would.
Maybe all he needed was another opening....
Early Saturday evening in Morley Adams Park. Dusk calls of birds, skybowl purpling, lawns releasing their night odors, stone wall still warm against his back, planks of the bench rough under his butt. Hands folded in his lap, Thurman contemplated the foot-gouged trough of dirt at his feet.
What had brought him here? Usually he was abed by now, watching TV or listening to the radio. Hoping to recapture some of that magic willow-shrouded day perhaps....
A tennis ball rolled up to nestle between his V-angled sneakers.
Then a beautifully ugly jonquil dogface appeared, tongue lolling out to drip approximately a pint of slobber on Thurman's Nikes.
"Hey, Thurman, what's up?"
Shenda dropped down beside Thurman. If a transdimensional imp had materialized and hauled a giant cartoon moneybag out of some fold of hyperspace and offered it to him, Thurman could not have been more stunned.
Shenda ignored his blank amazement. "Me and Bully are out for the first time in days! I could kick myself sometimes! Get so involved in the biz, you know. And what's it all for, if not minutes like this?"
"I agree. Minutes. Just like this."
Shenda said nothing for a time. Thurman recalled the silence she had cultivated prior to blasting his psyche apart, and inwardly flinched. But when she spoke, her words were mild.
"How're SinSin and Pepsi and you getting on these days?"
"Oh, them! Great, fine. They're very nice to me. They even took me to the beach the other day. I don't remember the name of the place, but there was a real big-hair crowd--"
"Uh-huh. Been there once with them myself. You should have seen this one lifeguard. Buff but dim! Well, he just went straight after Pepsi like--"
Shenda's story was long and involved and funny. She rattled on as if she hadn't talked recreationally in too long a time. Thurman had only to nod and interpolate a few monosyllables to keep the narrative flowing. One tale segued into another. Every few minutes one of the humans offhandedly tossed the ball for Bullfinch. When it became too dark for the dog to see anything, he lay beneath the bench and began to snore.
Thurman began to talk a little about himself. Presently he found that their roles had flipped, with Shenda doing most of the listening and nodding.
Around ten-thirty, Shenda jumped up. "Louie Kablooie! I have to make my rounds!"
"Your rounds? At this hour?"
"Before I can sleep, I go around to all our businesses and make sure they're locked up safe. The Koffeehouse is last, at midnight."
Thurman thought this sounded obsessive, but only said, "Even on the weekend?"
"Like maybe thieves don't work weekends?"
"Well, I guess I'll say goodbye then--"
"No, don't! Please. You can keep me company."
Shenda made pistol fingers and fired a few imaginary shots into the dust. "Dance, pardner!"
The three of them got into the Jetta, Bullfinch sprawled in the back seat, and were soon circulating down lonesome urban trails.
Their small sedate city was winding down by the time they pulled up to the Karuna.
All dark, save for a lone light still on in the kitchen.
"That's probably Fuquan, getting the beans ready for tomorrow so he can sleep in late. He's got a key."
Emboldened by this time spent together, Thurman was about to inquire just what, if anything, Shenda felt for that obnoxious guy.
Then a gunshot sounded, plain as a million dollar vase shattering.
From inside the Karuna.
"No!" yelled Shenda.
The woman and the dog were out of the car before Thurman could even get the unfamiliar door open. Damn, where was the handle--!
All hell arrived, with bells on.
An enormous CRUMP!, followed by a WHOOSH!, and the Karuna burst into flames, sending glass flying like deadly stars into the street.
A stick figure in a business suit emerged from the storeside alley like a demon stepping from an inferno. He walked calmly away from the blazing structure, gun hanging down by his side.
Shenda hesitated, but Bullfinch did not.
The dog raced across the street and catapulted himself at the man.
The living skeleton's reaction was out of all proportion to the unarmed assault. As if facing some supernatural creature, the arsonist-killer dropped his gun, screamed, threw up his arms and tottered backward.
Bullfinch impacted, sending the man over completely to bounce his head off the curb.
By the time Thurman made his lame way over, Shenda was kicking the unconscious man in the side and screaming.
"Bastard! You fucking killer bastard!"
Thurman pulled her back. "Shenda, stop!"
Shenda collapsed like a string-and-bead toy whose pushed button releases the tension that sustains it. Thurman kneeled to hold her up. A migraine was flowering behind his eyes.
And then he saw the killer's face.
Furnace skies. Sand lacquered with blood. Greasy, roilsome black clouds....
And to his instant horror, Thurman knew he knew him.
Nothing would ever, ever be the same.
And Shenda Moore was the one to blame.
This sad couplet ran and ran in Shenda's brain. Like a mean virus of found poetry self-assembled from fridge-magnet vocabulary. As towers and spurts of crackling fire illuminated her dog and the two men and her own crumpled self on the oil-slicked macadam, Shenda realized with absolute certainty that what she had long awaited and pretended not to fear--like a child whistling in Oya's graveyard--had now found her. The unraveling of all her careful labors. The major fuck-up. The explosion of chaos you're lucky to walk away from. The shitstorm that takes innocent bystanders and chews them up like pumpkin seeds.
Innocents like Fuquan Fletcher.
And despite all prior pretense of equanimity, the disaster scared her.
Scared the piss out of her--
And made her fighting mad!
Some sick and evil motherfucker was going to pay.
