Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

In which I am a Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Wretch

Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Wretch by R. Catesby

(Icon by deedop)

In which I am a Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Wretch (See also ipstp)

Glass: A Love Story

by Jay Lake

Aria Minnows was a beautiful woman with eyes that flashed like crystal. Deke Zeiss was an ordinary young man on his way up in life. The first time they slept together, she told him she had a heart of glass. He thought that was a metaphor. Until the day he broke it.

The Ball Glass Diner clattered around them, redolent of scorched peanut oil and rank fog from a dishwashing machine. Deke took Aria's hand to place the engagement ring on her finger. Two carats of princess-cut diamond on a white gold band, he'd mortgaged his right kidney to pay for it. Only the Bull Market Syndicate would write a note like that -- they were bankers to the credit-unworthy, among many other profit centers. As important as the blood games might be in the city of Troezen, his apprentice armorer's salary didn't cut much ice. But he had big plans, that he'd made with her help.

"All I want to do is be with you for the rest of my life," Deke announced just as his grip slipped and he sliced open the skin of her knuckles with the ring. A tiny cracking noise rang out from her hand as her entire body shuddered. Horrified, he watched alabaster flesh part like the opening of a flower, blood welling.

Aria raised her left hand in a fist, glass shards and drops of blood spattering to the pink Formica tabletop from her wounded knuckles. "How could you?" she demanded as she began to cry. The ring lay between them.

"What...?" Deke was appalled by what he had done, and baffled by the degree of injury his mistake had caused.

A roller-skating waitress sliced by in reverse, carrying a giant oval tray of malts and burgers. Aria sobbed, the stuttering heaves swallowing whatever she was trying to say. Even in the red wash of the moment, Deke was fascinated by they way her breasts moved freely under her spaghetti strap dress.

"Oh, honey," he said, pleading. "I'm really sorry." He reached for her left hand, trying to unfold her clenched fist.

She snatched her hand away, then grabbed the ring off the table. "Diamonds cut glass, you jerk," Aria yelled. "Men never listen."

Around them, boys and girls in letter jackets crammed into leopardskin booths as a jukebox blared a jazz-punk fusion cover of "Cry Me a River" by Armstrong's Fuzzy Lips. No one paid the bickering couple any attention.

"I didn't realize..." Deke began, but Aria hurled the ring at his face. It missed, skipped off the back of the booth and flew into underlit anonymity.

"By Apollo, that was twenty thou--" he shouted as his temper finally flared to meet hers. Deke caught himself three syllables too late.

He heard a sharp crack, like a bullet striking bronze armor. Aria stood, tears on her face like a lacy stream of gems. "Enough," she said. Her voice was tight, dry. Grainy. Sharp.

Leaving the booth, Aria stepped out of the spaghetti strap dress as her skin began to slough away. Even the blasé chatter of the Ball Glass Diner halted at the sight of a glass woman emerging from a cloak of flesh that raveled away like a rotten quilt. Almost the last Deke saw of Aria was her perfect crystalline buttocks sliding in rhythm with her angry stride. As the baize-padded door swung shut he glimpsed one glass foot trailing a lingering scrap of flesh.

"Dude," said the lacrosse letterman in the next booth stretching around to stare at Deke, "What did you say to her?"

Deke had no answer. He reached across the tabletop for the torn skin of Aria's hand, a pallid, bloody glove discarded in her anger. Before he could touch it, the Ball Glass Diner's bouncer grabbed Deke in a shoulder-cracking grip and hustled him out the door after his vanished lover.

Steep granite stairs led from the Ball Glass Diner to the distant streets of Troezen far below. Unrailed, mossy, worn as the brick floors of some ancient monastery, they were both a discouragement and a badge of courage for those who braved the heights.

Stumbling down in the cool damp of the afternoon, Deke slipped on a rag that nearly pitched him into the head-smashing depths. Cursing, he stopped to look. It was the skin of Aria's right foot. His curses turned to loving whispers as he picked up the mashed, filthy bit of flesh and sank to a seat on the steps.

"Oh, my sweet," Deke crooned, Aria's foot crushed in his hand as he stroked it against his cheek. "Oh my beloved." He kissed the maroon-painted toenail. "I am so sorry. I will make it up to you." The lost engagement ring shrank to a detail measured against the pain of his newly foundered love. Aria was his angel, showing Deke the mysteries of sex, and whispering sage advice about advancing his career as they lay pillowed together in the night. "Where have you gone?"

Deke looked at the tiny cars beetling along far below. A glittering trail led downward. He bent to run his fingers on the step between his feet, to see if he could touch the trail.

