The bouncer has the door open and a horrible gargoyle frown. I race through the dark entry hall, hurtling myself toward the rectangle of dim blue. As I’m passing through, with the first breath of kundai scent on my face, the bouncer lifts his club in a bronze insult that catches me in the teeth with all my charging strength. I go airborne, feet first out the door. My head hits paving stones in a concussion of inverted light, then my toes smack tip-first into stone behind me. Blood fills my mouth and it feels like my head is bent out of shape.
The fella who was smoking and sitting outside the door leaps up and charges over. I thought him scrawny, worn out, but his kicks jab into my chest, arms and back like blows from a ball-peen hammer. I curl up, showing him my back, and he dances around me, his breath huffing in the early morning quiet, his legs churning up a fuss of dust as he buries hard toes in my ribs, back, face and thighs. The heel of his foot bonces my head off the cobble-stones and the world turns to outlines and whirling colors.
“Stop,” I beg him. “Why are you doing this?” But his kick finds the rib Garland cracked, and he likes how that makes me twitch so he hits it again. To my eyes he looks like a barbed-wire scarecrow of fear and petty anger. He looks like the world: broken and looking to break. Everything is edges and pain, through and past him to walls like sheer curtains and an earth like a mottled glass full of flaws and broken light.
A boom like night thunder mars a purple hole in his right knee. That hole fells him in a confusion of limbs and sudden pain. His startled grunt ends with a thud as his face lands near mine. The door-warden steps outside with his bronze weapon spinning. We both look to see who’s shooting.
Jenny stands beneath the kondrai tree at the alley’s end. The splash of flowers above her flash gold in the fire from the mouth of her gun. The issue of that red violence strikes the mace with a ringing tone.
The big guy beats a retreat and the red door slams.
A moment later, warm hands press against my face. Jenny kneels above me. Her cypress smell mixes with those of blood and flowers. It’s a small miracle, but my working nose seems to be the only thing unbroken. She’s talking but her words sound muddied and strange. With a hand on her shoulder and hip I help her drag me to my feet. She, a vibrating rainbow of green and white, slides beneath my arm and holds me up. I want to talk but breath is fractured glass. My mouth fills with blood and the squirming of teeth. Broken ribs are a barbed wire corset.
“Jenny,” I chew the word in a bubble of blood. “Glad you followed.”
She doesn’t respond for a step or two, then: “Save your breath brilliance. We’re a long way from safe.”
“I saw her,” I manage.
A local green-coated policeman strolls amicably into the street from a crossway. Though he tries for a nonchalant posture, his skin hides a cascade of nerves vibrating the puke colors of fear. His head twists side to side, looking for something.
“Dry up,” Jenny says, sharply.
She’s seen the policeman too; she pulls me into a patch of shadow and hides my condition with her body. Her smell fills my whole world as I rest my forehead on her shoulder. She’s so thin, a narrow wrapping of flesh around a twisted mesh of fire. I see a sun blazing in the core of her, white, alive like lightning through the clouds, and so potent its presence pours force through my eyes in a torrent of pain.
Jenny pulls away. The policeman’s past us, continuing down the street. We turn the way he isn’t and make foot.
The colors fade. Jenny has a body and a face. The street is a pool of dark and I’m a sack of bent fence-posts and broken glass trying to swim up it.
She gives me some cloth to hold to my bleeding face. It’s her sundress from yesterday with her scent too strong in it. The blood comes from my mouth mostly.
Some eternal stretch later we collapse on a curb, our backs to a stone wall overhung with banana trees. A few blocks away someone breaks the early morning quiet with a discordant music of many strings.
“Gonna make you pay for a doctor,” I tell her.
“Sure,” she hisses through gritted teeth, “Right after I pay for a big bathtub and a four course breakfast.”
“Sounds nice,” I manage.
“I’m mad at you.” She’s shaking harder than the wandering T. “I told you not to get hurt.”
“I surely tried.” I whimper and avoid wiggling my many loose teeth. Blood drips from my lips. “Take it up with your sister.”
