Black House Chapter Twenty-one
Still holding her hand, he gets to his feet, pulling her up with him.His legs are trembling.His eyes feel hot and too large for their sockets.
He is terrified and exalted in equal, perfectly equal, measure. His heart is hammering, but oh the beats are sweet. The second time he tries, he manages to say her name a little louder, but there’s still not much to his voice, and his lips are so numb they might have been rubbed with ice. He sounds like a man just coming back from a hard punch in the gut.
There’s something weirdly familiar about this, him saying the name over and over and her giving back that simple affirmation. Familiar and funny. And it comes to him: there’s a scene almost identical to this in The Terror of Deadwood Gulch, after one of the Lazy 8 Saloon’s patrons has knocked Bill Towns unconscious with a whiskey bottle. Lily, in her role as sweet Nancy O’Neal, tosses a bucket of water in his face, and when he sits up, they ??
“This is funny,” Jack says. “It’s a good bit. We should be laughing.”
With the slightest of smiles, Sophie says, “Yes.”
“Laughing our fool heads off.”
“Our tarnal heads off.”
“I’m not speaking English anymore, am I?”
He sees two things in her blue eyes. The first is that she doesn’t know the word English. The second is that she knows exactly what he means.
Trying to get the reality of it. Trying to pound it home like a nail. A smile lights her face and enriches her mouth. Jack thinks of how it would be to kiss that mouth, and his knees feel weak. All at once he is fourteen again, and wondering if he dares give his date a peck good-night after he walks her home.
“Yes-yes-yes,” she says, the smile strengthening. And then: “Have you got it yet? Do you understand that you’re here and how you got here?”
Above and around him, billows of gauzy white cloth flap and sigh like living breath. Half a dozen conflicting drafts gently touch his face and make him aware that he carried a coat of sweat from the other world, and that it stinks. He arms it off his brow and cheeks in quick gestures, not wanting to lose sight of her for longer than a moment at a time.
They are in a tent of some kind. It’s huge ?? many-chambered ?? and Jack thinks briefly of the pavilion in which the Queen of the Territories, his mother’s Twinner, lay dying. That place had been rich with many colors, filled with many rooms, redolent of incense and sorrow (for the Queen’s death had seemed inevitable, sure ?? only a matter of time). This one is ramshackle and ragged. The walls and the ceiling are full of holes, and where the white material remains whole, it’s so thin that Jack can actually see the slope of land outside, and the trees that dress it. Rags flutter from the edges of some of the holes when the wind blows. Directly over his head he can see a shadowy maroon shape. Some sort of cross.
“Jack, do you understand how you ?? “
“Yes. I flipped.” Although that isn’t the word that comes out of his mouth. The literal meaning of the word that comes out seems to be horizon road. “And it seems that I sucked a fair number of Spiegleman’s accessories with me.” He bends and picks up a flat stone with a flower carved on it. “I believe that in my world, this was a Georgia O’Keeffe print. And that ?? ” He points to a blackened, fireless torch leaning against one of the pavilion’s fragile walls. “I think that was a ?? ” But there are no words for it in this world, and what comes out of his mouth sounds as ugly as a curse in German: ” ?? halogen lamp.”
She frowns. “Hal-do-jen . . . limp? Lemp?”
He feels his numb lips rise in a little grin. “Never mind.”
“But you are all right.”
He understands that she needs him to be all right, and so he’ll say that he is, but he’s not. He is sick and glad to be sick. He is one lovestruck daddy, and wouldn’t have it any other way. If you discount how he felt about his mother ?? a very different kind of love, despite what the Freudians might think ?? it’s the first time for him. Oh, he certainly thought he had been in and out of love, but that was before today. Before the cool blue of her eyes, her smile, and even the way the shadows thrown by the decaying tent fleet across her face like schools of fish. At this moment he would try to fly off a mountain for her if she asked, or walk through a forest fire, or bring her polar ice to cool her tea, and those things do not constitute being all right.
But she needs him to be.
Tyler needs him to be.
I am a coppiceman, he thinks. At first the concept seems insubstantial compared to her beauty ?? to her simple reality ?? but then it begins to take hold. As it always has. What else brought him here, after all? Brought him against his will and all his best intentions?
“Yes, I’m all right. I’ve flipped before.” But never into the presence of such beauty, he thinks. That’s the problem. You’re the problem, my lady.
“Yes. To come and go is your talent. One of your talents. So I have been told.”
“Shortly,” she says. “Shortly. There’s a great deal to do, and yet I think I need a moment. You . . . rather take my breath away.”
Jack is fiercely glad to know it. He sees he is still holding her hand, and he kisses it, as Judy kissed his hands in the world on the other side of the wall from this one, and when he does, he sees the fine mesh of bandage on the tips of three of her fingers. He wishes he dared to take her in his arms, but she daunts him: her beauty and her presence.She is slightly taller than Judy ?? a matter of two inches, surely no more ?? and her hair is lighter, the golden shade of unrefined honey spilling from a broken comb. She is wearing a simple cotton robe, white trimmed with a blue that matches her eyes. The narrow V-neck frames her throat. The hem falls to just below her knees. Her legs are bare but she’s wearing a silver anklet on one of them, so slim it’s almost invisible. She is fuller-breasted than Judy, her hips a bit wider. Sisters, you might think, except that they have the same spray of freckles across the nose and the same white line of scar across the back of the left hand. Different mishaps caused that scar, Jack has no doubt, but he also has no doubt that those mishaps occurred at the same hour of the same day.
“You’re her Twinner. Judy Marshall’s Twinner.” Only the word that comes out of his mouth isn’t Twinner; incredibly, dopily, it seems to be harp. Later he will think of how the strings of a harp lie close together, only a finger’s touch apart, and he will decide that word isn’t so foolish after all.
She looks down, her mouth drooping, then raises her head again and tries to smile. “Judy. On the other side of the wall. When we were children, Jack, we spoke together often. Even when we grew up, although then we spoke in each other’s dreams.” He is alarmed to see tears forming in her eyes and then slipping down her cheeks. “Have I driven her mad? Run her to lunacy? Please say I haven’t.”
“Nah,” Jack says. “She’s on a tightrope, but she hasn’t fallen off yet. She’s tough, that one.”
“You have to bring her Tyler back to her,” Sophie tells him. “For both of us. I’ve never had a child. I cannot have a child. I was . . . mistreated, you see. When I was young. Mistreated by one you knew well.”
