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Straight to my Lover's Heart
a short story by Richard Bowes

Thanksgiving is a good day for spotting them. Kids who don't go home stand out when the city is empty. Raz sits at the top of the stairs leading to the remodeled plaza that was a crack run not long ago. A few steps down are two apprentice predators. Layers: jackets, pullovers, T shirts, baggy pants, jams, boxers, Calvins, work boots, mask a pair of skinny punks.

They spot a soft figure paused on the corner like traffic lights are a mystery. Flyaway red hair. Clothes a symphony of miscalculation. She shivers like she's chilly. Though it has yet to get cold this year. She's wide-eyed and her hands flutter to the back of her skull. Eyes and hands are our betrayers.

"Lookin' devestatin'!" One guy says loud.

"Yo! Come get warm!" yells the other.

Raz is already up and walking. Dressed like them and still tiny. Face like a baby. No ornament but a bow-shaped ring of feathery gold. The pair see him and shut up. Word is that this one can screw up your love life. Permanently. Turn you into a laughing stock.

He crosses the street. Raz's specialty is outcasts of Time. Runaways. Fugitives. Ones who can't go home on holidays, because home hasn't been built yet. Or it's a place that's long gone or never was. Raz recognizes the wardrobe and the Live Wig this one wears. He knows the exact story she's come here thinking she's going to live, the technology she's abused to get here.

Raz stands motionless in the Time Jumper's path. She sees him and stops. He speaks quietly. "This isn't Singapore Deluxe, Sweetness. That doesn't get made for another sixty years.

"And the folks who made it knew nothing about The Big Deuce Plus Four. Didn't care. Stop trying to fiddle with your Socket. There's nothing to plug into in 2004. What's the name?"

A moment's hesitation before the mouth moves and a little squeak comes out. When she finally manages to speak, the name she gives, as Raz expected, is Mai Ling. The same as the young lady in Singapore Deluxe, that Netmontage about a strapping African-American and the call girl for whom he renounces the Presidency of the United States. Raz considers it a crude romance. But there's no denying its wild popularity in times to come.

"This far Downstream, you need to start using your vocal cords," he tells this Mai Ling. "Let's go where we can talk. There's someone I'd LOVE to have you meet."

As they walk, an unmarked car rolls by. Bradley and DeVita of Street Crimes are making a quick tour before heading for their homes and families. DeVita at the wheel, heedless of danger, exercises a cop's right to stare. Bradley, the shade and temperature of iced coffee, glances up from her paperwork and sees what's happening. She says something to distract him.

A month or so before, with Raz new in the neighborhood and talking to street kids, the two had pulled over. DeVita was out of the car, all cop, looming over the stranger. Not liking Raz's attitude, he started in, "Loitering with intent...wipe that smile...the night in a holding cell."

Bradley, bored but bright, gave the stranger the once-over, spotted the ring begin to flutter like wings and muttered, "This one has powerful family." Thus, she saved herself the bother of breaking in a new partner.

DeVita immediately backed off. But he was the one who spread the newcomer's identity around. Raz is what the Street does to the name Eros.

Walking with the one who has decided she's Mai Ling, head level with her shoulder, Raz studies this Upstream girl. Weighs and compares.

She's a Socket on the run from a place one hundred years in the future. Looking for the real world of All Meat People. Mai Ling's got enough implants in her to stock a Circuit City outlet. And she's about to go into something like withdrawal now that there's nothing for her to plug into. A likely prospect, Raz decides. Mixing and matching is his specialty. And he has a combo in mind.

On a rainy day two weeks before, he spotted a boy sitting on the sidewalk under a construction scaffolding. The kid was trying to sell poems at a dollar each. Raz noted the undecorated face. No tats or jewelry. Hair without a hint of style. Penny loafers and chinos the worse for wear. Scared but alert. A Downstream Jumper, obviously.

Mike was his name. Not even an alias. "You hungry?" asked Raz. The boy looked away. Embarrassed.. "Want some pizza?" A slow nod. Afraid of what the payment would be.

Shortly, they sat across a table from each other. Still learning about pizza, Mike gobbled and winced while Raz scanned the poems. One read:

Don't fold bend or mutilate me
I'm as human as you may be

Another went:

Steel on the wind
Of an American city street
Sparks in the Nile
On a night of shooting stars

A recent one began:

Raper of worlds
Molester of generations.

That last one evoked for Raz an ancient memory. He flashed on the moments when he played with a golden shield and helmet while his mother and the War God bounced on the sheets.

He spoke to Mike in his soft, low voice. "You're nineteen. From a Downstream Ohio. I haven't been there much, but I know 1960 can get nasty, sometimes. When Ike dies in office and the Cold War gets hot. Usually it starts in the Middle East. And goes nuclear. But some people learn a little about the Stream. Form an underground. Smuggle kids out."

Mike stopped eating, amazed. Looked around before whispering, "You're the first one here who knows about that. No one's even heard about the Lebanon Line. Seen the pictures of the pyramid blown apart. It's like my whole life never happened. The Army called my number.

"My old man insisted I go. My mom..."

He ducked his head. Back home, boys did not cry. In a choked voice, he made the most terrible confession. "I don't know how to do anything. Except write stupid poems no one cares about."

Raz thought that wasn't quite true. The Time Police with their Apollonian sense of order might not appreciate verses that publicized a world they had so carefully edited out of the Main Stream. And Mars might care about that last poem. In the unlikely event he understood it.

But Raz spotted potential in this kid. So he bought the whole pile of poems for $25 and said, "When you work for me, you'll write only LOVE sonnets." Mike, smart and wary, listened intently as Raz identified himself and detailed the terms of employment.

Thanksgiving Day, Raz leads Mai Ling to a second floor studio apartment walk-up, knocks and waits. Mike answers, still holding the New York Times he's been reading. He sees Mai Ling. His mouth opens in amazement and he drops the paper. Naïve and traumatized Mike may be. But in the last couple of weeks, he's managed to learn a lot about the ways of this world.

Enough to realize that this girl is something extraordinary.

She ignores the nest Raz has carefully prepared, the couch adorned with heart-shaped pillows, the silk screen showing his greatest achievement, a madly infatuated god in pursuit of a recalcitrant nymph.

The first thing she notices is the TV. A rerun of The Honeymooners is on. She gazes on it enraptured, like that explorer who first rediscovered the cave paintings. She walks forward like she wants to stick her head into the screen. This entire world won't hold enough electronic interface to satisfy her. When she realizes that she can't plug into the set, she turns and takes in the wonderstruck boy.

Raz gives them an appraising look. He needs a stable team to run this particular Bower.

His mother, Venus, Goddess of Love, has sent him on a mission to establish shrines in her honor all up and down the Time Stream. He weighs and balances Mai Ling's knowledge of what is to come. Mike's ability to learn. Her helplessness. His inhibitions. This pair is not perfect. But what match is?

Raz stands with a clear view of both and raises his hand. His ring flutters. The bow sprouts an arrow. Only an impossible shot could nail them both. Especially since Raz doesn't take aim. But Cupid, of course, never misses,


© Richard Bowes 2001, 2002.

This story first appeared in Black Gate #2.

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