Sirens began to wail like delighted banshees. Shenda leaped to her feet.
"In the car with this pig. Quick!"
Thurman's expression revealed major perplexity. "But the police--"
"The police are whores! They know this man and his bosses! They suck at the same hindteat! Believe me!"
Thurman bent and lifted the unconscious killer's arms. Shenda saw the crippled Swan try to hide a wince and grunt.
"Oh, Thurman, I forgot. Can you do it?"
"I can do it--"
Between them they hustled the guy into the back seat of the Jetta. Shenda lashed his arms and legs together with rope from the trunk. Bullfinch leaped in and sat atop the man's chest, proudly on guard. Shenda and Thurman piled in. They tore off in the direction opposite from the hastening firetrucks just a block away.
"Where are we going?"
"To my aunt's house."
Shenda hadn't known the answer to Thurman's question until he asked it. But as soon as she opened her mouth, their destination was obvious.
Only Titi Yaya could help her now.
As she drove, Shenda filled Thurman in on the shakedown moves being directed at the Karuna and other businesses in town.
"This has to be Maraplan's doing. Mealey and his fucking Zingo! He practically told me something like this was coming. And me, the stupid smart bitch, so muy competent, thinking I could handle everything myself! Look where it got me. Look where it got Fuquan!"
Shenda could feel tears threatening to spill out. No, not yet. She sought to relieve some of her feelings by smacking the steering wheel with her fists; the car veered; she recovered.
Thurman looked appalled. "Shenda, don't be so hard on yourself. If the authorities were in on this, what else could you have done?"
"A lot! I could have hired some security guards, for one thing."
"And then maybe more people would have died. No, these are jokers who don't mind how many bodies they leave in their wake."
Shenda turned to study her passenger's face. "You sound so sure. What do you know?"
Thurman shared what he knew.
"Louie Kablooie," whispered Shenda. El pulpo grew more and more tentacles. In a louder voice: "Then the jerks behind Zingo--they're the same ones who fucking poisoned all you Gulf War vets!"
"It sure looks like it."
"I hate them!"
Thurman said nothing for a moment. Presently: "Well, I was full of hate for a long time too. Then you told me it was all old shit."
Shenda was too angry to listen to her own past advice. "Well, it's new shit again. Get pissed."
Their cargo did not awake during their journey cross-town. Within twenty minutes, Shenda was in the neighborhood of her childhood, parking in front of the brownstone where Titi Yaya lived.
They hustled the killer up the steps like a sack of cornmeal, the pudgy daffodil Bullfinch somberly following, one awkward jump at a time, tags on his collar jingling. Shenda rang her aunt's bell just to alert the woman, but used her own key. They were quickly in the tile-floored foyer without anyone seeing their unconventional arrival.
Thurman was gasping. "Is there an elevator?"
Shenda was winded too. And everything felt unreal. "Not needed. Just down the hall."
They half dragged their captive down the hall. At the end, a door was already opening.
There stood Titi Yaya, elder sister of Shenda's Mom, Consolacion Amado.
The small and trim old woman wore a blue-striped white-flannel robe and corduroy slippers. Necklaces and bracelets adorned her form. Long, unbound coal-black hair was at odds with her age-lined, dark honey-colored face. Equally unlikely--yet so comfortingly familiar to Shenda--was a vibrant power, tinged with sexuality, that radiated off her, blazed in her eyes.
"I was not sleeping," said Titi Yaya. "The cowries told me there would be trouble tonight, Shen-Shen. And I encountered the twisted branch of Eleggua in my path on the way to the store this morning. I knew that you would need me."
"Oh, Titi! Everything's gone wrong!"
"We'll fix what we can. Although I have to tell you the signs are not good."
They were inside, door shut, as safe as possible, considering.
Shenda looked around. Nothing had changed since the day a scared and tearful five-year-old had come to live here, after the child's father, Tresvant Moore, crack-addled, had killed Consolacion and himself.
All the furniture was old-fashioned and immaculate, much of it in transparent plastic covers. Worn rugs had been vacuumed speckless. Artificial flowers and innocuous prints decorated end tables and papered walls. Smells of cooking, ancient and recent, permeated the air--and below that olfactory layer, the unmistakable whiff of omiero, that potent herbal concoction.
So far, so normal, an apartment like that of any other aleyo, any other nonbeliever.
But then Shenda's eye traveled to the altars and shrines, earthly homes of the celestial orisha gods and afterlife eggun spirits. Colorful and cloth-draped, laden with statues, pictures, vases, sopera tureens, instruments of sacrifice. Sumptuously bestrewn with offerings of live flowers, toys, cigars, rum and food.
Titi Yaya's apartment was a casa de santo, a Santeria temple, site of a thousand, thousand ceremonies, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly observances and propitiations, possessions, beseechings and repayments, spell-castings and curse-cleansings, a refuge for petitioners and meeting place for Titi Yaya's peers, the male babalawos and female iyalochas.
All of this had been taken for granted by the growing child named Shenda Moore. She had hardly given a thought to the various sanctified weirdness that she had often witnessed. The tambors, the rogación de cabeza, the Pinaldos. It had all been part of the new stability she had experienced upon being taken under the wing of her unmarried aunt.
