The Last Hot Time

John M. Ford

Tor Books

September
 
The Triumph TR3 was running sweet tonight; Danny Holman had been fiddling with it for a week straight, but he’d tinkered with it near nonstop for the eight months he’d owned it without any really definite results. But now he was doing—well, nearly sixty—through the September night, all alone on I-80, a wire-wheeled golden bat out of hell.
Danny saw a lighted truck stop about eighty miles into Illinois. He was pretty sure he could get to Chicago on the gas he had, but the truck stop was the first place he’d seen open since dark. No sense getting caught short. Not after what it had taken to get this far. He pulled the TR3 onto a ramp with heavy weeds to either side.
The station looked like it had been huge, once. There were at least a dozen pump islands out of service, lots of cracked concrete and dead light poles, and some hollow buildings. A big brick shell still had a dark motel sign. There were ten tables in the restaurant, and room for forty more. A big red-lettered sign by the counter said if you are under 21 do not ask for beer. we punish criminals. Who’s we? he thought, but no one gave him a problem with his cheeseburger and berryade. There was another sign that read we have coffee, with have on a separate card. Below that it said price negotiable.
A skeletal old man filled the Triumph’s tank, then wiped the windshield and headlights. “Goin’ home?” he said, with a look at the luggage in the little car’s passenger seat.
“No,” Danny said, without thinking about it.
“Well,” the man said, “then it ain’t too late to go home.”
“I s’pose so.” Danny didn’t want to start a string of lies with the guy, and he supposed that anything he said would have about the same effect.
“If you need directions…” The old man nodded toward a cardboard box, between a rack of oil cans and the end pump. A card said the only map you need. The box was full of Gideon Bibles, black and green, probably from the motel. Danny’d seen the same box in Iowa, half a dozen different times and places. He paid the attendant and drove on.
The road was empty. Every half hour or so he slowed down for a reflector barricade marking off a patch of crumbled pavement or collapsed embankment or a mass of burnt-out vehicles too big to remove. There was a little fingernail of moon, making foggy gray shadows on the concrete, but mostly the night was black on black, with a few lone stars on the horizon, barns or one-crossroad towns. A couple of the towns had signs, the old white-on-green reflective ones. He didn’t turn off. Towns like that had shot at him in the county ambulance with the lights going. The odds wouldn’t be any better now.
Maybe, Danny thought, Illinois was different.
Nope. It would be different where he was going.
He flipped on the radio and started scanning with the knob. There was noise with long dead spots between, no change there. He got a ripple of piano music and an unintelligible voice, but it slipped away.
Then rhythms came up clear, and a voice Danny knew: one of the WGN night people. Danny smiled. This was the sound that had kept him sane, in his room, with the earphones stuffed in tight and muffled with gauze so that no one else would hear. He could ride the beam all the way now.
A record came on. The car hummed and Danny did too.
 
None of you knows what to do
You better move it ’cause I’m coming through
Everybody’s sayin’ that the kid’s insane
I’m doin’ ninety miles an hour
In the breakdown lane
 
As the road rose up to meet the car, Danny saw an edge of orange light on the distant horizon. It reminded him of a night fire call, last summer, when a barn and silos had gone up a county over. It had taken a couple of hours to cover twenty miles, to find a road somebody hadn’t blasted or blocked for some weird local reason. When they got there, the VFD had given up trying to put the fire out and was just holding it back from the farmhouse.
One of the firemen led Danny and his partner to a covered pickup. In the back were a woman wobbling between numb silence and screaming fits, two little kids who just wanted to watch the fire, and a teenage boy with second-degree burns on his hands and arms who didn’t want to be treated and really didn’t want pain meds. After a while Danny understood the boy needed something to fight, and the pain was all he had. If he lost that, he might just break down.
Some of the VFD guys had burns and smoke, so the paramedics went to work on them. Danny’s partner asked the fireman he was bandaging where the farmer was.
The man twisted his face around, and then said, “When we said there was nothin’ we could do for his barn, he just up and walked into it. Captain tried to knock him down with the stream, but he just kept goin’. I mean, we tried, but—”
 
Up ahead of us walls and wire
We’re gonna take ’em like a house afire
Everybody’s sayin’ that the kid’s insane
I’m doin’ ninety miles an hour
In the breakdown lane
Wolves are gettin’ hungry, let ’em off the chain
Doin’ ninety miles an hour
In the breakdown lane
 
Danny fiddled with the radio again, trying to get some news about the glow ahead. The orange light was too big to be a burning house, or even a whole town. What the heck could it be?
Headlights flashed in the rear-view. There was a big car back there, gaining on him. Danny thought about giving the guy a run for his nickel, but he was already getting enough crosswind to make the Triumph wobble, and besides, the car behind had asked permission. He dropped a gear and slipped into the right lane.
The car pulled up. Danny took a look. He saw headlights like chrome buckets, a hood like a coffin, bow-wave fenders over white-sided tires, and running boards six feet long: a car straight out of a James Cagney movie.
The near front window was down, and a face showed in it, lit by green dashboard glow. Danny saw weirdly sharp, foxlike features, long white hair.
An elf. A real, honest to…whatever elf.
The elf raised two long thin fingers and the car rolled on. Danny tapped his hands on the wheel, feeling a charge right down in his gut. Elves. Fast cars with power to burn. Next stop Chicago.
Just ahead the road made a tight right, notched through a low hill; the big car’s headlights spilled across the blasted rock face. Danny dropped back a little farther; this wasn’t necessarily a divided highway anymore, and—
Halfway through the curve, the Triumph’s lights picked up the other car, dead ahead in Danny’s lane: it was another high-wheeled box like the first car had been, it was blood red, and its lights were out.
Just as the two big cars in front of Danny were side by side, white fire spat from the side of the red one. Danny heard the guns above the wind, like saw blades going through pine. The red car spun its wheels and shot away through the darkness toward the city glow beyond. The dark car bucked and wavered, but somehow kept to the road until it was clear of the rock face; then it bumped over the left-hand shoulder and came to a stop on the roadside, tilted nose-up, headlights aimed at the treetops.
Danny braked hard, pulled off the road to the right, and stopped. He opened the door, looked around: no more traffic. His working stuff was in a red roll bag behind the seats; he slung it and sprinted across the highway.
Crazy patterns of holes were punched across the side of the car and starred the dark windows. Danny heard a groan from somewhere in the rear. He grabbed the door handle, got it open. A soft light came on inside.
The rear space was as big as a normal car’s whole interior. There was a sofa-sized rear seat, and against the front wall, just below a glass divider, were folded jump seats and a wooden cabinet holding cut-glass bottles. One flask was smashed, and Danny smelled whiskey.