A terrible certainty forms in Jack’s mind. Around them, the ruined pavilion flaps and sighs in the wonderfully fragrant breeze.
“Was it Morgan? Morgan of Orris?”
She bows her head, and perhaps this is just as well. Jack’s face is, at that moment, pulled into an ugly snarl. In that moment he wishes he could kill Morgan Sloat’s Twinner all over again. He thinks to ask her how she was mistreated, and then realizes he doesn’t have to.
“How old were you?”
“Twelve,” she says . . . as Jack has known she would say. It happened that same year, the year when Jacky was twelve and came here to save his mother. Or did he come here? Is this really the Territories? Somehow it doesn’t feel the same. Almost . . . but not quite.
It doesn’t surprise him that Morgan would rape a child of twelve, and do it in a way that would keep her from ever having children. Not at all. Morgan Sloat, sometimes known as Morgan of Orris, wanted to rule not just one world or two, but the entire universe. What are a few raped children to a man with such ambitions?
She gently slips her thumbs across the skin beneath his eyes. It’s like being brushed with feathers. She’s looking at him with something like wonder. “Why do you weep, Jack?”
“The past,” he says. “Isn’t that always what does it?” And thinks of his mother, sitting by the window, smoking a cigarette, and listening while the radio plays “Crazy Arms.” Yes, it’s always the past. That’s where the hurt is, all you can’t get over.
“Perhaps so,” she allows. “But there’s no time to think about the past today. It’s the future we must think about today.”
“Yes, but if I could ask just a few questions . . . ?”
“All right, but only a few.”
Jack opens his mouth, tries to speak, and makes a comical little gaping expression when nothing comes out. Then he laughs. “You take my breath away, too,” he tells her. “I have to be honest about that.”
A faint tinge of color rises in Sophie’s cheeks, and she looks down. She opens her lips to say something . . . then presses them together again. Jack wishes she had spoken and is glad she hasn’t, both at the same time. He squeezes her hands gently, and she looks up at him, blue eyes wide.
“Did I know you? When you were twelve?”
She shakes her head.
“But I saw you.”
“Perhaps. In the great pavilion. My mother was one of the Good Queen’s handmaidens. I was another . . . the youngest. You could have seen me then. I think you did see me.”
Jack takes a moment to digest the wonder of this, then goes on. Time is short. They both know this. He can almost feel it fleeting.
“You and Judy are Twinners, but neither of you travel ?? she’s never been in your head over here and you’ve never been in her head, over there. You . . . talk through a wall.”
“When she wrote things, that was you, whispering through the wall.”
“Yes. I knew how hard I was pushing her, but I had to. Had to! It’s not just a question of restoring her child to her, important as that may be. There are larger considerations.”
She shakes her head. “I am not the one to tell you. The one who will is much greater than I.”
He studies the tiny dressings that cover the tips of her fingers, and muses on how hard Sophie and Judy have tried to get through that wall to each other. Morgan Sloat could apparently become Morgan of Orris at will. As a boy of twelve, Jack had met others with that same talent. Not him; he was single-natured and had always been Jack in both worlds. Judy and Sophie, however, have proved incapable of flipping back and forth in any fashion. Something’s been left out of them, and they could only whisper through the wall between the worlds. There must be sadder things, but at this moment he can’t think of a single one.
Jack looks around at the ruined tent, which seems to breathe with sunshine and shadow. Rags flap. In the next room, through a hole in the gauzy cloth wall, he sees a few overturned cots. “What is this place?” he asks.
She smiles. “To some, a hospital.”
“Oh?” He looks up and once more takes note of the cross. Maroon now, but undoubtedly once red. A red cross, stupid, he thinks. “Oh! But isn’t it a little . . . well . . . old?”
Sophie’s smile widens, and Jack realizes it’s ironic. Whatever sort of hospital this is, or was, he’s guessing it bears little or no resemblance to the ones on General Hospital or ER. “Yes, Jack. Very old. Once there were a dozen or more of these tents in the Territories, On-World, and Mid-World; now there are only a few. Mayhap just this one. Today it’s here. Tomorrow . . .” Sophie raises her hands, then lowers them. “Anywhere! Perhaps even on Judy’s side of the wall.”
“Sort of like a traveling medicine show.”
This is supposed to be a joke, and he’s startled when she first nods, then laughs and claps her hands. “Yes! Yes, indeed! Although you wouldn’t want to be treated here.”
What exactly is she trying to say? “I suppose not,” he agrees, looking at the rotting walls, tattered ceiling panels, and ancient support posts. “Doesn’t exactly look sterile.”
Seriously (but her eyes are sparkling), Sophie says: “Yet if you were a patient, you would think it beautiful out of all measure. And you would think your nurses, the Little Sisters, the most beautiful any poor patient ever had.”
Jack looks around. “Where are they?”
“The Little Sisters don’t come out when the sun shines. And if we wish to continue our lives with the blessing, Jack, we’ll be gone our separate ways from here long before dark.”
It pains him to hear her talk of separate ways, even though he knows it’s inevitable. The pain doesn’t dampen his curiosity, however; once a coppiceman, it seems, always a coppiceman.
“Because the Little Sisters are vampires, and their patients never get well.”
Startled, uneasy, Jack looks around for signs of them. Certainly disbelief doesn’t cross his mind ?? a world that can spawn werewolves can spawn anything, he supposes.
She touches his wrist. A little tremble of desire goes through him.
“Don’t fear, Jack ?? they also serve the Beam. All things serve the Beam.”
“Never mind.” The hand on his wrist tightens. “The one who can answer your questions will be here soon, if he’s not already.” She gives him a sideways look that contains a glimmer of a smile. “And after you hear him, you’ll be more apt to ask questions that matter.”
Jack realizes that he has been neatly rebuked, but coming from her, it doesn’t sting. He allows himself to be led through room after room of the great and ancient hospital. As they go, he gets a sense of how really huge this place is. He also realizes that, in spite of the fresh breezes, he can detect a faint, unpleasant undersmell, something that might be a mixture of fermented wine and spoiled meat. As to what sort of meat, Jack is afraid he can guess pretty well. After visiting over a hundred homicide crime scenes, he should be able to.
