Raymond Mantle took a flyer to Naples, the fallen city. It looked as grim as he felt. Nemesius, one of Mantle’s many sources, said that a woman fitting Josiane’s description had been located here. He couldn’t be sure, of course, because his informatore had mysteriously disappeared. After all, Naples had become a dangerous place since it had fallen to the Screamers.
But Mantle had to find his wife, Josiane. Nothing else was important.
He had lost her during the Great Scream, when the screaming mobs tore New York City apart, leaving thousands dead and countless others roving about like the mind-deadened victims of a concentration camp. With the exception of a few childhood memories, he couldn’t remember her after the Great Scream. It was as if she had been ripped from his memory. Mantle’s amnesia was not total; he could summon up certain incidents and remember every detail and everyone involved except Josiane. She inhabited his memory like a shadow, an emptiness, and he was obsessed with finding her, with remembering. She held the key to his past. She was the element that had burned out, plunging his past into darkness.
Nemesius’ man, Melzi, met Mantle in the crowded Piazza Trento e Trieste, and they walked north on the Via Roma, past a gang of sciuscias—half-naked street arabs with implanted male and female genitalia on their arms and chests. It was not yet dark, but the huge kliegs were on, illuminating the alleyways in harsh whites and yellows—as if bright light could prevent a Screamer attack. Police vans passed back and forth through the noisy crowds of elemosina, those on the dole. They lived in the streets and on the beltways, in gangs and clans and families. During the rush hours, this street would look like a battle zone. But even here, even now, old, familiar scenes caught Mantle’s eyes: the shoeblacks and hurdy-gurdies and glowworms; the refreshment kiosks where a narcodrine could be sniffed for a few lire; the holographically projected faces of the holy saints which hung in the damp air like paper masks; and the ever-present venditores who sold talking Bibles and varied selections of religious memorabilia blessed by the Pope and sanctioned by the Vatican Collective which ruled the country. There were still strings of lemons hanging in shop windows; and lemon ices were being sold, as were jettatura charms, the coral horns and little bones everyone used to wear to ward off the evil eye. Now they were worn as protections from Screamers.
Here beat the heart of Naples, along the narrow, broken streets and crowded piazzas. Not far from here, though, small bands of Screamers still roamed, the last remnants of the mobs that had almost destroyed the city.
“We’re going into the Old Spacca Quarter,” Melzi said. He was a small man with thinning gray hair and a very clean-shaven face; he looked more like a clerk than a bodyguard. Most of the other men and women Mantle had to contact in the past were more obviously sleazy; they had the psychic smell of the streets all over them. “The woman who may be your wife is near Gesu Nuovo, off the Via Capitelli. Not a safe neighborhood. But we should not have any trouble finding the building. It is the only one that is not burned on the outside.”
“Another one of Nemesius’ whorehouses?” Mantle asked.
“We might as well walk,” Melzi said, ignoring Mantle’s sarcasm. “The beltways are not in good condition hereabouts, and we won’t find a cab that will take us into Spacca.”
Although they were still in a relatively safe area, Mantle was nervous. His whole being was focused on the remote possibility of finding Josiane; everything else was white noise. He was as haunted as the street arabs around him.
“You can still turn around and go home,” Melzi said. “If the woman is a phony, I will know it.” Mantle did not respond, and Melzi shrugged.
After they had worked their way through the crowds for several more blocks, Mantle asked, “How much farther?”
“You’ll see, we are almost there,” Melzi said. He carried his heat weapon openly now. Mantle kept his hands in his pockets; he always carried a pistol when he had to be on the streets.
The Via Roma, along which they were still walking, became less crowded. When they crossed over into Spacca, they found the alleyways and narrow buildings almost empty. Everything was dirty; ahead were the burned buildings scourged by Screamers.
A small, dangerous-looking crowd gathered behind Mantle and Melzi. Mantle took his pistol out of his pocket.
“Not to worry yet,” Melzi said. “They’re not Screamers. As long as they are behind us, we are relatively safe. They’re nothing but avvoltoio.” He spat the word.
“Stinking birds. Scavengers.”
“Vultures,” Mantle said.
“Yes, that’s it,” Melzi said. “Now, if we engage a crowd up ahead, then we might be in trouble. But we are armed, and I would burn the lot of them. It would not be worth it for them to attack us. Some of them know me; they would not get anything of worth. You see”—Melzi extended his free arm and fluttered his fingers—“not even a ring. I have beautiful rings, that is my weakness. Especially diamonds, which are my birthstone. I wear one upon every finger, even the thumb.” He made a vulgar gesture. “I might feel naked, but I’m not worried yet. Would you like to see them? My rings?”
“Yes, perhaps,” Mantle said, annoyed. The crowd following Mantle and Melzi was unnaturally quiet; it unnerved Mantle.
“Maybe later,” Melzi said. “If we do not have the luck to find your little bird.”
Mantle fantasized smashing the little man’s face. God, how he hated them all. All the filth from the streets. But if he could find Josiane tonight, it would be worth all the Melzis in the world.
“If the trash behind us were Screamers, then I would be worried,” Melzi said. “You never know with them. They walk about in their little groups, looking just like the filth behind us. Then all of a sudden they decide to scour the street and you’re dead. They’re like junkies; you can burn them, fill them up with bullets, but nothing seems to stop them. And you can’t even find them again, they just disappear. They’re like centipedes, all those legs and one head.” Melzi laughed at that, as if it were an original thought. Again he laughed, almost a titter. “I can smell them, you know. They smell different from elemosina or avvoltoio. Not like trash, just sick. You smell all right, of course. But there’s a whiff, I don’t know—”
“Shut up,” Mantle snapped.
“Oh, I am sorry if I have hurt your feelings. Certainly, I did not mean any disrespect. Will you forgive me?”
They turned onto the Via Croce. A group of prostitutes, all hideously fat, sat on the steps of a palazzo and shouted, “Succhio, succhio,” as Mantle and Melzi passed. Melzi shouted obscenities back; he was more animated, nervous. There was much slave-marketeering hereabouts. Whores and old people, and especially children, were kidnapped and sold to those who would pay to hook-into their brains and taste their experiences, their lives. The black market catered to the rich. The dole was virtually nonexistent here; survival was the business of the day. Police and the other arms of government would not be found in these parts. This was free country.
“Now we must be a little careful, because this neighborhood is not so good,” Melzi said. He made the gesture of being shackled by crossing his wrists. “Many slavers hereabouts; they look just like anybody. We would fetch a good price,” he said preening himself. “I can imagine that you would be delicious to hook-into.”
Someone shouted; there was another scream. There was a fight ahead in the square of Gesu Nuovo. Men and women and children were brawling, it seemed, over small metal canisters of some sort—perhaps food or drugs. Mantle glanced behind him; only a few avvoltoio were following, but still they made him nervous.
“We have a stroke of luck,” Melzi said. “The fight will draw the avvoltoio and we can attend to our business.”
“How close are we?” Mantle asked, excited.
“We are there, you see, that’s it.” He pointed to a palazzo which actually looked whitewashed, a miracle in these parts.
“It is quite famous,” Melzi said. “Like the Crazy Horse near where you live.”
“I don’t think you can compare—”
“What’s the difference, except for the neighborhood? This palazzo is an attraction because of the neighborhood. Here you can find interesting pleasures; polizia do not make problems here.” Melzi looked at the women fighting in the square and made a clucking noise of disapproval as he watched a young woman being disemboweled in the quaint broken fountain. Mantle hesitated, but Melzi took him by the arm; the little man was deceptively strong. “We are here to find your little bird, that’s all.”
As they neared the palazzo, the streets became crowded once again. It was like stepping into another, albeit dangerous, country, into an international oasis amid the lowlife of the street. Mantle could see well-dressed, and well-guarded, men and women stepping quickly among the street arabs, hawkers, pimps, and other assorted street people. One dignitary was actually enclosed in a glassite litter that was shouldered by four uniformed men.
A woman approached Melzi, and he burned a hole in her throat. Mantle lunged for Melzi’s weapon, but Melzi deftly pulled it out of reach and continued to walk. Elemosina stepped over the dying woman as if she were a rock in the road.
“Scum,” Mantle said, drawing away from Melzi. His flesh was crawling. “Murderer!”
“Now calm yourself,” Melzi said, as if he were a bank clerk explaining why he couldn’t accept a customer’s credit. “That was just a precaution. She had evil thoughts in mind.”
“Could you smell those, too?”
“You are not in Cannes, Signore,” Melzi said. “And do not think you are safe here or now. Without me, it is doubtful whether you would ever get out of here alive, much less find your wife. Now do you forgive me? When last I asked, you ignored me.” Melzi was playing him, and Mantle knew it. But he was so close. All that really mattered was Josiane. “Well . . . ?” Melzi asked.
“I forgive you,” Mantle said, as if he were spitting up raw meat. Nemesius will pay for this, he thought.
“Thank you,” Melzi said, not pressing it further.
Mantle followed Melzi, who walked past the white palazzo. The building was high and imposing; it was formed in the style of a Florentine palace, complete with rich embossing, curved frontons, projecting cornices, and ringed columns, most of which were broken or cracked.
“Where are you going?” Mantle asked, noticing that it was growing dark. They walked along a cobblestone close, which Mantle was afraid might also be a dead end. Could Melzi and Nemesius have set him up? Mantle felt a touch of panic. No, he told himself. He had dealt with Nemesius for too long.
“This is the best way to get in,” Melzi said, “although I must admit, this alleyway does look dangerous.” He pounded on a heavy, inlaid door. The door opened, but not before Mantle glimpsed that the shadows under the broken klieg at the end of the alley were moving.
“Meet Vittorio,” Melzi said to Mantle as they entered a large pantry filled with canisters of foodstuffs and, from the look of it, rats. Vittorio was swarthy and as short as Melzi. He had almost transparent green eyes; waxed, curly hair; a kinky, short-cropped beard; and he wore a stained serge suit. He was missing a front tooth. Yet he bore himself as if he were presiding over a parliament of rich and respected nubiluomo.
“Buona sera.” Then Melzi slipped him a package and Vittorio nodded to Mantle, mumbled, “Mi scusi,” and walked off, presumably to hold court with the rats and kitchen cats.
“Well, come on,” Melzi said. “He’s going ahead to prepare her.”
“Who is he?” Mantle asked.
“He’s the proprietor, a very famous man. Don’t be fooled by his teeth, he has many affectations. He owns this place and many more. And as you can see, he watches over his interests. That’s the secret of success, is it not?”
Mantle followed Melzi out of the room and into a long, well-lit corridor. There was almost a hospital smell hereabouts, and Mantle shuddered, thinking of what might be going on behind closed doors. Josiane must be here, he told himself. He had to find her this time.
“We’re taking a shortcut,” Melzi said. “We’re safer here than in the main rooms, which are, of course, much more interesting. But then that’s the allure of a place such as this, is it not? I’m willing to bet you’d run into a pal in one of those rooms. You’d be surprised who risks the streets for a night at Vittorio’s.”
They took an elevator to the top story. Mantle was afraid of elevators; they symbolized his life, which he could not control. They were driven, it seemed, by unseen forces. Once inside the box, you had to trust the machine. And the machine didn’t care if it worked or not.
“You make it very hard for Nemesius, you know,” Melzi said. “He has nothing but a few hollies of your little bird.”
“The records were burned.”
“Yes, how lucky for you Americans. Most of you got a second chance. Wiped the slates clean, so to speak. What I wouldn’t give for such an accident.”
“Come on, Melzi.”
“One last thing, Signore,” Melzi said. “You must remember that Vittorio is just a middleman, just like Nemesius. Just like me. It seems we’ve all become middlemen in these times.” Melzi smiled at that, obviously satisfied with his philosophizing. “And you must also remember that there are no guarantees.”
“I’ll know if it’s her,” Mantle said.
They stopped at the end of the hallway and Melzi rapped twice on a metal door, which Vittorio opened. “She’s right in here.”
The room was a cell. It smelled of urine, contained an open toilet, a wall sink, a discolored bidet, a filthy mattress on the metal floor, a computer console and a psyconductor with its cowls and mesh of wires, and a wooden folding chair. On the pallet lay Josiane, or a woman who looked exactly like her. She was naked and perspiring heavily. Mantle almost cried, for her face and small breasts were black and blue. Her hair was blonde and curly, although it was matted with dirt and clotted blood. She looked up at him, her limpid eyes as blue as his own; but she was looking through him, through the walls and the world, and back into the dark places of her mind.
“Well,” Melzi said, sharing a glance with Vittorio, “that certainly looks like your little bird.”
“Here are her papers,” Vittorio said to Mantle in an American accent, which was the current fashion; and then he passed Mantle a large envelope. But Mantle just held it; he was lost. His memory was jarred, and he slipped back to the first time, in the old house in Cayuga, when there were still spruce and fir covering the mountain. But he didn’t care about trees then. He was fourteen and Josiane was eleven—but developed for her age—and she came into his room and they lay on the bed and talked and she jerked him off as she had done since she was eight or nine, and he rolled over on top of her, stared steadily into her face and entered her. Then stopped, as if tasting some kind of delicious, warm ice cream, and they just stared at each other, moving up and down, breath only slightly quickened. It was more a way of talking.
Another memory came back to him: the face of a young woman in a crowd. The same face as the woman on the mattress.
“Signore, come back to the world,” Vittorio said, and Melzi chuckled.
Mantle shook his head as if he had slipped from one world to another and mumbled, “Josiane.” Then he rushed to the psyconductor, grabbed two cowls from the top of the console, and lunged toward her, intent on hooking into her thoughts; but Melzi caught him and pulled him away. “Are you that determined to burn your brain?” Melzi asked. “At least let me look at her first.”
“We have many customers who wish to hook-into Screamers,” Vittorio said. “But they must pay first. It’s a policy of the house.”
Melzi squatted beside the woman and examined her with an instrument that projected a superimposed holographic image of Josiane over her face. After several minutes, he raised the magnification and disappeared the holographic image.
