Downtown, the streets were still the same; everywhere the gutters were filled with drifts of used-up watch batteries and data discs that crunched under your wheels when you parked.
This was only the fourth time she'd been back since they moved to LA. She hadn't gone out the last three. This time she was downtown. She sat in her car, watching through the reflective tint as people came and went, doing whatever. The lunch rush was over; the dinner rush was yet to begin.
The facades of these restaurants were all known to her; she'd traveled this sidewalk countless times in the beginning. It held the alien resonance of places which were familiar but had nearly faded from memory. She watched what sort of people went into each place. She wanted something like solitude and quiet even as she was among them, studying them.
Lavender stepped out of the car and walked toward Johnny C's.
She slipped in through the corner entrance and into a heavy drone of conversations superimposed upon one another... she bypassed the dining room, following the counter, turned backs on one side and woodwork on the other. Steaks and chops and veal sizzled on the open grills; coals brooded beneath. Lavender disappeared into the gloom in the rear of the restaurant.
It wasn't an exclusive place, but it was old and storied. Lavender had probably eaten their garbage a few times. She couldn't recall. The difference between seeing it through a glare-filled window and being in it was akin to stepping inside a painting.
She wouldn't have been allowed to stop out front before she was discovered; now she squatted in the back bar, dark, heavy oak pilasters and intarsia paneling with a polish six inches deep forming a dully-gleaming lattice around her, candleflame bulbs, in sconces covered in fake grime, dimmed to uselessness. Better light came around silhouettes of hurrying waiters and busboys, through the liquor bottles which formed a chorale, a stained glass window. Lavender waited for them to bring her a piece of hot, bloody meat with a side of ravioli in marinara.
She half-sipped, half-breathed Benedictine until her head swam and she could have been in the womb. This was a womb, she understood, a surrogate for the well-to-do to escape from the light of the world, which occasionally flashed through the side entrance. Hers had been cold white plastic, but she knew when she was inside one.
The mobsters of old had been replaced by new-technology executives and wealthy geeks. Plug City's newest hoods were still too young to put the muscle on the genomics and cyborganics and biotech companies, so they occasionally robbed these places instead. Yesterday's paper held a story on two kids who'd stuck up a firm and come out with a Hefty bag full of intelligent wrist joints, before falling under the crossfire of the city's overfinanced police force. The thugs and gangstas didn't eat at Johnny C's.
Executives slouched around the next table, spoke garrulously, laughed the laughter of the powerful.
She thought she would decide what to do next, or determine if she was going to do anything. Everything was now hers to take, but her life had fallen into a holding pattern where she was comfortable but discontent. Taking control of her life suddenly sapped her desire to change it.
It probably wouldn't be long before she was reined in, probably for good. They would make her behave, or render her irrelevant. They were taking their time doing this, she thought, all the more reason to proceed quickly, but she couldn't bring herself to. She understood what must be done. She saw it around her every day.
She was shy still, but a natural extrovert once she got going. She'd also learned her place too well, and was still unlearning it. Her humility added to her charm and she loved to please people. But she didn't think either of these was significant.
Her friends weren't holding her back. There was a time when they would have questioned her, but not now. She was sure they would get behind any course of action she devised... and they weren't hindered by her particular limitation.
Others negotiated wickedness and self-deception as easily as their own darkened bedrooms. It was not coming to Lavender so easily. This frustrated her, just as her desire to learn this skill frustrated her.
Her steak came. While she ate, she watched and listened to the neighboring party through a gold-liqueur halo, forgetting what they said almost as they said it.
"I talked to Frank this week."
"Frank in Chicago?"
"Is he dead yet?"
"Can't really tell."
"He's talking about this distribution deal like it's Jesus from behind the rock, but he doesn't give me any numbers, he just kinda weasels around it, y'know?"
A knowing nod. "Frank."
"Yeah. So's I tell him give me some numbers on it and maybe I'll get my feet wet. Don't think I'm gonna hear anything further."
"Well we finally closed on the old house... we've got to be up twice what we paid with the housing market the way it is."
One looked Lavender's way without seeing, and she returned the gaze.
It might've been the alcohol befuddling her. She supposed it meant something to them, or maybe not. There was no joy there, just a kind of smugness. Lavender was sure there was something to be learned here, so she kept eavesdropping.
One of them looked to the nonstop stock ticker crossing beneath the television screen. Even in the womb they couldn't bear to be deprived of it. Everyone was leashed by information, Lavender included. But there was no down market for the powerful, they'd seen to that after the 1929 crash, it was only little people who felt the effects.
She mopped up hot blood with crusty bread and munched on it like watching her own show. A whistling staticky sound was beneath the chatter in the cathedral of liquor. Lavender thought an hallucination might be in the offing.