And yet, somehow, she had never penetrated fully into the Religion--or it had failed to penetrate her. About the time she would have been expected to commit to Santeria, she began hanging with the Black kids at school--her father's seductive heritage--and the Cuban half of her background grew even less interesting to her. Analogue, antique and uncool.
After testing the stubborn strength of her niece's convictions, Titi Yaya had refrained from coercion. Only an occasional mild reminder from time to time that the door was still open.
Santeria didn't proselytize, didn't do missionary work.
You came to la iyalocha because you needed the orishas.
And now Shenda was here.
But maybe too late.
Titi Yaya stooped to pet Bullfinch and whisper in his ear. The dog's tail propellered. Rising, the santera addressed Shenda.
"Get that man in a chair. And untie him."
"But Titi, he's a killer!"
"He can cause no harm here."
With Thurman's help, Shenda did as she was told. Shanghaied into this mess, the man was being more accepting than Shenda had any right to expect.
Thurman whispered. "Your aunt. She's some kind of witch?"
"Not witch. Priestess."
"Oh. Her place is weird. But nice. You know--I had a massive headache when I came in here, but it's gone now."
"That always happens."
Across the room, Titi Yaya, now barefoot, took no notice of them. She made the foribale, the prostration before the altar.
The altar of Babalu-Aye.
Louie Kablooie, as five-year-old Shenda had dubbed him.
Saint Lazarus was the plaster Catholic disguise the orisha wore: a loincloth-clad, sore-riddled, bearded beggar with crutch, his loyal dog always by his side.
Standing now, shredding coconut husk fibers before the statue, feeding with liquid the saint's sacred stones concealed in the ornate tureen, chanting in Yoruban, Titi Yaya was invoking his help.
She paused, turned to her visitors.
"I need the derecho."
Shenda's purse was forgotten in the car. She said to Thurman, "Give me a dollar."
Thurman dug in his pocket and came up with a bill. Shenda passed it to la iyalocha, who tucked it into a niche of the statue.
The ceremony was long and complex. The day began to catch up with Shenda. Despite all the terror and turbulent emotions, she found her eyelids drooping. She cast a glance at Thurman Swan. He seemed riveted, as did an alert Bullfinch. The Maraplan-Isoterm hireling remained eyelid-shuttered and unstirring.
Suddenly Titi Yaya spun and was upon them. It was not as if she had moved, but as if the room had revolved around her.
Behind her face Babalu-Aye dwelled.
The old woman clutched the killer around the waist with both hands. His body jolted as if electrified, his eyes snapping open.
Then she--or rather, the orisha within her--lifted him as if weightless, holding him effortlessly aloft.
Babalu-Aye's voice was a guttural growl. "Speak!"
The man began to recite his personal history, starting with his name.
Kraft Durchfreude's story unreeled for hours. Shenda and Thurman sat transfixed at the enormity of the far-stretching, long-living evil his tale contained. Dawnlight filtered through the gauzy curtains before he was done. For the whole time Babalu-Aye held him ceilingward like a doll, a rigid tableau.
When at last the recitation was finished, Babalu-Aye dropped Durchfreude back in the chair. The orisha departed his servant, and Titi Yaya returned, her loaned body seemingly unaffected by the superhuman exertion.
Shenda rubbed her grainy eyes. "Titi Yaya, what--what is he?"
"An egungun, a shell. He is possessed by the dead man he once was."
Thurman spoke. "A zombie?"
"If you will."
"What can we do with him?" asked Thurman.
"I can end his artificial life with the proper spell--" suggested la iyalocha.
Shenda had been thinking about the immense horrors wrought by Durchfreude and the Phineas Gage League. Now she spoke.
"No. Wake him up enough to realize what has been done to him. Some of the things he said make it seem he's halfway there already. Then--send him back to his masters."
Titi Yaya reached out to touch Shenda's wrist. "That will set large and uncontrollable forces in action, daughter. You play one orisha against another. Are you ready for the consequences?"
Shenda felt emptied of emotions. Pity, remorse, fear, hope, hate--all were just words without referents. Her body was thin as a piece of paper. Only weariness ached inside her.
"All I know is that I don't want to live in a world where such things go on. Let's end them if we can."
Into the kitchen stepped Titi Yaya. Sounds of bottles and tins being opened, bowls and spoons and whisks being employed trickled in to Shenda and Thurman.
She returned with two small vials full of subtly differing cloudy mixtures, one open and one corked. From the open one, she anointed Durchfreude's joints and head, made him swallow the remaining pungent liquid, chanting all the while.
The egungun's eyes showed white, his limbs twitched. Bullfinch barked. Durchfreude got spastically to his feet. When his vision was again functioning, he lurched out of the casa de santo.
Shenda knew it was time for them to leave also. "Titi, you know I can never repay you."
"The debt is all mine, daughter. I should have been more forceful with you, made you take the Necklaces, gotten you under the protection of the orishas. Now I fear it is too late. The gods do not like being ignored for so long. And they are vengeful when slighted. I will work for you despite this."
Shenda hugged her aunt. "Thank you, Titi! That's all I can ask. Come on, Thurman. I'll drive you home."
Thurman and Bullfinch preceded Shenda. At the outer door, when Thurman was already down the stairs and on the street, Titi Yaya pressed the second vial into Shenda's hand. "This is for your sick boyfriend, dear. It will help him."
Shenda regarded Thurman thoughtfully.