“Whoever did this work was a real artist,” Melzi said. “Her face corresponds exactly to the hollie. But you see, right there?” He indicated a dry area just below her earlobe. “You see, the pores are open everywhere else but in that tiny spot.” He raised the magnification several more powers. “There you can see the faint thread of a suture. A recent job. He should have been just a little more careful and covered that up.”
Mantle pushed Melzi out of the way and examined her himself. He felt anger and frustration burning through him, returning more violently than ever before. He began to shake. Once again he had tried to fool himself, this time with a burned-up Screamer, a grido, a crieuse—but she was not his wife!
“I don’t think you would wish to hook-into that woman,” Melzi said. “She is not—”
“But you must admit, Signore,” Vittorio said, “she looks exactly like the hollies with which we were provided.” Then Vittorio said to Melzi, “She was supposed to have been completely checked out by the man who brought her to me.”
Melzi only shrugged.
“My contact is a reputable man; he will be very unhappy—”
Then Mantle snapped completely—it was as if someone, or something, had suddenly taken him over. He punched Vittorio in the abdomen before Melzi could stop him. At once, the door to the hallway slammed open and one of Vittorio’s men entered. The man was big and had the dead look of the street about him. As Mantle turned, the man struck him hard in the chest and pushed him savagely against the wall. Mantle overcame his nausea and tried to free himself, but Vittorio’s man was too strong.
Melzi watched, his mouth pursed as if he were amused. “You must forgive my client,” he said to Vittorio. “He’s not right in the head. He—”
“Now he will buy the girl,” Vittorio said, still gasping for breath. He kept smoothing down his suit.
“Don’t even argue,” Melzi said to Mantle. Melzi nodded to Vittorio; and Vittorio, in his turn, told his man to release Mantle. Mantle made the credit transaction by applying his hand to the glass face of the computer console.
He had bought the woman.
“You realize that this is simply a transfer of funds from one account to another,” Vittorio said, having recovered himself. “It cannot possibly be traced.”
A matronly domestic entered the room with clothes for the woman and various messages for Vittorio.
“Get her dressed and let’s get out of here,” Mantle said impatiently.
“I named her Victoria. She’ll answer to that if she’ll answer at all,” Vittorio said. He nodded curtly to Melzi and left the room. His man followed.
Mantle felt his flesh crawl. He was sure that Vittorio had abused her. “Let’s get out of here. Now!”
“Let the girl finish dressing,” Melzi said. “I am in no rush to be on the streets. Just a few minutes ago you were going to hook-into her and now—”
“Now,” Mantle repeated. And he held out his hand to Victoria, who grinned at him, just as Josiane used to do.
* * *
The streets were empty—not a shadow moving, not a sound. It was dark, but the crooked, and usually deadly, intersecting streets were well lit, for anyone caught trying to break one of the kliegs would be torn limb from limb. The common folk had their own notions of law. However, enough lamps were broken to create a patchwork effect of white, black, and gray.
They were almost out of Spacca. Victoria seemed suddenly alert, her head cocked, as if listening to someone who was talking too low.
“I don’t like this,” Mantle said. His chest was aching, but he ignored it.
“It is very bad,” Melzi agreed. “It’s going to be a big one this time. I didn’t expect anything like this to happen again so soon. I didn’t think there were enough Screamers to do it. But you never know. All we can do is hurry. There’s nothing to stop us, at least.”
Mantle repressed an urge to slow down. He was curious, not really afraid. That, he knew, was dangerous. If Mantle was caught in a crowd of Screamers, he might not be able to resist becoming like them—very few could.
“The girl is slowing us down,” Melzi said, grasping her arm and dragging her forward. “We don’t have much time. The farther we are from Spacca, the safer.”
“I don’t see anything yet,” Mantle said.
“Jesù, can’t you feel it? Come on, hurry.”
Mantle took her other arm. “Don’t hurt her, Melzi,” Mantle said. “You’re hurting her, let go of her arm.”
“She may look like your wife, Signore, but she’s still a grido. She feels nothing. She’s not in this world. I can smell that.”
Victoria suddenly started dragging her feet. She shook her head back and forth, her eyes closed, face placid, as if listening to music.
“We can’t drag her like this,” Melzi said. “Come on, little bird, wake up.” He slapped her back and forth on the face.
“Leave her alone!” Mantle said, bracing her arms as she fell to her knees. Her head was cocked, and she began to smile.
“I’m leaving, and so are you,” Melzi said. “I contracted to bring you home, and so I shall.” He pointed his heat weapon at Mantle. “Please forgive me, Signore, but if you do not come along, I will have to kill her. The smell of grido is so strong all around us that I can hardly breathe. We’ve no time to waste. Now leave her be.”
Mantle felt something in the air, electricity, as if a powerful storm were about to break, only its potential energy seemed sentient. Suddenly Victoria began to scream. Long, cold streamers of sound. Melzi—who was sweating profusely and looking around in nervous, darting movements as if he were about to be attacked from every side—shot Victoria in the throat, just as he had shot the other woman. Mantle shouted, but it was too late. He was overcome with hatred and disgust and sorrow. For that instant, it was Josiane whom Melzi had shot.
In return, Mantle shot Melzi, twice in the chest and once in the groin. It was as if Mantle’s hand had a will of its own.
“But she will attract the others,” Melzi whispered, referring to the Screamers. He looked nothing but surprised for a second, and then collapsed.
Mantle heard a distant roaring like faraway breakers. For an instant he was a child again, listening to the ocean calling his name. Then he saw the first Screamers running toward him, heads thrown back as they howled at the heavens like wolves. Thousands of them crowded the streets and alleyways, turning Spacca into commotion. Melzi had been right. The mob would converge upon them. It was a many-headed beast screaming for blood and Mantle, as if in response to Victoria’s call.
Mantle had enough time to turn and run, but when he tried, Victoria rose before him like a ghost. She called to him, promised that she was Josiane. Her skin was translucent, her rags diaphanous, and her voice was that of the Screamers.
He heard Josiane’s voice calling him, then a thousand voices, all Josiane’s. . . .
The Screamers were all around him, pushing him, pressing against him, tempting him, a thousand sirens promising darkness and cold love. Mantle looked around, shaking his head in one direction, then another; and saw that everyone looked like Josiane. Then everyone turned into Mantle’s dead mother, and an instant later, the features of every Screamer’s face melted like hot wax. The mob took on the angry face of Mantle’s dead father, then his dead brother. Every Screamer was changing, melting into someone Mantle had known or loved or hated.
“Stop it!” Mantle screamed as everyone turned into Carl Pfeiffer, an old friend and enemy. But Mantle was caught, another Screamer. He was running with them—south, past the Via Diaz, through the ruins of burned-out buildings and garbage-strewn streets, over the seamless macadam that covered the cobblestone roads once used by Romans. He screamed, lost in the mob. He could hear the thoughts of every other Screamer. Their cries and screams were the rhythms of fire and transcendence and death. He felt silvery music as the dark voices rustled his childhood memories like wheat in a field. He felt transformed, transported into the hot eye of a hurricane.
But a part of Mantle’s mind resisted the dark, telepathic nets of the screaming mob, even now. Like a man pulling himself out of deepest sleep, he wrenched himself away. But he was only swallowed again, submerged in the undertow of minds.
Suddenly, he felt a blunt pain in his arm and shoulder—a Screamer running beside Mantle tripped and pushed him against the ragged stone side of the building. Although he couldn’t stop himself from running or screaming with the others, he concentrated on the pain. He used it to close himself from the Circaen voices long enough to slow his gait until the mob was ahead of him. Then he fell to the macadam, exhausted and dazed.
Later, he would remember everything but the Screamer attack.
The boardwalk creaked as Mantle walked, and the strong noontime sunlight turned the bistros, boardwalk feelies, and open-air restaurants white as bones in a desert. Once again he tried to remember what had happened to him last week in Naples, but his mind’s eye was closed. Memory was lost in darkness.
He shivered as if he had remembered something painful, which quickly slipped away from him. He knew that he had been attacked by Screamers in Naples; he just couldn’t remember. He remembered finding Victoria and shooting Melzi—he winced, just thinking about that—and then waking up in a hospital hallway that was lined with cots. He had suffered a mild concussion, and his arms and chest were black and blue. He had left the hospital as soon as he could to recuperate in the privacy of his hotel room.
Now that he was back in Cannes, he felt like himself again. Whatever had happened in Naples was like a dream. But he walked quickly, impatiently, as if he could walk his way through his amnesia: he was expecting an important phone call from Francois Pretre, a minister of the Church of the Christian Criers.
To his right was the ancient Boulevard de la Croisette, elegant but deteriorated, its rare gardens untended and its cement promenade cracked and broken. But still, it was the meeting place of the gentry, especially in the winter when expatriates, spies, political exiles, and reporters from all over Europe and the Americas would gather. Since Naples had first fallen to the Screamer mobs, the Boulevard de la Croisette had become what the Via Roma had once been: an informal center for intrigue and exchange of information.
The boardwalk ended, and Mantle crossed over to the boulevard. The computer plug whispered it was time for his pill. He felt a surge of anger and took the plug from his ear. He didn’t need drugs to calm himself. He counted trees and inhaled the salty, decaying odors of the Mediterranean. Torn pieces of newsfax capered toward him in the wind like pigeons chasing bread. He passed an old woman cleaning the street in front of a dingy bistro called “Club California.” She gave him a nasty look and stirred dust devils into the air.
He nodded to her and walked toward the old La Castre Museum. He would be home soon. The sea was behind him; the streets noisy with vendors and children and congregating neighbors. He passed his friend Joan’s apartment and felt the old pangs of guilt. But he didn’t stop. He would make amends later. She would understand. She always had.
He could feel a sort of electricity around him, as if a storm were brewing. Yet, there was not a cloud in the sky. But today would be a good day. It would bring him closer to Josiane. Perhaps Pretre would finally call to grant him permission to hook-into a dead Screamer.
Perhaps Mantle could find Josiane inside a dead man’s mind.
Carl Pfeiffer stood outside Mantle’s house in Old Town.
Mantle lived in a faded, dirty-looking yellow house with common walls and noisy neighbors—just under the clock tower, the grand machine that ruled ancient Cannes. Before the close-packed, tile-roofed, chimneyed houses were the square and the Church of Good Hope; then more houses and shops, less deteriorated and with a better view of the harbor and the misted island of Ste-Marguerite.
Before Mantle could change direction, Pfeiffer saw him and was shouting and waving his hands.
What the hell is he doing here? Mantle asked himself, already feeling trapped. Too late now to turn back on the Rue Perrissol, to try to find Joan and kill time until Pfeffer grew tired and left. He wouldn’t even have to miss Pretre; Mantle would have an excuse to call him.
“I’ve been waiting here for an hour,” Pfeiffer said, taking a backward step as if Mantle had given him a push. Indeed, the thought had crossed his mind. “I left a message on your telie yesterday,” Pfeiffer continued. “Haven’t you been home? Don’t you check the Net for messages?” He gave Mantle a condescending look.
The Reverend Pretre refused to leave any messages on the Net, so Mantle had not bothered to check it.
“You could at least pretend to be happy to see me,” Pfeiffer said. “It’s been a long time.”
“This is a surprise, Carl,” Mantle said, worrying his keys out of his pocket. His voice was still hoarse. “Yes, it has been a long time.”
“You’re still angry about the past, aren’t you?” Pfeiffer asked—more a statement than a question. “After all these years, let things die.”
“I can’t remember the past, remember?” But Pfeiffer could, and Mantle hated him for that.
“Whatever you may think, I was always your friend.”
“Let’s not go into that.” Their friendship had been ruinous, built upon the premise that Pfeiffer would succeed and Mantle would fail. Pfeiffer had always done his part. Now that Mantle’s life had caved in, he was making an entrance.
“This is just a visit, not work-related at all,” Pfeiffer said as if Mantle had asked a question. Again that condescending look, but that was Pfeiffer’s way. He was a stout man with a boyish face and a shock of blond and silvery-gray hair. Pfeiffer looked like the successful reporter: expensive clothes that seemed slightly worn, sureness of manner, steady stare—an apple-pie, good-old-hometown boy, definitely a media man, not a shut-in newsfax technician like Mantle, but an actor, a holographic image seen every night in the millions of American living rooms. Pfeiffer was the good doctor who could make the daily dose of bad news palatable to his patients. Mantle, on the other hand, looked too menacing to deliver news. He had a tight, hard face, high cheekbones, deeply set pale blue eyes, and a strong, cleft chin. He looked younger than his forty years.
Mantle was surprised that Carl had not yet recited his latest accomplishments and good fortune.
“I must say that things have been going quite well for me,” Pfeiffer said as if on cue. “Have you seen any of my shows?” He picked up a thin brown suitcase behind him.
“Did you camouflage your bag?” Mantle asked, but Pfeiffer only chuckled.
As he followed Mantle up a flight of stairs, he told him of his recent books—he was a readable, if somewhat pedantic essayist, and sold everything he wrote to the popular fax magazines. It was depressing to think of Pfeiffer’s gems of wisdom oozing out of every living-room computer terminal in America. His collected essays were bound in hardcover, an honor indeed; and the best thing of all was that he had also been doing fiction again (his fiction was terrible); and of course, he was selling it under a pseudonym; and, yes, he had sold a novel, finally, and it would be in covers first and then go to fax for a huge amount of money; and he was taking a leave of absence to complete the book.
Are you still jealous? Mantle asked himself, or was that burned out too? But that was unimportant now. Only one thing was important: Pretre must call today.
The hallway was dark, windowless except for the top landing, which had a yellow and red and orange stained-glass window, and, in marked contrast to the rest of the hall, was also clean. Mme. Acte and her flabby-fat daughter swept daily, but neither bothered to use a dustpan, and Mantle did not care enough to clean up the mess they left on his landing. They were his only tenants.
As Mantle opened the door to his flat, he excused himself and rushed into the living room to make a quick check of the computer for coded messages. There were none.
“It’s all right, come in,” he said to Pfeiffer, who was waiting at the door.
“You did get my messages, didn’t you,” Pfeiffer said. It wasn’t a question.