Glass stung him, tiny drops of blood welling from his fingertips. Little splinters of glass so small he could only see them when they reflected the clouded-shadowed sunlight. It was a trail of shards from Aria's broken heart. He would follow it to wherever she had gone. He would make amends.

On the sidewalks of Troezen, Deke quickly found that the trick of the thing was to look slantwise, never quite staring at the glass. The faint trail wandered like fairy glamour past upmarket storefronts crammed with furs and silks and ormulu amphorae. It zigged where some other pedestrian had zagged, looped in small circles as if Aria had turned to see if he were following her, attenuated when she ran a few yards before slowing again, marked by damp spots where -- perhaps -- her tears had fallen. Deke prayed to Eros that those were tears of regret.

Crossing streets was harder, but he persevered. Vehicles and pedestrians had scattered Aria's faint track, smearing it into the asphalt and cobbles. Deke would reach the other side, then cast about for a fresh trail of glitter while fondling the foot of his beloved. As he followed the glass, the buildings became shorter and the sidewalks dirtier. Aria was heading east toward the ferry docks.

Troezen's industrial center, Concrete Town, lay across the water on the East Side of Aegeus Bay. It was a grimy, rotting maze where the desperate and the poor lived. Street gangs held sway there under the iron hand of Minnie Torres, head of the Bull Market Syndicate. Aria's despair knew no limits if she was bound there. Deke knew -- he had struggled out of those slums himself. He had to find his love, pull her back from that brink.

Deke quickened his step toward the docks just as a coal-black 1958 Plymouth Fury cut across the sidewalk with a squeal of brakes and the reek of carbon, blocking his way. Towering chrome fins glittered like butcher knives in his face as an enormous man in a satin East Side Greeks bowling shirt stepped out of the car.

"Hey, friend," said the Greek. He glanced at a Polaroid in his hand. He looked and sounded like every tough guy boxer Deke had ever seen. Even his lips had muscles. "You're Deke Zeiss, right?"

"I'm busy," said Deke, his mind on his beloved's broken heart. He bent to peer under the Fury. The glass trail led on through the shadows. "Catch me later."

The Greek flipped over the Polaroid to scrutinize a note taped to the back, bushy black eyebrows scrunching together. Then he glanced up again. "My name is Al, Al Lecto, freelance contract enforcer. Nothing personal, you understand, but I'm here to serve notice the Bull Market Syndicate is calling the mortgage on your right kidney. Seems your collateral property's in the upper G.I. tract of some high school cheerleader at Troezen Baptist E.R."

Oh crap, thought Deke. The ring. He needed Aria a lot more than he needed his ring, but he needed his kidney, too. He'd counted on paying back the Bull Market Syndicate once he married Aria -- if his hopes for his job didn't pan out, she came from money, Troezen aristocracy, although she'd always been coy about the details. He'd never met her parents. Aria said they wouldn't approve of his East Side origins, that they should wait until Deke had made his name. Stalling for time, Deke squeezed her flaccid toe for luck. "That was fast."

"The chick swallowed the ring in her chocolate malted right after you split the Ball Glass," Lecto explained. "LifeFlite dusted her off the roof pronto. Her family's already filed a salvage claim, which means you got nothing. Me, it's just a job. You, friend, it's a kidney." The gigantic man winked and pressed a business card into Deke's hand. "You've got twenty-four hours to come in. We do it the easy way, you show respect to Torres, everybody walks out okay, plus or minus a few stitches and some urine throughput. Miss the deadline, I'll arrange involuntary renal extraction and Torres will have me take your spleen and gall bladder for penalty. You'll be lucky if you don't bleed out then. Call when you're ready."

Deke glanced at the card, not really focusing on it. His lower back twinged, his body forecasting the world of hurt he would soon be in. "Love," he said quietly. "I did it for love."

"Tombstones all over Troezen Memorial Gardens with that chiseled on 'em," said Lecto. "I should know, I planted half those guys." He chuckled, a noise like marbles in a steel chute. "Still, love's not a bad excuse." Lecto touched an eyebrow, an abortive salute. "Eumenides Contract Enforcement, at your service. Give me a shout, friend, you ever need anything done."

The Greek jumped back into his Fury, slammed it into reverse with an audible clank, and plowed into traffic without ever looking backward. Deke stared at the card as the Fury peeled out and vanished down the street. The card had Lecto's name and company, a cell phone number and something scrawled in blood red felt tip across the black letterpress printing. "It's more than just a kidney," the note read. "Torres wants your ass."

