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a Rasher of Bacon – Rip City!
 – Eatum-Rite & the Duckwall Bros. – the Color it was –

The rasher of bacon limply sheens those fingers greasy with scorched fat, those lips already parting for another bite, “You sure?” A gesture toward the platter heaped with bacon before them all. “Cooked to perfection. Gotta admit,” polishing it off, “you people set your minds to something, you do it right. No matter what.” The platter’s the only food on the long table, the plates before the rest of them all empty, cups and glasses sparklingly clean, napkins neatly folded, cutlery untouched. “Anybody?” A look for each of them in turn, the Glaive to the left, striped sleeves pink and white, the Guisarme in linen to the right, and beside him Mousely in a pink suit, clutching a sleek aluminum briefcase on her lap. Beside her the Chariot Iona, uncomfortably buttoned into a yellow blouse, and then Luys, the Mason, in a brown chamois shirt, and across from her the Gaffer Boggs, black turtlenecked, and the Soames himself, Twice Thomas in green tweed. “Going begging,” says the other, white shirt blazing in the sunlight. Stood behind each of them, at the edges of the shadowed porch, men in blue suits, hands behind their backs, Guerdon and Net, Trident and Serpent, Alphons, Anvil, Alans and Shield.

“My lord,” says the Axehandle Agravante, sat at the foot of the table, his suit perhaps of the darkest blue. “If we might dispense with the matter at hand?”

“What I don’t understand,” says the other, reaching for another piece, “is how any of this does any of us any good.” Munching thoughtfully. “Girl already owns the whole damn building.”

The Guisarme snorts. “Tom Wilson,” says the Glaive, “the girl’s father, held controlling interest in a group invested in developing the property; actual questions of ownership, of the land, of the structures, and so forth, and so on, are, shall we say: murky.”

“The north end of the block,” says the Guisarme, “the restaurant, the abandoned bar, the apartments above, all held by Southeast. Her father’s grandiose plans for the parcel had long been thwarted by the Duke’s refusal to part with them, at any price.”

“That’s not gonna be a problem anymore though, is it,” says the other, and Luys leans forward, “If it means,” he says, “an end, to the Queen’s mad dalliance, and brings her home, to us,” sitting back, with a sigh, “then you shall have it.”

“So we got us a plan,” says the other. “Rickety, but actionable. When do we kick off?”

“My lord,” says the Axehandle, but “This very afternoon,” the Guisarme’s saying. “We’ve already arranged a rendezvous,” says the Glaive.

The other laughs, a bark that crumbles into chuckles, climbing again in spiraling giggles. The Gaffer, starting, looks up to meet the Chariot’s blank gaze. The Mason’s hands to either side of his plate, a bit of leather tied about one wrist. The Soames looks up over his shoulder to the Anvil behind him, the Anvil looking down at his black, black shoes. “All right,” says the other, pushing back from the table, “let’s get ’er done.”

“My lord,” says the Axehandle again, as they’re getting to their feet, “if I might?” A nod for the shining case that Mousely clutches close. “Do we think that wise?”

The other scowls. “We think it’s necessary.”

“It’s the last of our stores, my lord,” says the Axehandle. The Gaffer looks with alarm to the Soames, who looks sharply at the Mason, who glares at the Guisarme, who lays a hand on Mousely’s shoulder. “If something were to happen to it,” says the Axehandle.

“Nothing will,” says the other, with a smile for the Glaive, and the Guisarme. “Y’all won’t let it.” And then, a hand slammed to the table, “Gentlemen! The point is not to make this girl’s day with a shiny new fortune. The point is to isolate your Queen, disband her cavalcade, and bring her home. And if this rickety-ass Plan A don’t work,” a pink hand lifted, a gesture, for that briefcase. “Best have a Plan B riding on your hip. Trust me, folks,” that gesture withdrawn, “ain’t nobody gonna like Plan C.”

“We’ll have your assurance, sir,” says the Mason, voice gruffly raised. “No harm will befall her majesty.”

They all look then, Soames and Chariot, Gaffer and Mousely, Glaive and Guisarme, from the shadows at the foot of the stairs to the other in the sun.

“Well, shit.” The other reaches for more bacon. “Pretty much up to her, now. Isn’t it.”

Up the stairs then, and out into the wide room, and what had once been a great curving wall of a window shattered, as open to the air now as the porch below. A breeze luffs the Serpent’s hair as he takes up a position at the edge of it, where the floor’s still mottled by old rain, as more men in blue suits accompany the rest of them down the front hall. Agravante stops there, in the middle of the empty room, looking down. Another stain blots the floor there, darkly ruddy, dulled by hapless scrubbing.

