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Dust & Darkness – at This hour – a Handful of City – 20 Fucking minutes –

Dust within, and darkness, the lights from the parking lot outside barely reaching the stack of drywall, the buckets, the mound of garbage there beyond, gutted boxes, shucked plastic clamshells, shriveled and crumpled plastic and paper wraps. They look about as they file in, one by one, Pwyll in his long embroidered coat, and Medoro in his work jacket, Astolfo in his sweats, Gerlin with a stained apron about his belly, Peg Greentooth, her hair gone black in the shadows, and bringing up the rear in his short brown jacket Luys, who closes the scuffed glass doors.

Out across the darkness of that great empty space a single light, a desk lamp back there, perched atop a lone, mostly intact filing cabinet, dimly illuminating a twisted tangle of torn metal and some great fallen bell, and Jo, in her black T-shirt, her black jeans, sitting on an upended drawer, smoke curling from the cigarette in her hand. “Come on,” she says, leaning down to stub it out, then flicking the dead butt away as she stands. “Over here. Careful of the pictures.”

Scattered over the filthy concrete, the edges and the corners of them caught in the weak light, a thousand photographs, and another thousand, and more, and they pick their way across the room from one clear spot to the next. “You’re gonna step on some,” says Jo. “Can’t be helped. It’s okay. Just, be careful. Okay,” she says. “Okay. I ain’t Leo,” and she’s looking about them as they look from one to another, “I think we’re all pretty clear on that,” and it’s nothing like laughter, or even smiles, but still the rustling, the relaxing, the settling that spreads among them, and “I don’t know you,” she says. “I didn’t come up with you. We never hung out together. I never did what you do, and you don’t do what I’ve done. I don’t know you, and that’s,” she’s looking away, aside, “I’m not your Duke,” she says. “I’m the Duchess. I stand with the Queen. I hunt for the court.” Her hands, wrapped in fingerless cycling gloves. “A couple weeks ago,” she says. “Here.” She looks up, at them all. “I was about, the King’s, business. And I thought I had it under control, but. Things got out of hand. I cut the Devil down. And then, this morning.”

“My lady,” says one of them, Peg, but no more.

“This morning,” says Jo. “I thought I had the situation under control. It got out of hand. And now the Cater’s gone. What I brought you here to say,” and then she shakes her head, “what I mean to say, to you, is it won’t happen again. You, have, my word.”

And Luys says, after a moment, “Of course, my lady,” and the rest of them, following after, my lady, your grace, yes, yes, my lady, of course.

“Now, the pictures,” she says, and they step back, look down, rustle and crumple. “Something the Devil was working on. And I don’t know, maybe whoever it is who owns this place, maybe they’re still trying to figure out what happened here, maybe they don’t give a shit, maybe they haven’t even noticed, I don’t know. But we can’t just leave ’em here.”

“Ma’am?” says Pwyll, the Cinquedea.

“So I’m gonna ask the Mason to get these all together and hauled away back to the, ah, residence,” says Jo. “Don’t, worry about keeping ’em in any kind of order, we just want to get it all out of here, but, I mean, if they’re too, burned, or something, just, just leave ’em, we’re not trying to wipe out any trace,” she’s looking past them now, “just, get as many as we can,” a wave out over them all, those scattered, fallen photos, and then she starts off, walking away.

“Does your grace mean,” calls Medoro, the Axle, after her, “for us to pick these all up?”

“That’s kinda the idea, yeah,” says Jo, looking back a moment. “Might want to see about getting some light, first? And some boxes?”

Luys says, “All right, of course, I’ll have Sweetloaf round up some otherwise idle hands. Spread out, to size up the scope of this task, and then Spadone, you’ll negotiate a crew with the Soames.”

“Shouldn’t we ought to run this through Bruno?” says Gerlin, in his stained apron.

“The Duchess didn’t ask the Shrieve to meet us here tonight,” says Luys. “We’ll handle it ourselves.”