A woman was sprawled on the backseat. She wore a sapphire-blue gown and a short white jacket. There was blood all over them, and on her short, white-blond hair. Her head rested in the lap of a small man in a dark suit with wide peaked lapels, a silver shirt, and a shiny black tie. A broad-brimmed hat hid his face. Danny zipped the kit open.
“Cloud,” the man said.
Danny felt a movement past his left ear. He jerked, got something in his hand, turned. There was a white-fleshed, thin man—the elf he had seen in the dashboard light—just beside him, in a blue leather cycle jacket and a long dark scarf. The elf was holding a short-barreled pump shotgun. Its muzzle was what had flicked past Danny’s ear.
Danny had automatically grabbed a pair of angled shears, to cut access to the wounds. Its metal was warming in his hand. It looked pretty lame compared to the elf’s gun. As if that weren’t bad enough, the bent metal made Danny think of Robin, and he’d come up here to not do that anymore.
The suited man looked up. He was black, with a sharp chin and nose, large dark eyes. He said, “You have excellent reflexes, young man. Do you know how to use that equipment?”
“That’s why I brought it,” Danny said, calmly enough. He’d heard Ain’t you awful young for a paramedic? often enough that it didn’t sting any longer, not much.
“You’ll see to the lady.” He spoke without an accent, but with an odd rhythm. He put the woman’s head down, very gently, and moved to the jump seat opposite. The elf hadn’t moved.
Danny shoved his brain back into Trauma Mode. Airway first. The woman sucked in a breath, and the dark well of blood in her flank sucked and bubbled. Through the lung. Bad. “Excuse me,” he said, stuck a penlight between his teeth and bent down to check beneath her. No exit wound. One hole to seal: less bad for the moment. An ER would have to worry about where the bullet was.
A couple of long rips with the shears got the white jacket out of the way. Danny ripped open a pressure bandage, peeled the blue satin away from the hole. There was nothing between the thin slick fabric and her skin. The pad went on and he leaned on the sucker. He tore off some tape one-handed and sealed it down. She heaved another breath, coughed, but the bad noises stopped.
Danny took inventory. The scalp wound looked minor, a bullet crease or a flying sliver; it was clotting okay, not a priority. There was a nasty clip out of her upper left arm. He could see bone.
The door by the patient’s head opened. A big man in a black bush jacket leaned in. There was a Colt .45 in his hand; it looked small there. “Looks clear, sir.” His voice had some Irish in it. “Ruthins. Mighty hunters. Fah.” He turned his head and spat. “Norma Jean?”
The small man said, “The young man seems to be doing well by her.”
“The young man could use a hand,” Danny said, feeling the sweat on his hands and face. “Can one of you guys hold her shoulder? Really firm, and don’t let go if she screams.”
The big man leaned into the car. “Reducin’ the fracture?”
“That’s the idea.”
The man nodded and put his hands on the woman’s upper arm. Danny pulled, clenching his teeth against the sound of grating bone, but the woman didn’t yell, just grunted. He got the dressing and splint in place. “That’s it. Thanks.”
“Think nothin’ of it.”
“Her name’s Norma Jean?”
“Around here,” the small man said, “names are something one keeps to oneself. We call people things.” He indicated the big man and the elf in turn. “This is Lincoln McCain. And Cloudhunter Who Keeps His Sisters’ Counsel, though Cloudhunter will do. I am called Mr. Patrise.” He spelled it.
“Danny Holman.”
“You’re a…medical student?”
“I’m a paramedic.”
“That means you have a license.”
“Yeah. Can I show it to you some other time, please? She needs a hospital.”
“Yes. And yes.”
The big man, McCain, said, “Cook County’s closest.”
“Not secure,” Cloudhunter the elf said. His voice sounded like the wind in high grass.
“I’m afraid that’s right,” Patrise said. “It’s always at awkward times that one is reminded of one’s weaknesses.”
McCain said, “Michael Reese, then.”
“Fine.” Patrise said to Danny, “I assume you’re used to working in a vehicle? The car rides smoothly, and it’ll get better as we get closer to the city.”
“City?” Danny said. “No, wait, my car’s out there, and my stuff.”
Mr. Patrise said, “Nothing you absolutely need in the next few hours.” He did not seem to be asking.
“I can’t leave my car here!”
“Yes, you can. I personally guarantee its safety, and that of all your belongings. They will be brought to you by morning. Anything you need before then will be provided, and by that I mean anything. You will find me a properly grateful man.” Patrise looked past Cloudhunter, out the car door. “Besides…you haven’t been to the Levee before.”
“You’re from the Levee?” Danny said, too quick. It was a stupid question, with an elf in the car. “Uh—no, never.”
McCain said, “Your car may not work once it hits the redline, then.”
“What about yours?”
“Ah, we’re dual-fuel,” McCain said. “Don’t worry. She looks like a nice machine. She’ll be cared for.”
Mr. Patrise said, “Cloud, I’ll ride in front. You stay here.” Cloudhunter nodded, pulled down the jump seat, and shut the door.
McCain moved aside to let Patrise get out, then leaned in again. He pointed to some buttons on the backseat bar. “This one keeps the light on. Lighter here if you smoke. Help yourself to what’s left of the stock; there’s cold beer below.” He picked up the broken decanter, flung it away into the dark. He shut the door.
The car started. It bumped a few times, then found the road; the ride was very, very smooth. Danny wiped some of the blood from Norma Jean’s scalp wound; it really wasn’t too bad. He put a small dressing on, deciding to leave cutting her hair to the hospital team. In the dim light he could hardly tell Betadine from blood.
He looked up. Cloudhunter Who Keeps His Sisters’ Counsel was sitting absolutely still, the shotgun across his knees. Only his silvery eyes moved, shifting like mercury. Danny couldn’t see a thing through the tinted windows, not even into the front seat; he had heard that elves had night vision, or some kind of special vision.
“Mr. Cloudhunter—”
“No titles,” the elf said. “Cloudhunter is fine. Cloud if we get
to be friends.”
“Cloudhunter, could you put that thing away?”
“The Ruthins might try again.” The elf’s voice was softer now, more like human. “Not much use put away.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
The eyes shifted again. “The Urthas like to plot,” he said, still more softly. “Urthagwaed’s clever and likes to be seen so. Long Lankin, or Iceberg Jack, Glassisle, Rhiannon—any could find a nice human lad, good with the kingsfoil…have him finish whatever needed finishing.”
Danny didn’t say anything. Assuming he understood what the elf was saying, there was no point in arguing with it.
Norma Jean groaned, stirred. She gurgled out a half scream. “Easy, now, easy, Norma Jean,” Danny said, and put a hand on her shoulder, pressed just slightly. She sighed as the pain defocused. The blue dress had covered her breasts maybe halfway, before Danny had started cutting.
“Is she in pain?” It was Patrise’s voice through an intercom grille.