Iron gray swells loomed before Deke. The choppy water of Aegeus Bay slammed spray over the ferry's bow. The boat was a surplus Star Ferry from Hong Kong, badly repainted in the Sharon Line's red and black colors, or maybe just suffering from terminal corrosion.

Deke stood in the glassed-in lower deck, clinging to a greenish brass pole amid a whole shift of Filipina maids from the Troezen Hilton heading home, chattering in Tagalog. They brought their smells of commercial cleansers and spicy cooking with them like a cloak of culture.

His cell phone rang at his belt, tootling out Blondie's "Heart of Glass." It was Aria's favorite song. Deke snatched the phone free. He didn't recognize the number on the caller I.D.

"Aria?" he gasped, hoping it was his love calling from a payphone.

"Deke Zeiss, you're in big trouble." It was a woman, but he didn't recognize the voice.

"Who is this? Why are you calling me?"

The woman sighed. "My name is Sandy Priam. I'm a telephone psychic, and I sensed you needed me."

"Yeah, right." Deke almost laughed in spite of his troubles. "I didn't need a psychic to tell me I have a problem. Sorry, babe, no dice."

"The spirit moved me, made me call you. What can I say? Nobody ever believes what I say, but I have to try. You broke her heart, Deke."

She did know something. "It was just a ring," he pled. His left hand slipped back into his pocket, taking comfort from the clammy flesh of Aria's foot. Some of the maids had stopped chattering and were watching him, eavesdropping with delighted interest. "She's been my muse for months. I can't let her go like this."

"Look, everything is going to end badly, especially for you," the psychic said. "Forget about Aria. Go home and brood into your booze. You'll find some other girl's life to mess up soon enough."

Deke stared across the heaving iron water at the rusted towers of Concrete Town. Dense brown-orange smog roiled a hundred feet above the streets. "I can't turn back," he said. He shuddered with memory of Aria's touch, goose pimples rising on his arms. "I love her too much to lose her."

"You've already lost her. But look, Deke, if you have to go do this, at least be smart about it."


"First, trust Lecto."

"He threatened to steal my kidneys," Deke yelled. The Filipina maids around him twittered.

"It's just his job. He's straight, Lecto is. He only does whatever he's been set to do. He can help you, too. Second, when you go after her, think horns."

"Horns?" demanded Deke. "What kind of stupid bull crap is that?"

"I'm an oracle, not a genius, you know what I mean? Look, I've got to go. I'm meeting a paying client down at Ilium's Topless Bar in twenty minutes. Be safe."

The phone went dead. Deke slipped it back on to his belt clip as the maids all smiled at him.

"Bull horn," said one the maids shyly, glancing at her friends for support. She held her hands about a foot apart. "Make for big man." They all giggled at him. "Good for fever too. Stop the heat."

Deke ignored the whispers that followed him the rest of the way across the bay.

Looking back from the ferry docks of Concrete Town, Troezen gleamed like a vision of divine Olympus, each white tower topped with a golden nimbus as the sun touched the western horizon behind the city. Deke stared at his adoptive home, wondering if he would see it again. The vision of his disemboweled body bumping against the pier pilings beneath his feet was quite clear in his mind, enhanced by the pair of bloated corpses clearly visible down in the water, their stench blending with the rotten-fish odors of the bay.

Deke turned his back on Troezen and scanned the ferry docks for glass from the heart of his beloved. He walked slowly toward the street until he picked up the trail. It was scuffed by the passage of hotel maids, garbage men, leg-breakers and the other daytime workers who drove the economy of Troezen across the bay, but the Aria's path was still visible. In the approaching dusk, the shards gleamed red. Once he found them, they weren't hard to keep sight of.

Clutching the foot in his hand, Deke set off into the darkening streets, following the blood-colored trail of glass. It led up into the hills of Concrete Town, passing among the belching factories to head toward Bull House, home of the Bull Market Syndicate and the dreaded Minnie Torres.

"Clearly, glass is cheap," whispered a voice in the shadows.

Deke jumped, wishing he were armed with more than a cell phone. He ascended the stepped sidewalk of Minnow End, a narrow street that headed straight up Minnow's Hill to the service entrance on the north side of Bull House.

"Who's there?" Deke scanned the darkness around him. Minnow End was crowded with tiny pawnshops, gray market bandwidth brokerages and black market plastic surgeons operating out of blood-stained barber chairs bolted to the sidewalks. There were people everywhere, intent on their own business except for the plastic surgery gawkers who paid a dollar apiece to watch, surrounding the actinic circles of surgical lamplight like crows around road kill.