It would have been impolite to break away while Jack was meeting the love of his life (not to mention bad narrative business), so we didn’t. Now, however, let us slip through the thin walls of the hospital tent. Outside is a dry but not unpleasant landscape of red rocks, broom sage, desert flowers that look a bit like sego lilies, stunted pines, and a few barrel cacti. Somewhere not too far distant is the steady cool sigh of a river. The hospital pavilion rustles and flaps as dreamily as the sails of a ship riding down the sweet chute of the trade winds. As we float along the great ruined tent’s east side in our effortless and peculiarly pleasant way, we notice a strew of litter. There are more rocks with drawings etched on them, there is a beautifully made copper rose that has been twisted out of shape as if by some great heat, there is a small rag rug that looks as if it has been chopped in two by a meat cleaver. There’s other stuff as well, stuff that has resisted any change in its cyclonic passage from one world to the other. We see the blackened husk of a television picture tube lying in a scatter of broken glass, several Duracell AA batteries, a comb, and ?? perhaps oddest ?? a pair of white nylon panties with the word Sunday written on one side in demure pink script. There has been a collision of worlds; here, along the east side of the hospital pavilion, is an intermingled detritus that attests to how hard that collision was.
At the end of that littery plume of exhaust ?? the head of the comet, we might say ?? sits a man we recognize. We’re not used to seeing him in such an ugly brown robe (and he clearly doesn’t know how to wear such a garment, because if we look at him from the wrong angle, we can see much more than we want to), or wearing sandals instead of wing tips, or with his hair pulled back into a rough horsetail and secured with a hank of rawhide, but this is undoubtedly Wendell Green. He is muttering to himself. Drool drizzles from the corners of his mouth. He is looking fixedly at an untidy crumple of foolscap in his right hand. He ignores all the more cataclysmic changes that have occurred around him and focuses on just this one. If he can figure out how his Panasonic minicorder turned into a little pile of ancient paper, perhaps he’ll move on to the other stuff. Not until then.
Wendell (we’ll continue to call him Wendell, shall we, and not worry about any name he might or might not have in this little corner of existence, since he doesn’t know it or want to) spies the Duracell AA batteries. He crawls to them, picks them up, and begins trying to stick them into the little pile of foolscap. It doesn’t work, of course, but that doesn’t keep Wendell from trying. As George Rathbun might say, “Give that boy a flyswatter and he’d try to catch dinner with it.”
“Geh,” says the Coulee Country’s favorite investigative reporter, repeatedly poking the batteries at the foolscap. “Geh . . . in. Geh . . . in! Gah-damnit, geh in th ?? “
A sound ?? the approaching jingle of what can only be, God help us, spurs ?? breaks into Wendell’s concentration, and he looks up with wide, bulging eyes. His sanity may not be gone forever, but it’s certainly taken the wife and kids and gone to Disney World. Nor is the current vision before his eyes apt to coax it back anytime soon.
Once in our world there was a fine black actor named Woody Strode. (Lily knew him; acted with him, as a matter of fact, in a late-sixties American International stinkeroo called Execution Express.) The man now approaching the place where Wendell Green crouches with his batteries and his handful of foolscap looks remarkably like that actor. He is wearing faded jeans, a blue chambray shirt, a neck scarf, and a heavy revolver on a wide leather gun belt in which four dozen or so shells twinkle. His head is bald, his eyes deep-set. Slung over one shoulder by a strap of intricate design is a guitar. Sitting on the other is what appears to be a parrot. The parrot has two heads.
“No, no,” says Wendell in a mildly scolding voice. “Don’t. Don’t see. Don’t see. That.” He lowers his head and once more begins trying to cram the batteries into the handful of paper.
The shadow of the newcomer falls over Wendell, who resolutely refuses to look up.
“Howdy, stranger,” says the newcomer.
Wendell carries on not looking up.
“My name’s Parkus. I’m the law ’round these parts. What’s your handle?”
Wendell refuses to respond, unless we can call the low grunts issuing from his drool-slicked mouth a response.
“I asked your name.”
“Wen,” says our old acquaintance (we can’t really call him a friend) without looking up. “Wen. Dell. Gree . . . Green. I . . . I . . . I . . .”
“Take your time,” Parkus says (not without sympathy). “I can wait till your branding iron gets hot.”
“I . . . news hawk!”
“Oh? That what you are?” Parkus hunkers; Wendell cringes back against the fragile wall of the pavilion. “Well, don’t that just beat the bass drum at the front of the parade? Tell you what, I’ve seen fish hawks, and I’ve seen red hawks, and I’ve seen goshawks, but you’re my first news hawk.”
Wendell looks up, blinking rapidly.
On Parkus’s left shoulder, one head of the parrot says: “God is love.”
“Go fuck your mother,” replies the other head.
“All must seek the river of life,” says the first head.
“Suck my tool,” says the second.
“We grow toward God,” responds the first.
“Piss up a rope,” invites the second.
Although both heads speak equably ?? even in tones of reasonable discourse ?? Wendell cringes backward even farther, then looks down and furiously resumes his futile work with the batteries and the handful of paper, which is now disappearing into the sweat-grimy tube of his fist.
“Don’t mind ’em,” Parkus says. “I sure don’t. Hardly hear ’em anymore, and that’s the truth. Shut up, boys.”
The parrot falls silent.
“One head’s Sacred, the other’s Profane,” Parkus says. “I keep ’em around just to remind me that ?? “
He is interrupted by the sound of approaching footsteps, and stands up again in a single lithe and easy movement. Jack and Sophie are approaching, holding hands with the perfect unconsciousness of children on their way to school.
“Speedy!” Jack cries, his face breaking into a grin.
“Why, Travelin’ Jack!” Parkus says, with a grin of his own. “Well-met! Look at you, sir ?? you’re all grown up.”
Jack rushes forward and throws his arms around Parkus, who hugs him back, and heartily. After a moment, Jack holds Parkus at arm’s length and studies him. “You were older ?? you looked older to me, at least. In both worlds.”
Still smiling, Parkus nods. And when he speaks again, it is in Speedy Parker’s drawl. “Reckon I did look older, Jack. You were just a child, remember.”
“But ?? “
Parkus waves one hand. “Sometimes I look older, sometimes not so old. It all depends on ?? “
“Age is wisdom,” one head of the parrot says piously, to which the other responds, “You senile old fuck.”