“I don’t think she’s really conscious. But—is there a blanket back here?”
“Drawer under the seat.”
As Danny got Norma Jean covered, Patrise said, “Can you give her something?”
“You mean for pain? I’ve got aspirin and benzocaine cream. No good here.”
There was a pause. The woman’s head trembled.
Mr. Patrise said, “I’d like to see your license now.” A little drawer slid out of the dividing panel. “I’m not questioning your ability.”
Danny got out his wallet. “You want my driver’s license, too?”
“That would be all right.”
He put the cards through. “Ah,” Patrise said. “Do you see this birthdate, Lincoln?”
“Okay!” Danny said. “Okay, so I’m still nineteen, all right? The stuff’s all real and the car’s really mine. It’s only a few weeks to my birthday—”
“It certainly is,” Patrise said. “October thirty-first. All Hallow’s Eve.”
Cloudhunter’s head turned.
Mr. Patrise said, “Hallowseve. Holman, Hallownight. That’s a fine alias. Doc Hallownight, I think.” He laughed. It was a pleasant sound. “There are already several Docs on the Levee, there always are. Oddly enough, few of them ever have MDs.” He laughed again, and Danny found himself wanting to laugh too.
After about fifteen minutes, Danny could see the glow of the burning sky through the dark windows. They were apparently traveling at high speed, seventy at least, but the car seemed barely to be moving. Danny looked at his watch. The liquid-crystal display read fear. Danny blinked, angled his wrist to catch the light. 2:28 AM. No wonder he was seeing things. He’d been driving for nearly nine hours straight before all this.
He said, “How long till we get to the hospital?”
McCain’s voice said, “Ten minutes.”
“Can I have my IDs back now?”
“Mr. Patrise is rather tired.”
Danny’s watch said 2:30, and then rage, and then 2:31.
At 2:40 they drove into a brightly lighted garage. An ambulance was parked nearby. Cloudhunter opened the door. A moment later, Norma Jean was on a gurney and Danny was giving the ED team the lowdown: “We have a woman, early twenties, two gunshot wounds to the left flank and upper left arm, punctured left lung…”
Somebody, probably a resident, nodded to Danny by way of acknowledgment and the team closed him out. Nothing new about that. He looked around for Mr. Patrise and the other men, but they had disappeared. He wandered out into the waiting room.
It had the usual litter of old magazines, empty cardboard cups, and smokers’ debris, and an unmanned counter of ancient varnished wood. The room smelled both musty and of disinfectant. As he started to feed change to the drinks dispenser, a woman’s voice said, “Don’t do that. Even if you are near a hospital.”
A muscular, dark-haired woman in surgical scrubs, stethoscope draped around her neck, was standing in a doorway. “You’re Doc Hallownight?”
“Daniel—uh, yeah.”
“Lucy Estevez. I’m the lucky bozo in charge of the Knife and Gun Club tonight. It was pretty quiet until you got here.” She held out a hand and Danny shook it. “Come on back and have some actual coffee. It’s probably just as toxic as the machine stuff, but at least it’s free.”
They went back to a nurses’ station, facing a row of a dozen curtained cubicles, about half of them with signs of occupancy. Dr. Estevez poured coffee from a heavily stained pot into two mugs bearing the names of drug companies; one was advertising an antihypertensive, the other a stool softener.
It was real coffee, as strong as he’d ever tasted it. It made Danny’s chest burn and his head stand up and cheer. “Thanks.”
“McCain said you were a paramedic.”
“Yeah.”
“Hey, relax.” She told him a story about a motorcycle decapitation, down to the last splintered vertebra and drop of O-negative. He told her one about a disk-harrow accident. He’d had the conversation before, at Adair County. He relaxed. He knew this place.
Dr. Estevez got a bottle of peroxide and a towel to take the blood off Danny’s denim jacket. She fingered his blue chambray shirt. “I think this one’s had it. Mind accepting a loaner?”
“Sure.” He was given a blue scrub shirt, found a bathroom to change in. In the mirror, there was more blood on him than he’d realized. He rinsed his chest and slipped the shirt over his head. It was Stamped stolen from michael reese hospital.
When he came out, Dr. Estevez was emerging from a cubicle. “The young lady ought to make it,” she said. “You do good work.”
Danny nodded.
“I mean that. You did it all dark?”
“There was light in the back seat.”
“I mean, you didn’t use any magic.”
“Huh?”
“Never mind. You’re from the country?”
“Duz it show s’much?” he drawled.
“When you came in, you said, ‘We’ve got a woman.’ One of the local people would have said, ‘white female.’”
Danny thought hard about that. Things were going to be different here. People were going to be different, in more ways than one.
Dr. Estevez said, “I don’t suppose you’re looking for a job. We can always use another van jockey.”
“Well, actually, I just got here, and…I guess a job sounds pretty good.”
“The pay’s fair, but I guarantee the hours stink worse than anything you’re used to. And you know the New Paradigm?”
“No.”
“There are never enough of us, so if you bring somebody in and don’t have another call right away, you can get drafted as an ED assistant. OR too, sometimes. And you do know which end of the baby to grab?”
“Did it for real once.”
“Good enough. Anyway, it’s all the fun of being a first-year trauma resident, without ever getting to be a doctor.”
“We did all that at home. We didn’t have a name for it.”
McCain appeared from somewhere in the back of the ward. “Mr. Patrise wants to see you, Doc.”
“Offer’s open,” Dr. Estevez said, and went into one of the cubicles.
McCain led Danny to another cubicle. Cloudhunter was waiting outside, holding a hand inside his coat. Danny had no doubt there was a weapon tucked away there. The elf opened the curtain and Danny went in.
Patrise was sitting up on a bed, his shirt off. His chest and arms were very thin, and his dark brown skin had the blue-gray cast of heart disease. EKG wires ran to a monitor; Danny saw a slightly abnormal rhythm, probably valvular trouble.
On Patrise’s right chest was a black bruise the size of Danny’s palm.
“You didn’t tell me you’d been hurt.”
“A ricochet. My coat stopped it.” Patrise tilted his head back. His face was delicate, even-featured, thin-lipped. His hair was black and combed straight back from his forehead, caught in a silver clip at the back of his neck. “Some first night in the big city, eh, Hallow? What’s the time?”
Danny looked cautiously at his watch. It showed just numbers. “Three-ten.”
“Little late to show you the bright lights, then. But you’re still going strong. That’s good. Night people are at an advantage on the Levee. Lincoln.”
McCain looked in. He had a broad, rocklike face, all planes and crevices. His eyes were sharp blue. When he looked at Danny they seemed friendly enough; Danny didn’t want to see unfriendly on McCain.
Patrise said, “We’ll go by the club; Doc can shake some hands.”
