Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Decker #9

Dashing out into the blinding sunshine, they nearly toppled headlong into the source of the stream; a large, algae-choked, kidney-shaped swimming pool. Tile that had once been Aegean blue was faded and crazed, infused with nicotine yellow. The terrazzo surrounding the pool was cracked and crumbling in places, and the concrete walk leading from the gate to the pool was obviously from a different time than the walkway inside the cave. Still, the water flowed up from somewhere; the pool was full to overflowing.
There was a ruined cabana on the concave side of the pool; on the other side was a broad marble patio that adjoined an even broader marble promenade along an extended seaside quay. The stone half-wall that served as a rail had fallen into the sea in places, and scrubby grasses, weeds, and shrubs had found purchase in the cracks that spiderwebbed everything.
Behind the cabana stood the remains of an elegant old hotel; pillared and domed, it was of the same stone as the patio, but figured with gargoyles and fluting, caryatids and cherubs. There was a cobblestone roundabout to accommodate whatever form of vehicle might bring guests; at the broad stone steps that led to the hotel's great double doors, a vaulted roof formed a "T" of shade over a quarter of the roundabout and the entry.
Once-orderly gardens and arbors circled in stone had overrun their confines; a riot of pastel greenery bloomed, spread, and died, creating tripping hazards and full barriers to the nonexistent guests.
That was the strangest thing, Decker mused; in this perfect climate, with the turquoise sea on one side and an Olympian backdrop to the landward, why weren't they overrun with Sybarites? It was like trying to imagine San Diego being deserted!
"The ruins of Tryn K'Lar," Aida burst out, almost singing. "Daddy used to bring us here to play every fall. Nobody else ever came here, not at all like some of our earlier fall vacations. Oh, how we'd race up and down the halls of the Belthak Hotel, joyous in the myriad echoes that rung from her cracked stone arches! And over there-" she pointed down the shore, where the quay disappeared into a sweeping crescent of amber sand, "-Mummy and he would watch us frolicking in the waves. She'd always shout, 'watch out for the dragon eels!' and we'd laugh at the way her bill hung when she said it, so worried for us. Until an eel actually took...." Her gaze swept the water in front of the beach, as though she was trying to spot something lost on the waves. Her enthusiastic oratory died back to her normal self-entertainment, but her gaze didn't leave the waves for a good while.
Decker didn't have the heart to disturb her obviously painful reverie. He hoped she'd remember the way to her family estate, but he'd give her some time. "Well, gentlemen, welcome to the Paradise Inn, I guess! Wonder what's made this joint so unpopular?" He walked to the quay wall and scanned up the coast, seeing the stumps of old dock posts standing in ordered rows and a less elegant but more intact quay wall stretching off up the coast. There were skeletons of old wooden buildings and shells of stone structures arrayed along the gentle slope that stretched inland from the water. "So this must be Tryn K'lar. Nice place, once!"
"Ayup," Cletus agreed, "This here is the kind of spot an old caballero sech as me could see spending his hard-earned ore. Where's the dancing girls, the fancy whiskey? Bet I'cn find some likker, anyhow!" With a quick sideways nod to Decker and Degren, he bobbed off toward the hotel. "Ah'll be back in a couple of chicken clucks, men, with a leetle sumpin' to take the edge off!"
Degren let a half-grin tickle his face for a second, then he shook his head and shuffled over to the rail and leaned there, looking out to sea. Decker glanced over at Aida; she was still locked in her reverie. He decided to go stand next to her. She was mumbling softly to herself, but either she was slurring her words so badly that they were unintelligible or she was speaking a different language. It actually sounded as though she might be singing under her breath, albeit somewhat tunelessly.
Did he dare to interrupt her? The urgency that swam around his heart like little lion fish twinging and pricking seemed to have subsided to a dull ache. Maybe this wasn't so bad after all. Home had never been much of a comfort to Decker. Sure, his mom was always there for him, and his dad too, in his own distant way. But what was it that he really felt drawn to? Just the familiarity? This crazy dream he'd been living since diving into an Arizona cave was pretty exciting, wasn't it?
On the other hand, if he didn't find his way home, he'd end up married to Degren. And what about the real Furge? Would he wake up in some dry-fuck Arizona ghost town and head to Minnesota? Could he ever feel like that was home, especially when the real Decker had a hard time with it? Maybe he should get back to the old bed so no one else had to lie in it.
He glanced up at Aida; she was gazing at him as a mother might gaze on a battle-injured son. He had no idea how he should react to her concern, or even what it was she was seeing when she looked at him. "Um, hello?"
Her eyes seemed to go in and out of focus a few times, and the odd word struggled with random syllables. For a second it seemed she's drive her beak into his eye, and then she glazed over again, once again muttering her slow stream of movie songs, or whatever it was.
"Aida. AIDA!" He grasped the top edge of her wing gently but firmly, giving it a soft shake. "Aida, are you all right? Aida, I need to talk to you."