Out of the wide room, down the hall, past the front door where stone-faced Euric’s standing watch, but turning from him and up the enclosing spiraling staircase, steps quick, down another hall, dimly lit, and photographs hung to either side, a weed-choked vacant lot, a white house stark against an oncoming storm. At the end of it the Laguiole stands by a closed door, and as Agravante approaches, she slips a key from a pocket of her wide-shouldered pink coat to undo the padlock bolted to the door. He passes through, into a room almost entirely walled behind a canopy of white netting. A lamp shines within, and fluttering shadows lop before him, butterflies, their brilliant colors banked by gauze, impressions only left of black and red, of black and yellow, of orange and gold. “Highness,” he says, as the door’s closed behind him, and the sound of the padlock fitted to its hasp. The lamplight’s occluded by a shadow standing, approaching the netted canopy. “Excellency,” she says.

“I trust you slept well?”

“One needn’t trust,” says Annisa, hoarsely. “I do not sleep.” The papery sound of butterfly wings, their whispery alightings.

“The Laguiole,” he says, “the Ronca: they see to your needs?”

“Whichever of them currently looks to the bathroom could stand a lesson or two in mopping,” she says.

“This privation will soon be over.”

“What need of soon? Unlock the door. It might be over now.”

“Highness, the lock’s for your protection. Surely you must see that.”

“What I see,” she says, and the shadow of her shifting, and a sigh. “It’s not my person you’d secure, but my promise. Until the Queen’s returned, you clutch me close not for my safety, but your own.” Her shadow blurring as she steps back. “I am your just-in-case.”

He folds his arms, and if he’d been about to smile before, there’s no trace of it now about his lips. “Whichever case might come to pass, highness, you’re almost certain to end up with a crown – hers, perhaps; or a new one, of a new court, of your very own.”

He knocks once at the door, and a key-click, a hasp-rattle. “Do you know, Viscount,” she says, “Grandson of the Hound – I almost believe that you believe such a simple lock would stop him.”

He looks back as the door is opened. “You mustn’t worry yourself, highness. On this, you have my word – you’ve nothing to fear.”

“Tell me, excellency,” she says, as he steps through the door. “In all your experience with queens, have you ever known a one to see the folly of her ways?”

“Rip City!” he roars, and wipes spittle from his chin. “Rip City!” sitting up in that big brown recliner, shoulders swimming in a grey-beige sport coat. “Nineteen seventy-seven,” he says, “we had, we had giants, in those days.” Legs lost in the quilt across his lap. Jasper’s by himself on the couch, wrapped in a filthy blanket. “Men who played the game. They played hard, but. They played the game.” Wrinkles sour about the CO’s sunken nose. “Didn’t give a good God damn about the money, or the drugs, or, or. Or.” Jasper’s grizzled head nods along, his half-full mug of coffee half-forgotten. “Bill Walton! Dave Twardzik!” That soured face turns up. “Walton! Hurling a rock from the other side of the court to make the damn shot. Rip City!”

“Dad,” says the XO, over across the room. “That was Jimmy Barnett, Dad.”

“Bill!” The CO’s eyes bulge as he sucks in air enough to finish the name. “Walton!” Sport coat shoulders lurch, lapels swell with another labored breath. “Hit the bucket at the buzzer! Won the damn game! Won the championship, first time in the show!” Jasper sits back, sips coffee, looks from the CO to the XO, whose fingers are at his temple, pressing an ache, “Walton was on the championship team, yeah, Dad,” he says, “but it was Barnett hit the long shot that started Rip City.”

“Barnett! Barnett, you ignorant – Barnett was traded after one season! Nineteen goddamn seventy! To the Warriors!”

“And that’s when Rip City happened, Dad,” says the XO, pushing off the wall, heading through the sunlight slicing the ruddy drapes. “Against the Lakers. And we lost.” Squatting before the recliner. “And Bill Walton was a fucking draft-dodging hippie. Come on, let’s get you back to – ”

“I ain’t done yet!”

“Dad, come on.” Dropping the quilts to the floor. “Nobody’s here. No sense – ”

“Whose fault is that! Nobody’s here. Why do you think that is? There were men, in those days!”

“Dammit, Dad! Let me just,” and a ringing clunk, “ow!” Coffee slops the quilts. The XO lifts a hand to his head looking up, “Jesus!” to see Jasper behind him, staring at the unbroken mug in his hand, mumbling something, “wanteda hear a rest of it,” maybe.