"You're following the trail, ain't you?" The speaker was a blindfolded old man, dressed in rags and clutching a twisted wooden staff hung with broken circuit boards, tiny bottles, bones and feathers. He sat on a shadowed step leaning against a grimy brick wall. The old man sniffed. "You've got her blood scent on you."

Deke clutched the foot in his pocket. "That's as may be." The phone call from Sandy the psychic still weighed on his mind. "I take it you have some mystical advice designed to keep me from a messy death and help me win back my beloved."

"Not really." The old man hawked and spat. "I'm a blind old man begging in the street. What would I have to offer a smart Troezen boy like you?"

That beat the Hades out of incomprehensible oracular pronouncements. Deke stepped the wall next to the old man and sat on the sidewalk steps. "You mentioned glass."

"Sand," said the old man. "Glass is sand, poured into a fire."

"Uh huh."

"From the fire, engineers draw miracles. Silicon microchips, crystal stemware." The old man grinned, a handful of teeth gleaming dully in the shadows, as he fingered his blindfold. "Glass eyes, for all the good they do me."

"And women," said Deke, flush with the memory of his last sight of Aria.

"Women, too. They're for specialist markets. Optical circuits and silicon microfiber muscles. Plain as day, see right through 'em." He cackled. "Just like a man. Like I said, specialist markets."

Deke drew Aria's foot from his pocket and pressed it into the old man's hand. "This was her. She wore flesh." It wasn't a lie. He'd known her skin intimately before she'd walked away, vanishing from view like a clean window.

The old man kneaded the foot in his hands, pressing it to his face to smell it, rolling the toenails between his fingers. "It's a wrapper, son. Most men can't stand to see into the heart of a woman. No one wants to know how much he's failed in his love. Believe me, in the glass, she looks the same as her sisters."

"I'll know my beloved," said Deke. Memories of a hundred hot nights flashed in his head, sex flavored with arguments and take-out curry, her crystal eyes flashing in the candlelight. He would never forget her.

"Still, check the fit of the foot." The old man handed the flaccid skin back to Deke. "And you'd better get on up there."

Deke slipped the old man a ten-dollar coin, then continued to climb the hill. In the glass, she looks the same as her sisters. That could mean so many different things.

At the top of Minnow's Hill the orange-brown fog reduced the world to glowering silence and a chemical reek that prophesied cancer. The glass trail ended in a brilliant pool of ruby light outside the service entrance to Bull House. The headquarters of the Bull Market Syndicate towered over him, dry set stone in massive rising courses interspersed with firing slits and camera mounts. Fifty feet up, a wooden superstructure arched outward from the stone, tall glass windows flickering with the lights within. His troubles had come together, lost love and his endangered kidney linked within Minnie Torres' grasp.

Deke sighed. He had set out to make amends to Aria, and come this far. He would follow the trail inward. If Torres came for him, he would demand the return of his love. He might well die, but when Lecto caught up with him, things wouldn't be much better. Deke had already committed his life to Torres with the kidney mortgage. He might as well make the best play he could for Aria.

Deke touched the door with his fingertips, preparing to knock. To his surprise, it swung smoothly open. He stepped inside.

The interior of Bull House reeked of stale incense, furniture oil and old meat. Rising walls were defined by the scabrous glow of the nighttime fog outside, filtered through the firing slits above his head. The ceiling loomed in the darkness above behind dim, widely-spaced warehouse lamps. The wooden floor rang hollow with each step as if he walked across a great drumhead.

And he was surrounded by wooden walls, segments six feet tall and four feet wide like a medieval mockery of office cubicle sections. Each panel was covered with elaborate carvings that he had to squint to see in the dim light, woodwork inset with gems and mirrored shards.

Looking in part with his fingertips, Deke found a seascape of dolphins disporting with mermaids while a writhing monster pulled a ship to its death in a turquoise mosaic ocean. Another panel showed an island of pigs, each pig with a male human face, while a gnarled man and a handsome goddess performed a hundred different sex acts in a kind of static animation. The goddess' eyes were diamonds in each tiny relief, her partner's face a mirror every time it could be seen at all. A third panel showed ancient warriors dragging a naked man around city walls while fires burned within, rubies illustrating the flames and a giant, flawed citron for the smoke-clouded sun.

As Deke walked onward, the panels slid around him, cutting him off from the door and isolating him in a little unroofed room. There were grooves in the floor, a four-foot by four-foot grid of tracks. Deke ran his hands along the top of a panel showing centaurs hunting in the woods. There were fine wires soaring up into the darkness. Even as his touch slipped away from them, the panels slid again, clattering like wooden railroad cars to open a short, temporary hallway ahead of him. Reddish glass glittered in a river of love. Stroking Aria's callused sole, he followed it deeper into Bull House.