Ignoring that, Mantle said, “I’m afraid everything’s a bit of a mess.” Mme. Acte and her daughter used to clean house for him in lieu of rent, but he couldn’t stand them fumbling about in his rooms, arguing, and fingering through his personal effects. They suffered the indignity of free housing by sweeping their dirt onto his landing.
Pfeiffer set his bag down in the middle of the living room (and surely he intended to stay as long as he could), then sniffed around like a tawny, compact animal. The room had large high windows that caught the morning light. Situated before the windows, upon a brightly colored drop cloth, were two easels and a ruined satinwood desk littered with broken paint cylinders and brushes. Piled upon and around a paint-smeared video console and the ever-present computer terminal were piles of books in covers, fax and fische, and disordered stacks of gessoed canvas boards.
The plaster-chipped walls were covered with Mantle’s own paintings and graphics, with the exception of a few etchings and woodcuts by Fiske Boyd, a little-known twentieth-century artist. Most of the paintings were land- and sea-scapes; Mantle especially loved the perched villages, such as Eze and Mons. As he frequently traveled the old Esterel Road, many of the paintings depicted the red porphyry of the Esterel Massif and the Calanques, the deep, rugged inlets. Upon first look, some of his paintings appeared to be vague, almost smoky-looking, but shapes seemed to form as one stared into the milky canvases enclosed in heavy frames; they gained definition and color, as if the viewer were somehow superimposing his own imagination upon them. Then, for an instant, the paintings would appear to be as clear and defined as old photographs.
Mantle watched Pfeiffer inspect the room. Short, squat, freckled Pfeiffer with his baby face and widely set eyes and high cheekbones. How long have we known each other? It must be twenty years. All that hate and love wasted like a bad marriage. Now there was the old silence between them and all the walls of the past. Although he wanted to push through the barriers and reach Pfeiffer, kindle the warmth of the old days (and extract Pfeiffer’s memories of Josiane like teeth), he felt repelled by this familiar stranger. Stymied, Mantle kept quiet, watched, and waited.
“This one is very good,” Pfeiffer said, staring at a large fantastical painting of a dead bird in the woods. It was centered on the far narrow wall of the living room. The painting commanded the space; one would not even notice the floral-figured easy chair beneath it.
Mantle laughed softly.
“What’s so funny?” Pfeiffer asked, turning around, then back to the painting. “I think this is a very good piece of work, even though the subject matter is a bit depressing.”
“I know the work is very good,” Mantle said, walking across the room, taking the advantage. “That wasn’t what I was laughing at.”
“Well . . . ?”
“I was laughing at you, old friend.” Pfeiffer scowled, as expected. “I painted this for you some time ago,” Mantle continued. “You can take it back with you, if you like.”
“Well, thank you, but I don’t know.” Pfeiffer’s voice lowered in register. “Why did you laugh?”
“Because I painted it for you and, predictably, you took the bait. You nosed over to the Dead Bird without a hesitation.”
“I’ll show you,” Mantle said. He stood before the painting; it was at eye level. “Look at the sky. There, where the dark, fist-shaped cloud meets the lighter one, what do you see?”
“I see two clouds. What should I see?”
“Step back a bit, and don’t stare into the painting as if to burn a hole in it,” Mantle said. “You see the black cloud as the figure and the white as the ground because there is so much more white area. That’s a decoy. Try looking at the white area as figure and the dark as ground. Now what do you see? Don’t strain to look: it will come into focus.”
“I see letters, I think,” Pfeiffer said.
“And what do they spell?”
Pfeiffer shook his head; it was more like a twitch. “T-O-D. Tod. Why, that’s the German word for death. Is that really in there?”
“Yes,” Mantle said. “It’s part of a mosaic using tod and tot. If you look closely, you can also make out the words death and variants such as deth, over there.” Mantle pointed to a shaded area in the sky.
“Why did you do that?” Pfeiffer asked.
“They’re subliminal embeds. Surely you’re familiar with them—”
“Of course I am,” Pfeiffer replied, his voice a bit loud. “But why use death, or tod, or whatever—other than to be morbid.”
“They’re subliminal triggers. Your greatest fear was death, remember? You used to talk about it all the time.” Mantle waited a beat, “Step back a bit and look into the forest—there, in the left corner where the crawlers are. What do you see?”
“Look away from the painting,” Mantle said. “Now look again.”
“Why it’s Caroline’s face, I can see it. It’s a real trompe l’oeil.” Pfeiffer’s face seemed to darken. “What else have you hidden in there?”
“That you’ll have to discover yourself,” Mantle said. He couldn’t tell Pfeiffer that the subliminal portrait of his wife was surrounded by genitals. Sweet, sexless, self-contained Caroline, radiant in a wreath of cocks.
“Then there are more subembeds?”
“Quite a bit more,” Mantle replied, feeling relieved yet guilty. He was acting like a vengeful child. The past was dead, let it be, he thought.
“Do you really expect me to take that painting?”
“That’s up to you.” Mantle walked into the sitting room where he kept a small bar, and Pfeiffer followed. This room contained another desk, this one walnut with a drop front, several austere high-backed chairs, a discolored gilt frame mirror, and a blond Kirman carpet, which brightened the room considerably. This room had one small slat window; bookcases covered the walls. Mantle stepped behind the bar. “Fix you a drink?”
“You did that to hurt me, didn’t you,” Pfeiffer said—more a statement than a question. Pfeiffer the innocent, Mantle thought, and in a way it was true. Pfeiffer the paradox.
“Yes, I suppose I did. Old wounds heal slowly and all that. I’m sorry.”
“Well, let’s try to forget it,” Pfeiffer said. “It was a long time ago that we had our trouble, wasn’t it, although even now I’m not sure what happened, what was going on in your mind.”
You sonofabitch, Mantle thought. You were feeding on me, that’s what was going on in my mind. Don’t take the bait, he told himself. Don’t let him manipulate you into confession. It’s the old trap. But the net that Pfeiffer dragged could still catch him. “Bourbon?”
Pfeiffer nodded, and Mantle poured him a shot. “Are all the other paintings like the Dead Bird?” Pfeiffer asked.
“They all contain subliminals, if that’s what you mean,” Mantle said, coming around from behind the bar. Shock the little fisherman and maybe he won’t leave his bags, Mantle told himself. I don’t need a guest tonight.
“And not all the triggers are visual,” he continued. “There are some audio and olfactory sublims. I’ve even got several inductors hooked up; they’re like very subtle tachistoscopes.”
“You’re perverse,” Pfeiffer said, but he craned his neck and looked into the other room. “Why are you painting that crap, you’re a fine artist.”
“I’m an illustrator, remember? A subliminal technician.” He thought it a confession rather than a statement of fact. “And why should subliminals affect the quality of art? Rembrandt used embeds in the seventeenth century. Did that make him a lesser painter?”
“Well, it won’t make you a better one.”
Mantle laughed, and Pfeiffer said, “Don’t beg the question. Why are you painting that stuff and keeping it in your house?”
“What does it matter?” Mantle asked. “You don’t think they have any effect, anyway.”
“I never said that, and you know it. I just don’t think they have much effect. For the most part, we still choose products on the basis of quality, and like it or not, the same basic values remain. But I think you’re crazy to expose yourself to subliminals like this.”
“You once told me that you don’t believe in the unconscious, either,” Mantle said. “So these subs should have no effect on you.”
Pfeiffer blushed, and Mantle found himself facing him. Too close, he could smell Pfeiffer’s sour breath, see the faint chicken-lines in his soft face. And suddenly Mantle thought of Josiane. A flicker of memory, a flash: Josiane lost in a crowd, screaming. A complex of risors reflecting distant sunlight. Brooklyn swathed in grayness. But there was no emotional component; he had simply watched a few frames of a film that played in his mind.
Breaking away from Pfeiffer, he began to talk, hoping to jar his memory again. He was talking to himself; Pfeiffer was only a catalyst. “After Josiane was lost, I searched everywhere, did everything possible to find her. But she might as well have been swallowed up. I couldn’t stand the thought that she might be dead, or that she might be only a mile away and I would never find her. It was all too close to me; that’s one of the reasons I left the States.”
“What were the other reasons?”
“One of my European sources found a woman who fit her description.”
“Surely it was a hoax,” Pfeiffer said.
Mantle nodded. “But I stayed on anyway. I couldn’t face going back home. That was two years ago.”
“Then you’ve given up.” Pfeiffer stood in the doorway between the sitting room and living room and gazed at the painting of the dead bird.
“No, I never gave up.” Mantle sat down in one of the uncomfortable high-backed chairs and watched Pfeiffer. Then he said, “I began painting privately as therapy. But I couldn’t live with the paintings. I kept seeing things in them that weren’t there.”
“Like what?” Pfeiffer asked.
“I saw demonic faces, strange beasts, my own face, and people I knew,” Mantle continued. “So I began turning my hallucinations into subembeds. Once I painted them into pictures, they no longer threatened me. And I supposed that, by painting my fears and visions, I could trick my memory.”
“Did that work?”
“Not really,” Mantle said. “I found bits and pieces, but not enough to make a difference.” He regretted telling Pfeiffer anything. But Pfeiffer’s presence had joggled his memory. For an instant, Mantle had seen Josiane; that was important, not what Pfeiffer thought. “I threw out a whole batch of those early paintings. I didn’t even gesso them over; they could have been used again. But I had this crazy fear that somehow I would be able to see right through the gesso to the original painting. I couldn’t live with them.
“I continued to paint in my spare time—I’m here on loan to Eurofax as a consultant, as you probably know. They kept me busy. Anyway, I traveled inland and all over the coast, but soon I wasn’t painting for myself anymore. I began to pick up a lot of commission work. And, of course, I experimented with new kinds and combinations of subliminals, but I didn’t use nearly as many as in the paintings you see around you.” After a pause, Mantle said, “And I see you’re still looking.”
Pfeiffer turned away from the paintings. “Then for whom did you paint these?” he asked, making a gesture toward the living room.
“I started making paintings for every woman I slept with,” Mantle said. “It became a kind of game. My work didn’t frighten me as much as it had before—”
“What about the work you do for Eurofax?” Pfeiffer asked.
“What about it?”
“Didn’t all that subliminal stuff upset you?”
Mantle chuckled. “I experimented with subs as a way of working out my problems, and most of the work I did translated easily into fax and other media. Made quite an impact, actually. On the whole industry. But translating my ideas for fax was a technical, not an emotional, problem. I’m old-fashioned: my inspiration still comes from brush, canvas, and the old masters.”
Don’t look so smug, Mantle thought. We both sold out.
“You were saying that your work didn’t frighten you,” Pfeiffer said.
“Oh, yes, not as much as it had before. So I began trying to trick my memory again by painting the past.”
“But these are all landscapes. . . .”
“The real paintings are hidden under those you see,” Mantle said. “They’re models of my memory, sort of. There—” He stepped past Pfeiffer into the living room and pointed at a large painting in a simple metal frame. “That looks like the Cours Mirabeau—see the fountains and the plane trees and smoky sky? But the real picture is hidden in all that prettiness. Look at it long enough and you’ll see a Slung City, then the fountains and trees will disappear. And finally, if I’ve done it correctly, they will both register. Memory works like that. You’re gazing at the ocean and suddenly you’re seeing a city where you once lived or a woman you’ve known.”
“They’re portraits of your past,” Pfeiffer said, looking relieved.
“As an exercise,” Mantle continued, “I painted some ‘portraits’ for friends, such as yourself. Some of the people I never expect to see; in fact, some are dead, or probably dead.”
“Then why did you bother?”
“Anything might help me remember,” Mantle said. “Even seeing you. If only I could remember, no matter how bad it might be, then maybe I could rest.”
“But you know what happened to Josiane. She got caught up in the Scream. She’s either dead or a Screamer. Same difference.”
“And you are still a sonofabitch.”
Pfeiffer looked taken aback, but Mantle recognized it as an affectation. “Jesus Christ,” Pfeiffer said. “It has to be faced.”
“I know it happened, but I don’t know how it happened, or exactly what happened. I don’t remember. I can’t see it. . . .” For an instant, Mantle thought that Pfeiffer was gloating. Yes, he had seen that. Well, he had confessed, lapsed back into old patterns. It’s my own fault, he told himself. But how Pfeiffer must have wanted that confession.
“You can’t even remember the Scream?” Pfeiffer asked. “You were there.”
“I don’t remember any of it. What I know is what I’ve been told, but it didn’t happen to me. I can’t even remember Josiane.” She’s a holo on my desk, you sonofabitch, help me.
“It’s the spider and the fly,” Pfeiffer said, changing the subject as if he had heard enough.
“What?” Mantle asked.
“Sympathetic magic. It’s as if you thought that you could bring us out of your past with a paintbrush.”
“Perhaps I should have washed my brushes,” Mantle said, collecting himself.
“So you really did want me to come. . . .”
Mantle walked around the living room, as if to gain comfort from his paintings, then sat down on the divan. He had to get Pfeiffer out of here. Pfeiffer sat down beside him. “There’s a painting for Caroline, too.”
“Which one is it?” Pfeiffer asked, looking genuinely surprised.
“Aha, that you’ll have to figure out by yourself.”
“Tell me,” Pfeiffer said, a hint of anxiety in his voice. But Mantle shook his head.
“How is Caroline?” Mantle asked. “Is she still taking those crazy rejuvenation treatments?”
“I haven’t seen Caroline for five months,” Pfeiffer said, his face turned away from Mantle. “We decided that a short separation was in order, what with my work and—”
“You mean she left you.”
So Caroline finally got up the nerve to cut herself loose from him, Mantle thought, remembering. Caroline had been trying to leave Carl since she was nineteen, but Carl needed to care for his fragile flower, his little solipsist, as he called her, lest she turn inward again and lose touch with the world—the real world of Pfeiffer’s books and Pfeiffer’s career and Pfeiffer’s dreams: Pfeiffer, the maddened sleepwalker, the man with no unconscious. Hadn’t he started her on her career as a novelist, didn’t he correct and criticize all her work, didn’t he rewrite her stories, didn’t he provide the main income and fame?—Never mind that Caroline had the critical reputation, that her books were all in covers, and that without any self-promotion. But Carl promoted her work, made sure it reached the proper people.