What else happened during the long, dead years between two mass slaughters? The modern world was born in that apparent silence. Up until that time it'd sludged along incoherent and casual... then suddenly it wound up, built massive armies as though from the air, flattened civilizations in weeks, flung cables around the world to net everyone in place, forced all mankind to take sides, eternally. There were no bystanders since then. History had since been a story of unifying the world in common purpose... a purpose elusive and subject to the fashion of the day, or the momentary needs of a few. A thousand purposes overlapping and masquerading as the singular engine of civilization. The endemic belief in countless opposing ideas. Raised in this, human beings developed an immunity.
She hadn't been raised, so she lacked the immune factor. That was her explanation. She didn't want to believe she was limited to her programming. She wasn't a machine... was she?
Neither did she wish to be like these men. Technically they were insane. That wasn't a great problem. It was a species of madness under which they flourished.
The problem was that Lavender was growing to hate them... and she didn't how to correct that. She didn't hate them yet, but she felt it distant and coming on like indigestion, mild at first but which would grow and spike through her innards until she doubled over from the pain. She had an idea, from their mincing camaraderie, that they hated each other, too... she was not encouraged.
Two contradictory systems of morality, both constantly reinforced. As much as she tried to live by one, she was being subtly maneuvered into following both.
They couldn't help what they were. It wasn't much but it helped a little. And it wasn't her place to judge, she reminded herself. It wasn't anyone's. If there was a God, it was his province.
But why should she hate anyone? She bit her lip.
One of the gentlemen noticed her attention, had done for a while now, and elbowed his nearest companion for him to look. For a moment she had an irrational feeling she would be ejected as undesirable. Lavender looked away.
She looked again. The businessmen had become the skulls of goats, surmounting expensive suits. From the collar down they were normal... thick beef-fed fingers holding glasses, pointing and asserting. From the neck up, bleached skull-heads with nautilus curls of horn. Their eyesockets were empty, but she sensed they weren't looking her way anymore. She made herself look at the television, after calling for another drink.
"So Tom, I heard you shorted ABX last week..."
"Yeah, I musta been fuckin the maid when I put in that order."
Laughter all around.
"Maker's all around," said one of the goatskulls to a passing waiter.
"Gonna be in Phoenix next week."
Lavender let her gaze drift to the next table. The illusion remained. Light and shadows were taut skin and muscle, lending expression; the bones were static, but for an evocative tilting of the skull, a lofty canting of a noseless snout. She studied the apparitions over the rim of the balloon glass, watermarks playing on her skin.
She had a mind-picture of herself in this environment. Jeans, black t-shirt. In the yellow gloom her hair seemed an earthly color, her skin milky instead of like chalk. She didn't think they'd know her anyway.
Taking her glass, Lavender approached them, her ears filled with the sound of denim rubbing denim. She pulled up a seat and slid into place among them like it was held for her.
"I hope you don't mind if I join you," she purred. She extended her arm, set down her glass, challenging.
Light played upon the skulls to lend them expression. Bony brows arched in surprise.
"Go right ahead," said one, bemused. They indulged her with chisel smiles.
"I'll only impose upon you briefly... I want your opinion."
"And your name is?"
"Pleased to meet you, Lavender. I'm John." The skullhead stood, offered a hand, and she met it halfway, shaking. "And that's Tom... Richard... and that's some guy named James we found on the street." Lavender laughed gamely along with them, shaking hands.
"What can we help you with, Lavender?" said the one called Richard.
Lavender thought. "It's sort of a survey," she said. "Tell me if you agree or disagree with each statement I make."
"We're being set up for a pitch," James said, laughing.
"No... I suppose I'm buying rather than selling. May I?" The static squeal was in her ears, seeming to emanate from her forehead.
"Love thy neighbor."
"But don't get caught!" replied Tom. The goatskulls erupted into fresh laughter. Inhabitants of nearby tables turned to eye the commotion. Lavender didn't think they saw quite what she did. She waited for her companions to settle down.
Sensing this (and maybe thinking Lavender was some kind of religious freak), the skulls exchanged glances and deemed her statement one whose sentiment was acceptable.
"Might makes right."
"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
There was some hesitation before affirmation was given.
"Never give a sucker an even break."
Laughter and agreement.
"Age before beauty... sorry, I just thought I'd slip that one in there."
As the businessmen were drawn into the game, they responded with greater care.
"Aggression will not stand," Lavender said. "Honesty is the best policy. Speak softly and carry a big stick. What they don't know won't hurt them." Lavender ejected platitudes until she became bored with her game.
The hallucinations voiced agreement with a majority of the statements.
"Thank you, all. You've been elucidating." Lavender got up and went back to her table.
"Did she say we've been hallucinating?" Tom said. The skullheads looked to each other, querulous and amused. Their conversation quickly turned to other subjects.
Lavender pretended the men no longer existed. She waved down a waitress. "Please, something to soak up the alcohol. Anything." The waitress tittered and left.