“You saw her?”
“Yeah. She’s how I need a doctor. Just about killed me.”
“That was her in the alley?” Her eyes widen and she grabs my thigh hard enough to hurt. “I didn’t- did I just shoot her?!”
“No! Hell Jenny that wasn’t her. That was some goombah fella with a grudge.”
“Oh. Good.” Her head falls between shoulders that point at her ears. “Mark you really ought to know, Laurence had the pocketbook. I can’t pay for a doctor.”
Laughter hurts, but it comes anyway. “Ow,” I whimper. There are tears in my eyes, I can’t help them. I can’t help anything. “The fifty was the last of it?”
She nods. “Bottom of the barrel. End of the line.”
“Well,” I spit a red stain to the gutter. “We’re not dead.” My breath comes in gasps. My hands are cold. I clutch my shorts, then set on my hands. The gasps shift my busted ribs. I’m crying, and I’ve no shame in that. I’m a wreck. I won’t be much help to Jenny. I doubt I can feed myself.
There’s something in my pocket. A pipe. Where did I get a pipe? It’s bowl oozes that sickly sweet gunk so it looks like a wound poorly stitched. The opium will kill the pain, clear my mind and get me moving. It’s a good thing to have stolen. I even have a matchbook, from the Bankok Oriental. Swanky.
Inside the flap of the matchbook waits a handwritten note: help me. The note Jenny wrote.
Next to me, she says: “You got a catchphrase?”
“You want to be a hero you got to have a catchphrase.”
“I haven’t got a catchphrase, and I’m no hero. Before I met you I was working on a soup line.”
“Sounds adventurous.” She sighs. “That mean you know how to make soup?”
“Know how to ladle it.”
“That’s something. You gonna smoke that?”
I compare the pipe and matches. The pipe weighs like an anchor, the matches like a hope. “You told me your story but I never told you mine.”
Jenny shrugs. “If you can talk maybe we should keep moving.”
“And go where?”
“Can you walk?”
“I’ve two busted ribs so, yes, on a technicality. Where do you want to go in such a hurry?”
“We’ll think of something.” She wrinkles her nose. “I’ve just thought of something. David had all the papers: all our notes about you and Sylvia.”
The shadows turn cold. “If it was Agafya’s people who killed your boss-” I say, but she finishes:
“They’ll have all the goods on how Sylvia was going to betray them.”
“Add it to the pile. It seems like we’re at the bottom, but we won’t stay there.”
“Sure. And you’ve been in a dozen worse scrapes I take it.” Her tone teases but her green eyes search mine, looking for hope.
I hate that. She’ll find no hope in me.
I throw the pipe over the wall behind us. It makes no sound, as if it fell off the edge of the world. The matches I keep. You never know when you might need to light something on fire.
“You wouldn’t like me when I’m on opium,” I explain.
“What makes you think I like you now?”
“You don’t know me yet.”
There’s some kind of parade coming toward us – the music of many strings warbles louder as they round a corner up the way and march down our street. Many feet stamp out of time with the lumbering stride of an elephant who leads the party. Maybe it’s a wedding. Behind the elephant march musicians on horns and lutes, kicking up the ruckus that’s been buzzing through the air since before we sat down.
“Jenny I left Nai behind.” I have to nearly shout over the music as the elephant lumbers past. “I ran away.”
Dancing feet fill the street. Sunrise light cuts past the tops of the revelers’ heads to ignite the tree branches above us with a golden glow that turns the scene dreamlike, as if the trees and flowers are luminous while the people below dance in purple shadow.
Jenny says something I can’t hear over the clamor.
“Speak up!” I shout. “All this noise!”
She looks around, her brow wrinkling with confusion, then says loud enough to pick out: “Something wrong with your ears?”
The parade stretches up the street and around a corner, as far as I can see. The folk in it wear every color of cut cloth – making a dizzying rainbow of waving hands, spinning bodies and stamping feet. Fireworks pop and horns drone. Somebody throws rice at us, grinning, and then capers away, revealing from behind him the Laughing Girl in the saffron smock. She spins on bare toes, dancing in an impossible combination of perfect precision, poise, and animal abandon.