"Decker." She seemed to be floating just off the coast of reality. "The Nhub'yll sea, Decker, is a wonderful but dangerous place. My twin sister, Aisha-" the words caught in her throat.
"Aida, I'm sorry." It was all he could think of to say. He started again, as gently as he could, "Aida, we need to get you home so I can find the, um, you know.... Aida, do you know your way home from here?"
"Of course I do, Papa," she trilled in childish glee. "You've shown me ever so many times!"
"Well, darling, I'd like you to show me how well you've learned. As soon as the nice men come back, we're all going to take a little walk to see your mama."
"Yay!, Oh, Papa, can Aisha and I go pick some fiddle berries when we get home? They'll be just ripe now that it's the seventh moon! Please?"
Yes, Aida." Decker spotted Cletus heading their way; he'd obviously been successful in his quest. He was walking a little cockeyed, and he'd stagger just a bit from time to time. He was trying to conceal his tipsiness, and he might even have believed he was succeeding. "Do you remember, dear, if it's more than an hour's walk?"
"Papa," she scolded, "You know! But we always came by carriage, and it always seemed to take up ever so much of a morning!"
She didn't seem to want to come out of her childhood reverie; there was a terrible memory that held her at this tender age. Decker surmised that her sister had been taken while swimming, and the sight of the old city had thrown Aida back to a time before it had happened. He wondered what they'd find when they reached her family home. He hoped her family would be able to help her.
For now, it was good to be moving. Despite Cletus' drunken balladry and Degren's reticence, he was feeling more cheerful than he had in a while. They were close to finding the items that were supposed to get him home! He took the ornately glazed ceramic jug when Cletus proffered it, and had a long pull. It was smooth, sweet fire from the moment it touched his lips to the time it hit his belly, and it warmed his brain as well. He held the bottle out to Degren, prompting a fish-eyed glare from Cletus. Degren tried to decline, but Decker insisted. "C'mon, buddy. Take a little swig. It'll chase the blues away."
"Decker, I-"
"No 'Decker-eye' shit, bub. You're having a nice shot or I'm holding you down and letting Cletus pour it in you."
Soon they were all singing. Aida was delighted, if a bit mystified by some of the bawdy lyrics they bellowed out. She followed along anyway, giggling when she let some little suggestive bit roll off her tongue. Cletus produced a second bottle from his bag, and they continued drinking as they strolled along.
The road, though old and cracked, was serviceable enough; it looped back and forth up the hills and ran straight and true in canyons and on flats. The land went from rough rocky bluffs to rolling hills, then to gently undulating agrarian tilth. They ambled along until the sun met the horizon, then started looking for a spot to rest. The air was cooling down rapidly; they hoped there would be a nice sheltered spot to sleep.
A huge full moon slid up from the eastern sky just as the sun vanished in the west. They were all shivering except Aida; the consistent seventy five degree comfort they'd had in the caves had spoiled them.
Suddenly, Aida began jumping up and down. "A wayfarer's lodge! A wayfarer's lodge! Daddy, can we stay there? You never let us stay at them!"
It seemed almost too good to be true; there on the left side of the road, nestled into a small grove of willowy trees, was a small group of buildings. The center one had orangey light shining from its many windows, and there was enthusiastic conversation emanating from the open door and from the various chairs on the torch-lit porch.
They drew closer, and the revelers on the porch hailed them. Cletus responded in kind. Everyone seemed to be similarly inebriated. They shared around their bottle, to the great cheer of their hosts. They made their way inside, finding various games of chance in progress, and a number of scantily-clad women offering various services to the mostly male clientele. "No wonder her papa didn't take them here," Decker mumbled. Approaching the large, black-leather-vested fellow who seemed to command the bar, he asked, "Do you have a room for four?"
The big fellow smiled. "With or without bed-warmers?"
Decker glanced over at Aida. "Er, without."
"Watcha got fer trade?"
Cletus stepped up. "Gotta bottle of this!" He pulled yet another of the fancy ceramic bottles out of his bag.
Black vest eyed it up. "Where'ja get that?"
"Izzat yer bidness?"
"Nope. It'll do."
Black vest waved one of the girls over. "Jade, take these guys to number three. No extras!"
Jade was eying Decker and Degren up and down; she seemed intrigued by their velvety coats. "Aww, can I just give these two a little teeny sample?"
Cletus was miffed. "It's my likker got us the ding-dang room. Why you ain't offerin' me?"
"You don't have pretty fur."
"Not up there!"
"Nemmind," Black vest warned. "No tick-ee, no whash-ee, as the tick-ee wash-ee guys say. 'Less you got some more of that. But not in the same room! One fer all ain't the way o' this yeer establishment!"
Jade took them up to the room, dropping hints to Decker and Degren all the way that she might be out looking at the moon a little later. Decker thought it might be tempting. He had no idea if Degren swung that way. He figured he'd better wait until the big guy was asleep to decide.

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