What didn't Titi Yaya know?
Samuel Stanes wore only a small head bandage a month after his surgery. Even in the dim light of the abandoned subway station, Twigg could detect the powerful knowledge of the limitless freedom conferred by the neuro-alteration alight in the newest member's eyes.
Now the Phineas Gage League was up to full strength. The resulting synergy and competition would doubtlessly inspire them all to new heights of ambition and conquest. At times, Twigg enjoyed the cruel play that flourished amongst them. At other times, he would have preferred to have the entire world to himself, resenting the presence of the others. But such had been the way since the League began.
Not that there could never be changes.
And yet Twigg, even in his speculative heresy, failed to intuit that changes waited literally just around the corner.
Out of the darkness and into the station pulled the little mining train, Kraft Durchfreude at the helm.
The Dark Intercessor looked like a poorly constructed scarecrow from the fields of Dis. He seemed to have spent a longish period of dirty action without bathing or changing his normally immaculate suit, resulting in a shambolic appearance.
Twigg shook his head ruefully. Deplorable and dangerous. Shameful, if such a word could apply. It was like watching a corpse rot. This would have to be the meeting where they dealt with Durchfreude. They could send him on an errand and discuss his fate then.
Climbing aboard with his peers, Twigg noticed two oddities.
The pile of victims in the last car was covered with a tarp.
And instead of the expected whiff of unclean flesh, a strange herbal odor wafted off their driver. Twigg found it instinctively repugnant.
Down the long dark descent the train chugged, finally arriving in the flambeau-lit charnel cave.
The cold flyblown broken meats of their last feast still festooned the tables. The corpses, thankfully, had been removed. But no pleasant repast awaited their delectation. The smells of old rot were gagsome.
Further strangeness: Durchfreude did not servilely hasten to move up the portable steps for their ease of disembarking. He seemed frozen at the controls of the train.
With Twigg taking the initiative, the League members got awkwardly out.
Now Durchfreude did an unprecedented thing. He backed up the train until the last car effectively blocked the narrow tunnel mouth, their only exit from the meeting place.
Twigg began to feel very ill at ease.
Durchfreude stepped down. Jerkily, he moved to the caboose. Awkwardly, he pulled the tarp off.
The victims therein were already unfairly dead, some of them quite messily. With a burgeoning horror, Twigg recognized one of the corpses as a highly placed Isoterm executive. Others he knew as important members of other PGL-led companies, a fact confirmed by gasps and demands made by his compatriots.
"What is the meaning of this?" "Is this some kind of obscene joke?" "I can't believe what I'm seeing!" "Durchfreude, explain yourself!"
Give their senior member full credit for bravery. Creaky old Firgower moved toward the Dark Intercessor, relying on old patterns of dominance.
"We want to know the meaning of your actions right now!" quavered the very illustrious head of Stonecipher Industries.
By way of explanation, Durchfreude reached in among the bodies and retrieved an exceedingly sophisticated automatic weapon.
A rubber apron was not a satisfactory shield. The first blast cut Firgower to gory flinders, giving the others time to scatter.
But in the final sense, there was no place to run.
With stoic lack of affect, Durchfreude calmly potted the screaming members wherever they sought to hide. In their frantic scrambles and inevitable death throes, all the furniture of the chamber was overturned and smashed.
Twigg's mind on the conscious side of the dam was blank. But not for long. A single stray bullet in his side filled his superman's brain with crimson anguish.
He fell to the carpet, facedown, a hand going to his wound.
Metal. He felt metal. His pump had caught the bullet, stopped it penetrating further.
Twigg lay still.
Eventually the screaming and inarticulate gurgling stopped.
But the shooting continued, a single round at a time.
Ever conscientious, Durchfreude was slowly walking around the scene of slaughter, putting a coup-de-grâce shot or three into each surgically altered brain.
Twigg opened his eyes.
He was staring into the lifeless blood-freckled face of Isabelle Fistule a few feet away.
Between them lay a familiar machete, often employed for fun, now his last hope for survival.
With infinite slowness he snaked his hand toward it.
Just as he stealthily clasped the handle Durchfreude's shoes appeared in his vision. The man's back was toward Twigg, as he pumped mercy shots into Fistule.
Still supine, Twigg swung up and around with all his strength.
A deep pained grunt.
Hamstrung, the mad assassin collapsed, rifle flying off.
Twigg was atop the creature in a kind of parody of sexual mounting. The face of the Dark Intercessor remained blank as ever.
Seeking to compose his mind, Twigg felt a greatness invade him from outside. Perhaps it was only his damaged pump flooding him with an uncontrolled mix of hormones and chemicals and soft drink. But whatever the source, amidst the stench and clotting filth, something celestial descended and rode Twigg like a horse.
"Speak," ordered Twigg.
Durchfreude began a mechanical recitation covering the past few days.
When he was finished, Twigg said, "The servant is not to blame for the master's mistakes. Die cleanly now."
Durchfreude's jugular blood sprayed Twigg from waist to head, feeding his power.
Twigg stood up beneath the splattered gaze of Phineas Gage.
Alone. He was all alone, the only one of his kind in all the world.
In the three days following the burning of the Karuna and the visit to Titi Yaya's, much happened.
Thurman felt dizzied by it all.