“She didn’t exactly leave me,” Pfeiffer said, moving closer to Mantle on the divan. Uncomfortable, Mantle edged away. He felt that Pfeiffer was already suffocating him. Ironically, Pfeiffer had always kept a physical distance from Mantle, who needed less psychological space. Once, before they became involved with each other, they circled an entire room at a press club cocktail party, Mantle stepping forward to talk face-to-face, Pfeiffer stepping back, fumbling for an inhalor, excusing himself to check on Caroline and to freshen his drink.
“I can’t imagine you two apart,” Mantle said, excited and elated over Pfeiffer’s misfortune. As the old guilt rose again, he tried to press it down like a cork on an opened wine bottle. “You’ll just have to be strong.”
“Oh, no, it’s not like that,” Pfeiffer said, defensive. “Separation was the natural thing. Our careers were moving in different directions; we began to have different interests.”
“Of course,” Mantle said, becoming fidgety, trying to think up excuses to dissuade Pfeiffer from staying. He sensed that a trap was about to close.
“But that’s all in the past,” Pfeiffer said, “and I’m using this time to acclimate myself to my new life.”
“That’s very good,” Mantle said hollowly. “I’m sorry to have to cut this so short, Carl, but I have an engagement tonight and . . .”
“Jesus, I haven’t seen you in five years. Is that all you can say?”
“Well, I’m sorry, Carl.” Take a goddamn hint! He forced himself to look directly at Pfeiffer who, then, lowered his eyes.
“Would you mind if I stayed here with you for a few days?” Pfeiffer asked.
Horrified, Mantle heard himself say, “No.”
When Mantle finally received a call from Pretre, he was lying on his bed and watching Josiane move about his locked bedroom as she dressed. She kept turning toward him, gesticulating and speaking silently. Mantle had turned off the audio. He knew all the words: he had run this holographic sequence a thousand times.
He had this room redone as a duplicate of their old bedroom in New York. It was to Josiane’s taste: an odd mixture of antiques and modern rounded architecture. There was almost something Oriental about the room, Mandarin. On the walls were mirrors, fanlights, and a glazed and coved cabinet. The bed was beside a computer console built unobtrusively into the ornamented wall; above the console was a large, arched mirror. The slightly domed ceiling was a mirrored mosaic from which hung a chandelier of white crystal flowers. The rug, which Josiane seemed to glide over, was deep red and blue with a floral design that matched the ceramic tiles on the door and lower part of the walls.
It was a mausoleum, an untidy showcase of Josiane’s oddments that Mantle had collected: diaries (both his and Josiane’s), holos, old fische and photographs, old fax clippings, annotated calendars; even clothes, jewelry, and toiletries were strewn about the room as if Josiane had just left in a hurry. And hidden in drawers and pockets were letters, notes, and various papers; they were the keys to his memory, which he could not bring himself to trust to the computer Net.
Mantle disappeared Josiane when the telie buzzed.
The holographic image of a neatly dressed man appeared, as if seated naturally, in the center of the bedroom.
“Ah, Monsieur Mantle,” Pretre said, mispronouncing the name. “Again I see you have not turned on your visual. If we are ever to meet, how will I be able to recognize you?” Pretre was dressed in brown with a white shirt buttoned to the neck; he looked, as he always did, uncomfortable.
“I’m not dressed,” Mantle lied, “and everything is such a mess.” He made an arc with his arm, as if Pretre could see. But Mantle wouldn’t let anyone see or come inside this room. “I’m sure you’ll recognize me when the time comes,” Mantle said sarcastically. “Now tell me what you have.”
“You realize that when I called earlier, I made you no promises.”
“Yes, yes,” Mantle said. “Now, is there going to be a plug-in service or not?”
“A deal has been made with the church to let you participate,” Pretre said.
“As I explained to them, you are a man of honor and truly interested in conversion. However, if you have second thoughts . . .” Pretre had the look of a zealot; to Mantle it seemed that all religious fanatics were incongruous-looking, too neatly dressed, hair too sharply trimmed, shoes too polished. They all looked uncomfortable, as if clothes and body were coffins for the soul.
“What do you want in return?” Mantle asked.
“As I said, if you have second thoughts. I really think we must conclude this—”
“Where shall we meet, then, and when?” Mantle asked.
“Of course, when we meet is contingent upon the demise of the one who is offering himself to the church,” Pretre said, bowing his head slightly; oddly, the pious gesture did not seem pompous. “But, as is mostly the case, le Crier will die at the appointed time.”
“Which is . . . ?”
“Why don’t you take a walk to the Quai Saint Pierre tonight at about eight o’clock,” Pretre said. “It is still Festival, and very beautiful at night. Now, if you will turn on the visual for an instant so I will be able to recognize you—”
“I’m sure my holo is in your file,” Mantle said, about to switch off the phone.
“Ah, but that is not fair, nor is it the way we do things. Now, I have been patient with you; it is your turn to do me the courtesy of proper introduction.”
“All right,” Mantle said, making an adjustment on the computer console so that only a sliver of the room could be seen. Then he struck the visual key much too hard and leaned forward.
Pretre smiled uncharacteristically and said, “Very pretty.” Then the image disappeared, leaving the smoke flower, the symbol of the church, which dissipated into the room.
It had begun to drizzle. Thunder rumbled in the north; within an hour the wind would rise and the mists would be broken by pelting rain. But that would not dissuade anyone from going to Festival; the locals would splash about and let the rain dissolve their traditional paper clothes. Everyone else would be carrying rain repellors.
Pfeiffer had insisted on coming along with Mantle, at least as far as the quay; he had to pick up the rest of his bags at the old Carleton Hotel, anyway, and he was at loose ends. It was difficult to imagine Pfeiffer without his self-imposed regimen of writing and napping and watching the tube; in the old days Pfeiffer would work all night and never go out. Mantle had never gotten used to the constant clatterclack of Carl’s and Caroline’s old-fashioned typewriters; in more paranoic moments, he had entertained the idea that they were trying to make him insecure because he wasn’t working.
And now the little fisherman has nothing to do, Mantle thought. Then he was seized with the aching loneliness that he associated with Josiane. As always, he could almost remember her; but even in those few childhood memories of Josiane that were left to him, she was out of focus.
They walked south toward the boulevard and the quay. The street was becoming crowded, and the sky was alight with color. The boom-boom of distant fireworks could be heard as the locals kept their holiday in the old fashion. Curfews had been temporarily lifted, and there were children laughing in the streets. Indeed, it was like the old days before the Scream.
“Where are you going tonight?” Mantle asked, regretting the question even as he asked it. He was making small talk because he was nervous about meeting Pretre, who could lead him to Josiane. He would find her, even if it meant passing through the dead.
“More to the point,” Pfeiffer said, “where are you going?”
“I was invited to a plug-in ceremony.”
“Christ, you are morbid as ever. Going to a funeral service on Saturday night. Anyone I might know?” There was a touch of humor in Pfeiffer’s voice. “Who is it, then?” he asked more seriously, but he didn’t wait for an answer. “I think the plug-in ceremony is disgusting. It violates the dead.”
Mantle chuckled, albeit nervously; if he weren’t on his way to meet some unknown, dead Screamer (and if he weren’t haunted by Josiane), he might enjoy the cool dampness of the evening and Pfeiffer’s prissiness. It was raining hard now; a full moon could be seen as a bright smear in the mist above. But the rain didn’t reach Mantle and Pfeiffer, who had activated their rain repellors and were walking along briskly, creating a wake like a ship at sea. “They’re not really dead,” Mantle said. “After all, psyconductors can’t work unless there is some brain activity. So the person you’re plugging into must be alive, at least clinically.”
“But dead in the real sense,” Pfeiffer said.
“It’s no different than using a psyconductor in court or family counseling or, for that matter, for pleasure,” Mantle said. “One can’t get any closer than by touching another’s mind. Brain activity is life itself.”
“You sound like the man who directed my mother’s funeral,” Pfeiffer said. Mantle laughed; Pfeiffer had actually developed a sense of humor in the intervening years. Then Pfeiffer was serious again. “It’s the same as necrophilia, this plugging-in with the dead. And plug-in necrophilia is actually becoming common at funerals.”
“But you plugged into your mother when she died, didn’t you?” Mantle asked, baiting him.
Pfeiffer blushed. “She insisted. When she first became ill, she begged me, and I promised.”
“And was it so terrible?”
“I found it revolting, it makes my skin crawl to remember it.” Pfeiffer quickened his pace, as if he could leave the memory behind. Mantle began to feel more anxious about meeting Pretre and entering the mind of a dead Screamer. Hooking into a Screamer, or anyone who was mentally unbalanced, could be disastrous, especially if one was prone to schizophrenia. The bicameral Screamers, just like our ancestors who heard the voices of the gods they worshiped, carried the voices and visions of their community in the right lobes of their brains. But to know one Screamer’s thoughts was also to know, at least potentially, the thoughts and memories of every other, even those who had passed into the black and silver regions of death.
And one of those voices might be Josiane’s.
When they reached the quay, it had stopped raining. The streets were comfortably filled with locals and visitors alike, everyone dressed in costume. A parade made its way down the boulevard like a great, colorful, segmented bug. Lightsticks burned in rainbow colors, held by all manner of demons and beasts and angels and religious figures. Children were up late and cavorting with the spirits, playing jump-the-cross and begging for the indestructible American money. Looking across the port, Mantle could see the festival floats covered with mimosa, roses, carnations, violets, narcissus, and hyacinth. The wetness seemed to make everything pellucid, preternaturally bright; Mantle was reminded of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Indeed, Shrove Tuesday was not far away.
“You’d best get to the hotel for your bags,” Mantle said to Pfeiffer as he looked around for Pretre, wondering if he would come at all.
“There’s plenty of time for that,” Pfeiffer said; he seemed to be enjoying the noisy Festival atmosphere. “Come on, let’s take some wine before your rendezvous.” Another touch of sarcasm there.
Mantle thought he glimpsed Pretre, who disappeared behind some people. “I’ll see you later, then, at the house.”
“Come on,” Pfeiffer said earnestly, “we’ll all have a drink together or, perhaps, something to eat. It is time.” For all his bluster and show of independence, Pfeiffer did not do well alone except when he was writing—and even then he preferred to have people around so he could read his work aloud. “Perhaps I can join you. I can wait for you during the service, and then you can show me the town.” He smiled. “I haven’t had a woman in some time, you know.”
Pfeiffer’s false show of intimacy embarrassed Mantle. Again Mantle felt trapped, as if Pfeiffer really did have hooks into him. “Dammit, Carl, hasn’t it occurred to you that I might not feel like seeing the town tonight? Or not feel like seeing you? I have something to do, give me some room.”
Pfeiffer, ever the immovable object, said, “The funeral is only going to depress you. Going out will make you feel better.”
“Fuck off,” Mantle said wearily. “You haven’t changed at all, have you? You still can’t understand no.”
“All right, Raymond, I’m sorry. But you can at least tell me what kind of ceremony it is that you can’t take me.”
“The ceremony is for a Screamer,” Mantle said, watching for Pretre. “Now would you still like to come along?” he asked, turning to Pfeiffer. “Perhaps you could plug-in and meet your mother.”
“I said I was sorry, Raymond.” How Mantle hated the way Pfeiffer still used his full Christian name, as if Pfeiffer were a professor addressing a callow, pimply faced student. “You don’t have to reach to try to hurt me, especially with my mother. You were close to her once upon a time, remember?” Pfeiffer stood his ground, his presence suffocating Mantle more than the people around him. It was then that Mantle became aware that the Festival gathering was becoming dense, turning into a crowd which might become dangerous.
Mantle caught sight of Pretre and saw that Joan was with him. “Damn,” he said under his breath, forgetting about Pfeiffer, who was saying something to him. What’s she doing here? Does she think she’s going along? Joan had introduced Pretre to Mantle as a favor—she had interviewed him once, she said; but never, never had she spoken of having ever been to a ceremony. He felt conflicting emotions. Seeing her again, especially now, excited him. He loved her more than he admitted, felt protective toward her, and didn’t want her around as there might he trouble. But more than that, he didn’t want to share Josiane with her. For a split second, though, he considered giving up the whole venture. He could have his own life with Joan; after all, the past was already buried.
Mantle waved at Joan and Pretre, who acknowledged by waving back. They made their way toward him through the crowd.
Could she have been a member of that fucking church all along? Mantle asked himself. Anger and anxiety began to boil inside him. Pfeiffer took his arm to get his attention, “You don’t want to get involved with that sort of thing. What’s the matter with you?” Pfeiffer asked—a bit too loudly, for an American couple nearby were staring at him. “Plugging into a Screamer is illegal and dangerous, and the fate of the Christian Criers is in litigation.”
“You can’t litigate faith,” Mantle said, and then he turned to greet Joan and Pretre.
“Hello, darling,” Joan said to Mantle. She appeared to be out of breath, but Mantle knew that as a sure sign of her nervousness. “I’m sorry we’re late . . . the usual problems. Jesus, it’s more crowded than we expected.” She looked over at Pfeiffer and said hello. Pretre glared at Pfeiffer, then turned his gaze toward Mantle.
“Carl Pfeiffer, this is Joan Otur,” Mantle mumbled. Ignoring Pfeiffer and Pretre, he asked Joan, “What the hell are you doing here?”
“I thought to come with you,” she said, her eyes averted. “The first time can be a bit unhinging.”
“Then you have done this before,” Mantle said, feeling himself turning cold, and controlled, “And you never told me. Why?”
“I kept losing my nerve. I was going to try to tell you when you came back from Naples. I was going to try. . . .” She composed herself and looked him directly in the eyes. “It seems you have brought someone else, also,” she said, then turned to smile at Pfeiffer, who looked a bit embarrassed and bewildered, as did Pretre. But Pretre also looked anxious.
“Carl is not staying,” Mantle said.
“I think, perhaps, I’d better leave,” Pretre said curtly. “Another time.”
“Oh, no, Francois,” Joan said, taking Pretre’s arm. “Stay, please.” They made an odd couple: straight, stiff, squarely cut, and uncomfortable Pretre; and Joan, who was tiny, with short-cropped hair, pale, full face, and an air of casual Midwestern sureness, if not sophistication. “Carl is a friend of Ray’s. It will be all right, I pledge so.”