McCain nodded and left. Patrise said, “They always treat your clothes like something dangerous. Find my shirt.”
It was on a hanger nearby. The label said turnbull & asser. As he helped Patrise put it on, he realized that it was silk. He had never in his life seen a man’s silk shirt.
Patrise fingered the rip in the shirt above the bruise on his chest, touched one of the EKG wires glued to his skin. “Shut that gadget off. I don’t want them thinking I’ve died. Too many people have ideas already.”
Danny switched off the monitor. Patrise peeled the electrodes off, buttoned his shirt.
“Mr. Patrise, the doctor on duty offered me a job here.”
“I’m not surprised. Lucy can see competence a mile off. I’m sorry to disappoint her. Don’t worry, Lincoln will make the excuses.” He paused. “Perhaps it wasn’t clear: you have a job. With me. Personally. There’s no room for moonlighting.” He pulled on an elastic-sided shoe. “You’ll have plenty of your own time, but you work for me. Understand that and you’ll have no cause to complain.”
“Mr. Patrise, this is—I mean, I just drove into the city. You don’t know me, it was just an accident—”
“There aren’t any accidents.” Patrise examined his slim hands, rubbed away a bit of electrode paste. “You have options, of course. You could work here. It’s a nice place, if you don’t mind the pay and the hours, the homicidals and the positive Wassermanns, all that. And, too, Norma Jean’s family is Gold Coast, and they’ll probably want to express their gratitude in a concrete way. But you’d regret it.” He looked up, smiling. “That isn’t a threat: I won’t make you regret it. You just will.” He stood up, wavered a little; Danny caught his arm.
Patrise looked up at him, eye to eye. “As for not knowing you…ask me again in a month if I know you. Cloud.”
Cloudhunter pulled the curtains open, held Patrise’s coat. At the nurse’s station, McCain was signing some papers. Dr. Estevez waved as they passed. “Have fun, Doc,” she said. “If you ever get tired of the good life, give me a call.”
They got into the car, Patrise and Cloudhunter in back, McCain driving. Through the clear glass in front, Danny could finally see the city. A long building with lit strips of stairwell would be the hospital; beyond it was the hollow concrete shell of a structure just as large. McCain turned into a broad street lined with burnt wood, broken bricks, empty windows, lit only by the car’s headlights and the orange sky hovering low above everything.
“People live out there?”
“Not so you’d call it that,” McCain said. “This is the Boneyard. The Penumbra if you’re in a fancy mood. Went in the big shakedown. You saw the first big wreck back there? They blew that as a firebreak, to save the hospital. Now it’s too far out of the World and the Shade both for either to care.”
There was more red in the airglow now. “It burns like this all night? Every night?”
“Nothing’s really burning. The light’s something from the change. Witch stuff, not my department. We’ll lose it once we’re really inside. We’re almost to the river now. Watch.”
The car climbed a bridge approach. Danny could see red light turning water to blood. Suddenly the sky was black, with the fingernail moon descending. Stars came out as Danny’s vision adjusted. He looked back. The river still had a pink tinge.
The little moon, without competition, washed down dark walls to wet pavements. Here and there a streetlamp glowed, and a bit of brilliantly colored neon flared. Motorcycles were parked in clusters, and a few of the boxy old-style cars.
Danny saw a multiple, hunched movement, as of something huge and dark and formless slithering down an alley—or else just a group of people, keeping their backs to the wind.
“Was that—”
“Probably. Where’re you from, Doc?”
“Nowhere.”
“Been there many a time. Little dull, but no cooking like it. Where?”
“Okay, Iowa. Adair, Iowa. Know anything you didn’t know before?”
“Adair, Iowa. The James brothers pulled their first big robbery around there, didn’t they?”
“Yeah. Yeah, they tried—but they robbed the wrong train.”
“Ah, well, everybody has to start somewhere, eh?” McCain laughed, and Danny felt himself relax.
Then McCain said in a dead cold tone, “Where you start is knowing that all the attitude in your little farmboy body don’t come up to the top of my shoes. Got that?”
It hit Danny like a fist. “I guess I’m learning.”
“If you can learn, then it’ll all be right. ‘S’how it goes.” McCain’s voice was back to normal.
“Earlier—when Cloudhunter had the shotgun on me—he would have blown my head off just like that, right? No warning? Is that how it goes?”
“When you mean to kill somebody, only a damn fool gives him a chance to disagree. And only a damn fool pulls a gun without meaning to kill somebody.” McCain turned, smiled—not all that reassuring a sight—said, “Ease up, Doc. You did a good job tonight. You work for Mr. Patrise now. There’s no better friend you could have on the Levee.”
“Are we friends?”
“I do sincerely hope so.”
McCain stopped the car in front of a lighted building with a violet awning that stretched from the curb down stairs to a double glass door. Massed electric bulbs spelled out la mirada.
The door was opened by a man in a white top hat and tails. “Good evening, Mr. Patrise. Mr. McCain, Cloudhunter. And good evening to you, sir. Your coats?”
Patrise said, “Pavel, this is Doc Hallownight. A full member of the club with all privileges.”
“Delighted to meet you, Mr. Hallownight. What will you be drinking?”
“A beer. Please.”
“Your brand, sir?”
“Uh—anything. Have you got draft beer?”
“Of course, sir.”
The entryway was lit by brass towers that threw light against the white sculptured ceiling. Brass vases of fresh flowers stood in niches along the wood-paneled walls. The corridor led to a double door of glass, frosted in geometric patterns, framed in chrome.
That door was opened by a blonde girl in a white blouse and an extremely short black skirt. “Oh! Mr. Patrise!”
The name stopped everything in the room. The few people there all turned.
The room was large and circular, with a domed ceiling that was black with twinkling stars. The outer part of the circle was three steps higher than the center. On one side of the upper ring was a black glass bar, backed by chrome and mirrors and endless ranks of bottles; a woman in a white shirt and red bow tie was mixing drinks. A man and woman leaned against the obsidian bartop, interrupted in conversation. On the other side were dining tables, all empty but one where two men in dinner jackets and two women in astounding gowns were seated.
The lower circle was a glossy black dance floor, empty. At the rear of the room was a bandstand with a white grand piano; a woman leaned against the piano, toward a man seated at the keyboard.
None of them looked like elves, but there was enough glitter and cool light that Danny was hardly sure.
Patrise went to the occupied table. One of the women said, “Patrise, how good to see you! You won’t believe the stories that have been going around tonight.” She sounded very drunk.
“Then you must tell me sometime, Tonia,” Patrise said genially. “Hello, Erika. Bob, Warren. Have you had a good evening?”
They agreed that it had been splendid, that Fay had been in top form.
“Then you must consider it on the house. Always a good time here.”
They were dazzled at Patrise’s graciousness, and oh my was that the time, they’d all turn into pumpkins, good night, good night.