First, the police. They had found the dropped gun in the street and conclusively linked it to the bullet obtained from Fuquan's charred corpse. The fact that the only fingerprints on the pistol were those of a long-dead respectable businessman proved only that the weapon had probably been stolen and kept unused for years, then handled by a gloved killer. Much persistent questioning ensued. The firemen had reported a fleeing car, but had been unable to provide positive ID that would link it to Shenda. Still, as with any business-related fire--especially one involving apparent concealment of a death--the suspicions of the authorities turned first on the owner and putatively disgruntled employees and customers.
"Now, Mister Swan," said Sgt. Botcher. A comb-over, a plump ruddy face, and a black vinyl belt distinguished the policeman. This did not cause Thurman to underestimate him however. "Witnesses report that you had a little run-in with the victim some weeks ago."
"It--it was nothing. He got mad when he thought I had eyes for a woman he wanted."
"Ah-ha. I see. A woman. Would you mind divulging her name?"
Thurman knew he couldn't lie, and also how suspicious all this would sound. "It was Miss Moore."
"Miss Moore. The owner. Hmmm. She sure has her hand in a lot of businesses in this city. All properly insured, though, I bet."
Sgt. Botcher made a little tick in his notebook. Then he threw Thurman a wild pitch that appeared to be an attempt to establish a specious bond.
"You're a vet, Mister Swan?"
"Yes. The Gulf War."
"Me too. 'Nam. One long hellacious fuck-up and fuck-over. Yours was penny-ante. Just a few months of the bosses testing some new systems and keeping their hand in."
Thurman tried to imagine his debilitating chronic illness as something penny-ante. Maybe to someone outside Thurman's skin that was how it looked. "I guess...."
"Learned all about guns in the service, naturally."
"Well, sure, the necessary drill. But I don't think I ever fired one in combat. Mainly I was a demolitions man."
Sgt. Botcher's eyes got as wide as camera shutters in a dark room. "That'll be all, Mister Swan. And please--don't leave town without letting us know."
But the police were only a minor upset in Thurman's existence. They were blind and unknowing of the strange new reality that had been revealed by Kraft Durchfreude's hypnotic confession. (And God help the authorities if they were ever unlucky enough to track down that monster!) Tiresome as they were, they grew bored, went away eventually and could be forgotten. A number of other things were more disturbing, less forgettable, and did not seem likely soon to go away.
The shattering of his newly fashioned cozy routine, for one. With the destruction of the Karuna, he had no way to start his day. No familiar faces and rituals, no laughter and jokes, no hearty boost of generosity, goodwill and nourishing food. It left a void at the center of Thurman's day. And whenever he encountered other members of the Karuna family, he saw the same sad feelings at work in them.
"Go home, Thurman," Vance von Jolly told him when he showed up for work the next morning after the dawn departure from Titi Yaya's casa de santo. The artist was stretched out on his couch, paint-stained covers pulled over his face. A small rigid tower poked the blanket up at groin level. "Someone's scraped the canvas of my heart with a blowtorch. The palette of my soul is crusted dry. I drag raced with the Devil and lost."
Thurman could take a hint. He left. Back in his lonely apartment, he felt that his life was shutting down again. Old physical and mental aches began to reassert themselves. It would be so easy to slip down that dark bottomless well once more--
Thurman got up and went looking for Shenda.
He found her exiting the Kandomble Brothers Funeral Home.
Shenda looked ragged. Red tired eyes, new downward-dragging lines around her mouth. The mainspring of Karuna, Inc., was plainly unwound. Thurman still found her beautiful.
She hugged Thurman tightly, then released him.
"Fuquan's mother asked me to handle the arrangements. She's old, and doesn't have two nickles. It's all taken care of now. No wake, just the funeral day after tomorrow."
"I'll be there. Shenda--"
She placed two fingers gently on his lips, as if in a blessing. Electricity sparked. "Not now, Thurman, okay? After the funeral. Right now I have to cobble together temporary jobs for Verity and Buddy and the other baristas who are out of work. Then there's a lot of official crap connected with the fire. And I want to find a new home for the Karuna. And the police--"
"Sgt. Botcher. I know. Okay, Shenda. See you back here."
He watched her drive away.
On the morning of the funeral--bright, fragrant, dawn rain-washed, implacably beautiful--Thurman was dressing in his lone suit and leather shoes, disinterred from the closet. It felt strange to be out of sweats and sneakers after so long. Too bad it wasn't a wedding....
The radio was giving the news. There seemed to have been an inordinate number of executive corporate jet crashes over the past twenty-four hours, all inevitably fatal. It was almost as if--
Thurman put that notion firmly out of his head.
The Kall-a-Kab dropped him off at the funeral parlor. Thurman thought he'd be among the first. But there was already a crowd numbering in the scores. All the people he knew personally, Shenda prominent, plus dozens of faces he recognized from the happy park meeting. Apparently, every employee of Karuna, Inc., had determined to attend, in a show of solidarity that actually brought tears to Thurman's eyes.
Fuquan's relatives were bunched in a tight, slightly suspicious and leery family knot that quickly unraveled under the warm pressure of greetings, introductions and expressions of condolence. Soon they were interspersed among the Karuna Korps, hugging, crying, smiling.
Inside Kandomble Brothers it was a more somber, closed casket affair, a photo of Fuquan in his off-work finery propped atop the silver-handled box. Foot-shuffling in the general hush, chair-creaking and weeping.