Pretre seemed to relax a bit. He looked coyly at Mantle and said, “I do not know your Raymond, except for a momentary glimpse.” It suddenly occurred to Mantle that, like Joan, Pretre was a poseur: the mock motions of fluttering and business, the ill-fitting, crinkle-neat uniform of the obedient convert were all protective guises. He suddenly saw Pretre as a survivor of the riots and burnings and camps.
“Joan, I want to speak with you for a moment,” Mantle said, and he nodded to Pretre and left him standing awkwardly before Pfeiffer.
“You should not have come here.”
“But I wanted to be with you, to share the past, to help you find it,” she said, looking earnestly up at him. “You’ll be different after you plug-into the Crier, and I want to be there to begin with you anew.”
“You should have told me what you are. Liar.”
“You weren’t ready, and—can’t you see?—I’m telling you now, just by being here, everything I’ve done—”
It was too late. “Does Pretre know why I want to plug-into a Screamer?”
Joan shrugged, her only affectation, and said, “Yes, I told him you are obsessed with the past; that—”
“It was a setup. From the beginning.”
“There was no other way to do it. And it was what you wanted.” It was to Joan’s credit that she did not shrink from Mantle’s stare. Poseur, he thought. User. Of course, subliminal engineers were always in demand, and most churches were evangelistic. Joan had done her homework. Well, he thought. It’s fair. Mutual using.
“I don’t want you along,” Mantle said firmly.
“I do love you,” Joan said, and, irrationally, Mantle believed her. But Joan was not Josiane. “We both have conflicting loyalties,” she continued, “and secrets to be shared. But don’t shut me out, not now, I came to help you, perhaps plug-in and share—”
“You can help me by getting Pfeiffer out of my hair.”
“I don’t think Pretre would permit that.” Her voice lowered in register, becoming flat, cold. “He knows that plugging in could be dangerous for you.”
“For me?” Mantle asked.
“Well,” she said, shrugging again, then looking at him directly, defiantly, “you have admitted to right-brain tendencies. . . . I’m sorry, Ray. Let’s stop this right now. Please, I want to be with you. It’s no trick of the church.”
“Is there anything you haven’t told Pretre?”
“No,” she said, and accepting the inevitable, turned to Pfeiffer. “Carl, would you like to accompany me to my club for a drink while these two attend to their business?” Pretre gave her a nasty look; unmindful, she took Pfeiffer’s arm. Pfeiffer, who seemed interested in Joan, started to say something to Mantle, but thought better of it and said, “All right, but I think we should meet later.”
You won’t want to see me later, Mantle thought. He nodded and told them he would join them at the club or her apartment later if he could, although he had no intention of doing so. They didn’t need him around to have sex. Mantle looked at Joan. There was a momentary awkwardness, shared sadness and regret, and then she and Pfeiffer left arm in arm, swallowed into the happy crowd as the old-fashioned fireworks boomed and spiraled in the windy air above.
Pretre silently led the way to the nearest transpod station. As they walked, the fireworks died away and the entire quay as far as La Castre became a huge videotecture. Lasers recreated the interior of Amiens Cathedral, which had been destroyed by terrorists; imaginary naves and chapels floated, as if in God’s thoughts, above the Festival. People passed through the aisles and holy walls of the holographic structure like angels moving to and fro in heavenly reverie. The crowd was thick near the transpod station, everyone howling and halooing. As if on cue, hawkers appeared everywhere, selling their wares: holy inhalors with a touch of the dust of Palestine, shards of the true cross, magical silver amulets, and bone fragments of the true Christ. There was even an old woman dressed in rags selling dates, halvah, and plastic phylacteries.
It certainly was like the old days, Mantle thought.
“Come on, hurry,” Pretre said, obviously disgusted with the goings-on around him. A car was waiting inside the small, glassite station, and a transpod rut descended into the ground a few meters away. The transpod looked like a translucent egg; it was computer controlled and driven by a propulsion system built into the narrow rut.
Pretre punched in the coordinates, opaqued the walls for privacy, and with a slight jar, they were off.
“Where is the ceremony taking place?” Mantle asked after a few moments to break the awkward silence. Pretre seemed to be lost in contemplation, as if he were deciding whether to take Mantle to the funeral after all.
“Near Plage du Dramont,” Pretre said, “South of here.”
A long pause, and then Mantle asked, “Has Joan told you why I want to attend the ceremony?”
“Yes,” Pretre said matter-of-factly. “She told me of your lost wife, Josiane. A terrible thing, but a common problem these days.”
“If you know that, why are you taking me to the ceremony?”
“So that you can see and believe that, but by the grace of our Screamers, as you call them, we have not only found a new faith, but another, higher form of consciousness,” Pretre said.
“And if I remain an unbeliever?”
Pretre shrugged. “Then at least you will owe us a favor. Perhaps you will regain your memory, perhaps not. Perhaps this dying Crier can take you to your wife’s thoughts, perhaps not. But I’m reasonably certain that you would not want to make public what you see tonight, as we could certainly affect your position with the newsfax. Given your previous record and your incarceration after you left New York . . .”
Mantle held back his anger; it would not do to spoil his chance at a plug-in now.
“We still have a bit of a ride,” Pretre said. “If you like, I can give you a blow-job.” That was said in his matter-of-fact voice, which was now without a trace of an accent.
“Why did you bring Joan?” Mantle asked, ignoring Pretre’s polite suggestion.
“That was for your own safety. It was her suggestion—she’s concerned for you. You know the chances of getting lost in another’s mind, or you should. You might become a Crier yourself.” Pretre smiled, enjoying the irony. “The presence of a familiar, sympathetic mind could help you, should you lapse into fugue. Now you take your chances. Whatever you might think of Joan now, she does love you, and has for quite some time. Of that I can assure you. I thought you treated her rather badly. Of course, that’s none of my business. . . .”
“That’s right,” Mantle said. “It isn’t.” But Pretre was right: Mantle had treated her badly. He had always treated her badly. And now he was afraid of being alone. Suddenly, everything seemed hard, metallic, hollow. Mantle remembered his first experience with enlightenment drugs; how the trip reversed and he scammed down into the stinking bowels of his mind, through the hard tunnels of thought where everything was dead and leaden.
He might become lost inside the Screamer and still not find Josiane. At the thought, his insides seemed to open up, his heart began to pound, and he had a sudden rush of claustrophobia. Where was Joan to protect him . . . ?
“If you don’t mind, I’m going to transparent the walls,” he told Pretre as he pressed the appropriate stud.
“Are you all right?” Pretre asked.
“A touch of motion sickness, that’s all.”
They were above-ground now, near the city’s edge. In a cold sweat, Mantle watched the tiers of fenestrated glasstex whiz past, studded with sunlights. The city blazed like noon under a night sky. A few moments later, they were rushing through darkness again, along the coast, through the ribbon of country. City lights were a mushroom glow behind them, stars blinked wanly overhead. Mantle’s claustrophobia was replaced by vertigo.
“Some of the Esterel is still untouched by the cities,” Pretre said, staring eastward in the direction of the ocean. “This used to be a beautiful country, full of flowers and grass and cathedrals.”
Mantle smiled (did Pretre think cathedrals grew out of the ground like orange trees?), and then remembered his own country, remembered Binghamton and its hilly surrounds. As a boy, he had vision-quested for four days and three nights atop a hill near his home. How different that had been from his experience with enlightenment drugs. But that was a lifetime ago, before new Route 17 and the furious urbanization around the mechanized highway. That old vision-quest hill had been leveled as if it had never been. But the movement of the transpod calmed him, and Mantle fancied that he was a passenger on an old railroad train—he was riding the ancient Phoebe Snow, and he was heading into Binghamton.
Just then Pretre unnerved him by asking, “Your original home is Binghamton, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Mantle replied, wondering for an instant if Pretre had read his mind. Coincidence, and his thoughts turned to Joan. She had told Pretre everything, he knew that. She was probably sitting down at a table with Pfeiffer at her club right now. He imagined that Pfeiffer would be holding forth about poor Raymond, what a waste, and Joan would listen intently and nod her head. Later, she would take him home to bed.
Until now, Mantle hadn’t been possessive with Joan; he had not had those feelings since Josiane. Joan had always had other relationships, and Mantle even encouraged them.
It was Pfeiffer. He could not imagine her wanting to have Pfeiffer. The fat fucking fisherman! But that was another deception, and Mantle new it. He was simply afraid of losing her. It was the old, old anxiety surfacing.
Well, fuck her, he thought. She was loving me for the church. I must have sensed it, he told himself. Maybe that’s why we made love so rarely. He felt himself getting an erection. Now he wanted her when it was too late.
“You look nervous, my friend,” Pretre said. “Would you like a tranquilizer? It will calm you, but not affect your thinking. And it will wear off by the time we reach the beach.” Pretre was staring at him intently, which did make Mantle nervous.
“No, thank you,” Mantle said as he looked at the dark shapes and shadows whisking past like specters in a dream of falling. “I don’t take any drugs if I can help it.”
“Ah, since your incarceration, perhaps?”
“It has nothing to do with that.” You faggot sonofabitch, Mantle thought. He still had an erection.
Pretre took another tack. His voice became louder, more hollow-sounding and the accent returned. “Binghamton was blessed with Criers, wasn’t it? Consumed, as it were, by the Singing Crowds.”
Mantle grimaced as he remembered returning to his old neighborhood, which had been ravaged by the Screamer mobs. They had killed his mother in her bed. Yes, he thought, again feeling a rush of anxiety and guilt, Binghamton was certainly blessed.
“But that should not have happened,” Pretre continued, “because according to your theorists, the population density was nowhere near Beshefe’s limit. Beshefe was his name, I think.” The sarcasm in his voice was as thick as his accent.
“People become Screamers as a reaction to stress,” Mantle said. “There are many ways to measure social stress, all approximations. Beshefe was a social scientist, not a physicist.”
“Do you also believe our Criers are just schizophrenics?” Pretre asked. “Joan once believed that.” He smiled, obviously toying with Mantle, who was in no mood for it.
It will soon be over, he told himself, while his thoughts darted from the past to present, back and forth, like fireflies in the darkness of his memory.
He remembered his first newsfax assignment in Washington, although it was hard to imagine that there were mobs and riots before the Screamers. He had worn a riot-cowl and had packed a small stun weapon that was little more than a toy. He had been so afraid that he’d kept saying “Jesus Christ” into his recorder. He could remember it as clearly as if he were still standing there in burning College Park, choking on the stink of explosives and burned flesh, listening to people scream. Like horses, they had tried to bolt, but everyone was trapped in the crowd. He remembered Dodds, who had been standing beside him and shouting into his recorder until half his face was blown away; and how for one eternal heartbeat they had stared at each other before Dodds fell and died. In that last moment, Mantle had felt nothing but surprise. But deep inside was one thought: that it would soon be over. One way or another.
I’ll find Josiane, he told himself, confirming it.
“Well?” Pretre asked. “What do you think?”
“Schizophrenia is a reaction to stress,” Mantle said. “But it’s also a function of an individual’s biochemistry and early environment. The Screamers are somewhat different, obviously.”
“Ah, somewhat different,” Pretre said. “Now tell me how they are different.”
“Jesus Christ,” Mantle said. “They’re bicameral, they hallucinate instead of think, they’re telepathic. You must know what I think about Screamers. Certainly Joan has told you. She’s told you everything else.”
“She doesn’t know everything about you.”
Mantle held back his anger; only his balled fist betrayed him. Was Pretre a Screamer? he asked himself. If not partially bicameral, he was certainly schizo—
“You probably think I’m mad, don’t you?” Pretre asked as he stared vacantly ahead, his head cocked as if he were trying to hear something distant.
Mantle felt a chill. More than schizophrenic, he thought.
“No,” he continued, “I’m just a bit deaf, as are all of us who belong to the Church of the Christian Criers.” Pretre paused as if waiting for a cue from Mantle.
“Go on,” Mantle said. He was nervous, as he always was in the presence of those who had slippery minds.
“When we’re together in a ceremony, when we hook-into a holy Crier, then—for that precious short time—we can hear the voices of the other world which has been silent so long. We can hear the voice of any Crier who wishes to communicate, even if that Crier be dead.”
Josiane! Mantle thought, almost saying her name aloud. For an instant, he thought he actually could see her face before him. It was such a beautiful face: strong yet delicate, framed in a halo of baby-fine, curly hair. I love you, my sister, please let me find you. . . .
He thought of Joan: such was his perversity. But her pleading face could not draw him back.
“Sometimes I can hear the whispering of the other world when I’m alone,” Pretre said. “Sometimes I hear the departed Criers.” He jabbed Mantle lightly in the crotch and, feeling an erection, let his hand linger. “And I suspect that you will hear a voice or two yourself.”
Joan took Pfeiffer to her club, which was within walking distance on the Rue de Latour-Maubourg, which angled off from the Boulevard de la Croisette. The club was a seedy bar called The Exchange, and was Irish. It was not a tourist spot as was Hell’s Knell, with its sawdust floor and jazz bands, but just a hole in the wall where one could get a stiff drink and an American hamburger.
“I’ve heard of this place,” Pfeiffer said, sliding into a booth as Joan took the opposite side.
“Is it what you expected?”
“I would imagine that its reputation is mostly a fake,” he replied, looking toward the burly barkeep who was Irish, and then around at the booths and tables, not yet filled.
Joan smiled. Ray was right, she thought. Pfeiffer’s lack of humor and subtlety was somehow endearing. For him, everything carried the same weight and deserved the same consideration. “Well,” she said, “there was an incident once that made it a tourist attraction for a while. But now it’s mostly fax people, bureaucrats, and an occasional diplomat.”
“I’m worried about Raymond,” Pfeiffer said, looking at her as if he needed to know everything about Mantle now, even before tasting a drink. As if on cue, the barkeep appeared to welcome Joan, make some small talk, and take their order—bourbon with a chaser for him, a Campari for her; then he left, thereby giving Joan a chance to recover from Pfeiffer’s question. He was fishing: the least he could do was wait until she’d had a drink.
