Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Songs of Earth and Power Omnibus, Page 46

Greg Bear

  "I said you were mysterious this morning," Kristine reminded him. "I don't know what I meant-"

  "Okay," he said. "I'll tell you this much. I have been warned not to do any of this." He gestured toward the manuscript with an open hand. "I don't know by whom. I'm ignoring that warning, but I want you to be aware of the risk we're taking."

  "Jesus," she said again, looking down at the table. They were served their salads. "Why didn't you tell me this earlier?"

  "Because I'm an idiot." He touched his fork to the salad.

  "You are not an idiot," Kristine objected, raising her eyebrows not at him but at her salad plate.

  "Then maybe it's because I'm way out of my depth."

  She regarded him shrewdly. "Then why are you doing this?"

  "Because I find you attractive," Michael said, the editing function somehow completely deactivated.

  Kristine didn't react for an uncomfortable number of seconds. "I'm living with someone now," she said.

  "I suspected as much."

  "I'd like to think we're both interested in the music."

  "We both are."

  "And I'd like to think you wouldn't use all of this as an excuse, just to see somebody you're attracted to."

  "I haven't been. Not entirely."

  "How old are you?" Kristine asked. "I mean, really?"

  "I don't know," Michael said. "I was gone five years. It didn't seem like five years to me."

  "I was thinking you might be older than you said."

  "If anything, I'm younger."

  "Then I'm really confused." She removed her napkin from her lap and laid it on the tablecloth. "And I'm not very hungry."

  "Neither am I."

  "You don't want me to do anything with the manuscript, then?"

  "On the contrary. I do want you to… take it to the music department, look it over, get it performed. But I think you should be aware there could be trouble."

  "Do you always cause trouble for women you're attracted to?"

  Her question stunned him. Yes. "Not like this," he answered. "It's not me causing the trouble."

  "What I think you're trying to say is, if we play this music again, the same things will happen as happened in 1939."

  "Or something even more important."

  "And I could be sued, as Waltiri was sued."

  "I don't know about that. That isn't what worries me most."

  She seemed absolutely fascinated by the idea. "That would be…interesting. But you're right; I find it all hard to believe."

  "And you're only hearing the easy part," Michael said.

  Again a pause, as she bit her lower lip and searched his face intently. "Let's talk about how you feel about me…"

  "Please. It's embarrassing. I've said too much, and I've said it in all the wrong ways."

  "No. I appreciate your honesty. You are being honest; that much is obvious. And you're not crazy. Believe me, I've gone out with enough crazy men…" She gazed off into the middle distance. "I like you, but there is this… situation."

  "We shouldn't waste the food," Michael said.

  "No." She picked up her fork, replaced her napkin and speared a leaf of lettuce from her salad plate.

  "I mentioned the Mahler letters to Gregory Dillman. He's our department expert on Mahler and Strauss and Wagner. He's fascinated - says that none of the letters have ever been published, which is obvious, I suppose."

  "Yes," Michael said.

  "He's advising a fellow named Berthold Crooke on his orchestration of Mahler's Tenth Symphony."


  "Mahler died before he could finish the orchestration. Der-yck Cooke orchestrated a version about twenty years ago, but Crooke has a different approach. They - Dillman and Crooke - would love to see the letters."

  "We should get your librarians to work on them soon," Michael said. "Cooke and Crooke. That's funny."

  "Right." She smiled. "Both with an e."

  Their main course was served, and they concentrated on the food for a few minutes, though Michael was not particularly hungry. There was a hollowness of want inside him that had nothing to do with food. His mind was racing ahead, speculating, visualizing scenes he had no right to even consider now.

  Kristine, without realizing it, had set the hook by confirming Michael's suspicions. She was not yet available; she might even deny him. That made her infinitely more attractive. So it had been with Helena in the Realm.

  "Your situation doesn't sound good," he said on impulse.

  Kristine twisted her fork around a fleck of parsley in a small puddle of herb sauce. "Persistent, aren't you?"

  "I'm just interested," he said. "Concerned."

  "Well it doesn't matter. It'll work out," she said.