” ?? depends on the place and the circumstances,” Parkus concludes, then says: “And I told you boys to shut up. You keep on, I’m apt to wring your scrawny neck.” He turns his attention to Sophie, who is looking at him with wide, wondering eyes, as shy as a doe. “Sophie,” he says. “It’s wonderful to see you, darling. Didn’t I say he’d come? And here he is. Took a little longer than I expected, is all.”
She drops him a deep curtsey, all the way down to one knee, her head bowed. “Thankee-sai,” she says. “Come in peace, gunslinger, and go your course along the Beam with my love.”
At this, Jack feels an odd, deep chill, as if many worlds had spoken in a harmonic tone, low but resonant.
Speedy ?? so Jack still thinks of him ?? takes her hand and urges her to her feet. “Stand up, girl, and look me in the eye. I’m no gunslinger here, not in the borderlands, even if I do still carry the old iron from time to time. In any case, we have a lot to talk about. This’s no time for ceremony. Come over the rise with me, you two. We got to make palaver, as the gunslingers say. Or used to say, before the world moved on. I shot a good brace of grouse, and think they’ll cook up just fine.”
“What about ?? ” Jack gestures toward the muttering, crouched heap that is Wendell Green.
“Why, he looks right busy,” Parkus says. “Told me he’s a news hawk.”
“I’m afraid he’s a little above himself,” Jack replies. “Old Wendell here’s a news vulture.”
Wendell turns his head a bit. He refuses to lift his eyes, but his lip curls in a sneer that may be more reflexive than real. “Heard. That.” He struggles. The lip curls again, and this time the sneer seems less reflexive. It is, in fact, a snarl. “Gol. Gol. Gol-den boy. Holly. Wood.”
“He’s managed to retain at least some of his charm and his joi de vivre,” Jack says. “Will he be okay here?”
“Not much with ary brain in its head comes near the Little Sisters’ tent,” Parkus says. “He’ll be okay. And if he smells somethin’ tasty on the breeze and comes for a look-see, why, I guess we can feed him.” He turns toward Wendell. “We’re going just over yonder. If you want to come and visit, why, you just up and do her. Understand me, Mr. News Hawk?”
“Wen. Dell. Green.”
“Wendell Green, yessir.” Parkus looks at the others. “Come on. Let’s mosey.”
“We mustn’t forget him,” Sophie murmurs, with a look back. “It will be dark in a few hours.”
“No,” Parkus agrees as they top the nearest rise. “Wouldn’t do to leave him beside that tent after dark. That wouldn’t do at all.”
There’s more foliage in the declivity on the far side of the rise ?? even a little ribbon of creek, presumably on its way to the river Jack can hear in the distance ?? but it still looks more like northern Nevada than western Wisconsin. Yet in a way, Jack thinks, that makes sense. The last one had been no ordinary flip. He feels like a stone that has been skipped all the way across a lake, and as for poor Wendell ??
To the right of where they descend the far side of the draw, a horse has been tethered in the shade of what Jack thinks is a Joshua tree. About twenty yards down the draw to the left is a circle of eroded stones. Inside it a fire, not yet lit, has been carefully laid. Jack doesn’t like the look of the place much ?? the stones remind him of ancient teeth. Nor is he alone in his dislike. Sophie stops, her grip on his fingers tightening.
“Parkus, do we have to go in there? Please say we don’t.”
Parkus turns to her with a kindly smile Jack knows well: a Speedy Parker smile for sure.
“The Speaking Demon’s been gone from this circle many the long age, darling,” he says. “And you know that such as yon are best for stories.”
“Yet ?? “
“Now’s no time to give in to the willies,” Parkus tells her. He speaks with a trace of impatience, and “willies” isn’t precisely the word he uses, but only how Jack’s mind translates it. “You waited for him to come in the Little Sisters’ hospital tent ?? “
“Only because she was there on the other side ?? “
” ?? and now I want you to come along.” All at once he seems taller to Jack. His eyes flash. Jack thinks: A gunslinger. Yes, I suppose he could be a gunslinger. Like in one of Mom’s old movies, only for real.
“All right,” she says, low. “If we must.” Then she looks at Jack. “I wonder if you’d put your arm around me?”
Jack, we may be sure, is happy to oblige.
As they step between two of the stones, Jack seems to hear an ugly twist of whispered words. Among them, one voice is momentarily clear, seeming to leave a trail of slime behind it as it enters his ear: Drudge drudge drudge, oho the bledding foodzies, soon he cummz, my good friend Mun-shun, and such a prize I have for him, oho, oho ??
Jack looks at his old friend as Parkus hunkers by a tow sack and loosens the drawstring at the top. “He’s close, isn’t he? The Fisherman. And Black House, that’s close, too.”
“Yep,” Parkus says, and from the sack he spills the gutted corpses of a dozen plump dead birds.
Thoughts of Irma Freneau reenter Jack’s head at the sight of the grouse, and he thinks he won’t be able to eat. Watching as Parkus and Sophie skewer the birds on greensticks reinforces this idea. But after the fire is lit and the birds begin to brown, his stomach weighs in, insisting that the grouse smell wonderful and will probably taste even better. Over here, he remembers, everything always does.
“And here we are, in the speaking circle,” Parkus says. His smiles have been put away for the nonce. He looks at Jack and Sophie, who sit side by side and still holding hands, with somber gravity. His guitar has been propped against a nearby rock. Beside it, Sacred and Profane sleeps with its two heads tucked into its feathers, dreaming its no doubt bifurcated dreams. “The Demon may be long gone, but the legends say such things leave a residue that may lighten the tongue.”
“Like kissing the Blarney Stone, maybe,” Jack suggests.
Parkus shakes his head. “No blarney today.”
Jack says, “If only we were dealing with an ordinary scumbag. That I could handle.”
Sophie looks at him, puzzled.
“He means a dust-off artist,” Parkus tells her. “A hardcase.” He looks at Jack. “And in one way, that is what you’re dealing with. Carl Bier-stone isn’t much ?? an ordinary monster, let’s say. Which is not to say he couldn’t do with a spot of killing. But as for what’s going on in French Landing, he has been used. Possessed, you’d say in your world, Jack. Taken by the spirits, we’d say in the Territories ?? “
“Or brought low by pigs,” Sophie adds.
“Yes.” Parkus is nodding. “In the world just beyond this borderland ?? Mid-World ?? they would say he has been infested by a demon. But a demon far greater than the poor, tattered spirit that once lived in this circle of stones.”