"Horns," he whispered. "Fit of the foot. Trust Lecto. He's just doing his job." None of this advice helped, and the thought of Lecto made Deke's back itch for his doomed kidney, but every time the glass trail led him into a new dead end of panels, one would slide away.

Deke walked for at least an hour. From the outside, Bull House hadn't seemed any bigger than a city block. From the inside, it was an entire country, provinces mapped out in the convolutions of the panels and their recombinant iconography. But Deke knew he wasn't merely walking in circles. First, the glass trail never crossed itself, although sometimes he spotted small flecks scattered in the empty trackways over which he walked. Second, the panels changed progressively, the mirrored sections becoming larger as the carvings reduced. When Deke finally came to one that was a giant mirror, outlined with winged beings carrying bows and swords, he stopped to look at himself.

"What am I doing?" Deke asked his reflection. "I could starve in here, following a broken heart."

His reflection had no answer except to mirror Deke as he pulled Aria's foot from his pocket. The skin had suffered its abuses poorly, tearing in several places along the thin top of the foot, while the smallest toe was almost severed. The thing had begun to reek of old plant life, an almost comfortable compost smell as if it were already returning to dust.

Moved by an ill-defined impulse, as if he were the reflection and the mirror-Deke were real, Deke pressed the foot sole-first against the mirror. He used both hands to smooth it down, firmly pushing it against the glass. When he peeled the flaccid skin free, there was a clear footprint in skin oil and dust on the polished glass of the mirror. Staring out of the footprint was the face of a bull, interrupted by the whorls and ridges of the skin.

Deke stood very still, staring back into his mirror as the bull approached, visible by looping fractions within the oily footprint. Its horns shone like brass, and in the interrupted view he could see the hairs stirring on its hide. His nerve broke with the touch of hot, damp breath on his neck. Deke spun, hands up to protect himself, to see nothing but wooden panels. Behind him, the mirror clattered out of the way. He spun again to see the ground glass trail entering a hallway of mirrors, nothing but mirrors.

On the other side of the wall of panels, hooves clopped leisurely on the drumhead floor.

"I will die in this place," Deke said aloud. The mirrors echoed his words, each one slightly delayed, each mirror-Deke pronouncing his doom, over and over in an ascendant series of prophecy.

Somewhere nearby, the bull laughed.

The mirror-Dekes followed him now through halls of glass ornamented with scant carving. He'd lost track of the trail after blundering into a mirror and getting turned around. Somehow it had vanished under another of the mirrored panels, while Deke was confused. Tired of cracking his forehead on glass, Deke walked with one hand extended, the foot skin clutched tight, feeling his way like a blind man in a whorehouse.

Out of the corner of his eye, in a mirror that reflected another mirror, a glass woman walked the hall with him. When he turned to see, panels slid and the woman vanished. When he turned back, hot tears coursed down the surface of the mirror in front of his nose.

"Aria," Deke shouted. Echoes chased themselves through the open air above his head, followed by the gearbox chuckle of the bull.

It was the echoes that made up his mind. "Trust Lecto," Sandy the telephone psychic had said. Lecto had threatened him, but in very specific terms, in accordance with the contract Deke had signed with the Bull Market Syndicate. If he came in, as Lecto had put it, Deke could discharge his debt "the easy way", then pay respects to Minnie Torres.

He'd never find Torres on his own, and Aria was with Torres if she was anywhere. But Deke would bet Lecto could find him, even in this labyrinth. Lecto was one of the Eumenides -- they could do anything. Then Deke could get to Torres, find his love and leave. He had two kidneys, after all. He dialed Lecto on the cell phone.

"Eumenides," Lecto said, answering on the first ring.

"I'm ready to come in," Deke replied without preamble.

The Greek sounded positively jovial. "Right on it, friend. Sit tight."

Deke waited, slumped to the floor to lean against a mirrored panel while he studied his haggard reflection in the opposite wall.

Less than ten minutes later the panel on which Deke leaned slid away. Unable to catch himself, Deke fell backward, bouncing his head painfully on the drumhead floor. Lecto's coal black Plymouth Fury loomed above him and the door swung open, narrowly missing Deke's nose.

"How'd you get that thing in here?" Deke asked as Lecto leaned out to look down at him.