  "I hope I didn't cause any trouble when I called. I thought I heard an argument."

  Kristine sighed and met his eyes. "You know, I must want to talk about it, or I'd be angry with you now."

  "I'm sorry," Michael said softly.

  "I meet the strangest men. I really do. Maybe it's an occupational hazard, part of being a woman. My mother says most men are like wild horses. You can't expect all of them to be Lippizaners. But mostly I think I'm just too young to have much taste. You know. Can't tell the good wine from the bad right off."

  "So what am I - Lippizaner or mustang?" Michael asked.

  "Oh Jesus, I don't know." She had finished her salmon and laid the fork beside untouched broccoli spears. Her eyes narrowed, and she appraised him. "I don't know you well at all, but you're no Lippizaner. You're not tamed, and you're not trained. Not domestic at all. I think you must be… wild but not a mustang. Some sort of fairy tale horse."

  Michael raised an eyebrow and grinned.

  "Well, we're going to be frank tonight, aren't we?"


  "A white stallion maybe. Just something big and lean and out of a dream. I don't know whether you're benevolent or… not. I know you're not cruel, but - powerful. Somehow. Oh, forget all this." She shook her head, hair drifting into her eyes. As she replaced the strands, the waitress asked them if they wanted dessert.

  "Coffee," Kristine said. "I could have coffee. How about you?"

  "Nothing, thanks."

  "Flying horses, silver-gray and lean. Maybe that's what you're like. I had a dream about that last night. Maybe I was thinking of you."

  Michael felt his breathing stop, his insides tense, and then returned himself to some semblance of calm.

  "Isn't that what a poet is supposed to be, powerful and ghostly inside, raise the hair on your neck?"

  He had never heard it expressed quite so well before. He nodded. But -

  … Once, poets were magicians. Poets were strong, stronger than warriors or kings - stronger than old hapless gods. And they will be strong once again. Adonna, Tonn, had told him that.

  "So you're a real nightmare," Kristine said, smiling again.

  "Better than being a nerd, I suppose."

  "Tommy… he's the fellow I live with. We share a house with Stephen and Sue. A big four-bedroom place. We have a room and bathroom all to ourselves. Tommy's nice inside, but he doesn't know himself. He has no self-confidence. It makes him go off the deep end, like he has no real self-control." She held up both hands, one clutching her napkin, and leaned her head back as if looking for the right words to be printed on the silk canopy.

  "If I left him now," she said, "he might just fall apart."

  "Do you love him?"

  To his distress, he saw tears in her eyes.

  "Damn it," she said, touching the napkin to her cheeks. "You don't know me that well, to ask such questions. Let's get the check."

  "I'm sorry. I'm just concerned."

  "Oh, bullshit," she said, not unkindly. "You're on the make. No. I don't love him now. He's the albatross I get around my neck for having bad taste in men."

  They split the bill, and Michael insisted he leave the tip. He expected Kristine to say good-bye and leave with the manuscript, but instead she be
gan walking down Gayley toward Westwood, apparently expecting him to follow. He kept pace with her. "You know, maybe we could have a big concert in the summer," she said crisply. "Sort of the opposite ends of the early twentieth century German tradition - Mahler's Tenth and Waltiri's Infinity Concerto. Wouldn't that be an occasion? I'll mention it to Dillman. Maybe Crooke will have his performing version finished by then, and we can premiere it." She led them by a brightly lighted theater front. Michael automatically glanced at the movie posters on the side of the four plex - a Blake Edwards romantic comedy called Tempting Fate, two theaters showing David Lynch's Black Easter, and a reissue of The Black Cauldron. The poster for Black Easter showed U.S. Army troops fighting demons around a city whose walls were made of red-hot iron.

  Long lines of people waited behind ropes suspended from brass poles along the sidewalk. Michael feather-touched their auras automatically as he and Kristine walked past. The people were bright, expectant, full of the awareness that they were on a kind of social display; they were very much alive and enjoying themselves. Michael felt a fullness of love for them beyond immediate explanation.

  "I'm an ambitious woman, Michael," Kristine said, walking ahead of him past the theater entrance. "Or didn't you get that impression already?"

