Madlands, page 1
Copyright ©1991 by K. W. Jeter.
All rights reserved.
No part of this document or the related files may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, by any means (electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the Author & Copyright Holder except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews or articles.
Originally published by St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY.
First Edition: October 1991
Please visit the Author’s website at www.kwjeter.com.
To Fred Duarte & Karen Meschke,
and all the wild armadillos.
Also by K. W. Jeter
GELDT came riding through the city, and he smelled like blood and shit. You could smell the shit because he never washed his hands, no matter where they had been. The blood—you had to have been badly fucked over by him, to catch that whiff. Then the blood was in your nose, so it didn’t mean a thing if he washed or not.
What he rode, what he drove, was a brand-new 1953 Hudson Hornet. With smooth chrome you could lick with your tongue like the ice cream of mirrors, and fenders rounded as the flanks of anthracite-hearted women. What our friends on the east side would call a sharp short. I was with him when he got it, but then things happened—bad things—and now he drove alone.
“Any you guys seen Trayne?”
Geldt was stopping along the way, every few blocks where the dark folded into an alley smelling of stale alcohol. Making inquiries with a fiver snaked around his fingers. He left the car running, door swung wide open. He knew none of these winos could get over their shakes or terminal lack of guts enough to steal it.
His shadow hung over the scrubby half-men like a club. (Half-men, quarter-men, and way in the back, an eighth of a man, weeping tears into his own open mouth.) A big shadow because of all the fivers still in his pocket. The red eyes latched onto the one in his hand, Lincoln’s face the God of Another Pint.
One of them dared to speak, crouched at Geldt’s polished shoes. “I seen him. Down by Traction. He was all messed up.”
That’s who he was looking for. He was looking for Trayne. And the news that Trayne was all messed up was neither new nor displeasing to him. Geldt paid off, whether the winos told him anything he could use or were just making stuff up. He got back in the Hudson and drove on, down to the avenue called Traction.
There was a sharp Countach cruising around Los Angeles that day, or what some of us liked to think of as L.A., and what other poor souls couldn’t tell the difference from. Plus the usual fleet of cherry Beemers, air-conditioning locked down tight behind the sealed tinted windows. But all the hidden eyes swivelled onto Geldt’s Hudson Hornet, pupils slitted in the radar of metal lust. The retro bit always racked up more points than mere expense. Only a ’57 T-Bird and a gullwing Mercedes, each as new as the Hudson, competed as successfully for the hearts of men.
Out where the palm trees nodded over the sun-hissing asphalt, the rats hammocking in the dry fronds, Geldt pulled up alongside the notorious T-Bird. He got a movie-star smile in return for his split-pumpkin leer. Lock and key, the movies unreeling inside each other’s skulls. The hard blonde smoked Geldt off the stop sign, and he bumbled the clutch, stalling the Hudson like the feckless asshole he was.
Burnt umber sat over the deco cathedral of Union Station and the Dragnet City Hall building. That had never changed, only the surrounding office buildings fading away so you could see the old city better.
Little Tokyo had lost its rough-cast concrete mini-malls and backlit plastic Hello Kitty signs, going back to dim herbalist storefronts and twenty-four-hour pai gow parlors. Geldt parked the Hudson and slid through the alleys, already pulling out another fiver, the flag of his own parade.
“Trayne? Seen him?”
He got a different response, this much closer to what he was looking for. A dirty mitt backhanded a smear of Mad Dog from a grey-stubbled chin. Eyes that looked like they’d been stepped on and reassembled with red thread scanned Geldt’s face.
“Maybe.” The squatting drunk hit the Dog bottle again. “Who wants to know?”
Geldt got loose bowels if he had to deal with a vending machine with more than three choices on it. When dealing with human beings, or even parts of them, Honest Abe was supposed to do his talking for him.
He decided to tough it out, though the smell of his sweat was already mingling with the sour-milk odors of trash dumpsters whose contents had gone archaeological.
“An old friend. That’s who.”
The drunk snorted at that. Friends who lasted longer than the fiver being in short supply around here. Cocking a red eye at Geldt: “Why?”
“Got business with him.”
The drunk laughed grey spit into the upturned bottle, nearly drowning himself. A grinning wheeze as he pulled his ragged sleeve over his wet face.
“That’s a good one, buddy.” The red eye became a black hole as it gazed through the last slug in the bottle. “Business, huh?” The joke being that Trayne would have a hard time now knowing the business end of anything that didn’t have a screw cap on it. “Well, I’ll tell you where he is, and then the two of you can do all the business you want together. Ar. Ar. Ar.”
Geldt got decent enough directions from the drunk. The soles of his shoes were wet-sticky by the time he came feeling his way down a flight of basement steps, his hand against a sweating cinder-block wall for balance. All light left behind. The basement breathed warm and dead-still into his lungs.