Jack hardly hears that. His eyes are glowing. It sounded something like beer stein, George Potter told him last night, a thousand years ago. That’s not it, but it’s close.
“Carl Bierstone,” he says. He raises a clenched fist, then shakes it in triumph. “That was his name in Chicago. Burnside here in French Landing. Case closed, game over, zip up your fly. Where is he, Speedy? Save me some time h ?? “
“Shut . . . up,” Parkus says.
The tone is low and almost deadly. Jack can feel Sophie shrink against him. He does a little shrinking himself. This sounds nothing like his old friend, nothing at all. You have to stop thinking of him as Speedy, Jack tells himself. That’s not who he is or ever was. That was just a character he played, someone who could both soothe and charm a scared kid on the run with his mother.
Parkus turns the birds, which are now browned nicely on one side and spitting juice into the fire.
“I’m sorry to speak harsh to you, Jack, but you have to realize that your Fisherman is pretty small fry compared to what’s really going on.”
Why don’t you tell Tansy Freneau he’s small fry? Why don’t you tell Beezer St. Pierre?
Jack thinks these things, but doesn’t say them out loud. He’s more than a little afraid of the light he saw in Parkus’s eyes.
“Nor is it about Twinners,” Parkus says. “You got to get that idea out of your mind. That’s just something that has to do with your world and the world of the Territories ?? a link. You can’t kill some hardcase over here and end the career of your cannibal over there. And if you kill him over there, in Wisconsin, the thing inside will just jump to another host.”
“The thing ?? ?”
“When it was in Albert Fish, Fish called it the Monday Man. Fellow you’re after calls it Mr. Munshun. Both are only ways of trying to say something that can’t be pronounced by any earthly tongue on any earthly world.”
“How many worlds are there, Speedy?”
“Many,” Parkus says, looking into the fire. “And this business concerns every one of them. Why else do you think I’ve been after you like I have? Sending you feathers, sending you robins’ eggs, doing every damned thing I could to make you wake up.”
Jack thinks of Judy, scratching on walls until the tips of her fingers were bloody, and feels ashamed. Speedy has been doing much the same thing, it seems. “Wake up, wake up, you dunderhead,” he says.
Parkus seems caught between reproof and a smile. “For sure you must have seen me in the case that sent you running out of L.A.”
“Ah, man ?? why do you think I went?”
“You ran like Jonah, when God told him to go preach against the wickedness in Nineveh. Thought I was gonna have to send a whale to come and swallow you up.”
“I feel swallowed,” Jack tells him.
In a small voice, Sophie says: “I do, too.”
“We’ve all been swallowed,” says the man with the gun on his hip. “We’re in the belly of the beast, like it or not. It’s ka, which is destiny and fate. Your Fisherman, Jack, is now your ka. Our ka. This is more than murder. Much more.”
And Jack sees something that frankly scares the shit out of him. Lester Parker, a.k.a. Speedy, a.k.a. Parkus, is himself scared almost to death.
“This business concerns the Dark Tower,” he says.
Beside Jack, Sophie gives a low, desperate cry of terror and lowers her head. At the same time she raises one hand and forks the sign of the Evil Eye at Parkus, over and over.
That gentleman doesn’t seem to take it amiss. He simply sets to work turning the birds again on their sticks. “Listen to me, now,” he says. “Listen, and ask as few questions as you can. We still have a chance to get Judy Marshall’s son back, but time is blowing in our teeth.”
“Talk,” Jack says.
Parkus talks. At some point in his tale he judges the birds done and serves them out on flat stones. The meat is tender, almost falling off the small bones. Jack eats hungrily, drinking deep of the sweet water from Parkus’s waterskin each time it comes around to him. He wastes no more time comparing dead children to dead grouse. The furnace needs to be stoked, and he stokes it with a will. So does Sophie, eating with her fingers and licking them clean without the slightest reserve or embarrassment. So, in the end, does Wendell Green, although he refuses to enter the circle of old stones. When Parkus tosses him a golden-brown grouse, however, Wendell catches it with remarkable adroitness and buries his face in the moist meat.
“You asked how many worlds,” Parkus begins. “The answer, in the High Speech, is da fan: worlds beyond telling.” With one of the blackened sticks he draws a figure eight on its side, which Jack recognizes as the Greek symbol for infinity.
“There is a Tower that binds them in place. Think of it as an axle upon which many wheels spin, if you like. And there is an entity that would bring this Tower down. Ram Abbalah.”
At these words, the flames of the fire seem to momentarily darken and turn red. Jack wishes he could believe that this is only a trick of his overstrained mind, but cannot. “The Crimson King,” he says.
“Yes. His physical being is pent in a cell at the top of the Tower, but he has another manifestation, every bit as real, and this lives in Can-tah Abbalah ?? the Court of the Crimson King.”
“Two places at once.” Given his journeying between the world of America and the world of the Territories, Jack has little trouble swallowing this concept.
“If he ?? or it ?? destroys the Tower, won’t that defeat his purpose? Won’t he destroy his physical being in the process?”
“Just the opposite: he’ll set it free to wander what will then be chaos . . . din-tah . . . the furnace. Some parts of Mid-World have fallen into that furnace already.”
“How much of this do I actually need to know?” Jack asks. He is aware that time is fleeting by on his side of the wall, as well.
“Hard telling what you need to know and what you don’t,” Parkus says. “If I leave out the wrong piece of information, maybe all the stars go dark. Not just here, but in a thousand thousand universes. That’s the pure hell of it. Listen, Jack ?? the King has been trying to destroy the Tower and set himself free for time out of mind. Forever, mayhap. It’s slow work, because the Tower is bound in place by crisscrossing force beams that act on it like guy wires. The Beams have held for millennia, and would hold for millennia to come, but in the last two hundred years ?? that’s speaking of time as you count it, Jack; to you, Sophie, it would be Full-Earth almost five hundred times over ?? “
“So long,” she says. It’s almost a sigh. “So very long.”
“In the great sweep of things, it’s as short as the gleam of a single match in a dark room. But while good things usually take a long time to develop, evil has a way of popping up full-blown and ready-made, like Jack out of his box. Ka is a friend to evil as well as to good. It embraces both. And, speaking of Jack . . .” Parkus turns to him. “You’ve heard of the Iron Age and the Bronze Age, of course?”