I start to stand, reach for Jenny’s hand to pull her into the crowd to hide, but too late. The Laughing Girl’s iridescent eyes land on us. Before I can gather my aching legs, she’s ducked past a row of droning conch-shell equipped musicians to stand, limbs trembling and aglow with sweat before us.
She laughs, and the music of it contrasts sharply with her shark teeth.
“What do you want?” I ask as I sit back down. I’m not going to win a race. Jenny stays silent, but pulls her arm from my grasp.
The girl grins and squats, resting elbows on knees the color of old cream. “I’ve found you, white eyes!” she trumpets, her voice gauged to carry over the revelry around us.
I glance at Jenny, who’s looking back and forth along the street with wary concern.
The parade continues but its end approaches. Rice and the guts of expended firecrackers litter the cobblestones.
“What do you want?” I ask again, meeting the golden gaze.
Her grin nearly splits her head. “What do you want?” she parrots back.
“Three square meals a day, a home, a wife, a steady income and a couple of brats,” I reply.
“Screw,” declares Jenny, her face bleak.
The bald one does her laughter thing, but her eyes are arrow heads.
“You’re opened.” She sings, and reaches thin fingers for my eyeballs, but I pull away. “Even after all that was sacrificed to close you. It was the Wren who did this? That is why you seek her?”
“Try your doorwarden,” I reply, letting my smashed lips leer. “Tell him to hold the metal sandwich next time. I’m asking one last time, what can I do for you?”
She leans forward and her smile dances on thin lips. The end of the parade passes us and the street falls to uncanny quiet, leaving my last words hanging in the still. She doesn’t answer for a whole few seconds. Jenny shifts beside me.
“Wren was wrong to make you,” She croons. “Yet she did. The priest would kill your risk, but the hour is dark and old things tilt frail and ready to fall. Perhaps I will try my weight on the Wren’s gamble. Should I trust you, broken branch of a poison tree?”
I shake my head no.
She squares her shoulders and plants her hands on her knees. In my second sight, her sweat shimmers with black rainbows like a peacock’s feathers. “Then I will not. My enemies hide among the ghosts of Ayutthaya. Agafya means this evening to destroy them, but among those enemies sleeps a clever-man neither friend nor foe. He may aid you or I. Go to Ayutthaya before my children wake from their cannibal dreams, before the horn calls, before the hunt. Wake the clever-man. See to your salt death as the moon rises and you will learn who blocks your way. If you live, then remember: For the rest I do not care but bring the clever man to me. This road will return you wiser and maybe ready to try the deeper mysteries. That is what you may do for me and also for yourself, Forking Branch. What would you have of me?”
Her meaning escapes me. See to my salt death-? But she seems to wait for an answer. “Uh, know a good dentist?”
Quick as falling water she slips her arms round my neck and presses her mouth to mine. Shock like lightning shoots through me. Her lips are hard and as her tongue touches my teeth, something passes between them. I push her away as quickly as my hands can move, feeling that strange blue and empty spread through my jaw. She falls on her haunches, leaving my mouth tingling and my face aflame. Her head rolls back with the toll of her laughter, but before the merriment ends she’s scampering away after the last of the parade, leaving echoes and confusion behind her.
“Wait!” shouts Jenny, flapping her arms as she tries to stand.
But the laughing girl doesn’t look back as she flings herself into the revelry. She flits between staggering dancers and disappears in an instant.
“I’ll-be-seein-you,” Jenny slurs, weakly, in that slang way that makes it sound like she’s saying the name of my mother’s country, Abyssinia. Then she turns around and blinks at me. “Mark, your face!”
“What?” I ask, poking a cheek gingerly. The pain’s faded to an ancient ache.
Jenny falls to her knees and touches what were my blackened eye and cracked lips. Her fingers tremble. My eye opens and the lips feel whole.
“Screw,” she breathes. “You’re all better.”