Scarecrow on a mattress. Geldt’s eyes adjusted enough to make out the splayed silhouette, surrounded by a beetle flock of empty bottles. Facedown into the sweat-yellowed canvas—Trayne wept and dreamt, falling through a thirsty sleep.
Geldt poked Trayne with the tip of a shoe and got a grunt in return, Trayne’s eyelids clamping down tighter against the pricks and goads of that other world. Prick Geldt jabbed him harder in the ribs.
“What!” Trayne screamed, flipping over and jamming his sharpened elbows and clenched fists into the thin mattress. “For Christ’s sake!” His dreaming battered its heavy moth wings against his face; he couldn’t see yet. “What . . .” The scream a winded gasp now. Then a whisper as he sank back down. “What . . .”
All of this made Geldt feel so much better. The way a chicken-gutted man looks at one stuffed with sawdust, and feels the strong red blood tick over in his thighs. Now he was big and bad enough to be kind.
“Trayne . . . it’s me.” Squatting down beside the mattress, touching the other’s trembling shoulder. “It’s okay.”
With a breaking sob, Trayne clutched Geldt’s arm. Swarming up into Geldt’s face, his own ravined for tears. “Geldt—oh Christ, Geldt, I knew you would . . . I knew you’d come back.” More trembling and gasping. A snail has more teeth in its belly than Trayne ha
Out there was exactly where Geldt had left him before. Hung out to dry being an even more operable phrase. Geldt had to fight down his smile. This poor bastard was still a fool, which made things easier.
“Come on, Trayne.” Kindly Geldt lifted Trayne to his feet, knees wobbling. Trayne would fall boneless without this talking crutch. “Let’s get you out of here. Get you something to eat. You could go for that, couldn’t you? Food, Trayne—you remember.”
Trayne nodded. Birdcage ribs and a bone butterfly for a pelvis—a boiled radish would round his sunken gut like a bowling ball. And . . . maybe . . . where there was food, there’d also be something more to drink. A man can always hope.
The two of them made it up the basement steps. The sun had finally died, and now the alley’s shadows were outlined by the fire that caressed the night sky. Trayne clung to Geldt’s arm like a drowned kitten, still weeping out his pathetic gratitude. They tripodded on to the mouth of the alley and the waiting Hudson.
Geldt cruised on out of the city’s heart, out to where the dead broken freeways reared their cubist dinosaur necks, crumbling cement and twisted rebar where the heads should be. Through the Hudson’s split windshield washed the flames of the burning dirigible that hung over Los Angeles night and day—Geldt’s and Trayne’s faces were shifting red masks in that light.
A shadow grid doubled the network of empty roads the Hudson barreled through. The grid that cast the shadows was up in the sky, tethering the dirigible to the bare ground at the city’s edge. More old stuff from the archives, that same deep well out of which had come the Hudson, the T-Bird (Where was it tonight? In whose dreams?), the roads and the dead freeways and the city itself. The dirigible being the crash of the Hindenburg at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. The dirigible had come back, even if New Jersey hadn’t—that was the fate of cities that didn’t figure in anyone’s dreaming, unlike L.A.
Burning and burning, and never burning away . . . Identrope was up there, a new Moses to that which burns and is never consumed. This metaphor worked, or at least could hobble along in its own crippled grace: Identrope up in the sky, at the edge of the promised land, his followers suspended in the web beneath him, in that state of grace he could never achieve . . .
The Hudson rolled on farther, to a place where the flames just tinged the asphalt.
Trayne snuffled and wiped his nose. “I won’t ever forget this, Geldt.”
Behind the wheel, Geldt nodded. Things were going just fine.
“And you know what?” Trayne sat up straighter. “Neither will you.” And his voice was different, different enough that Geldt looked around at him, wide-eyed in surprise. Just in time to catch the blow, Trayne’s fist swinging through a confined orbit, knuckles brushing the windshield glass. The blood from Geldt’s mouth spattered all the way up to Trayne’s wrist.
The Hudson wound up in the gravel at the side of the road. Trayne reached over and switched off the engine. Then he searched through Geldt’s jacket and came up with an anonymous .357.
Geldt lay slumped against the car door, sputtering red spit. “Trayne . . . what . . .” His eyes rolled crazy and scared.
“That’s right.” I raised the gun and drew a line from its snout into the hinge of his breastbone. “Now you’re totally fucked.”
CLEANING a gun always puts me in a thoughtful mood.
Geldt’s piece was in a shabby condition. It hurt my heart to see it. A clean gun is the sign of a healthy mind. So I got out my swab kit and broke the poor baby down.
I like the whole procedure. I like the smell of oil on metal, and the way it feels on your fingertips. As if you’ve become part of the machine. I worked slow and careful, taking my time.