"I'm a Eumenideus. It's what I do." Lecto smiled, showing Deke his teeth to match Deke's excellent view of Lecto's copious nasal hair. "Be glad Meg isn't on this job. She's so damned bloodthirsty she ought to have been a Bacchante."

Deke made an effort to smile. "It's a living, right?"

"That's right," said Lecto. His voice got harder, more dangerous. "You ready to pay on that kidney, or is this a waste of my time?"

"I have a question." Deke didn't bother to get up off the floor. He couldn't escape Lecto if he tried, so he might as well lie here and rest his back. "If I give up, I understand that I get to pay my respects to Minnie Torres."

Lecto shrugged. "Mostly that's a matter of form, once the contract's been executed."

"But I can do it in person, right?"

"You won't be in the greatest shape, friend."

"I'll pay my debt," said Deke, "but that's what I want on the back end."

"I see." Lecto rubbed his chin. "You're going to make trouble."

Deke squeezed the grubby foot in his hand. "Not necessarily. You said love's not a bad excuse."

"Hey," said Lecto, "I'm all for a little trouble now and then. Wouldn't do this job if I wasn't. And who am I to stand in the way of love?"

"Okay," said Deke, gathering the tatters of his courage. This was about Aria. "Let's do it."

"Kidney first, friend. A contract's a contract." Lecto stepped out of the Fury, his enormous legs stretching right over Deke. "Come around to my office."

Deke stood, knees popping, and followed Lecto around to the back of the huge Plymouth, where Lecto was already lugging a folding massage table out of the trunk.

Because he needed to see Minnie Torres after the extraction, Deke refused total anesthetic. Lecto made him take happy pills, enough 'Ludes to trank out a draft horse. It didn't hurt any less, but Deke didn't care so much about the pain. The mirrors laughed as the blood flew, but that might have been the drugs. Or the bull, somewhere nearby taking its delight. Lecto hummed as he worked, a medley of Disney songs. After a while, Deke passed out of his own accord.

"Friend," whispered Lecto, bending over Deke's face like a lover come to steal a sleeping kiss. "Come on, appointment's waiting."

Deke felt as if he'd been trampled by those tranquilized draft horses. His body ached with a pain that was to a muscle cramp as double pneumonia was to a springtime sneeze. He badly wanted to pee, and was dry as rust at the same time.

"It hurts," Deke said, more an existential statement than a complaint. His voice squeaked.

Lecto grabbed his wrist and pulled Deke to his feet, expertly levering him off the massage table. Stunned by the pain in his back, Deke stood balancing himself upright with one hand on the open trunk of the Fury. Lecto packed his knives and portable pumps and stowed them in a space much larger inside than out -- just like Bull House.

When he was done with his equipment, Lecto hefted a green and taupe Little Oscar cooler. "Twenty grand on the black market, friend," he said, tapping the cooler before he set it in the trunk. "Be glad you came in without me taking the late penalty."

Lecto pried Deke's hand from the trunk lid, slammed it shut, and gently propelled Deke by the shoulder to the passenger side. The open door banged into the mirrored panel next to it as Deke slipped in. Lecto popped back around to the other side. "Buckle up."

"Thanks," mumbled Deke. A quadruple set of mirrored panels sat right in front of the car, reflecting chrome brightwork, the long black hood and Deke's bleary, pale face filtered through the windshield. "We going to see Torres now?"

"You paid the price, you get to take the ride." Lecto started the car. As the big motor growled to life, the mirrored panels in front of him slid away. Lecto thumbed the pushbutton transmission and the car glided across the drumhead floor through a flying forest of mirrors.

"How the hell do you do this?" asked Deke, trying to distract himself from the pain.

"How do you breathe?" The big Greek grinned as he thumbed the power windows down. "Don't worry, it's a real short ride from here."

The last wall of mirrors unfolded like an accordion, and the big Fury rolled to a stop in a huge amphitheater. The sound of the tires changed, and Deke realized they were now on sand. Seats rose around them in all directions, like giant steps of the same dry stonework as the outer walls, so clean they gleamed. For a brief moment, Deke thought they were empty of everything but shadows, until he realized the glimmer he saw was an audience of a thousand glass women. His beloved, multiplied like summer locusts until she was but a glass splinter lost in a sugar bowl. Glass shards fountained at the feet of the seated women, making the stairways between the benches gleam like the Milky Way.

"Oh, Hades," muttered Deke.

"Here you are, friend." Lecto shut off the car, got out his door. He leaned in the open driver's side window. "Love's not a bad excuse. Now make it pay off." Lecto walked across the arena, vaulted the eight-foot wall that marked the lower end of the seating and found his way to the dais at the center opposite the opening through which they had driven.