“I’m sure Ray will be fine,” she said coolly, but she was anxious about him and wondered if he had plugged in yet. It’s my own fault I’m not with him, she told herself. But he would be fine, she thought, only half believing it. In some ways Mantle was one of the strongest people she had ever met, and yet he was also one of the most insecure. He was open about it, accepted it, and guiltlessly used her to shore himself up from time to time. All those hours spent listening to him talk incessantly about his painting and subliminals and his fear of failure. He constantly compared himself to his peers, especially to Pfeiffer and his wife. There was something repellent about him when he was like that; perhaps it was because Joan needed him to be strong.
“I think this business with the Screamers is crazy,” Pfeiffer said, staring intently at Joan. “And I think this cult of yours is even crazier.” He paused, waiting for a reaction; receiving none, he said, “Raymond’s always been on the edge, even before Josiane disappeared.”
There was something about the way Pfeiffer said “Raymond” that Joan didn’t like, but she didn’t take the bait. Although she agreed with him about Ray being on the edge (and, perhaps because of that, also terribly sane), she made a disbelieving face.
“It’s all in his medical records,” he said, slumping down in his chair a bit, as if exposing Mantle’s little secrets were a grave and difficult burden to bear. “He has definite right-brain tendencies. And his corpus callosum is slightly thicker than normal, which is the case with many schizophrenics and your Screamers. The corpus callosum connects the two hemispheres in the brain—”
“Jesus Christ,” she snapped. “What’s wrong with using your whole brain?” She caught herself and said, evenly, “You seem to’ve made quite a study of Ray. He must be very happy to have a friend who is so concerned.”
“I am concerned,” Pfeiffer said earnestly, seemingly missing her point, or possibly just ignoring her derision. Perhaps Ray was right: Pfeiffer might be the grand solipsist, wending his way around a world made for him, all the mirrors of the world reflecting only his own face. And yet there was something about him that reminded her of Ray.
“I’m afraid he will go over the edge if he plugs-into a Screamer,” Pfeiffer continued.
“There’s always that chance,” she said evenly, but she was feeling panic. Her relationship with Mantle had been a series of small losses and loneliness leading up to tonight. It could have been different tonight, she told herself. I should have been with him. It’s my fault. I’ve lost him now, really lost him. . . .
“But there’s no chance of him finding Josiane,” Pfeiffer said with finality. “She’s probably dead or else she’s running slack-jawed with a gang of Screamers somewhere in New York. Either way, she’s beyond his reach.”
“Perhaps not,” Joan said, recovering.
“Bunk,” Pfeiffer said, waving for a drink. There was a waiter on duty now, and a battered old Thring domestic robot keeping the back station where Joan and Pfeiffer were sitting. The club was becoming crowded.
“Do you want another drink?” Pfeiffer asked Joan as the robot hesitated beside their booth. The robot, although otherwise clean and burnished, had the flag of the old Irish Republic sloppily painted on its chest. It had a jolly, stereotyped Irish face on its video display; and it spoke in brogue. Although the robot moved smoothly on hidden wheels, it had the rectangular look of something that should rattle and squeak, like a twentieth-century automobile.
Joan and Pfeiffer ordered another drink, and the robot whispered off.
“Raymond won’t find anything inside the Screamer but the last flickers of a dying mind,” Pfeiffer said. “Did you know that Raymond had to be incarcerated in a sanatorium after he plugged into his psychiatrist?”
“What?” Joan asked.
“Ah, that he didn’t tell you.”
“I did know that he was in a private sanatorium for a time.”
“Well,” Pfeiffer continued, “it was an experiment to regain his memory—the idea being that the psych could gain access to whatever it was that Mantle was hiding from himself.”
“And . . . ?”
“Raymond plugged into the psych, and then went over the edge when the psych started probing. Raymond must have had quite a stake in hiding the information, for he almost killed the psych before the connection was broken. And this doctor was supposed to be experienced in using the psyconductor with patients. The irony is that both of them ended up in the same sanatorium.”
“You really don’t like Ray, do you?” Joan asked, angry at the way Pfeiffer had told her the story, and angry at herself for being here, for not being with Mantle. And damn the church and Pretre for taking him away, she thought.
“Of course, I like Raymond. Christ, I’ve known him for twenty years.”
“You don’t seem to be much of a friend. You talk about him as if he were a thing, not a person.”
“I’m sorry you misunderstand me. I know Raymond better than anyone else. I’m speaking of the things about him that worry me. Since I assumed you to be his friend too, I didn’t think it necessary to review his good points, although I can do that if you wish.” He gave her a wide, boyish grin, then bowed his head to disappear it.
“Okay,” Joan said, “I’m sorry.”
You asshole, she thought. No wonder Ray hates him. She wondered how Pfeiffer would be sexually. Probably not very good, but then again. . . . He was probably not bisexual, probably fucked-up sexually.
“Do you really believe that Raymond can find Josiane by sticking into a Screamer?”
Another gibe, Joan thought, but she would play a game and take everything seriously, ignore nuance. She could excuse herself, get rid of him; but there was too much she wanted to find out about Ray, and about his relationship with Pfeiffer and Josiane.
“Yes,” she said matter-of-factly, “I believe Ray has a chance of finding out about his wife.” Smiling, she said, “And one doesn’t ‘stick-in,’ one plugs-in.”
Pfeiffer grinned, then his face became serious again, as if the muscles could only hold a smile for an instant. “Is that as bad as calling San Francisco ‘Frisco’?” he asked, but the joke fell dead. “I don’t think Raymond will ever find Josiane, and I think it’s cruel for you and your fanatical friends to endanger him and give him false hopes.”
“There is a chance,” Joan said quietly, praying she was right and that he wouldn’t be harmed. After her holy initiation (she had also plugged into a dying Crier), her faith in the church and its methods seemed unshakable. Now she was having second thoughts. But I must believe, she told herself. “Many nonbelievers become converts after plugging in and contacting a lost relative. There are enough documented cases to convince—”
“And how many of your ‘cases’ went bonkers afterward? You sound like a rabid spiritualist from the last century.”
“One cannot trick someone with a psyconductor.”
“I’m not at all sure of that.”
“And least of all Ray. Tricking people into believing things is his business.”
“He’s as vulnerable as anyone else,” Pfeiffer said. “You should realize that. And as I understand it, the procedure won’t work unless he’s in a suggestible state.”
“A trance can help you initially break with the world, which you must do when you plug-into the dead, especially into a Crier. But you can’t locate a lost friend or wife or relative with a trick. Either the hook-in works or it doesn’t. The psyconductor is a scientific instrument, and communicating with the dead is a common and indisputable fact.” Joan caught herself, and her face became warm with embarrassment: she was anxiously singing the party song, and even to her, it sounded hollow and foolish. What she had felt as true—and, yes, profound—now sounded silly when put into words. She thought about Ray hooking into the Crier and remembered her own plug-in ceremony, the sense of expansion and uplift, of passing through the layers of the world and drifting through the black and silver spaces; and all she could communicate were a few trite phrases, true as they might be.
“He won’t find her,” Pfeiffer said. There was a strident edge to his voice.
“How can you be so sure?”
“‘I really don’t think he wants to find her.”
“Then why would he go to all this trouble?”
“To deceive himself, to give himself something to live for; maybe to forget his failings. He is, by his own standards, a failure. Surely you can see that.”
“I see nothing of the sort,” Joan replied angrily. “And don’t you think you’re being a bit too condescending? People who live in glass houses, and all that sort of thing . . . ?”
Pfeiffer smiled, this time genuinely, or so it seemed, for the smile passed slowly across his face. “Ah, so we return to maxims of great moral truth. You English are so fond of them.”
Joan blushed. “The maxim does contain some truth. And I’m not English, I’m American, it’s just that I’ve developed an accent from living abroad—”
“But for every maxim there’s a countermaxim,” Pfeiffer said, ignoring her protest. “We aren’t so removed from the medieval mind, after all.”
“What do you mean?” Joan asked, content to let the conversation drift away from Ray for the moment. She would let Pfeiffer puff himself up.
“The Middle Ages were ruled by maxims and parables from history, legend, and Scripture. They contained all the great moral truths of the age, and were used to defend every action.”
“Did you know that Ray has an interest in history?” Joan asked, feeling that she was on safe ground now.
“No, I didn’t. He never showed much of an interest in the old days.”
“Yes, he’s fascinated by the twentieth century.”
“Raymond always did have to have an escape.”
“You really don’t have a single good word for him, do you?” Joan asked.
“I’m sorry. It’s not the way you think.”
“Do you think yourself so much nobler and more in touch with reality than he? Is your profession so much better?”
Now Pfeiffer began to redden, although whether out of anger or humiliation, Joan could not tell. “I don’t think of myself as noble, and I see the news medium as the filthy business it is. When I met Raymond, he was unformed but brilliant. Anyone could see that. I’ve watched him grow and develop and gain control over his craft. And watched him fail on his own terms. He wanted to be an artist, not an illustrator or, worse yet, a subliminal engineer.”
“Glass houses. . . .” Joan said.
Joan smiled, and Pfeiffer returned it. “Tell me about Josiane,” she asked.
“What do you want to know?”
“Anything. I want to get a feel for what she was like.” She watched Pfeiffer’s hands as she spoke. He had the annoying habit of twiddling his thumbs, an American mannerism she had forgotten existed; it looked somehow obscene.
“You know, of course, that they’re brother and sister.”
“Actually, they look quite alike,” Pfeiffer said, untangling his fingers and taking a sip of his drink, which was watered down by now. “You can’t see it in holos, even if you set them side by side; only in the flesh. Perhaps it was because they had a similar sort of intensity. Of course, they had some of the same facial features. The same kind of bodies, I guess, too. Both long and lanky. But they had very different turns of mind.”
“How do you mean?”
“Josiane was a scatter-head. Never finished anything. Very young and immature, really. Always falling in and out of love.”
“But that was before she settled down with Ray.” She said that like a question.
“Josiane never settled down. It was just that she and her brother shared a mutual romantic dream for a while.”
“It seemed to have worked.”
“For a while, and in its fashion, but there were always problems.”
“As in any relationship,” she said, looking into his eyes for a reaction. There was none.
“But Raymond was more stable,” Pfeiffer continued. “Except in matters of the heart. Somehow he’d convinced himself that he was in love with his sister.”
“She must have felt the same way.”
“She was talked into it,” Pfeiffer said. “But he had the talent. She was always a nice middle-class wife type.”
“That’s a sexist thing to say.”
“But true, just the same. She was an anachronism. But she was also an actress, always playing one or another stereotyped role. Those I remember well. She and Raymond always played games; that’s the way it seemed to me, anyway. At one time or another Josiane had pretended to be every other lover he had known, and played them quite well. Studied up on them, scanned their records, but she never went so far as to have face changes. She was quite an insecure woman.”
Joan listened, certain that the bare facts were true; but Pfeiffer had none of the insides. Everything he said was couched in bile, somehow distorted. Pfeiffer was truly a faxmaster, as perverse as the crowds he tried to please.
“Most of that I know,” she said. “Ray told me, but I wanted a different viewpoint, especially since you knew them both for so long.”
“Josiane never really seemed to change, although she was, as I said, always playing at it. Perhaps that was what Raymond found interesting. At any rate, she was really quite charming. She had a definite charisma.”
“So I understand,” Joan said, suddenly feeling jealous of Josiane, desperately hoping that Ray wouldn’t find her. “Did you think it unnatural for them to marry?”
“No,” Pfeiffer said. “I’m not an old-line moralist. Why, does incest bother you?”
“I have trouble with it,” she admitted.
Pfeiffer forced a laugh. “You are an anachronism, and I can see why Raymond likes you. Josiane had the same medieval bent of mind. She had a maxim for everything; she even named objects in her house.”
Don’t compare me with her, you bastard, Joan thought. “You’ve a nasty bent.” Pfeiffer was a cipher, a bundle of facts, a storehouse of Raymond Mantle trivia distorted for television. No wonder Ray was always so frustrated around him, especially since his loss of memory. There was something in everything Pfeiffer said that seemed to tease rather than explain. But Joan would not give up.
“Ray hardly ever talks about his Indian heritage,” Joan said. “Do you know anything about that?”
Pfeiffer looked disgusted. “Raymond’s about as much an Indian as I am.”
“Well, he told me—”
“He’s got some Sioux in him, on his father’s side, but all you need is a drop to play the game. His father was a failure who turned to religion; that’s not surprising. But he shouldn’t have pressed it on Raymond. All that nonsense about sweat lodges and fasting on top of a hill to find God. It was the worst thing that could have happened to Raymond, and is probably responsible for his being where he is right now.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“He was fascinated by the Screamers, anything that smelled of the mysticism of his youth.”
“You don’t seem to really care that he has amnesia and has lost his sister,” Joan said. It was easier for her to think of Josiane as Mantle’s sister. She turned her glass in her hands as if she could read her future in the bottom.
“I am concerned for him,” Pfeiffer said, “whether you believe it or not.”
“Do you believe his amnesia’s real?”
“Yes, that I know is real. I checked.”
“Of course,” Joan said in a nasty whisper.
“But there’s something wrong with all of it,” Pfeiffer continued, warming once again to the subject. He clenched his hands together, thumbs sticking up like stone dolmens. “You think that he was dependent on his sister, don’t you; that he couldn’t get by very well without her?”
“I think he loved her very much.”
“Well, I think that was his game.”
“Because Raymond is, and always was, a loner. He’s happiest by himself.”
“He told you that?”
“I’ve lived with him, I know him; that’s never changed. He uses people—not maliciously, perhaps—but he uses them just the same.”
“And you don’t?”
“I try not to,” he said, and Joan wondered how much he had to do with the problems between Ray and Josiane.
“Are you saying that Ray knows more than he’s letting on?” Joan asked. “Do you think he’s lying?”
“I don’t think he’s lying, or realizes that he’s lying, anyway. It’s something else.”
“And what do you think it is?” A real question. Answer it.