The woman from the piano was running across the dance floor. She wore a low-cut, ruffled black blouse and a gold metallic skirt; she held the skirt up to run, her golden high-heeled sandals clacking on the black surface, which reflected her image full-length, two people tap-dancing sole to sole.
“Patrise, oh God, Patrise,” she said, flung her arms out and hugged him. “Oh, God, you’re here.”
“Of course, Carmen, dear.” He put his hands on her wrists and unwound her. “Meet someone new. Hallow, this is Carmen Mirage. Carmen, meet Doc Hallownight. We had a little to-do with the Ruthins tonight, and Doc saved Norma Jean’s life.”
“Ohh…where is Norma?”
“I’m afraid she’ll be going home now.”
“Oh, that’s so sad…but you saved her? That must have been very brave.”
Danny said, “Well—” and then Carmen’s arms were around him. She was very warm, and wore a potent cinnamon perfume, and she hugged tight.
“Pleased to meet you,” Danny said past the lump in his throat.
“You mean that isn’t a tongue depressor in your pocket, Doc?” Carmen said. “Or maybe it is.” She laughed and finally let him breathe. He couldn’t think. He looked down at his scrub shirt and jeans, here among all the satin and silk, and felt like he was knee-deep in pigshit and had a live chicken tucked under each arm.
The bartender had arrived with a tray of glasses. Patrise and Cloudhunter had brightly colored drinks in tall frosted glasses, McCain a mug of coffee with whipped cream. Danny got hold of his beer, took a gulp. It went down just fine.
“Doc, this is Ginevra Benci.” He gestured at the woman with the drinks.
She was a little shorter than Danny, with intensely black hair, dark blue eyes. She couldn’t have been much older than he was. Her black skirt came to just below her knees, her legs and ankles showing pale and delicate.
“Hi, Doc.”
He looked up at her face. She was smiling. “Hello.”
Mr. Patrise said, “And Alvah Fountain at the mighty Bösendorfer.” The young black man at the piano waved. His hair was done up in a mass of long, slender braids.
The two people who had been at the bar were approaching. The man was an American Indian in a wide-shouldered suit and a flowered tie. The woman was petite and Japanese, with dark hair coiled up and held with jeweled pins; she wore a tailored suit and a black turtlenecked shirt, calf-high boots of light brown suede. “Evening, Patrise,” the man said. “Is this an open party?”
“Of course. Doc Hallownight, Lucius Birdsong of the Chicago Centurion—”
“Syndicated worldwide through GNS,” Birdsong said.
“—pen sharper than a Trueblood arrow. Tongue, too. And Kitsune Asa, the Tokyo Fox.”
“Welcome to the Levee, friend,” Birdsong said, and shook Danny’s hand. “What’s the matter? Aren’t you going to tell me you read and admire my column every day?”
“No.”
“Fair enough.”
The Tokyo Fox said, “You’re a doctor?”
“I’m a paramedic. What do you do?”
“Right at the moment, I drink standing up. Pleased to meet you, Doc.”
Patrise said, “Where’s Fay?”
Ginevra said, “She went home right after her set.”
Patrise said, “Yes?”
No one spoke. Then Miss Asa drained her glass, put it on Ginevra’s tray, and said, “About two AM a couple of my-mama-eatsambrosia Ruthins came in, with a side dish of Vamps.”
Carmen said, “You said the rule was—”
“I know,” Patrise said calmly. “Ginevra, get the lady another drink. Ruthins, attended. No Highborns?”
“Nope.” The Fox shrugged. “They were hinting that you wouldn’t be coming home tonight. Didn’t seem to get the rise they wanted, so they left after Fay sang. People started drifting out after that. Last half hour it’s been just us and that mooch patrol you saw.”
“Who took Phasia home?”
Lucius Birdsong said, “Stagger Lee.”
Mr. Patrise spread his hands. “Another hot time in the old town. I think it’s time we went home too, ladies and gentlemen: I believe I’ll have to be seen by a few people today, upright and walking in my own semi-solid flesh.”
Birdsong said, “Is that typewriter of mine still under the bar someplace?”
“I couldn’t find an open hock shop,” Patrise said, and the two of them chuckled at whatever the joke was. “Ginevra!”
“Yes, sir, almost ready,” she said, whipping a cocktail shaker.
“Pavel will shut down in front; you serve Kitsune and Mr. Birdsong as long as they want, then lock up. You’ve been on golden hours since two. And take tomorrow night off.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you.”
“Cloud, see Miss Mirage home. Lincoln, Hallow, let’s go.”
They got into the car, Patrise alone in the back. With the Mirada sign switched off, all the world seemed dark, the big car’s headlights just pushing the blackness aside for a moment.
Danny said, “The Ruthins are a big elf gang, right?”
“One of them,” McCain said. “Red’s their color. You see a red leather jacket, you take care.”
“The car that shot at you was red.”
“You’re observant. Yes, that would have been the Ruthins. Unless it was someone else who wanted them blamed.”
“Is there some kind of gang war going on?”
“Conflict, I’d say. And there’s always conflict. War, now, well. They’ll cut each other up as easily as a round-ear. You heard there were gang elves in the club tonight: they can come right in as long as they follow the rules. Not like the pure-Ellyll clubs.”
“What’s an—ethyl?”
Ellyll. Not that I can say it right, either. That’s an elf name for elves.”
“And Miss Asa said something about Vamps. That can’t be what it sounds like…can it?”
McCain’s voice was suddenly tense and quiet. “Vamps are human or halfie kids who want so bad to hang around no-shit-real live elves that the elves let them. The price is that you get a taste of elf blood.”
“You mean, like, literally.”
“I mean real literally. There’s something in their blood that hits
mortals like heroin. Slurp, you’re hooked, and you’ll do anything for another little sip. So the elves think up in-ter-est-ing things for you to do. Be real careful around the Vamps: an elf’ll kill you for the sake of a joke, but a sucker’ll kill you and never know why.”
The car turned sharp right, went down a ramp. A steel door rolled up before them, and they drove into a concrete bunker of a garage. There were half a dozen cars parked, none as big as Mr. Patrise‘s, but all in the same old-time style. The garage was only about half full. As they got out, Danny saw a row of motorcycles, some with sidecars: big Harleys, BMWs, classic Indians.
A man in coveralls was cleaning the parts of a Thompson submachine gun. Laid out on a table near him were two pistols, several knives, and a black metal crossbow.
Mr. Patrise said, “Good morning, Jesse.”
“Morning, sir. Glad to have you home.”
“Have Stagger Lee and Miss Phasia come home?”
Jesse looked at a wall clock with a round white face and a swinging brass pendulum. The glass case read REGULATOR. “’Bout two hours ago.”