Jo’s lighting a cigarette, off toward the doors there. She looks up as Luys comes close, photos crackling under his feet. “It’s not what you had in mind, I know,” she says, softly, snapping off her lighter.

“There are people, for this sort of work,” he says, quietly. “If you’d let me know.” And then, “What can you possibly mean to do with all of this?”

She sucks the coal of her cigarette to life for a moment. Blows out a cloud of smoke.

“Are you well, my lady?” he asks, and then, quickly, as she looks away, “I only ask because you left in such a temper, this afternoon.” And then, his hand laid gently on her arm, “I worry about you, Jo.”

She looks at him then, in the darkness. “Don’t,” she says. Stepping away, from his hand, from him, from the rest of them muttering back there in the shadows, away off toward the doors.

“A cool head,” he says, and then from his knobbled fingers that tiny scarlet figure trembling drops, straight to the tiny frozen waves of the sea below, clack and tumble. “Though a steady hand,” he says, “is also of some use,” and he reaches down to pluck it up again. Frowning over the board spread out upon the low table, the ocean before him, the mountains rising a rumple of snowy grey on the other side, the forest, the desert, the river between, and all stitched together by a dusty road. “Clothilde,” he says. Two cities, each made up of cunningly joined hexagonal tiles of tiny palaces, temples, arcades, favelas, the one there scarlet, where the river flows down from the mountains, the other a soapy viridian, spread along the margins of the bay. “Read me again, his last move?”

“The Poet, Grandfather,” says the woman curled in the brown leather armchair opposite, peering at the sheet of onionskin in her hand, “to one eight nine point nine, thirty-seven aught, north by east.” Her feet tucked under her thighs, and a lacey shawl about her shoulders.

“Blasted Rufer notation,” he says, reaching along the thick wooden frame of the board, carved with obscure characters, a sentence, or an equation, twining through a repeated pattern of egg-and-dart. He flips a switch with a hefty thunk, and tiny white lights blink on, a grid spread across the board, shining in the blue, the yellow, the green, the grey and the brown, though here and there a point is dimly amber or entirely dark, and one of them there by the red city’s winking, on and off. “Umf,” he says, his hand, that little scarlet figure, hovering over a yellowing ridge, dithering between two pinpricks of light, “there,” he says, setting it down amid other figures red and green and Ah, me, sighs a scratchy voice from the speakers set in the board’s frame, the only Emperor doesn’t glitter. “What were his rolls, again?” Wrapped about in a dark blue dressing gown, and his curls are stiffly grey, swept back from his forehead. Five dice are laid on the table by the board, three of them glossily black with white pips, one glassily clear, the pips but chiseled notches, and the last is larger, an angular icosahedron, bright red, its triangular faces printed with astrological symbols.

“Three, one, four, a six, and Ninurta,” she says, reading from the onionskin.

“Then I do have it right,” he says, looking them over. “Now: we must formulate our response. And I must admit, the temptation to reply in kind to such a cheeky provocation,” his hand trembling over that grouping of red figures, a Tinker-Prince, a Hedgewych, a couple of Jugglers and leading them all the red Poet, there on the slope of the ridge held by a lone green Beast, “is overwhelming, but one must be wary of the pitfalls of intemperate overreaction. Thus, the cool head,” but off back that way somewhere a simple descending chime rings out, and he frowns. “I wonder who that could be,” he says, as Clothilde gets up out of her chair, “at this hour?”

“Good lord,” says Becker in that brightly empty room, his reflections turning with him, a confusion of light in the sweeping wall of night-struck glass.

“Yes,” says Pyrocles, there by the clean bare kitchen island.

“I mean God damn,” says Becker. “And back there?” Pointing to the darkened hallway on the other side of the island.

“Two bedrooms,” says Pyrocles, “one with a view,” and Becker’s already dashing off that way, and Pyrocles with a sigh and a small wry smile heads after him.