But Pfeiffer didn’t answer. He looked down at his glass, examined his hands, then combed back a lock of gray-blond hair that had dropped across his forehead. At that instant, Joan desired him. For all his boorishness, there was something attractive about him. He was almost pretty. Her thoughts wandered: Ray I love you lying beside a dead Crier, maybe lost in a dying mind, never to find your way out, you bastard. Damn the church.
Stop it, she told herself.
The bar had filled up, three-head deep, mostly reporters and diplomatic ’crats, although there were a few students and tourists standing about in groups. Joan knew most of the people, either from here or through the profession. A tall man nodded to her, was about to step out of the press and come over for an introduction, then thought better of it, winked at her, and melted back into the crowd. There were few women, even in the booths, which was unusual. Boys’ night out, Joan thought sourly.
“Do you want another drink?” Pfeiffer asked Joan. She shook her head, and he waved the robot away.
Someone in the next booth lit up a joint, and the sickly sweet smoke wafted over Joan and Pfeiffer.
“I hate that smell,” Pfeiffer said. “Don’t they have a ventilation system? Jesus! And there’s enough people in here to make me claustrophobic.” He tapped a switch on the wall above the table to activate the privacy guard.
“Don’t do that,” Joan said. She tapped the switch, disappearing what looked to be gray, vibrating walls, which would have made her claustrophobic.
“Well, excuse me,” Pfeiffer said nastily.
“Just a local custom,” Joan said. “Anyway, it gives me a headache.”
Pfeiffer grumbled. There was something of the old fart about him, Joan thought. But, according to Ray, he had always been that way. He was of the type, she thought, that aspires to authority and claims the potbelly, balding pate, and varicose veins as badges of success, of having arrived.
“This place is a dump,” Pfeiffer said, looking around quickly then hunching over toward Joan as if he were trying physically to block out the room. “Christ, you can’t use the privacy guards—and it amazes me that they work at all—there’s no ventilation, and the goddamned robot looks like it was stuck together with spit and paste.”
“The ventilation system does work, sometimes.”
Something passed between them, a look, a feeling; and they both started laughing—nervous laughter, but even that was a touching of sorts. She had seen into Pfeiffer just a little, seen that there could be a wryness to his complaining, that perhaps he did not take himself so seriously all the time, after all. Perhaps it was because they both had something in common: nervous flutters about Ray, who might either be finding his dream’s end or losing his way in the mazed mind of the dying Screamer.
When they stopped laughing, Joan found that Pfeiffer had taken her hand—but no, that wasn’t true: she had instead reached across the table seeking his. There was an instant of embarrassment. She let go of his hand, but he held hers tightly for a beat before letting go. She felt the urge to laugh again, but bit her lip. The laughter was a release; she remembered an assignment in Washington, a park gathering which had turned into a riot. The image was before her now as if it were on video: she remembered faces, faces she would never see again, and the carnage of unrecognizable bits of bodies strewn about all the familiar places like the red and yellow leaves of that bloody autumn. Afterward, in a hole-in-the-wall bar like this, she had sat with her friends and other reporters making jokes about the riot until hysteria finally turned to fatigue. She had gone home with someone that night; she could remember being passive, too tired and numbed to satisfy him; but now she couldn’t remember his name.
“Let’s get out of here,” Pfeiffer said, his hands clasped together again.
“We’re waiting for Ray, remember?”
“He won’t show up; you know that as well as I.”
“He might, and it was you who suggested we meet him.”
Pfeiffer rubbed the edge of the table, looked around the club but would not meet Joan’s stare. “I didn’t want to be by myself,” he finally confessed, “knowing what Raymond was going to do.”
“You could have tried to stop him.”
“It wouldn’t have made any difference, no matter what I said or did. I would have made a fool of myself and, worse, him. He hates me enough as it is.”
“Well,” he said, “I’ve had enough of this. I can’t sit here any longer.”
“Why are you so nervous for him?” Joan asked. “Somehow it seems out of character. You two haven’t seen each other for quite some time, haven’t really been friends for longer still.”
Suddenly, almost guiltlessly, he said, “I had nowhere else to go. It doesn’t matter if we’re friends or not, we’ve been through enough together to take advantage of each other.” Joan believed that; it rang true.
“It sounds like something from The Ghost Sonata: psychic vampires.”
“More like the spider and the fly,” Pfeiffer said. Joan let that pass. “And, somehow, we’re connected too, Joan, you, and me. You can wait for him alone or with me.”
“We could meet him at Darmont.”
“No,” Pfeiffer said instantly, as if afraid. “That would muddy the waters. This much I can tell you: if you want to keep him, he’s got to return on his own time. Do you want to keep him?”
Joan nodded. She was being sucked in too quickly; already, she had offered that they travel together to find Ray. But she wanted to find Ray alone, without this misery from the past. No, that’s wrong, she thought, looking at Pfeiffer, realizing how difficult it must have been for him to say what he had said. She began to get a feeling for Pfeiffer, touch a surface that wasn’t smooth and oiled, find something about him that didn’t repel her, that she could like—but never love. “Then what do you want to do?” she asked.
“Something exciting and dangerous.”
“Like what?” she asked, surprised at his manner.
“Organ gambling, for instance,” he said, then slid out to the edge of the booth and deposited his credit card into an available slot. “Will you come with me?”
Joan sat, watching him and thinking. He had a nervous, hot-eyed look, just as Mantle had had at the carnival when he was trying to get away from her; there was something feral and frightened in that look. “I don’t know of any casinos with that kind of game hereabout,” she said.
“There are some in Paris Undercity.”
“You and Ray are alike—you’re both self-destructive.”
Pfeiffer’s face turned red, but he didn’t reply.
“And what about Ray? Do we just forget about him?”
Pfeiffer replaced his card in his wallet, and Joan suddenly felt clumsy, as she always did when her mind and emotions were at odds, when she was in an unpredictable situation. Her hands felt hot and overly large.
“No, we don’t forget about him,” Pfeiffer said sharply. “I’m sorry I said it”—his shoulders seemed to lower slightly—“I should have known better. I’ll give you my key to Raymond’s flat, and you can wait for him there.”
“Do you know that I’ve never been inside his flat?”
Pfeiffer stood up rather stiffly. “I just can’t sit here and wait, especially since I don’t believe he’ll show up tonight. I can’t explain it—I’m sorry,” he said, looking awkward and embarrassed.
But Joan felt that something was amiss, as if the idea of Mantle plugging into a Screamer had touched off something in Pfeiffer, something irrational and dangerous, perhaps something suicidal. She did not imagine that he loved Mantle and was afraid for him, but that he was afraid for himself; and the only relief was to embrace danger and rush headlong into the controlled world of either/or, the gambler’s microcosm. That was just the sort of mathematical, ideal world Pfeiffer would desire: a world where personal grief and fear could be transformed, where one could either win or lose and not have to face the tragedies of the in-between. If Pfeiffer was to succeed over Raymond, he had to walk the edge, outdo him, even now.
Joan felt the lure. She could not help Ray, but she could go with Pfeiffer, perhaps watch him be unmasked. . . .
“Okay,” Joan said, “I’ll come with you . . . but only to keep you away from the more dangerous forms of sport.” She forced a smile. “Ray doesn’t use an implant, but he does use a computer plug. We can leave a message on the Network for him. I hope he hasn’t taken out the plug.”
They left the crowded club immediately. Several people tried to speak to Pfeiffer on the way out, recognizing his face from teevee, but he dutifully ignored them. Outside it was sticky and oppressive. The wind was hot; mercifully, the streets were less crowded than before. Those still walking about looked like wraiths, ghost figures in a videotect. There was hardly any noise, and the occasional yowl or shout was cause for turned heads. Someone dressed as a plumed bird staggered out of an alley and mumbled something to Joan in pidgin French; Pfeiffer asked what he said, but Joan only shook her head.
It was as if night had claimed the carnival; and the people, dressed in shabby costumes, were wending their way home, embarrassed by the revelry of an hour ago. One would think that the curfews had not been lifted. But tomorrow was a workday. By dawn, the vendors would be out sweeping the streets, even though the machines would do the same job a half hour later. It was a safe way of resisting the system, of tribalizing, enjoying the familiar and expected. While the vendors called to one another, dickered, displayed unsold produce, the world would seem wiped clean, as if there was nothing new under the sun.
“Do you believe in sympathetic magic?” Joan asked Pfeiffer. She smiled as she said it, but they were on a dark street and Pfeiffer couldn’t see her face.
After a few steps, he said, “Yes. Tonight I do.”
They would take a transpod to Mandelieu, and from there take a flyer to Paris. A quick shuttle.
The ceremony was not being held on Dramont Beach, which was tar-soaked and dead, but around the ruins of the old watchtower that had been built during the reign of Queen Jeanne. Semaphores blinked on and off to warn passing ships of land. Clouds boiled about the moon, shadows flicked here and there, a ghostly mist pervaded. The ruins looked like natural formations, as natural as the monsters made of porphyry rock that guarded the Gulf of Frejus, or the rocks of Cap Roux, or Mount Vinaigre lost in the mists. Wind and pounding surf created a background of white noise that somehow made one imagine that there was no sound in this place, only the flittering of ghosts and gods. A perfect place for an oracle: here nature itself was dreaming.
There were at least two hundred people, mostly women, gathered in and around the ruins. They stood so still that one might mistake them for rocks in the veiling mist. Only the children moved about.
Pretre had left Mantle with Roberta, who had met them at the watchtower. She was a large-boned woman, tall and awkward-looking and attractive. Her face was rather long, yet delicate; its hard, sharp features were relieved by a full mouth and a halo of frizzy blonde hair.
“The ceremony will take place over there,” Roberta said, pointing west toward what looked to be dolmens at the edge of the olive trees.
“Why is everyone standing still as statues?” Mantle asked.
“They’re praying, preparing a bridge from this world to the dark spaces.”
Mantle frowned and asked, “And why so many women?”
Roberta squeezed his hand and asked, “Do you have something against women?” Mantle smiled, in spite of himself. “Women are not as laterialized as men,” she said. “Unlike most men, we retain some residual language function in the right hemisphere of our brains. You work for the fax; you should be aware of that. Why do you think most of the Nouveau Oracles are women, as were the old? It’s purely practical, I assure you. Women learn it easier.” Her accent was light and her voice mellifluous, soothing as the drone of the surf and the sliding of shadows.
They walked toward the dolmens, and Mantle had the disquieting sensation that someone, or something, unseen was watching him.
“I know you believe we’re all crazy,” she continued, “but you should try to put yourself in the right mind for this if you want it to work. You’ll have to let go, let everything that happens take you over, block yourself out—”
“I can’t,” Mantle said roughly, surprised at himself for blurting out the words. But the anxiety was growing inside him—that feeling of being watched by demons and devils as solid as stone who would collect him somewhere in the night, as if he were in a great maze. “I feel as if I’m being watched. I can’t shake it.”
“Then let yourself be watched,” she said. “There are Criers hereabouts. Some alive and some dead, hovering between our world and the dark spaces. Their presence can be a comfort, as if you’re riding on their thoughts. That’s what those around us are doing. The Criers alone can induce visions, without any hook-in or—”
Mantle shuddered at the thought of so many Screamers, and something opened up inside him. He remembered. He flashed back to New York City. Remembered fighting the mind of the crowd. Being rent by screams and by thoughts as sharp and clear as breaking crystal. The crowd was telepathic, a many-headed beast trying to devour him.
“Come on,” she said, pulling Mantle’s arm around her waist, just as Joan often did. “You’re thinking bad thoughts, I can feel it.” She smiled, as if to make light of it, and said, “Let the Criers guide your thoughts. You’ll be safer that way, and I’ll stay with you, even hook-in with you, if you like.”
“So I’m your ticket to hook-in,” Mantle said, regretting his words and tone of voice. Even against his will, he had to admit that he felt safer with her. He had thrown Joan away—Wasn’t that enough? he asked himself. But, like Pretre, Roberta had a slippery mind, which frightened him.
Mantle thought about Joan. Now he wanted her, now he needed her. I love you, I know you. . . .
“It’s my time to hook-in,” Roberta said. “With or without you.”
“What’s the danger of being discovered by locals?” he asked, changing the subject. They passed a group of long-haired boutades, faces rouged and lined. The boutadniks were naked, so as to expose the male and female sex organs implanted on their chests and arms. Standing beside the boutades were several children and a few locals in costume, probably the children’s parents. Mantle gave the boutades a sour look and then turned his face, as if they represented everything he hated about the modern world.
“This is a religious area, and most of the gentlefolk protect us,” Roberta said. “We have used this place since the incorporation of the church. It’s holy. There are many Criers hereabouts, for death is a friend in holy places, and the police usually leave us alone. With the locals on our side, it’s more difficult for them. . . . But, of course, there is always danger for us. We’ve been raided before and will probably be raided again. The police have sent some of us to the other side.”
“You mean during a raid.”
Roberta nodded, as if the words “safety” and “danger” could easily mean the same thing to her.
“Then why return to this place?” Mantle asked.
“Because the voices of the Criers are strong here. Why was there an oracle at Delphi, at Dodona, at Ptoa, at Branchidae, at Patara?”
“Perhaps it’s the surrounds. . . .”
“Just believe that the voices are strong here,” Roberta said. They stopped near the dolmen. Scattered rocks looked like the skeletal remains of a giant or a great fantastical beast conjured up by the elements and the play of shadows and wan moonlight. The converts were moving silently as specters now, gathering around the dolmen. They all looked like old men and women; even the boutades were hunched over, as if the foul, salt-heavy atmosphere had anesthetized them and they were gradually falling asleep on their feet. They seemed to fill up the night like cobblestones in a road.
“It’s what happens inside you that’s important,” Roberta continued. “If you can feel something profound, does it matter what triggers it? Does it matter if it be the holy words of a prayer, the play of light through a window, or a plastic bauble sparkling on the ground? You must try to believe in what happens around you. Let yourself be focused into a trance; forget your left brain and your rational world. Live in the inside of things tonight. If you want to find your wife, you’ll have to play along.”
“Isn’t the hook-in enough?” Mantle asked.