  "No, I didn't. I wouldn't use the word ambitious."

  "Then I'm a dreamer. How's that?"

  "That's a good word," Michael said.

  "Jesus. All these fantasy movies." She looked back over her shoulder and shook her head. "Won't they ever go out of style?"

  "Maybe there's a reason everyone's interested in fantasy," Michael suggested.


  "The hauntings. Dreams of wild horses."

  "What about them?"

  "Never mind."

  She didn't press him. They came to a bookstore and looked, in the windows. "Wouldn't you like to see your books in there, sometime?" she asked.

  "I would," Michael agreed.

  "And what I would like it to go by Vogue or Tower and see my music on CDs all over the windows." She laughed, but Michael saw her eyes were still moist. "Okay. I think it's time we went home. Tommy has the car tonight. I came here by bus. Can you give me a lift back?"

  "Of course," Michael said.

  Michael drove east on Wilshire, following her directions. The night was warm and the air relatively clear, with a few bright stars showing through low, orange-lighted clouds. Kris-tine stared up through the open sunroof, "I'm not really a complainer," she said. "My life is going along okay. I enjoy my work." She glanced at Michael. "Even so, I want to get away sometimes. Have you ever had that feeling? That you'd like to go away someplace far from everything, away from all the responsibilities and cares? That must be a common fantasy."

  "I suppose," Michael said.

  "Is that what you did? You said you were away for five years."

  "I didn't get away from responsibilities."

  "Can you tell me where you went? I've been doing all the confessing this evening."

  He smiled and shook his head. "If I'm putting the make on you, then I mustn't scare you away by making you think I'm crazy, should I?"

  "All right," Kristine said.

  "But I will confess one thing."


  "From what you've said about Tommy, I don't think I like him very much. If he makes you unhappy."

  "Michael, I'm the one who makes him unhappy. We make each other unhappy."

  "Then why don't you leave him?"

  "I told you. That's the street up ahead - South Bronson. Turn right." They entered a neighborhood of old, large homes, most in the California bungalow style. Kristine told him to slow down and pointed out the house where she lived. Two stories high, fronted by a broad porch with low brick walls and pillars supporting a second floor porch, it looked dark and ill-kept. Faded yellow paint peeled from the clapboard siding. An old black Trans-Am with gray patches of primer along its side and rear waited by the curb in front of the house, seats unoccupied, lights off and engine running. Someone stood in the shadow of the porch. Michael did not like the circumstances at all, but Kristine didn't seem alarmed.

  'Tommy's back," she said. "You can just let me off here."

  Michael stopped, and Kristine opened the door and stepped out. The figure on the porch came down the steps slowly, methodically, with an exaggerated cowboy walk. Michael quickly probed the man and found sullen anger, neat tidy rooms full of engine parts and tools, a flicker of light at the back of a long, dark hallway. The man crossed the street as Kristine shut the door. She leaned into the window. "Thanks for the ride. I'll call you about meeting Edgar and coming to the department. And we'll talk about having the library people take a look-"

  "How cute," Tommy said, stopping several yards from the car. He was of middle height, black-haired, powerfully built and slightly bow-legged, his legs packed into faded jeans and his crossed arms revealed by a black T-shirt. "A Saab. Real powerhouse. College professor, right?"

  "Tommy, this is Michael Perrin. He was good enough to drive me home."

  "I'm sure. Pleased to meet you, Michael."

  "Same here," Michael said.

  "I've been waiting."

  "You were gone when I got home," Kristine said. "I couldn't leave you a message. And you had the car." She looked back at Michael as she touched Tommy's arms.

  "Fine," Tommy said. "Thanks for dropping her off."

  Michael could not believe what happened next. The man reached out casually with one arm, as if to embrace her. She stepped closer, and he made a half-spin, striking her cheek with his hand. Kristine dropped to the street in a half-crouch, one leg stuck out to keep from falling over. Her purse hit the pavement, and the envelope slid out.

  There was no thought involved in his reaction. He heard Tommy say something in a quiet voice to Kristine, and then he heard the Saab's door open. Michael stood on the street long enough to let the man know he was there, and then Tommy was on his back with his legs spraddled and blood pouring from his nose.