Through that doorway a narrow hall jogs back, past a couple closed doors to open on another big and empty room, unlit, and the sweeping wall of glass looks out on the lights of the city beyond, the ruddy shine of a main thoroughfare, paralleling the dark river below, and the lines of lights of streets stretched out beyond, and here and there the bright white shine of this intersection, or that, and off to the left there the winking lights of construction cranes, and the bridges streaming red and white, and the blazing towers of downtown.

“Oh,” says Becker. “Wow.”

“Do you like it?” Pyrocles, his footsteps cushioned by thick white shag, his arms coming about Becker’s waist.

“We’d have to never turn the lights on,” says Becker, his face in the shadows brushed with amber and with gold and blue, and his eyes. “So we could always see this.” And then, “Oh, but I like the loft.”

Pyrocles, his chin on Becker’s shoulder, murmurs, “Did you see the bathroom?” and Becker, turning to look at him, says, “No damn curtain?” and Pyrocles smiles. “A proper door,” he says, “and a full-length tub, and a gym, a pool, the rooftop garden,” the weights on his mustaches gleaming.

“And this is closer to Sylvania,” says Becker, “just a bus ride down,” and then he laughs. “No,” he says, “it’s just, I saw David again today, David Kerr. On the bus,” and as Pyrocles stiffens behind him, “oh, but it wasn’t, he was an ass, yeah, but it was like he was apologizing? Or conceding something, I don’t know. But he said, he told me to treat myself.” Settling back again against Pyrocles. “So. What do you think.” Looking up, and back. “Should I grow a beard?”

“You would look,” says Pyrocles, smiling again, “in your plaid, like a lumberjack.”

“The lumberjack, and the knight,” says Becker. “In our metropolitan penthouse.”

“We should go,” says Pyrocles, after a moment.

“No,” says Becker, “no,” looking back for a kiss from Pyrocles. “We could see just how soft this carpet is,” and another kiss, and Pyrocles loosens his grip about Becker’s waist. “You always get so sleepy, after,” he says.

Becker turns to face him, to hold him in turn, “You worry so much, about me,” he says. “I can worry, too. I’ve got a pill with me. In my bag.”

Pyrocles says, “You do.”

“Always,” says Becker, and a kiss. “You never know,” he says, and another.

“Shizzt!” the bellow, from deeper in the house, “My drow!” and “Yeah, yeah,” mutters Christian in his grimy sweatshirt, the hood of it up, and his hands stuffed in the pockets. “You got this?”

Halfway up the spiraling cantilevered stairs, all hand-painted tile and wrought iron, Jasper wrapped in his filthy blanket nods, a revolver loosely in his hand. Sitting at the foot of those steps the old man in his dark blue dressing gown, the tall woman shivering in her lacey wrap, and their hands bound up in clumsy mitts of clingfilm. Another bellow, “Shizzt!” from off that way, and Christian heads back through a kitchen white and terra cotta tile and a smashed bottle of something pink and sticky puddled on the floor, down a few steps, past a pool table, into a cozy library, intricate rugs and orderly volumes lining built-in shelves and a rich brown leather sofa and Moody, standing over a low table. “This asshole,” he says. “Look at this. This asshole plays D&D. Really fucking fancy asshole D and goddamn D.”

The board laid out on that table, thick frame carved with its egg-and-dart, the bas-relief land within, mountains and ocean, forest and desert, cities and river, red and green.

“Moody, man, we gotta finish up,” says Christian.

“I read about this,” says Moody. “Only fifty of ’em ever made.” He grabs a figure from the board, a green Beast, and the speakers set in the frame let out a scratchy roar. Moody jumps, startled. “Based on drawings from the Book of Voynich,” he says, and whips the little figure away.

“Please don’t,” says old Medardus, in the doorway behind them.

“Shit,” says Christian, “fucking Jasper,” but “Don’t what?” snaps Moody, and leaning down he snatches up a handful of figures, and the board lets out a muddled yowl. Medardus starts away from Christian, “Please!” he cries. “I have been playing that game for seven years now,” wincing as a little red figure bounces off his shoulder, “with the King of Fountains,” and another figure, green, plaps his chest there, bared by the loosening collar of his gown. “Please,” he says, lifting his plastic-swaddled hands.