Thurman hitched a ride to the church with the respectful but ultimately irrepressible SinSin and Pepsi in their absolutely fabulous Miata. Now that was a ride and a half! His brain was put to the test to handle the disorienting transitions, from a folding chair in the parlor to a lap perch in the car to a pew in the church.
Thurman hadn't been inside a church in years, and this one wasn't his old denomination. It felt strange but good. Maybe that incredible visit to the casa de santo had awakened something dormant in him.
After the preacher spoke his formal eulogy, the lectern was opened to anyone else who had words to offer.
To Thurman's surprise, a steady stream of people trekked up to speak.
Time to toast the roaster.
Fuquan had been a prick. The speakers neither dismissed nor highlighted that fact. But he had been loved.
People talked about the man's high-energy approach to life, his unique entrances and exits, his unstinting involvement with whatever thrilled or irked him. Memories of brawls and love affairs, ups and downs, flush times and bust times, generosities and ingenious scams were trotted out and lovingly recounted.
Thurman found himself listening with increasing enchantment. There had been a lot more to the feisty guy than he had ever suspected.
As the flow of speakers ebbed, Thurman realized that one important aspect of Fuquan's life hadn't been touched upon.
Without conscious intention, Thurman found himself heading up the aisle to speak.
Facing the sea of attentive faces, Thurman hesitated for a nervous moment, then began.
"I, uh, I only knew Fuquan for a couple of months, and we didn't always get along, so, um, I don't have a lot to say. But I do know one thing. He made a lot of people happy and wide-awake with his coffee-roasting, er, prowess. And that's better than letting them stay grouchy and sleepy. So we all owe him. And who'll take his place?"
Thurman stepped down to loud applause and chants of "Amen, brother!" His face burned and his mind spun. It was only by the graveside, as the large crowd dispersed, that he really returned to earth.
Shenda approached him. She wore a black wool dress molded to her opulent figure and a single string of pearls, black nylons on the strong pylons of her legs. Her high-heels pierced the turf with each step. She laid a hand on his arm.
"Thurman, I don't want to be alone. Come home with me."
Bullfinch was waiting behind the apartment door. He leaped and cavorted about them like a bright sunny jowly gnome, barking in a queerly modulated way.
The humans had little attention to spare for the dog.
Shenda kicked off her shoes and led Thurman into the bedroom.
They were kissing. Then she loosened his tie and began to unbutton his shirt. Thurman felt suddenly awkward. He stopped her hand.
"I used to look better than I do now," he said.
"But I know you only now."
Thurman couldn't argue with that.
Sprawled naked on the bed, face alight, cocoa arms and legs open to him, Shenda made Thurman think of a dryad who shared the hue of the exotic heartwood of her home tree, or of an unburnished copper woman.
Shenda was gentle with his disabilities. At climax, it was as if lightning entered his head and blazed along his spine. Something shifted permanently within him, as when an object was lifted from a balanced tray. A coffeecup, perhaps.
Thurman fell asleep cradled in Shenda's embrace. When he awoke, it was twilight. Shenda still held him. Bullfinch had climbed onto the bed, and was snoring. Thurman shifted to look at Shenda's face. Her eyes were open, and tears trickled down her cheek like the first rivulets of spring.
"What's wrong? Did I--?"
"No, not you. It's only that nothing lasts. But what else is stinking new, right? Like I should be exempt for my good deeds! Forget it."
They talked about many things for the next few hours. At one point Shenda said, "Thurman, the most important thing in my life is the Karuna idea. It has to go on, even if I'm not around. But I never found anyone who could take over. Now I think maybe you could."
"Me? How could I ever do what you do? You--you're like a force of nature! I'm just a washed-up old rag next to you. Besides, you're not going anywhere anytime soon."
"Can't say, Thurman. Never can say."
After some further conversation, Thurman happened to notice a familiar vial atop the dresser.
"Is that the second potion your aunt concocted the other night?"
"Oh, yes, I almost forgot. You're supposed to drink it."
Shenda hopped out of bed. Her hand was reaching for the potion.
The apartment door blew off its hinges with a plaster-shattering crash and two burly men, stocking-masked and armed, burst in.
For the whole day--one whole wasted, unrecapturable day!--after the destruction of the Karuna Koffeehouse and the revelation of the dark forces behind the disaster, Shenda had felt enervated and full of despair. All her efforts, all her hard work of the past few years toward achieving her vision, had seemed a pitiable, naive facade erected against chaos, a tent in a hurricane. She even let the spontaneous blame and guilt that had erupted that fiery night fester and grow.
If I hadn't been so stubborn over my foolish damn principles, if I hadn't stuck my head up above the mass of the herd, trying to change things, then none of this would have happened. Fuquan would still be alive, and the Karuna would still exist. It's all my fault for being so uppity, so arrogant, so greedy to make things better. Why couldn't I have been content with my lot?
But as she got caught up in managing the myriad details of Fuquan's funeral and salvaging her business from the ruins, her natural optimism, tempered and reforged, began to reassert itself.
It wasn't my fault! If some jerk steals my car, do I blame myself for having too nice a car? No! There's right and there's wrong! Titi Yaya taught me that! I didn't light the match under the Karuna, that pathetic egungun did, following the orders of some bastard named Twigg! Karuna, Inc., is the best and most honest thing I've ever done. I built and he destroyed! That's what it boils down to, making and breaking, sane adult or vicious child.