Aria's foot clutched in his hand, Deke stumbled out to his feet. He looked behind the car. The panels were closed again. This time they showed his life, in relief, from his birth in the slums of Concrete Town through his scholarship years in preparatory school and his work as an apprentice armorer. The last panel showed his fight with Aria, rubies standing in copiously for the blood her broken heart had shed.

He realized the sand beneath his feet was broken glass, fed by the shattered rivers descending from the ranks of amphitheater seating. It was already to his ankles. At least he was wearing Doc Martens.

Now what, Deke thought. He'd trusted Lecto. That had worked, after a fashion. Somewhere around him was Aria, but his next task to was to think horns. That's what Sandy the telephone psychic had said. Where in Hades were the horns?

A trumpet brayed from the dais. Deke looked up to see a woman in motorcycle leathers standing with one booted foot on the stone coping. She stared down at him, eyes narrowed. Even from this distance, her face was a mirror of Aria's, the one his beloved had worn in the flesh.

"Deke Zeiss," she called in a voice like brass ringing on stone. "Your debt to the Bull Market Syndicate is discharged. Why stand you here now?"

"To pay my respects and to seek a boon," he called back. The sick pain in his back caused his voice to break.

"It is no respect to invade the heart of my house in anger."

The glass was up past his ankles. Deke wondered what would happen when it topped his boots. One hand on the car, he stepped forward, trying to find footing on the sparkling drifts. His voice seemed to be coming back. "Respect is given as it is earned, Minnie Torres. I have come for Aria Minnows, my beloved."

Torres jumped up onto the railing, feet spread wide. "You hold no contract on her. When her heart shattered, my daughter came home as she should have."

Her daughter. He caught his breath. Of course that had to be true, the mysterious Troezen aristocracy a disguise for her Concrete Town roots, but that realization simply multiplied his love. "It was my error," he called, raising the ragged flesh of her foot high. "I would make my offense up to her and win her back."

Torres laughed, voice still brassy as the blatting of the trumpet that had introduced her. "No man should see all the way inside a woman's heart. Go back across the bay and make love to a waitress. You will forget."

Horns, thought Deke. Her voice? "I challenge you to deliver her to me."

"Ha." The single syllable echoed from a thousand glass lips. Lecto handed Torres a massive mask, a bull's head. Even from across the arena, Deke could see that it was a brass frame covered in lapped scales and stretched hide. Two brass horns stuck out above it, their tips winking in the subdued light of the amphitheater like distant fire. "On your head it will be," she said.

Minnie Torres donned the mask and jumped the eight feet down into the ground glass of the arena. Deke bent to sweep up a handful of the stuff, shredding his fingertips as his lower back signaled hot, debilitating pain. While Minnie Torres stalked across the sea of glass, he gingerly pulled himself up on the hood of Lecto's Fury. On the dais, Lecto winced as the car's metal popped under Deke's weight. Deke hoped the dents would come out easily.

The bull mask became a part of Minnie Torres, growing into her neck and taking on life, joining with the leathers on her body that protected her from the shattered glass across which she bounded. Torres approached the black Fury as Deke crouched on the hood. He wouldn't get two chances with her, he knew. Speed, luck and remember the horns.

Torres' eyes rolled in the sides of that huge, furred head, the same crystal clear that Aria's had been before she'd returned to the glass from which she had sprung, but each eye was now as large as Deke's fist. Foot in one hand, glass in the other, he waited until she leapt, then swept the glass toward her left eye. The hit was lucky and true, his palm grinding the glass into Torres' eye even as his left slapped her other eye with her daughter's skin.

The bull's snout slammed into his chest, knocking him against the windshield of the Plymouth with a sickening crunch of glass and ribs and breath-stealing pain from his aching sutures. Fighting not to black out, Deke kept a hold on the bull with his right hand even as his left hand scrambled frantically for purchase. Deke lunged into the pain and grabbed the bull's left horn, yanking it free.

Torres bellowed, rolling off him into the glass. Deke pulled himself to his knees, vomiting blood, and hurled the brass horn at her. It caught her point-first in the neck, at the fold of leathery skin where the mask melded with the motorcycle leathers. Torres shrieked, staggered to her feet to spin around before collapsing back to her knees, a mirror of the pose Deke now held only by main force of will.

Had it been enough? He sighed, every glass woman in the amphitheater sighing with him. The cell phone at his belt rang, "Heart of Glass" tootling. Deke grabbed the phone with a bloody hand, then looked up again to see the bull mask rattling on a sandy floor above an empty pile of motorcycle leathers. One boot quivered upright. There was no more glass.