They walked on to an elevator lined with panels of etched bronze. It began rising. “Hallow will be in the north wing with us,” Patrise said. “Good morning to you, gentlemen.”
The door opened. McCain stepped out, waved for Danny to follow. They left Patrise behind.
They were in a broad, carpeted corridor, with Art Moderne geometric wood on the walls and overhead lamps of marbleized glass. It looked about half a mile long.
“In here.” They went into a room lit by a hard white downlight. It shone mostly on a telephone switchboard, dozens of sockets and a row of plugs. A refrigerator-sized safe was in the corner. A woman was sitting at the switchboard, wearing a headset. “Hi, Line.”
“Hi-de-hi, Lisa.”
She moved her right hand out of shadow, put down the revolver that had been hidden there and picked up a coffee mug. “I take it things are all right now.”
“Norma Jean got hurt. But she’ll be okay, thanks to this guy. He’s gonna be moving in with us. Twenty-four.”
McCain made the introductions. Lisa picked up a phone and spoke softly while McCain went to the safe and twirled the knob. Danny saw Lisa reach under the switchboard, and the safe door opened. McCain closed it again, came away holding a key on a white tag.
“Give me your left hand.”
Danny did. McCain squeezed the end of Danny’s ring finger, and he felt a stick. A drop of his blood plopped onto the key tag, which seemed to suck it up like a sponge. The tag glowed for a moment. It was blue now. McCain pressed the key into Danny’s palm.
“Lisa, call Michael Reese at six, find out how Norma’s doing. Then call her folks.”
She made a note. “Anything else?”
“No changes otherwise. G’night, Lisa.”
“Good night, Line. And you, Doc.”
As they walked down the hall, McCain pointed at the key Danny was turning over in his hand. “Nobody but you can use that now. You need somebody let in, let the staff know. Just pick up the phone in your room, you’ll get Lisa or whoever’s on the board.”
“Is ‘hi-de-hi’ code for ‘everything’s okay’?”
“Good thought. Sometimes it is. Know anything about the witch works?”
“Magic?” McCain nodded. “No.”
“You’ll find out soon enough if you’ve got the Touch. If you do, you’ll be able to find the key with it. Enough stuff, and you can zap it to you. Here’s your room.”
Danny waited, then looked down stupidly at the key in his hand. He opened the door.
The room was about the size of the one he’d grown up in, paneled in rich dark wood. Desk, table, big closet door. The sofa would fold out to a bed, or maybe there was a wall bed, a Murphy.
“Front parlor,” McCain said. He rapped a knuckle on a wall panel and it swung open. “Coat closet. Next one’s the gun cabinet, there’s a trick lock on that. We’ve got an infirmary downstairs, but you might want to keep a crash kit ready in here.”
He opened the “closet door,” went through into a room three times the size of the entry, fully furnished, with a bar and kitchenette at one end. Danny still didn’t see a bed—wait, there was another doorway. This place looked bigger than the house he’d grown up in.
McCain opened the little refrigerator. “Isn’t stocked; tell the kitchen what you’d like. Bar’s probably dry too. You a beer man?”
“Yeah.” He didn’t have a clue if that were true: he’d had beers with the fire and rescue guys—everybody knew his age, but nobody said anything. And he’d split a pint of Wild Turkey bourbon with Robin once, before the accident. They had to sleep it off in the field behind Rob’s place. He couldn’t remember now what dumb excuse they’d come up with after that, but Rob’s dad was—well, you could believe he’d been eighteen once.
McCain stood up, opened a drawer, took out a tin box. “Matches.” He pointed to a tall-chimneyed kerosene lamp in a reflector on the wall. “You know how to light those?”
“Yes.” That was true; he had grown up in Tornado Alley.
“The power’s usually pretty good, but this is the Shades. We like to save our generator juice for real emergencies. If you turn out to have the witch gimmick, keep that in mind.” He put the matches away. “Bedroom’s that way; Lisa called and it should be ready.” He went to the entry door, leaned against it, said gently, “Yeah, I know you’ve got about six million questions. Anything that won’t wait till tomorrow?”
“When’s breakfast?”
McCain laughed. “Hey, this is your house now. Breakfast’s when you wake up and get hungry. The dining room’s a floor down, or you can call to have it up here.” He looked aside. “That’s how it is here: you do as you please—unless it’s Mr. Patrise asking.”
“You’re telling me I just lucked into all this.”
“Mr. Patrise says that people make their own luck, and I think I agree with him.” McCain knocked wood. “Not to worry, is it? If you’re dreamin’, you’ll wake up somewhere else, won’t you? G’night, Doc.”
“Good night, McCain.”
After McCain had gone, Danny wandered into the bedroom, into carpet up to his ankles. There was custom cabinetry all around the walls, another desk, and an oversized four-poster bed in carved walnut. His great-grandmother had a bed like that. Her heirs had done everything short of spill blood over who would get it. The covers were turned back, and a white plush robe and a pair of gray pajamas were laid out on the spread.
He picked up the pajamas. Silk. He decided he didn’t want to put them on without a shower first.
The bathroom was all glass and chrome and silver-veined black marble. The tub was marble, with taps like spaceship controls; the shower was completely separate, a cylinder of glass block with multiple heads to spray from all directions. Somehow the stone floor was warm.
Washed and in the slippery gray silk, he slipped between the sheets. There was a console at the bedside that controlled every light in the apartment. A dial selected music channels: jazz, jazz, classical, swing, opera, jazz—wasn’t this the city? Where was the rock? He got some electric folk and listened for a while. One song was about somebody named Matty Groves and somebody else’s wife, another about a bandit on a mountain who got seriously screwed over by a girl.
He snapped off the lights and lay there, stone awake.
Lights on, robe on. A midnight snack—okay, a five AM snack—couldn’t hurt. At the last moment he remembered to get the key out of his jeans and stuff it into a robe pocket.
The heavy oak door made no sound at all. Danny looked up and down the hall. The elevator was to the right. So was Lisa‘s switchboard room. There must be stairs someplace, especially if the power went off and on. He turned left.
The last door had a glass panel. He could see stairs beyond. He paused to look out the window at the end of the hall. It had bars outside, and steel shutters. He couldn’t see very much—what looked like a hedge, maybe a moonlit garden. He went down the stairs.
The hall here had less wood, more crystal and steel. There was an office, that must be a library…dining room, yes.
There was a flutter of light just at the edge of his vision, and he turned, half-thinking of Cloudhunter’s shotgun at his head.
He saw a woman. She was wearing a black and gold kimono tied with a fringed silk sash. She looked up at Danny, and his heart crashed straight into his brain.
She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, so much so that he had trouble actually seeing her—the eyes drew him to the lips, and then the chin, the ear, the throat, without a stop to register any of them fully. He tried to speak, but his tongue wouldn’t engage and a blimp was docked in his throat.