This reborn confidence brought something new to light.
Before the disaster, she hadn't thought much about living and dying, just gone naturally from day to day.
After the tragedy, life seemed worthless and she had felt like dying for nothing.
Now, with the change of heart, she felt like living, and, only if need be, dying for something.
So when the midnight intruders crashed through her door, Shenda did not meekly surrender.
Her hand closed not on the potion but on a small necklace box atop the dresser and she hurled it at one of the men. At the same instant Bullfinch flew in a snarling rage at the second.
But these were not supernaturally sensitive zombies like Durchfreude, these were hardened mundane professionals.
The first man took the box in the chest without flinching or pausing.
The second shot Bullfinch in midflight. The dog squealed and thumped to the floor.
"No!" screamed Shenda, seeing her nightmare realized.
Thurman was struggling with treacherous limbs to rise from the bed. One of the men was quickly upon him.
"Hey, feeb," said the man, "chill." He used his gunbutt on Thurman's skull.
The other now grappled with Shenda, succeeding in pinning her arms.
Within seconds they had her wrists and ankles secured with duct tape, a strip across her mouth. Then they bundled her nakedness in a sheet and carried her outside.
She was dumped into a car trunk. The car took off.
For a timeless interval her mind raved, visions of lover and dog and her helpless self, spinning in kaleidoscopic disarray.
Then Shenda, with greater effort than ever before, forced her habitual mental pause upon herself.
A curious calm enveloped her now. Always dynamic, always a doer, always proactive, she was now in a situation where she could only lie still, could only react.
Was this the paralysis of the rabbit frozen before the snake? Shenda thought not, hoped not. The calmness felt too big to be simply an instinctive neural shutdown. Instead, it felt more like an opening up, like an activation of an untapped higher function, a heightened receptivity to something she had previously been only dimly aware of.
As the car accelerated toward its unknown destination, a memory came back to Shenda. It was one long sealed away, one she had never had access to before.
She was five years old. Her parents were dead. Titi Yaya had custody of her now. They were on a trip to the ocean. That should be fun.
But they ended up not at a public beach, but at a secluded rock-shored Atlantic cove barren of homes or other people. Titi Yaya had told the little girl to undress then.
Then la iyalocha had given the naked Shenda a white handkerchief knotted around seven bright pennies.
"Step into the sea, child, and offer the coins to Yemaya while you ask for her protection."
Shenda waded out tentatively, the rocks bruising her feet. Waist deep, she tentatively stuck her hand holding the offering under the water.
Shenda didn't think to let go of the coins, and was dragged under.
There was a face below the waters. Kindly and wise and warm. Shenda could have looked at it forever.
But Titi Yaya was already pulling her up, coinless.
"Yemaya accepts your offering, little Shen-Shen. The orishas are your friends now forever, as long as you honor them."
The car went over a bump, and Shenda knocked her head.
All this time. All this time she had had help waiting, but had been too proud to heed the numerous offers.
If any flaw of hers deserved punishment, this was it. Trying always to go it alone.
And now she finally was. All alone.
Or was she?
It was very convenient for Marmaduke Twigg that his bedroom was wired, boasting all the electronic conveniences that allowed him to run the Isoterm empire remotely.
For he had found in the days after the massacre underground that, having attained a safe refuge, he could not summon the will to leave his room.
Oh, of course the phobia was quite understandable and certainly only of temporary duration. After all, what survivor of such carnage wouldn't jump at every sharp report or look with suspicion at formerly trusted faces? He just needed a little time to regather his wits and confidence, his sense of the rest of humanity as easily manipulated cattle.
But: dangerous cattle, who could gore.
That had been his mistake. Not to realize that even witless subhumans could inflict pain.
But not as intently and ingeniously as he, Twigg himself, could.
Therein lay his superiority.
Twigg had not delayed in pursuing what would strengthen him.
Immediately upon receiving the requisite medical attention, he had begun to sweep up the crumbling empires of his erstwhile PGL peers. Kalpagni, Ltd.; Stonecipher Industries; Burnes Sloan Hardin Hades; Crumbee Products; Harrow & Wither; Somnifax et Cie; Asura Refineries; Preta-Loka Entertainments; Culex, SA; Brasher Investments, Plc.; Rudrakonig, GmbH; LD-100 Pharmaceuticals. All these firms, unlike more democratic ones, had been particularly susceptible to disintegration upon the lopping off of their heads. Now Isoterm, the insect god of homogeneity, was engulfing them.
With every glorious business absorption, Twigg felt power flow into him.
And yet, something was missing. These conquests were all ethereal affairs of bytes and EFTs, votes and bribes. Too impersonal.
What Twigg needed to fully reinvigorate himself was much more elemental.
Blood. The blood of the cow that had set off the stampede that had nearly trampled him.
And this was the day, now the hour.
A knock came at Twigg's door. He took his feet off his new hassock, pausing to pat the frozen kneeler appreciatively before he stood.
Alas, poor Paternoster. Decades of loyal service undone by one incautious aged stumble while bearing the breakfast tray. Now enjoying his retirement.
"Enter," called out Twigg imperiously.