Snarling Moody turns and slams a hand onto the board, grinding crunch of porcelain snap of wood and splintering plastic hauling up the tiles of that green city, and a piece of water with them, turning to hurl them but “No!” wails Medardus, jerking forward, fumbling over the back of the sofa feet kicked up and groaning rolling over. Moody laughing steps aside, leans over to rain bazaars and fortalices down from his fist until a lurching thrash knocks him back unsteady bang against the table pieces clattering away. He sits abruptly, and smashes the board with a dying squawk from those speakers.

“Shit,” says Moody, and then another laugh, “you stupid son of a bitch,” he says to Christian, still stood there, hands in his pockets, “you’re about as useless,” and then Medardus howling flips up Moody’s legs with his swaddled hands, sends Moody over and whooping off the table, crash, Medardus up on his knees now face a rictus breath a keening rasp, those bound hands rising and falling like a club, “Whoa, hey, whoa,” Christian hopping over the back of the sofa, squeak of leather, Medardus falling as Moody growling pushes up and a steely flash, mirror-bright, but then out that way somewhere shouting and a sudden loud bang. They all stop. Medardus his legs held by Christian rolls heavily off Moody, flat on his back and panting, and letting go the handle of the knife that pins the dark blue gown to Medardus’ breast.

Staring at the hilt of it wrapped about in glittering silver wire Medardus, his eyes wide, whispers, “You are not mortal.”

“I know what I am,” grunts Moody, “and I know what you are,” then looking up, over his shoulder, at Christian on his feet and backing away. “But what the hell are you?”

“I’m just, me, man,” mutters Christian. “I’m just me.” Raising his voice, eyes wild, “You wanted me in all this! You did!”

“The hell you got in your pocket, boy,” says Moody, but before Christian can do more than stuff his hands back in them there’s the XO in the doorway, gas can in his hand, “Let’s go!” he’s yelling, “It’s lit!” But his face falls as he looks over the sofa sprawled there Medardus and Moody, the knife, and as he steps into the room, “The hell,” he says, it’s then that Medardus coughs, a thick wet gag of a sound, and Moody scrambles back, and the knife drops to stand an instant on its tip before slowly leaning turning falling softly clink to the rug by a glittering bit of bone, and it’s then that Christian springs away, past the XO, running, out into the thickening smoke, away.

“It smells of cooking meat,” says the man at the head of the booth, his suit a windowpane check in grey, his ivory vest striped with blue, his face hidden in the shadows from the lamp hung low over the table, the low dark room behind him, amberly dim and almost empty, a lone couple dancing too slowly there to a languid calypso beat, the crooning fragrance on the wind, could be as exquisite as this. “Sit, if you’re gonna sit,” says Chilli, his arms folded, and a not-quite empty glass before him.

The man in the suit swings himself into the booth, sits himself down, leans forward into the low light, Bruno, an elbow on the table and his thumb to his teeth. “We could’ve met at my offices. There’s a couch. It’s perfectly safe; she doesn’t have anyone watching it.”

“It’s not her I’m worried about.”

“Don’t hint,” says Bruno, sharply. “I can’t abide hints. Say what you mean, or let go.”

Chilli leans close, light swooping over his yellow beard. “You sent me in there to get got. Only a miracle of incompetence that I’m still here to lift a pint.”

“Here,” says Bruno. “Not out by the airport, sweeping rubble.” But before Chilli’s frown can find a question, another arm slips into the light, burly, tattooed, the hand of it setting a fresh glass on the table filled with thin cool gold, and Chilli lifts the almost empty, drinking off what’s left. “You want anything?” he says, setting the glass down with a thump. “I’m buying.”