“On the upper levels of the Tower, there are those who call the last two hundred or so years in your world the Age of Poisoned Thought. That means ?? “
“You don’t have to explain it to me,” Jack says. “I knew Morgan Sloat, remember? I knew what he planned for Sophie’s world.” Yes, indeed. The basic plan had been to turn one of the universe’s sweetest honeycombs into first a vacation spot for the rich, then a source of unskilled labor, and finally a waste pit, probably radioactive. If that wasn’t an example of poisoned thought, Jack doesn’t know what is.
Parkus says, “Rational beings have always harbored telepaths among their number; that’s true in all the worlds. But they’re ordinarily rare creatures. Prodigies, you might say. But since the Age of Poisoned Thought came on your world, Jack ?? infested it like a demon ?? such beings have become much more common. Not as common as slow mutants in the Blasted Lands, but common, yes.”
“You speak of mind readers,” Sophie says, as if wanting to be sure.
“Yes,” Parkus agrees, “but not just mind readers. Precognates. Teleports ?? world jumpers like old Travelin’ Jack here, in other words ?? and telekinetics. Mind readers are the most common, telekinetics the rarest . . . and the most valuable.”
“To him, you mean,” Jack says. “To the Crimson King.”
“Yes. Over the last two hundred years or so, the abbalah has spent a good part of his time gathering a crew of telepathic slaves. Most of them come from Earth and the Territories. All of the telekinetics come from Earth. This collection of slaves ?? this gulag ?? is his crowning achievement. We call them Breakers. They . . .” He trails off, thinking. Then: “Do you know how a galley travels?”
Sophie nods, but Jack at first has no idea what Parkus is talking about. He has a brief, lunatic vision of a fully equipped kitchen traveling down Route 66.
“Many oarsmen,” Sophie says, then makes a rowing motion that throws her breasts into charming relief.
Parkus is nodding. “Usually slaves chained together. They ?? “
From outside the circle, Wendell suddenly sticks his own oar in. “Spart. Cus.” He pauses, frowning, then tries it again. “Spart-a-cus.”
“What’s he on about?” Parkus asks, frowning. “Any idea, Jack?”
“A movie called Spartacus,” Jack says, “and you’re wrong as usual, Wendell. I believe you’re thinking about Ben-Hur.”
Looking sulky, Wendell holds out his greasy hands. “More. Meat.”
Parkus pulls the last grouse from its sizzling stick and tosses it between two of the stones, where Wendell sits with his pallid, greasy face peering from between his knees. “Fresh prey for the news hawk,” he says. “Now do us a favor and shut up.”
“Or. What.” The old defiant gleam is rising in Wendell’s eyes.
Parkus draws his shooting iron partway from its holster. The grip, made of sandalwood, is worn, but the barrel gleams murder-bright. He has to say no more; holding his second bird in one hand, Wendell Green hitches up his robe and hies himself back over the rise. Jack is extremely relieved to see him go. Spartacus indeed, he thinks, and snorts.
“So the Crimson King wants to use these Breakers to destroy the Beams,” Jack says. “That’s it, isn’t it? That’s his plan.”
“You speak as though of the future,” Parkus says mildly. “This is happening now, Jack. Only look at your own world if you want to see the ongoing disintegration. Of the six Beams, only one still holds true. Two others still generate some holding power. The other three are dead. One of these went out thousands of years ago, in the ordinary course of things. The others . . . killed by the Breakers. All in two centuries or less.”
“Christ,” Jack says. He is beginning to understand how Speedy could call the Fisherman small-fry.
“The job of protecting the Tower and the Beams has always belonged to the ancient war guild of Gilead, called gunslingers in this world and many others. They also generated a powerful psychic force, Jack, one fully capable of countering the Crimson King’s Breakers, but ?? “
“The gunslingers are all gone save for one,” Sophie says, looking at the big pistol on Parkus’s hip. And, with timid hope: “Unless you really are one, too, Parkus.”
“Not I, darling,” he says, “but there’s more than one.”
“I thought Roland was the last. So the stories say.”
“He has made at least three others,” Parkus tells her. “I’ve no idea how that can be possible, but I believe it to be true. If Roland were still alone, the Breakers would have toppled the Tower long since. But with the force of these others added to his ?? “
“I have no clue what you’re talking about,” Jack says. “I did, sort of, but you lost me about two turns back.”
“There’s no need for you to understand it all in order to do your job,” Parkus says.
“Thank God for that.”
“As for what you do need to understand, leave galleys and oarsmen and think in terms of the Western movies your mother used to make. To begin with, imagine a fort in the desert.”
“This Dark Tower you keep talking about. That’s the fort.”
“Yes. And surrounding the fort, instead of wild Indians ?? “
“The Breakers. Led by Big Chief Abbalah.”
Sophie murmurs: “The King is in his Tower, eating bread and honey. The Breakers in the basement, making all the money.”
Jack feels a light but singularly unpleasant chill shake up his spine: he thinks of rat paws scuttering over broken glass. “What? Why do you say that?”
Sophie looks at him, flushes, shakes her head, looks down. “It’s what she says, sometimes. Judy. It’s how I hear her, sometimes.”
Parkus seizes one of the charred greensticks and draws in the rocky dust beside the figure-eight shape. “Fort here. Marauding Indians here, led by their merciless, evil ?? and most likely insane ?? chief. But over here ?? ” Off to the left, he draws a harsh arrow in the dirt. It points at the rudimentary shapes indicating the fort and the besieging Indians. “What always arrives at the last moment in all the best Lily Cavanaugh Westerns?”
“The cavalry,” Jack says. “That’s us, I suppose.”
“No,” Parkus says. His tone is patient, but Jack suspects it is costing him a great effort to maintain that tone. “The cavalry is Roland of Gilead and his new gunslingers. Or so those of us who want the Tower to stand ?? or to fall in its own time ?? dare hope. The Crimson King hopes to hold Roland back, and to finish the job of destroying the Tower while he and his band are still at a distance. That means gathering all the Breakers he can, especially the telekinetics.”
“Is Tyler Marshall ?? “
“Stop interrupting. This is difficult enough without that.”
“You used to be a hell of a lot cheerier, Speedy,” Jack says reproachfully. For a moment he thinks his old friend is going to give him another tongue-lashing ?? or perhaps even lose his temper completely and turn him into a frog ?? but Parkus relaxes a little, and utters a laugh.
Sophie looks up, relieved, and gives Jack’s hand a squeeze.