She smiled. He ached, he hurt, he thought he would drop to his knees. She walked away from him, down the hall. He didn’t quite see her go; she was just gone, and a man’s voice said, “Is there something I can get for you, Mr. Hallownight?”
The man was a butler in a perfect gray uniform. Danny felt the sweat on his own palms, his gasping, his locked-and-loaded erection. “Was that—ff—Fay?”
If the butler saw anything untoward about Danny, he gave no sign of it. “I didn’t see, sir. Miss Phasia is retired for the night, but it could have been. Can I get you something?”
“A sandwich…roast beef? And a glass of milk.”
“Certainly, sir. And might I suggest something to help you sleep?”
“Yes.”
“I’ll have it sent up at once, sir. You know you can telephone us at any time.”
Danny climbed the stairs slowly. When he got into the hall, a girl in a gray uniform was coming out of the room. She paused to hold the door open. “Good night, sir.”
“G’night.”
There was a tray on the bedside table with a rare roast beef on dark rye, pickles and chips, and a glass of milk with a brown sprinkle on top. Danny sniffed it: nutmeg, and doubtless something under it. Something to sleep on.
Well, he had something, and he couldn’t sleep on it unless he stayed flat on his back all night. He looked dizzily at the bed: no, not in those crisp clean sheets. He walked into the bathroom, stripping as he went. The floor was warm to the skin.
He cleaned up, took another couple of minutes’ worth of shower, and crawled into bed. He took two bites of the sandwich, which was of course delicious, drank the milk-and-whatever in three gulps, and sank into sleep like quicksand, fully expecting to wake up, naked and damp, somewhere else.
But he didn’t: same bed, same bedroom. A sliver of light ran around the drapes. He got hold of his watch, which read PAIN; he threw it across the room. The bedside clock’s hands pointed to ten past five. PM, presumably.
He sat up, shook his head, dragged the robe on and walked around the apartment, just checking.
The two bags he’d had in the Triumph were in the entrance room, and the closet door stood open with a couple of paper laundry covers inside. A note was pinned to one of the bags:
 
Your cases were opened briefly, to check your sizes. Mr. Patrise instructed that you were not to be awakened, but if you rise in time, he will be pleased to see you at La Mirada for dinner at eight o ‘clock. If these clothes do not suit, please call me at your earliest convenience.
 
Boris Liczyk
 
Danny ripped the paper open. Inside was a wide-lapel suit, with pleated trousers in a deep gray-green, a tan silk shirt, and dark golden tie. At the bottom of the closet was a package of underwear and socks, a pair of wingtip shoes, and a black leather doctor’s bag. Behind the suit he found a pale-tan trenchcoat, with the full complement of buckles and buttons, and up top a matching snap-brim hat.
On the desk was a pocket watch on a chain, and a leather sack of coins. Danny had read that paper money wasn’t worth much in the Shadow; it was barter, or metal.
It was crazy. It was all plain crazy. He moved to check out his own bags, then decided why bother? What did he have worth this crowd’s stealing?
The bathroom cabinet had shaving stuff, aspirin and Cold pills, a box of rubbers, and some of those sponges girls used. He showered again, shaved carefully, dressed in the new outfit. It all fit nicely, and felt good, crisp and sharp and good. The shirt collar was a little tight, and Danny had never been able to manage a tie knot, but he didn’t care. There was a full-length mirror in the bedroom: he looked at himself for a long while, jacket off and on, coat and hat off and on. He experimented with the hat angle. Even his hopeless red hair seemed to look right. The freckles—well.
He hung the coat and jacket up and went downstairs. In the dining room, he found a short, thin man with gray hair, in a perfectly creased navy-blue suit and a red scarf at this throat—ascot, that was it. The man turned.
“Good day to you, Mr. Hallownight. I am Boris Liczyk.” It came out Lizzik. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, thanks.” Danny began to wonder if there was a way to turn off the solicitude.
The man looked Danny up and down. “It’s not bad, not bad—is that how you usually stand, sir?”
“I guess so. Would you call me, uh, Doc?”
“Certainly, Doc. I’m Boris. Now, if you’ll just hold still—” Liczyk adjusted Danny’s suspenders, pulling the waistband way up. He pinched a seam of the shirt sleeve, and Danny felt a chill down his arm. It passed in a moment. “Don’t move, now.” Liczyk did the same to the other sleeve. Then he put his hands on the collar, and at once the collar wasn’t tight any more. Another touch smoothed the tie knot. “Yes, that’s better. Do have me show you how to knot a tie. Do the shoes fit?”
“Fine.”
“Mm-hmm. You didn’t bring the jacket down.”
“No, but it fit just fine.”
Liczyk gave a blink of a smile. “Do you expect to be wearing a shoulder holster?”
“I—uh—well, no.”
“Good. They’re intractable. I’m sorry, I’m probably keeping you from breakfast.”
“No, it’s okay. I guess I’m having dinner in a couple of hours.”
“True. Some juice? Some coffee?”
“Yeah, coffee. And maybe a glass of orange juice.”
“Why don’t you take them in the north garden? And I’ll let Mr. McCain know you’re awake.”
It was pleasant in the garden; the sun was about to disappear below a building, but the still air was warm. The plants were still surprisingly green, with dashes of color from late-season flowers. There was no view. Brick walls twenty feet high, topped with iron points, enclosed it completely.
McCain entered. “Not bad,” he said. “Boris always likes having a new body to work on. You know you’re in for a full custom fitting.”
“Did he use magic on this?” Danny described the work on the shirt seams.
“That’s his Touch. All he works with is fabric. Seams, cigarette burns in the carpet…He’s a wizard with drapes, he is.” McCain grinned. “What, did you think it was all throwin’ lightning bolts? Come with me. Bring your coffee.”
They went down to the garage. The TR3 was there, hood propped open. Jesse the mechanic was leaning over the engine.
“You tune this thing yourself, ki—Doc?” Jesse said.
“When I can get the parts.”
“Yeah, that’s always the trouble.” He pointed at the engine block, at places where the metal looked unnaturally shiny, or glowed a deep cobalt blue. “Wasn’t any way to go dual-fuel—space, mass, architecture—and you needed new lifters anyway, so I put in sensitives, and bound a desire to the fuel pump. That should get you through any short-term tech failure.” Jesse closed the lid. “She’s a pretty car, Doc. I wouldn’t do her wrong. Turn her over yourself.”
Danny slid in. He noticed that a couple of familiar dings were out of the panel, and the rips in the soft top had all been mended. He started the car. It caught on the first try, and sounded slick as iced snot.
“Take her ’round the block,” McCain said. He held out two slabs of plastic: a driver’s license and paramedic’s card, new ones with his new name. Danny tucked them away, saluted, and put the Triumph into gear.