“I’m not thirsty,” says Bruno. And then, as the empty glass is whisked away, he says, “One of the differences between us, Harper, is I make a point of knowing when I’m not invited, and to what.” Looking off out the window there, the parking lot beyond, lit up a garish red by some enormous neon sign. “I’m a businessman. Nothing more. I sent you there because it was asked of me. But because I am a businessman, when something happens, I look for the best angle to play. And because I am a very good businessman, I have the resources to play any angle very well indeed.”

Chilli takes a thoughtful sip. “So if it’d been me, instead of the Cater, you’d be having this conversation with him.”

“It would’ve been more brief,” says Bruno. “He already worked for me.”

Another pull from his glass. “Yesterday, you told me every time I got something, I fucked it up.”

“Well,” says Bruno. “Now there’s two of us, hoping I was wrong.”

The showerfall cuts off, and he whoops, a sound much too loud for the space. The slender door pops open, pebbled glass of it wobbling in the frame, “Fuckin’ A, man,” Sweetloaf, leaning out of the shower stall, groping for the white towel neatly folded on the little countertop right there. “Just, pouring hot water over your fucking head? For, like, twenty fucking minutes?” Patting down his narrow chest, vigorously rubbing his thick wet hair. “Fucking vacation, man.” Holding the towel up before him, looking about the cramped trailer, curtains drawn and only two lamps lit, up there in the little dining booth in the nose of it, and back behind, over the low bed in its alcove, and Luys laid out on his side, atop the umber comforter.

“Ah, fuck,” says Sweetloaf. “Not again.”

Luys propped up on an elbow shrugs his meaty shoulder, his grin rather pleased with itself, and his cock a startlement of brown against the black curls there, the tip of it discreetly peeped from out its cuff of foreskin.

“I know,” says Sweetloaf, “you and Mom are having some issues, but – ”

“You oughtn’t to call her that,” says Luys, and his smile sours.

“And you ought to tell me where my fucking pants went. Sir.”

“Your pants,” says Luys, sitting up, “were filthy, and your shirt was filthy, your jacket was filthy, and your shoes,” and another shrug. “They will be clean in the morning. You might as well relax.”

“Relax,” says Sweetloaf. “Yeah. Right.” Letting the towel drop, and his own cock already stirring. “Not that I’m saying no, mind. But I just had a fucking shower. You’re gonna get me all filthy, and sweaty, and sticky,” and “You should feel free to take another shower, when we’re done,” says Luys.

“I don’t know, sir,” says Sweetloaf, a knee up on the bed. “I don’t fucking know. Two fucking vacations in one night,” as Luys pulls him down.

Bare knees on the unfinished floor, “ticket,” he’s muttering, “placket,” arms spread wide, head tipped back, dark hair unruly with curls, “racket, rickets, rickety tacky, pocketa ping, pocketa pocketa queep!” and hung in the air before him a heavy golden watch, shining in the cold light somewhere off behind him, a piercing silver shine that strikes bright gleams from the blankly empty windows lining the far-off walls, “Tin,” he says, “Rin Tin, Tintin,” and his sweat-sheened chest jerks hauling him up, “Tiki Tiki!” he cries, “Tiki Room!” and then sitting back on his heels again, slumping again, “a lady’s hat,” he says, “slack, slacker slake slacking, no slacking, slack,” and again he jerks upright, up on his knees and shouting at the ceiling, “Please! No slacking, please!” falling back down, and his arms drooping, and his fingers brushing the ash-dusted floor, and all this time his eyes are closed, and all this time the watch hangs steady before him, fixed, unmoving, gleaming in the bright white light, “United,” he says, “ain’t really,” and then, muttered quick, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, don’t lose that number, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, you’re so fine, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, mongoose is gone, won’t be coming ’round, and the organization,” he opens his eyes, “ain’t really organized,” and one hand whip-quick leaps to catch the watch as it drops.

The room is dark.

“Shit,” says David Kerr. “Okay.” Breathing heavily. Leaning over to crush a burning ember with his fist. “Okay,” he says, again, and he fits the watch about his wrist. The hands of every dial on its face point down, at six, at six, at six. “I guess we’re doing this,” he says.

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