“Oh, well, maybe you’re right to yank on my cord a little,” Parkus says. “Gettin’ all wound up won’t help anything, will it?” He touches the big iron on his hip. “I wouldn’t be surprised if wearin’ this thing has given me a few delusions of grandeur.”
“It’s a step or two up from amusement-park janitor,” Jack allows.
“In both the Bible ?? your world, Jack ?? and the Book of Good Farming ?? yours, Sophie dear ?? there’s a scripture that goes something like ?®For in my kingdom there are many mansions.’ Well, in the Court of the Crimson King there are many monsters.”
Jack hears a short, hard laugh bolt out of his mouth. His old friend has made a typically tasteless policeman’s joke, it seems.
“They are the King’s courtiers . . . his knights-errant. They have all sorts of tasks, I imagine, but in these last years their chief job has been to find talented Breakers. The more talented the Breaker, the greater the reward.”
“They’re headhunters,” Jack murmurs, and doesn’t realize the resonance of the term until it’s out of his mouth. He has used it in the business sense, but of course there is another, more literal meaning. Headhunters are cannibals.
“Yes,” Parkus agrees. “And they have mortal subcontractors, who work for . . . one doesn’t like to say for the joy of it, but what else could we call it?”
Jack has a nightmarish vision then: a cartoon Albert Fish standing on a New York sidewalk with a sign reading WILL WORK FOR FOOD. He tightens his arm around Sophie. Her blue eyes turn to him, and he looks into them gladly. They soothe him.
“How many Breakers did Albert Fish send his pal Mr. Monday?” Jack wants to know. “Two? Four? A dozen? And do they die off, at least, so the abbalah has to replace them?”
“They don’t,” Parkus replies gravely. “They are kept in a place ?? a basement, yes, or a cavern ?? where there is essentially no time.”
“And it doesn’t matter. Albert Fish is long gone. Mr. Monday is now Mr. Munshun. The deal Mr. Munshun has with your killer is a simple one: this Burnside can kill and eat all the children he wants, as long as they are untalented children. If he should find any who are talented ?? any Breakers ?? they are to be turned over to Mr. Munshun at once.”
“Who will take them to the abbalah,” Sophie murmurs.
“That’s right,” Parkus says.
Jack feels that he’s back on relatively solid ground, and is extremely glad to be there. “Since Tyler hasn’t been killed, he must be talented.”
” ?®Talented’ is hardly the word. Tyler Marshall is, potentially, one of the two most powerful Breakers in all the history of all the worlds. If I can briefly return to the analogy of the fort surrounded by Indians, then we could say that the Breakers are like fire arrows shot over the walls . . . a new kind of warfare. But Tyler Marshall is no simple fire arrow. He’s more like a guided missile.
“Or a nuclear weapon.”
Sophie says, “I don’t know what that is.”
“You don’t want to,” Jack replies. “Believe me.”
He looks down at the scribble of drawings in the dirt. Is he surprised that Tyler should be so powerful? No, not really. Not after experiencing the aura of strength surrounding the boy’s mother. Not after meeting Judy’s Twinner, whose plain dress and manner can’t conceal a character that strikes him as almost regal. She’s beautiful, but he senses that beauty is one of the least important things about her.
“Jack?” Parkus asks him. “You all right?” There’s no time to be anythin’ else, his tone suggests.
“Give me a minute,” Jack says.
“We don’t have much t ?? “
“That has been made perfectly clear to me,” Jack says, biting off the words, and he feels Sophie shift in surprise at his tone of voice. “Now give me a minute. Let me do my job.”
From beneath a ruffle of green feathers, one of the parrot’s heads mutters: “God loves the poor laborer.” The other replies: “Is that why he made so fucking many of them?”
“All right, Jack,” Parkus says, and cocks his head up at the sky.
Okay, what have we got here? Jack thinks. We’ve got a valuable little boy, and the Fisherman knows he’s valuable. But this Mr. Munshun doesn’t have him yet, or Speedy wouldn’t be here. Deduction?
Sophie, looking at him anxiously. Parkus, still looking up into the blameless blue sky above this borderland between the Territories ?? what Judy Marshall calls Faraway ?? and the Whatever Comes Next. Jack’s mind is ticking faster now, picking up speed like an express train leaving the station. He is aware that the black man with the bald head is watching the sky for a certain malevolent crow. He is aware that the fair-skinned woman beside him is looking at him with the sort of fascination that could become love, given world enough and time. Mostly, though, he’s lost in his own thoughts. They are the thoughts of a coppiceman.
Now Bierstone’s Burnside, and he’s old. Old and not doing so well in the cognition department these days. I think maybe he’s gotten caught between what he wants, which is to keep Tyler for himself, and what he’s promised this Munshun guy. Somewhere there’s a fuddled, creaky, dangerous mind trying to make itself up. If he decides to kill Tyler and stick him in the stewpot like the witch in “Hansel and Gretel,” that’s bad for Judy and Fred. Not to mention Tyler, who may already have seen things that would drive a Marine combat vet insane. If the Fisherman turns the boy over to Mr. Munshun, it’s bad for everyone in creation. No wonder Speedy said time was blowing in our teeth.
“You knew this was coming, didn’t you?” he says. “Both of you. You must have. Because Judy knew. She’s been weird for months, long before the murders started.”
Parkus shifts and looks away, uncomfortable. “I knew something was coming, yes ?? there have been great disruptions on this side ?? but I was on other business. And Sophie can’t cross. She came here with the flying men and will go back the same way when our palaver’s done.”
Jack turns to her. “You are who my mother once was. I’m sure of it.” He supposes he isn’t being entirely clear about this, but he can’t help it; his mind is trying to go in too many directions at once. “You’re Laura DeLoessian’s successor. The Queen of this world.”
Now Sophie is the one who looks uncomfortable. “I was nobody in the great scheme of things, really I wasn’t, and that was the way I liked it. What I did mostly was write letters of commendation and thank people for coming to see me . . . only in my official capacity, I always said ?®us.’ I enjoyed walking, and sketching flowers, and cataloging them. I enjoyed hunting. Then, due to bad luck, bad times, and bad behavior, I found myself the last of the royal line. Queen of this world, as you say. Married once, to a good and simple man, but my Fred Marshall died and left me alone. Sophie the Barren.”
“Don’t,” Jack says. He is surprised at how deeply it hurts him to hear her refer to herself in this bitter, joking way.