“No, you’re dealing with Criers, remember? Our ceremony is a gathering on both sides like—on a mundane level—a seance. Those who have crossed into the dark spaces gather to accept you. Without a ceremony, they might reject you as an intruder; or hooking into the dying Crier might take you to places you have no desire to go, the edges, the dead places where you would be lost. Of course, there is always the chance . . .”
“That building looks like a tomb,” Mantle said, feeling a chill. He was looking at the dolmen, which was a circular affair about three meters in diameter and four meters high. It was surrounded by a parapet of ocher-stained paving stones. Large rectangular stones jutted out from the ground around it like grave markers.
“It’s both a tomb and a temple,” she said, almost in a whisper, as if she too were about to fall asleep. There was something palpable in the air, a silence, a straining, an anticipation of what was to come.
“Then a Screamer is inside?” Mantle asked. “When do we go inside and hook-in?”
“Pretre is making him ready,” Roberta said, as if annoyed at being interrupted from a conversation that only she could hear. “These people around us”—and Roberta made a gesture with her arm—“have been purifying themselves here for days without food or drink, and they will not even be able to plug-in. But many will hear the voices, see into the dark. This ceremony is for them, too.”
Now that Mantle was so close to possibly finding Josiane, he felt empty, as if it didn’t really matter, as if none of this were real. It began to rain lightly, and then the rain turned to mist, which smoked on the ocean like steam from a demon’s cauldron.
Yes, Mantle thought, trying to fight down the chill of fear, it’s all typical: the spooky surroundings, the temple, the ritual, the bicameral paradigm, all here. But rational thought could not assuage Mantle’s anxiety, which came from that part of his being that felt kinship with darkness and superstition and intuition. It was because of the darkness inside him that he was here.
The crowd began to chant, first in whispers, then louder, Aria amari isa, vena arniria asaria, over and over, chanting louder now, and faster, then lower and slower, waiting to become possessed by dead Screamers, waiting for the gifted to become the vessels of the gods and pour out their incomprehensible words, the words of fire and wind.
Mantle was subvocalizing in time with the others. He caught himself and said, “Christ, are they speaking in tongues now?”
“Are you upset at being affected even a little?” Roberta countered. She was alert as a taxkeeper.
“This is a ragpicker’s religion. Take a little from this religion, a little from that, mix it up for yourself. The Japanese would appreciate this.”
“How does a Jew who is part Indian rationalize his prejudices?” Roberta asked. Mantle felt his face become warm, and he flashed back to Joan writing a dossier on him for Pretre. “If you want a healthy and successful experience with the Crier,” Roberta said, “then you must stop being critical and loosen up. Or do you want to get lost forever inside our temple?” Her smile conveyed only irony.
Mantle noticed the statues scattered around the ruins between the gnarly, high-hatted olive trees. Now—all at once—he could see them, as if a subliminal engineer had been at work here. All the statues were alike: smooth stone heads entirely without features except for those created by shadows. He now noticed that the boutades and older people next to him were fingering small figurines, but he could not see them clearly; he guessed that they were smaller versions of the big smooth-faced statues.
The chanting became white noise to Mantle, as primordial and eternal as the surf churning behind him.
“Don’t you find it difficult to accept the worship of idols?” he asked, genuinely curious; but a note of sarcasm had crept into his voice.
“I don’t find it difficult,” Roberta said, “but, then, I have heard them speak.” Mantle groaned. “Would you feel better if I told you that the statues are merely devices for narrowing my consciousness?” She paused, then asked, “Do you believe that man has a soul, a divine spirit?”
Sensing a trap, Mantle said, “I don’t know. Being a Jew, I’ve never given it much thought. Jews just die, they don’t worry about heaven or the state of their souls.”
“But Indians do,” she said, flashing him a smile, giving him no escape this time. “All modern religions presume a soul, as did the ancients. It’s God’s breath, a speck of eternity carried within us. But what poor vessels we are to carry eternity! We sweat, shit, get sick, die, decompose. If even we can have a soul, flimsy flesh creatures, how much easier, how much more plausible, that perfect stone would be the vessel for the divine. It’s virtually changeless, can be sculpted into the most beautiful forms, cannot be defiled by human passions, and is much more enduring than any flesh.”
“Do you actually believe that?”
“I don’t need to,” Roberta said. “I look upon the stone and see it speak; I hear the Crier just as I hear you.”
Jesus! Mantle said to himself.
“And Jesus to you,” Roberta said, smiling.
The worshipers, the old people and boutades, the children, the townsfolk and well-kept men and women—these representatives of different classes and cultures and styles—were all shaking and crying and sweating and praying and singing in tongues, passing between consciousness and trance, seeing into the dark places, the dead places, without hooking in.
“Let it happen,” Roberta whispered.
Mantle listened for what seemed only a minute, transfixed by the pounding, persistent Aria ariari isa, vena amiria asaria: nonsense words that somehow meant something if only he could find the rhythm, if only he could focus his mind. . . .
His thoughts were like sparks in the wind. He had not been sucked into a trance: he could still analyze and categorize and look ahead with dread and longing to the imminent hook-in.
The music seemed to be all around him; he was being carried along on the accented and unaccented syllables of the Aria, which was as precise as poetry, but without sense—at least without sense for the analytical left hemisphere of his brain.
He was drifting in slow-time. His mind was clogged with incomprehensible words. Roberta read my thoughts, Mantle told himself, feeling a rush of anxiety which at the same time seemed somehow isolated from him. But that was so long ago, he thought.
He tried to shake himself loose from the mock-Screamers around him.
“Have you dusted the air with hallucinogens?” he asked Roberta.
“Would that help you?”
“That’s no answer,” Mantle said, looking around, trying to keep everything in focus. He looked at the idols and saw that they had faces now. Perhaps it was the face of the Screamer in the tomb. A large stone near the dolmen had a woman’s face. It was Josiane’s—it seemed to move, to stare at him. The image was inside the stone and perfectly three-dimensional. He blinked, and it disappeared.
“That’s a cheap fucking trick,” Mantle said.
“What’s that?” Her voice rose in rhythm with ariari isa.
The images on your idols: they’re laser-projected. Are you using a full complement of subliminals? Very sophisticated for such a primitive ceremony.”
“Just let it happen,” Roberta said, looking intently at him as if he were one of the stone idols.
“Bullshit,” Mantle said. Only an instant had passed. His mind was clear now. The rain, which had begun to fall again, felt good on his face. It was tangible and real.
Mantle and Roberta had been talking to each other in time with the rhythm, intoning downward at the end of each phrase, ending in a groan, then up again. Even Mantle’s thoughts followed the rhythm, the rhythm of glossolalia, of fiery tongues, the same rhythm that could be found all over the world, from the Umbanda trance ceremonies in São Paulo to the Holy Rollers in Binghamton.
He had been trapped, duped. Now he was scamming down again into the hollow metallic regions of his subconscious, to the places he feared, that he only visited in his paintings, that he had shut off and bricked over since his bum trip on enlightenment drugs. There was no enlightenment, just bare metal. His skin was clammy and he was beaded with sweat.
“There is dust in the air, isn’t there?” he asked angrily. “Sonofabitch!”
“We didn’t ask you to come here,” Roberta said. “You’ve no right to anger, no matter what we do. You’re using us. This is our ceremony.” She was spitting her words now, or did Mantle only imagine that? Damn their drugs and subliminals, he thought. “We did not contract to take you by the hand and explain our service, point by point,” she continued.
“Don’t give me any holier-than-thou shit,” Mantle said. “Your friend Pretre is already blackmailing me.” The drugs isolated him, and he was afraid of being alone, of feeling that only he was real, that all the others were shadows. “I don’t want to be drugged when I plug-in.” He imagined that the mist had turned into veils which, in turn, were hardening like polymerized plastic around the laser-projected image.
“You want to find your wife and regain your memory,” Roberta said. “What does it matter how you do it, straight or stoned? You should care only for the result.” That said quickly, a glissando.
“Why did Pretre choose you to be my guide?” Mantle asked softly, changing the subject, leading her to safer ground. He knew that he needed her, for she alone was substantial; the others were shadows, ghosts—he thought that if he could keep her nearby, he could hold onto his thoughts and sanity even through the drug dust.
“Joan Otur was to be your guide; I was to help her as I could.”
“It was my fault about Joan, she—”
“I’m sure she’s fine,” Roberta said, drawing nearer to him. Pretre must have told her what happened, Mantle thought, but he accepted her closeness and comfort.
“Why should Joan have needed help?” Mantle asked. “There’s no one helping you.”
Roberta smiled and said, “Actually, Joan wasn’t much further along in the church than you are. Her own problems kept her back.” Then she said, “I lost my husband, just as you lost your wife. And I suffered amnesia too.”
“And that’s why you joined the church?” Mantle asked. “To find him?”
“I attended a hook-in under the pretense of joining the church. Like you. But I joined the church out of belief.”
“Did you find him?”
She shivered and said, “Tonight, I will meet him.” Mantle could feel her close up; still, he pressed her. “And your amnesia—have you regained your memory?”
She ignored him and stared in the direction of the tomb. Mantle was alone now and vulnerable. The worshipers were quiet, waiting, twitching and swaying to an imagined rhythm as if they could see cloven tongues of fire and the rushing wind of holy spirits. Everything was quiet, or, rather, bathed in white noise.
Then Pretre stepped out of the tomb: an impressive figure, his face smeared with ashes or perhaps dirt. Standing naked outside the dolmen, he might have been an Olmec priest without cap and cape, or the gray bishop of Carthage, or a Judaic prophet, or an Indian Pejuta Wicassa. For an instant, he was all these things; then he was just another zealot, a foolish, potbellied upside-down man trying to return to a child’s primitive world of authority.
Mantle saw him clearly, saw him as visionary and fool, one overlaid upon the other; and he was embarrassed for him and embarrassed for himself—and for Roberta and for all these worshipers who imagined that they could shake off their culture like a damp blanket. He felt sorry for them all, felt sorry for the mist and drug dust and idols and olive trees and transpods, for the very rocks of Cap Roux.
Sorry for the rocks?
And with a jolt, he realized that the drugs had taken him again.
He fought to hold himself together. He took Roberta’s hand, hoping she would not pull away. She squeezed his hand in return, reassuring him. She seemed alert, unaffected by the hallucinogens, and the contact helped to clear Mantle’s head. Or was that clearness itself a dangerous illusion?
“He’s waiting for you,” Roberta said softly, as if she were speaking directly to Pretre and not Mantle. She unzipped her clothes and stepped out of them. She looked chunky in clothes, but, naked, she was taut and well-muscled; only her overly large breasts broke the illusion of smooth lines. “Come on. Quickly,” she said, turning to Mantle. “Get undressed.”
“Why?” Mantle demanded, mouth full of brambles, and words spoken not conforming to the words in his head. For a second he thought he was speaking to Joan.
“Just get undressed.”
But Mantle made no move to disrobe. Although he felt that public nudity was as natural as skin, he was suddenly shy and embarrassed.
“When you took your vision-quest, you went naked, as you must now,” Roberta said. “Humble yourself; loosen your mind.” Mantle’s face burned. Damn Joan for telling them everything. He remembered sitting in the vision pit and dreaming of thunder beings and the mystery of the holy Cabala; he had been eighteen then. The vision-quest had been real, authentic; this ceremony was a sham. But no, that was bullshit, too: the vision-quest had been a last attempt to hold onto childhood before his passage into civilized adulthood. He had hallucinated then, as he was hallucinating now; and that was all there was to either ceremony. But he didn’t believe that either, did he? Inside, in the fearsome cellars of his mind, he believed in the old vision and all the spirits he had seen.
Even now he believed.
Mantle didn’t really care that this ceremony was a sham, a paste-together of other cults and religions; what bothered him was that it was heretical. By participating, by taking off his clothes and plugging in, he was forsaking his old gods and accepting new ones.
He undressed clumsily, dropped his clothes in a heap, and walked through the crowd to the tomb. The worshipers closed in behind him.
Roberta was waiting for him, and he followed her into the tomb, which was evenly lit and seemed larger than it had looked from the outside, no doubt an effect of its ziggurat-like structure. The stone walls were bare, and there were cracks in them large enough to see through. In the center of the room, beside the large and weather-worn console of the psyconductor, was the Screamer: a middle-aged man with a long, sallow face; gums drawn over even, capped teeth; and pale blue eyes that might have been piercing at one time but now were glazed. Mantle had the absurd notion that the eyes were porcelain, that he could have painted on them or tapped them with his fingernail without producing a single blink. The Screamer, who must have once been affluent to afford such a pretty set of teeth, was naked. Mantle could not help but notice that he had lost most of his pubic hair (and most of the hair on his head, although he was not completely bald) and that he had a formidable erection.
The other participants, looking skeletal and chicken-skinned, stared down at the Screamer, who was still alive and breathing shallowly. Mantle shuddered as he watched: they were all waiting for the Screamer to die.
There was a hospital smell in this room. Mantle felt miles removed from the ceremony and the crowd outside; years removed from the drug-induced euphoria of glossolalia. He was in a waiting room, simply that, waiting for a man to die so he could hook-in and then go home with a few memories to fill up his empty life.
“Where’s Pretre?” Mantle asked.
“Outside with the other Criers,” Roberta said in a whisper. “He’ll be back in time.”
We’re vampires, he thought; Roberta smiled as if she had read his mind. “Shouldn’t we plug-in before he’s dead?” Mantle asked. “Help him over, so to speak?”
“We can’t help him until he’s dead. And then he’s going to help us.”
Mantle looked at the Screamer. Fuck him, he thought. If the man had wanted privacy, he would have died alone. Curious, this hatred he felt for the dying man. He wondered about that. Perhaps it wasn’t so strange, after all. He was going to invade him, screw his mind, which was more physical and sensual than if he were engaged in a simple act of necrophilia.
He could imagine himself doing just that, debasing himself. He had reason: to find Josiane. But Joan—he could not imagine her sinking herself into the mind of a corpse. But she was going to do it for the church.
He felt a rush of hate for Joan, and desire.
With a long sigh, the Screamer died.
The Man Who Melted Jack Dann
The Man Who Melted©