My old partner Geldt was trussed up in the back room. There were more things I needed to find out from him, and nothing places a man in that particularly vulnerable frame of mind like having his wrists and ankles lashed together. I believe it’s something to do with the sphincter being up for such potential access. Your best friend will wonder exactly what’s on your mind, in that predicament. And Geldt had fallen a long way from being a friend of mine.
Sighting down the barrel, I let my mind narrow to the same tight focus. I had a lot to think about.
We were still inside the zone, right at the edge of the city’s deforming field. I’d been in the Madlands for years now, longer than anybody else, except maybe Identrope. And he didn’t count, as he wasn’t human, or had stopped being human some time back. So I didn’t sweat it anymore; I had things pretty much aced here, in terms of simple survival.
Too bad for everybody else in the field. Outside, on the sidewalks below my place, there was a lot of nervous twitching and stalking going on. All the poor bastards who’d come to this zone looking for a thrill, and now couldn’t leave, what had been thrilling transformed by the calculus of need into something right up there with air to breathe. And like air, they could get all of that they wanted just by being here. Getting it wasn’t what made people nervous. What set them twitching was not knowing what morning they’d wake up and they’d all be squids.
I ran another swab down the barrel of Geldt’s piece, and studied the gleam inside.
Somebody had been watching me out there, when I’d been showing Geldt the new order. Watching at a distance, probably with binoculars. But not so far away that I hadn’t been able to feel the person’s presence, and recognize who it was. An old familiar knowing . . .
I came back to the smell of metal and oil. I pulled the swab out of the gun and snapped it closed. I could deal with the voyeur business later. And as for my living in a nervous neighborhood, that wasn’t my problem. Identrope had a surefire cure for n-formation, anyway. A kind of cure, at any rate. Somebody with the n couldn’t be too fussy, after all.
This was just wasting time. I had business to take care of with Geldt. I laid the gun down and went into the other room to talk with him.
* * *
Geldt’s panic-rolling eyes greeted me. I had stuffed a rag in his mouth because I had gotten tired of his begging and pleading while I had other things on my mind.
I knew he was scared, not just from wondering what I was going to do next, but from being this long—hours—here in the Madlands. He had the horrors about catching n-formation. A putz like him sweated survival in this zone. I already had a lock on it.
Once, when we had still been more or less buddies, we had come across out on the street some luckless clown in the last stages of multi-cancer. A complete Wilbur Whateley-type transformation, all flopping wet dendrites and patches of dog fur and fish scales, and just enough of a human face left in the writhing center to register terminal shock. The round hole of a mouth had flopped in and out, making little noises that were a long way from the words firing in the brain remnants inside. Either the thing had crawled out onto the sidewalk when it had still had some functioning means of locomotion, or somebody had dumped it there. Geldt had staggered over to the gutter and puked. I’d found the thing’s windpipe with my boot heel and stood on it until the poor bastard had finally stopped wiggling and gasping. For a long time afterward, Geldt had looked white enough to hold him up to the light and see the watermark.
Geldt was just as bloodless now. I squatted down and brought my face close to his. A strand of his sweat-slicked hair dangled between his eyes.
“Mmarf.” He nodded eagerly. “Arrm-marf.”
I fingered the end of the rag dangling out of his mouth. “First I’m going to talk. And you’ll listen—okay?” Another fast nod.
“Now, what I know is that you screwed me over.” I didn’t have to wait for him to agree; I could see the little Oh shit flicker way at the back of his eyes. “I know you did. You’re just that kind of a guy. So you got all the money—didn’t you?—and I got the dirty end of the stick.”
“Yeah, well, we’ll get to that. Now here’s what else I know. You’ve already spent all that money.” I shook my head. “You just can’t hang on to it, can you? So now you need more. Have I got it right so far?” I pulled the rag out rip cord fashion. The back half of it was wet and red.
Geldt panted, eyes bugged out even farther. “Trayne—I swear to God, Trayne—I never—”
I wadded up the rag and poked it at his mouth. His dodging made me smile.
“Come on, Geldt. I’m not interested in hearing stuff like that. What I want to know is why you come looking for me. Somebody hired you, I take it. To find me. Who?”
He shook his head. “Nobody—”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake.” I slammed the heel of my hand against his brow, hard enough to snap the back of his head on the floor. His eyes lost focus.
“Try it again, Geldt. Who hired you?”
He was starting to fade. “Noo . . .”
“‘Knew’? Knew what?”
The words oozed around his lolling tongue. “New Moon . . .”
That was something at least. “The New Moon Corporation hired you. Okay, I got that. Now tell me why. Why’d they want me?”
Fading fast. “Don’t . . . know . . .”
“The fuck you don’t.” Actually, I believed that part. If I were hiring a weasel like Geldt, it’d be strictly on a need-to-know basis. But just in case he did know, I motivated him again. I picked him up by the ears and dropped his head on the floor.
I was bouncing a basketball. He’d gone out on me, the eyes rolling up white.
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