“Were you not single-natured, Jack, your Twinner would be my cousin.”
She turns her slim fingers so that now she is gripping him instead of the other way around. When she speaks again, her voice is low and passionate. “Put all the great matters aside. All I know is that Tyler Marshall is Judy’s child, that I love her, that I’d not see her hurt for all the worlds that are. He’s the closest thing to a child of my own that I’ll ever have. These things I know, and one other: that you’re the only one who can save him.”
“Why?” He has sensed this, of course ?? why else in God’s name is he here? ?? but that doesn’t lessen his bewilderment. “Why me?”
“Because you touched the Talisman. And although some of its power has left you over the years, much still remains.”
Jack thinks of the lilies Speedy left for him in Dale’s bathroom. How the smell lingered on his hands even after he had given the bouquet itself to Tansy. And he remembers how the Talisman looked in the murmuring darkness of the Queen’s Pavilion, rising brightly, changing everything before it finally vanished.
He thinks: It’s still changing everything.
“Parkus.” Is it the first time he’s called the other man ?? the other coppiceman ?? by that name? He doesn’t know for sure, but he thinks it may be.
“What’s left of the Talisman ?? is it enough? Enough for me to take on this Crimson King?”
Parkus looks shocked in spite of himself. “Never in your life, Jack. Never in any life. The abbalah would blow you out like a candle. But it may be enough for you to take on Mr. Munshun ?? to go into the furnace-lands and bring Tyler out.”
“There are machines,” Sophie says. She looks caught in some dark and unhappy dream. “Red machines and black machines, all lost in smoke. There are great belts and children without number upon them. They trudge and trudge, turning the belts that turn the machines. Down in the foxholes. Down in the ratholes where the sun never shines. Down in the great caverns where the furnace-lands lie.”
Jack is shaken to the bottom of his mind and spirit. He finds himself thinking of Dickens ?? not Bleak House but Oliver Twist. And, of course he thinks of his conversation with Transy Freneau. At least Irma’s not there, he thinks. Not in the furnace-lands, not she. She got dead, and a mean old man ate her leg. Tyler, though . . . Tyler . . .
“They trudge until their feet bleed,” he mutters. “And the way there . . . ?”
“I think you know it,” Parkus says. “When you find Black House, you’ll find your way to the furnace-lands . . . the machines . . . Mr. Munshun . . . and Tyler.”
“The boy is alive. You’re sure of that.”
“Yes.” Parkus and Sophie speak together.
“And where is Burnside now? That information might speed things up a bit.”
“I don’t know,” Parkus says.
“Christ, if you know who he was ?? “
“That was the fingerprints,” Parkus says. “The fingerprints on the telephone. Your first real idea about the case. The Wisconsin State Police got the Bierstone name back from the FBI’s VICAP database. You have the Burnside name. That should be enough.”
Wisconsin State Police, FBI, VICAP, database: these terms come out in good old American English, and in this place they sound unpleasant and foreign to Jack’s ear.
“How do you know all that?”
“I have my sources in your world; I keep my ear to the ground. As you know from personal experience. And surely you’re cop enough to do the rest on your own.”
“Judy thinks you have a friend who can help,” Sophie says unexpectedly.
“Dale? Dale Gilbertson?” Jack finds this a little hard to believe, but he supposes Dale may have uncovered something.
“I don’t know the name. Judy thinks he’s like many here in Faraway. A man who sees much because he sees nothing.”
Not Dale, after all. It’s Henry she’s talking about.
Parkus rises to his feet. The heads of the parrot come up, revealing four bright eyes. Sacred and Profane flutters up to his shoulder and settles there. “I think our palaver is done,” Parkus says. “It must be done. Are you ready to go back, my friend?”
“Yes. And I suppose I better take Green, little as I want to. I don’t think he’d last long here.”
“As you say.”
Jack and Sophie, still holding hands, are halfway up the rise when Jack realizes Parkus is still standing in the speaking circle with his parrot on his shoulder. “Aren’t you coming?”
Parkus shakes his head. “We go different ways now, Jack. I may see you again.”
If I survive, Jack thinks. If any of us survive.
“Meantime, go your course. And be true.”
Sophie drops another deep curtsey. “Sai.”
Parkus nods to her and gives Jack Sawyer a little salute. Jack turns and leads Sophie back to the ruined hospital tent, wondering if he will ever see Speedy Parker again.
Wendell Green ?? ace reporter, fearless investigator, explicator of good and evil to the great unwashed ?? sits in his former place, holding the crumpled foolscap in one hand and the batteries in the other. He has resumed muttering, and barely looks up when Sophie and Jack approach.
“You’ll do your best, won’t you?” Sophie asks. “For her.”
“And for you,” Jack says. “Listen to me, now. If this were to end with all of us still standing . . . and if I were to come back here . . .” He finds he can say no more. He’s appalled at his temerity. This is a queen, after all. A queen. And he’s . . . what? Trying to ask her for a date?
“Perhaps,” she says, looking at him with her steady blue eyes. “Perhaps.”
“Is it a perhaps you want?” he asks softly.
He bends and brushes his lips over hers. It’s brief, barely a kiss at all. It is also the best kiss of his life.
“I feel like fainting,” she tells him when he straightens up again.
“Don’t joke with me, Sophie.”
She takes his hand and presses it against the underswell of her left breast. He can feel her heart pounding. “Is this a joke? If she were to run faster, she’d catch her feet and fall.” She lets him go, but he holds his hand where it is a moment longer, palm curved against that springing warmth.
“I’d come with you if I could,” she says.
“I know that.”
He looks at her, knowing if he doesn’t get moving now, right away, he never will. It’s wanting not to leave her, but that’s not all. The truth is that he’s never been more frightened in his life. He searches for something mundane to bring him back to earth ?? to slow the pounding of his own heart ?? and finds the perfect object in the muttering creature that is Wendell Green. He drops to one knee. “Are you ready, big boy? Want to take a trip on the mighty Mississip’?”
“Don’t. Touch. Me.” And then, in a nearly poetic rush: “Fucking Hollywood asshole!”
“Believe me, if I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t. And I plan to wash my hands just as soon as I get the chance.”
He looks up at Sophie and sees all the Judy in her. All the beauty in her. “I love you,” he says.
Before she can reply, he seizes Wendell’s hand, closes his eyes, and flips.