“Give me that!” snaps the XO, reaching for the mug, grabbing Jasper’s wrist, “the hell are you trying to,” reaching across to seize the mug itself with his other hand, “you’re as bad as him, I swear – ”

“Chad,” says the CO.

Letting go of the mug, the XO looks down.

“Chad,” says the CO again.

The XO lets go of Jasper’s wrist. “Dad,” he says, “Dad, I’m sorry, but – ”

“Whose fault is it?” The CO’s voice is quiet now, and almost gentle, as he sits up to look down at the XO. “That nobody is here. Why is that, exactly?”

“I told you, Dad. I told you Moody was a bad idea. I told you not to bring him in on this.” The XO lifts up his head, but the CO’s raised his voice again, “Bad idea!” he cries. “Bad idea! Who the hell else had any good ideas around here, huh? Who hooked us up with them new boys, after Duke kicked it? Who set us up with that sweet deal? Who took a beating for us when he went inside? The Dread goddamn Paladin, that’s who! There were men! Giants!”

“He lied, Dad,” says the XO. “He’s a liar.” But he doesn’t look up, to meet the CO’s glare. “He’s the one fucked the deal up for us. He fucked everything up with them that’s in it.” The CO looks to Jasper, nodding, once. “He’s the reason,” says the XO, “Dad, he is,” and then with a sideways sweep of the mug Jasper clonks the XO’s head again, knocking him to his hands and knees.

“So?” The CO bends over the edge of the recliner, wheezing. “So? If that’s what’s going on, why the hell are you just sitting there, whining? If that’s the way it is, boy, what the hell you gonna do about it?”

Somewhere above a ragged chorus of pianos honky-tonks its way through chords too jangly to be sombre, too stately to sprite, chasing each other up and down the scales. “Hello?” calls Jo over the clamor, sunlit street too bright behind her, but the devil on her T-shirt clear enough in the shadowy vestibule. “Luys?” To one side rows of Mason jars filled with keys, sorted by size, price tags about the necks of them, quarter each, seventy-five cents, a dollar. To the other a file of unhung doors canted one against another along the wall. Sunlight desultorily browses past bins of doorknobs and drawer-pulls, glass and crystal glinting, polished brass and dented, plain turned wood, smooth porcelain, some painted with leaves, or hearts, or brush-stroke flowers. “Bruno?” says Jo. Above cabinets crammed with tiny drawers of screws and nails and nuts and bolts and hooks hang pressed-tin signs, Hood River Pears, they say, and Gosling Northwest Apples, Eatum-Rite and Blue Goose, Duckwall Bros., Kiyokawa Family Orchards. “Anybody?” In one of the angled doorways leading further in there’s a boy in a brown bomber jacket, aghast. “Sweetloaf!” she cries, but he darts away, “Wait!” She sets off through that doorway into a room thronged with bone-dry toilets, sinks on teetering pedestals, white enameled tubs lined regally behind them. Sweetloaf’s ducked through the next door into a crooked hall, couple of steps round a corner the one way, a dead end the other, two doors, the signs above them pictures of a screwdriver and a wrench. Jo looks back and forth, pianos clanging somewhere up away, but then the cry “She’s back!” rings out from around that corner.

Around the corner, into a trapezoidal room, the ceiling lost in shadows, a thicket of broken furniture climbing one wall. A long oval table, topped with glass, littered with paper plates, napkins, empty soda cans, a couple pizza boxes, and pushing back their chairs, getting to their feet, the Cinqudea in his orange coveralls, the Spadone his apron dingy with old grease, an older man swiping the bucket hat from his head, the Harper there, his yellow beard, Sweetloaf turning at the foot of it to look back to her, eyes wide. At the head of it Bruno, the Shrieve, in his moleskin vest, “My liege,” he says, quite grave, and bows his head, and they all bow their heads.

“Jesus,” says Jo, “you don’t, come on guys. Guys,” as your graces and my ladies mutter from them all. Sweetloaf blurts, “Your hair’s fucking different!”

“Yeah, well,” says Jo. “Stuff happened.”

“Your grace need not explain,” says Bruno.

“Actually,” says Jo, “the last thing I had to eat? Handful of strawberries. I couldn’t even begin to tell you when that was.” She nods at the pizza boxes. “Any of that left?”