"Told you so," the voice of Sandy Priam replied. "You didn't believe me."

"I'm alive," he whispered.

"What about love?"

He remembered Lecto's words. "A good excuse."

Lecto began to clap from his place up on the dais, the sound ringing across the empty arena. "Sorry," Deke said. "Got to go now."

"That's what guys always tell me."

Sandy hung up before he did.

Deke slid off the hood and stumbled toward Lecto, barely on his feet. His torso felt ready to collapse like Minnie Torres' motorcycle leathers. He stopped in front of the dais, tilting his head back to look up. He nearly passed out from the shift in blood pressure. Deke waved the rags of Aria's foot in his left hand.

"I have come for my beloved," he announced. "Let the glass women step forward that I may check the fit of their feet."

Lecto smiled down at him, then vaulted to the floor. He had a camp stool folded under one arm. "This may take a while, friend. Sit here, I'll get you a saline drip and stimulants from the car. Some glucose, too."

Deke found himself surrounded by glass women, a multitude of identical perfect breasts and arched lips through which he could see himself a thousand times. Each heart had become a mirror. Each foot would be the same as the next.

"Oh, crap," he moaned.

Lecto kept a hand on Deke's shoulder, propping him up as the glass women approached one by one. The I.V. drip hurt, a grace note in his symphony of pain. Each woman smiled, shook her head, and left. A few reached out to touch the ragged, worn foot, as if to test its reality. He lost count after forty-three, but there were hundreds of them. As each departed, he watched those perfect buttocks flex just as they had in the Ball Glass Diner. Lecto didn't say anything, just passed him a cup of water from time to time and checked on the intravenous fluids.

Deke sat there for what felt like hours, until the final woman approached. Something in her walk, something in her stance, told him she was the one. Candlelight flared in his mind to the remembered smell of curry.

"Aria," he whispered.

She showed him her left hand, the knuckles scarred from his diamond. "Deke. I'm surprised at you."

"The power of love." His grin felt crooked and weak.

"There's more than love in the world," she said. Her voice sounded sad.

Mute, he held out the ragged foot. She took it, rubbed it between her fingers. They both watched the ribbons of skin and flesh flutter to the floor.

"More than love, there's destiny," said Aria. "Someone has to take Mother's place. I had a ball with you, while it lasted, but this is an opportunity I can't walk away from." She smiled slightly. "Besides, while I wear the mask, no one will ever break my heart again."

She walked over to the mask and leathers. Aria screwed the loose brass horn back onto the bull's head, then set it aside to don the motorcycle gear. Amid the pile was a second mask, of flesh, delicate black ribbons at each ear to tie it together. She came back to him, clad in black, the flesh mask in one hand, the other arm up past the elbow inside the bull mask to balance it.

"All this, for what?" asked Deke. His heart was breaking, merely an ache of the soul, as unlike Aria he had no glass to shed. Had he ever really loved her, or was she just a symbol of his hopes and dreams? Beautiful, wealthy, experienced, everything a Concrete Town boy could never be.

"Go home," said Aria. He could still love those transparent lips, those clear, clear eyes. "Mess up some other woman's life. It's what men do. If we could see where it ended, no woman would ever fall in love."

Lecto handed her the Little Oscar cooler with Deke's right kidney in it. Aria, now Minnie Torres in place of her mother, took it in the hand that already held the flesh mask. She turned to walk across the arena. As she reached the wooden doors, the panels with the story of his life on them, she turned back. "Free advice, Deke. Don't mortgage any more kidneys."

He watched her go, then turned to Lecto, who was unhooking the I.V. stand. "Now what do I do?"

"You need a ride somewhere?"

"I don't think I could walk out of this chair," said Deke. He'd had it with ambition, big plans. All he wanted now was a quiet, normal life.

"Then it's Troezen Baptist E.R. for you, I'd say." The big Greek grinned. "I'll get the car."

Deke pulled his cell phone out again. Sandy's number was still on the caller I.D. He thought about it until the big Chrysler started up, then thumbed the talk button.

Sandy Priam was a frightened woman who knew too much. Deke Zeiss was a scarred man who knew enough. The first time they made love, she told him she could see the end of their days together. He told her he'd already seen the end and it didn't matter. They found love without the metaphors, moved to a farm on the island of Naxos in the middle of the iron waters of Aegeus Bay and lived happily ever a while.

This originally appeared in Greetings From Lake Wu Powells | Amazon ], from Wheatland Press.

Tags: publishing, stories, writing

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