He got up the ramp, turned onto the street, upshifted. She liked it.
The low sun bronzed the corridors of glass and brick and the stumps of broken skyscrapers. The near buildings were mostly clean and cared for, with here and there a notch of fallen stone. Beyond, there were walls holed with empty windows, holding up nothing, and bare metal frames, twisted like dust devils petrified. Above the near rooflines, Danny could see the tops of skyscrapers: they were dull, and dark, and looked ravaged. Not one seemed to be intact.
A cluster of five motorcycles went by the other way. The riders had this-and-that leathers, not a helmet among them, streaming long hair and tassels and bits of chain. One was a bare-legged barefoot girl. They revved, popped wheelies, split to flow around the Triumph, hooting and hollering. Something bounced off the soft top and crashed against the pavement. Danny drove on, checked the mirror: they gave no sign of doubling back.
He saw the lake then, across a band of highway and a line of wrecked buildings. It roiled, green and whitecapped, more like pictures of the ocean than any lake Danny knew. It faded out into darkness to the east.
He stopped on a bridge, got out of the car for a look around. The river was low, with sludgy banks littered with broken concrete and old metal. There had been a whole series of bridges toward the west; about half of them looked intact, the others just pilings, or collapsed and partially cleared. One looked as if something had bitten out and swallowed its span. Somewhere upstream—no, downstream; the water was, illogically, flowing out of the lake—a cargo ship was beached and rusting along the waterside, tilted twenty degrees over.
To the southeast there was a green park, little smokes curling up from among the trees. At least it seemed like something people were doing. He couldn’t tell how far the park went; beyond a certain point, maybe a mile and a half away, the world got vague, like a running watercolor. A long way off to the southeast the sky was just a long smudge of smoky color. Danny had been to the Paint Pots at Yellowstone Park once, all steam and sulfur and colors; it was like that, but stretching for miles.
A breeze whistled through the bridge ironwork. It was the only sound there was. There was nobody here. The emptiness, the loneliness was awful.
A dull metallic sound came from beneath the road. Contraction? Loose bolts? Trolls?
He got back into the car. Up ahead was more iron, framing the street. He took a right, and the sun went out: the street was framed and roofed by metal lacework, big riveted girders. The elevated railroad, Danny realized. There didn’t seem to be any trains running, though he saw a couple of station signs, and a stairway with people sitting on the steps.
Danny drove as straight as he could back to the house, down into the garage. McCain and Jesse were playing cards.
“The stuff you put in,” Danny said, “does it work, outside? I mean, where there isn’t magic?”
“Sure,” Jesse said. “Not so well, but better’n spit ’n’ baling wire.” He put a card down.
McCain picked it up. “You know what—”
“Yeah, I know what baling wire is!” Danny shouted.
Both men were looking at him. Neither had any kind of meaningful expression.
Danny said, “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” McCain said. “Now, Jesse, he’s gonna be sorry. Gin.” He tossed his cards down. “What do you say we go down to the club now? You’ll have a better look before the crowd gets there, and we can get a head start on the evening’s serious purposes.”
“Without Mr. Patrise?”
“Oh, he’ll be there. Get your coat…and grab your hat.…” He sang the last four words in a terrible baritone. “And don’t forget your black bag, Doc.”
The took the Triumph, McCain folding with care and some difficulty into the passenger seat.
“Left up here,” he said. “So, magic or not, you like how she drives?”
“Oh, yeah. I, uh, she doesn’t seem to have as much power, though.”
“That’s ‘cause you’re partly on spells. They don’t have the kind of power you get from high-test gas.” He chuckled. “Sounds funny, don’t it? You think about magic, thunderbolts, splittin’ the Red Sea. And some of it’s like that. I hear in Elfland—but we’ll never see that. In the Shades it’s rickety, and when you tie it to machines it’s rickety-tickety. Tin.”
“Mr. Patrise’s car seemed to have plenty of go.”
“Mr. Patrise’s car is particular. The others are mostly wood and fiberglass. The kids who can afford ‘em ride bikes. But you can’t see Mr. Patrise on a bike, now can you?”
They parked in an alleyway and walked the last block to the club, coats flapping in the cool air. Somebody in a cap and a frowzy jacket hustled by, carrying something in brown paper tucked tight under his arm. Danny wondered if he were a Vamp. He supposed he’d have to learn to tell that.
A few steps before they reached the awning, the electric sign came on. Abruptly there was movement at every edge of Danny’s vision: people rounding corners, moving deeper into shadows or changing the ones they already had. A few people came out of darkness, too: all of them dressed up, dressed to kill.
“Mr. McCain!” one of them said, a man in a broad-brimmed hat and a cowboy duster, walking with a woman in a fringed jacket and tight skirt of white leather.
“Sheepscry. And Miss West. Good evening.” McCain tipped his hat. The man lifted his. He was an elf, ivory-skinned, silver hair—not gray but metallic silver—slicked back, small round glasses with black lenses.
Miss West, who was human, said, “I would imagine this is Doc Hallownight.” Her hair was black and white in jagged stripes, and there were a dozen silver studs in her left ear.
“Yes, miss,” Danny said, and lifted his hat crookedly. “May I ask how you knew?”
Sheepscry said, “The inimitable Birdsong wrote about you.”
Pavel opened the door. “Good evening, everybody! It’s cold outside, not in!”
The ceiling stars shone specks of light around the room. Alvah Fountain, in a brocade jacket, was playing “Hey Bartender” at the piano.
“Draw one, draw two…” Danny muttered.
“Don’t mind if I do, Doc,” said Lucius Birdsong, sitting at the end of the bar.
McCain said, “Later, Doc,” and moved off.
Danny said, “I heard you wrote about me?”
“Shaker,” Birdsong said.
“What’s your pleasure, Mr. Birdsong?” the bartender said. He had pointed elf ears, and pale, not pure-white, skin, black hair with patches of steel-blue at the temples. Danny had heard that elves and humans could interbreed.
Birdsong said, “Another one for me, and—is the doctor on duty?”
“Beer, please.”
“And a Chi-Cent, Shaker. Unless you’ve used them all as bar towels.”
“Wouldn’t think of it, Mr. Birdsong.” Shaker reached under the bar and produced a paper.
The paper had the feel of industrial toweling. Danny’s thumb smudged the ink, which had a distinct chemical smell. The chicago centurion—For This Price, You Don’t Expect a Tribune banner, with pictures of eagles and trumpets, was a coarse linoleum or wood cut.
“As your fellow doctor Sam Johnson put it,” Birdsong said, grinning, “it’s not that the puppy tap-dances like Honi Coles, but that it has any rhythm in the first place. That’s how / heard it, anyway.”
 
Copyright © 2000 by John M. Ford