  Michael had deftly lifted his leg and reached out with the toe of one running shoe to clip Tommy's face. Kristine had reached for the envelope and her purse and had not seen the blow connect. Now she scrambled across the pavement, dragging her purse, and knelt by Tommy.

  "Bastard," Tommy said thickly. "Gib be a Kleedex."

  "It isn't broken," Michael said with certainty, still calm but feeling the hot lava of angry reaction rising in a volcano tube to his head.

  "Goddab," Tommy said, clutching her proffered scarf to his face.

  "Are you all right?" Michael asked Kristin. The print of Tommy's blow was livid on her left cheek.

  "I'm fine," she said. "He didn't mean to hit me hard. Oh, Jesus, what am I saying?" She seemed to be keening over him, repeating, "You idiot. You poor, stupid bastard."

  "Leave be alode," Tommy said, pushing her away. She got to her feet. "You dod't go out with subwud else, dot without by dowing," he said.

  "It was a God damned business dinner," she said. "Michael's in charge of the estate I told you about."

  Michael probed Tommy as he stood, trying to predict what he would do next. Tommy's anger was now evenly mixed with shame, somewhere a small boy crying, light flaring red at the back of the dark hallway. Michael suddenly felt very sorry for the man and confused.

  Kristine confronted him. "You're my protector, are you?" she asked, her voice level, her stare glassy.

  "I apologize."

  "That was sharp," Tommy said, grinning through the scarf. Black smeared his jaw in the orange streetlight glow. "That was do college professor's trick. Dod't get bad at hib, Kris-tide. I pulled a stupid studt, and he showed be. He showed be."

  Kristine looked between them as if they were both crazy. Then she shook her head and walked to the house.

  "Okay, Bichael," Tommy said, backing off the street and onto the grass strip beyond the curb. "You showed be. So dow leave us alode, huh?" He turned off the idling engine of the Trans-Am and followe
d her up the porch steps into the dark house, keys dangling from his hand, the other still clutching Kristine's scarf to his nose.

  Michael stood in the dark living room, having walked unerringly on a path between the furniture to the piano, and with his eyes closed wept for a time, his arms trembling and his chest heaving as he tried to subdue the sobs.

  The real world.

  How far away the Realm seemed now, and how cut and dried most of its problems. With every breath, every choked-off sob, the real world exploded behind his eyes. Growing up, trying to fit into society, trying to decide who and what he was: the immediate reality.

  Making mistakes. Taking actions in which there was no apparent right or wrong.

  Hitting a man who was already deeply confused, hurting.

  But he struck Kristine.

  Justified or not, what Michael had done that night simply tore him up inside. What made it worse was the knowledge that as a hidden part of what the Crane Women had taught him, he could have easily killed Tommy.

  The impule had been there - raw indignation quickly bursting into anger. He could still feel it in his gut: The world would be better off without Tommy.

  Something in his memory tickled. Something about Kris-tine. From the Realm. How was that possible?

  All his emotions seemed to retreat like a fast sea tide. He stood in the dark, made suddenly afraid by what he remembered, and wondering why he had not remembered before.

  After the death of Alyons, Wickmaster of the Pact Lands, at the outer border of the Blasted Plain surrounding the Pact Lands, he had encountered for the second time the hideous snail-like creature with the death's-head shell. With a woman's voice, it had implored Michael, "Take me with you. Take me with you. I am not what I seem. I do not belong here."

  "What are you?"

  "I am what Adonna wills."

  "Who are you?"

  "Tonn's wife. Abandoned. Betrayed. Take me with you!"

  He walked in a wide circle around the creature. It made no further move toward him.

  "You are a mage," it said. "Take me where I might live again. And I will tell you where Kristine is."

  "I'm sorry," Michael had said. "I'm no mage. And 1 don't know who Kristine is."

  He had crossed the border of the Blasted Plain, leaving the skull-snail - Tonn's wife - alone and trapped, a victim of Sidhe sorcery even more hideous than that used to transfigure Lamia and her sister.