“Strawberries,” says Bruno, “yet tartly pale, and ramps, the first raisins soaked in last year’s vinegar,” he opens one of the boxes, “new cheeses wrapped in lemon leaves, and flatbread charred in cinders: an excellent breakfast, for a day on the road.” He shoves it down the table toward her. “All we might offer your grace is last night’s pizza. Sweetloaf, fetch something to drink.”

Jo snags one of the remaining slices as Sweetloaf with a bob of his matted pompadour bustles away. “So,” she says, chewing, swallowing, “what’s with the concert?” pointing to the distantly crashing pianos above.

A dismissive shake of Bruno’s head, “Merely a household dispute.”

“Yeah?” Another bite. “Nobody’s doing the dishes anymore, are they.”

A look, from the Spadone to the Cinquedea. The Harper snorts. “There are those that are restive,” says Bruno, looking up, “and more,” a shrug, “who’ve left their station.”

“But not you boys,” says Jo, looking to the older man, the bucket hat back on his head. “You’re not one of the boys.”

“Gwenders, ma’arm,” he says, with a nod.

“Right,” she says. One last bite. “The Ladd’s householder.” Dropping the pizza rind to the box. “I was supposed to come talk to you.”

“I’ud nar dream t’impose, ma’arm,” her says, but she holds up a hand, “I said I would. I didn’t. I’m sorry. But it’s been a little,” and she sighs. Looks to Bruno. “Luys didn’t leave,” she says.

“He’s at council this morning, your grace.”

“Without the King?”

“It’s Pinabel leads the council, for now,” says the Harper.

“Agravante,” says Jo, skeptically flat. “On the throne.”

Bruno shakes his head. “The Count, my liege, is awake.”

“The throne’s broken,” says the Harper.

“Oh,” says Jo. Sitting abruptly. Sweetloaf sets a glass before her, sparkling water, choked with ice. “But the Queen,” she says. “Is safe.”

Bruno opens his mouth to answer, but “Seized,” says the Harper. “By the bandit. Just after you left.” He takes his seat, and after a moment so do the Cinquedea, and the Spadone. “Bandit,” says Jo. “You mean Marfisa.”

“Ma’arm,” says Gwenders, taking his seat with a nod.

“But it’s okay!” cries Sweetloaf. “You’re back! You’re fucking back!” Slapping a hand on the table, and Jo starts. “So it’s all gonna fucking be okay! Just, we can just, go and fucking get her,” blinking, “her, her majesty, and, and everything can just,” brushing back his pompadour, “go, go, back, to how it fucking,” sigh, “used to be.”

“There is no more used to be,” says Bruno, still on his feet.

“The owr,” says Jo, and they look one to another, stirring in their seats. “Except,” she says, leaning forward, an elbow on the table, “there was more, wasn’t there? After it all went poof?”

Again, the looks passed back and forth, and the Harper sits up, opening his mouth, but “Not even a firkin, your grace,” says Bruno. “Left whole by some mystery, burnt away in a night. We have heard her majesty’s tried to turn more, and failed.”

“Okay,” says Jo. “Okay.” She drinks down half the glass of water, ice clinking, wipes her mouth with her wrist. “I need somebody to find me David Kerr. A, uh, a magician, worked for the mayor, or a guy running for mayor. He,” hand to her breast, heel of it pressing there, above the devil’s leer. “He made whatever happened, happen. Also,” her hand laid back on the table, “you need to find Arnold Becker. Lives with that big knight, from Southwest. Pyrocles. Used to work with me at, actually, you should also look for Guthrie? Ah, Bill, Bill Guthrie. Is anybody taking this down?”

“Becker was found at Goodfellow’s, that night,” says Bruno, and sits him down. “The good Sir Anvil took him home.”

“So that’s a start,” says Jo. “He was there, with me, and David, when it happened. David,” she sits up. “He might not’ve made it back. I don’t know. We need to know.”

“Back,” says the Harper. “From where.”

“When,” says Jo, standing. “Bruno, tell me. When did you paint the building?”

He frowns. “Ma’am?”

“The apartment building. When did it get to be so fucking brown.”

“I, I would have to make enquiries, your grace. It’s been so since we bought it.”

“Huh,” says Jo. “Okay.” Lifting the back of her T-shirt. “One more thing. Find me a sheath for that,” and she sets the poignard clink upon the table, blade of it streaked and ruddy blotched, spotted with orange here and there. “I don’t want to cut myself.”

“My liege,” says Bruno, a hint of a question.

“Where’s your fucking sword?” says Sweetloaf.

“If I need that,” says Jo, “we really are screwed.”

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