The unconscious woman carried into the room by the two thugs was not in immaculate condition. Contusions mottled her naked form, and her features were smeared. An arm dangled crookedly. Experts had inflicted a certain high degree of damage on her prior to her delivery here. Twigg had not fully recovered his strength yet, was used to dealing with drugged victims, and had heard that this one was a fiery bitch. Best to have her vitality taken down a notch or three beforehand.
Twigg was not greedy. There was plenty of play left in her still.
The men dumped her on the rug and left. Twigg picked up his favorite knife, a slim Medici stiletto, and kneeled beside her. With expert prickings and a final slap across the face he managed to raise her eyelids.
"Ah, my dear, so pleased to meet you. I'm Marmaduke Twigg, your new best friend. Here is my calling card."
Twigg sliced shallowly across the bridge of her nose. Blood flowed, crimson on brown like lava down a hillside.
"We're going to get along famously, I can tell. What do you think?"
The woman was murmuring something. Twigg had to lean over to listen, since her bruised lips and lacerated tongue had trouble forming words.
"Dog. Your ... name. A dog."
Twigg straightened. "Oh, dear. How gauche. I'm afraid I must register my dismay."
Twigg began to carve.
Delightful hours passed. Despite all his experience at prolonging agony, matters seemed to be reaching a terminal point. So Twigg paused for refreshment.
A deep swallow of Zingo.
Lowering the bottle from his avaricious mouth, Twigg was inspired. He bent over the shattered woman lying curled up on her side.
Her lips were twitching. Twigg thought to hear her mutter, "Lou--Louie ... "
"He's not here, dear. Would you care for a drink? I know you're famously not partial to this beverage though. Too much like vinegar, I take it? Oh, well, if you insist--"
Twigg emptied the cobalt liquid onto her grimly painted face.
It seemed to revive her a bit. With infinite exertion she rolled fully onto her stomach and began to crawl. Twigg watched indulgently.
She reached the table supported by the two male statues. Using their organic irregularities as handholds, she dragged herself upward until she managed to catch the gilt edge of the glass top.
The active workstation across the room chimed, signaling its need for a share-selling authorization. Twigg moved quickly to attend it, so that he could resume his pleasures.
When he looked again, the woman held the control for the tiger.
The neuronal dam crumbled.
Twigg dashed insanely for the door.
Impossibly, the woman stood like an iron wall between him and safety.
Something supernaturally strong dwelled now within her.
She clasped Twigg in an iron embrace.
"Come with me," rasped a voice not hers.
And then the tiger was upon them both, claws, jaws and tropical volcano breath.
But tigers are not cruel.
A key turned in the repaired door to Shenda Moore's apartment. The door swung inward.
First entered Titi Yaya.
Behind her, Thurman, cane thumping.
After him hopped a three-legged Bullfinch with bandaged front stump.
Titi Yaya stopped.
"I know this won't be pleasant. But we need to go through all her papers if we are to salvage what she built. You know that's what she wanted."
"Yes," said Thurman. The word came out of him easier and more evenly than he would have expected, given the surroundings. Apparently, he was, for the moment anyway, all cried out.
He had been dreading returning here, had delayed the necessity till a week after the funeral. (Shenda's savaged corpse had come home to them only through Titi Yaya's string-pulling on both supernatural and earthly powers.) But now, with the future of Karuna, Inc., at stake, they could delay no longer.
"You take the desk here," ordered Titi Yaya. "I will look in the bedroom."
Thurman was not inclined to argue. The bedroom was not a place he cared to revisit. "Feeb--" He sat at the desk chair; Bullfinch dropped down beside him. He began to leaf through papers. Shenda's handwriting was everywhere.
After a time Titi Yaya emerged, bearing various folders, Shenda's big satchel--and a small glass vial.
"What is this doing unopened?" she demanded. "How do you expect to accomplish anything if you stay sick? Here, drink this now!"
Thurman did as he was told. The potion was not exactly pleasant, but not vile either. Musty, loamy, musky, powerful.
"I have to go now, child. Meet me at my apartment when you are finished."
Alone, Thurman sorted through a few more sheets and ledgers. Then an irresistible drowsiness started to creep along his limbs from his feet on up, until it crested over his head and swallowed him entirely. His hand dropped down to graze Bullfinch's back.
He was on a flat city rooftop. Bullfinch was with him, smiling and rollicking, lolloping about on his remaining three legs.
"Throw the ball! Throw the ball! Quick!" said the bulldog.
Thurman realized he held a tennis ball.
"I don't know how! Get Shenda to do it. Where is she?"
"She's everywhere! Just look! She's always here! Now let's play!"
Thurman looked around. The sun, the sky, the commonplace urban fixtures. Was that Shenda? It seemed a poor substitute, a deceitful trade for the living woman.
"Don't you see her? Wake up so we can play! Wake up!"
Bullfinch's last words seemed to echo and reverberate. The rooftop scene wavered and dissolved.
Thurman opened his eyes and saw Shenda.
It was only a picture of her as a child, an old snapshot lying atop the papers on the desk.
But it hadn't been there when he fell asleep.
Thurman stood to go. He reached for his cane, then hesitated. Somehow his legs seemed stronger.
Cane left behind, he moved with increasing confidence toward the door.
Behind him gamely trotted Bullfinch.
Thurman guessed that now he had a dog.
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