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That woman, it turns out, is important to another party on the scene: Mr. Patrice. Who, in his turn, appears to run a lot of the City. Doc knows he holds some kind of unusual power. Mr. Patrice knows it too. So does the beautiful Ginevra Benci. And so does the sorcerous Whisper-Who-Dares, who offers threats and temptations far beyond anything Doc ever imagined. By turns brutal and delicate, murderous and metaphysical, The Last Hot Time is a fantasy novel unlike any other, a brilliant dance of genres and storylines leading to a thoroughly unusual conclusion.
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Author of the World Fantasy Award-winning The Dragon Waiting and the Philip K. Dick Award-winning Growing Up Weightless, along with many other novels including Web of Angels, The Scholars of Night, and How Much for Just the Planet?, John M. Ford lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Triumph TR3 was running sweet tonight; Danny Holman had been fiddling with it for a week straight, but he'd tinkered with it near nonstop for the eight months he'd owned it without any really definite results. But now he was doing--well, nearly sixty--through the September night, all alone on I-80, a wire-wheeled golden bat out of hell.
Danny saw a lighted truck stop about eighty miles into Illinois. He was pretty sure he could get to Chicago on the gas he had, but the truck stop was the first place he'd seen open since dark. No sense getting caught short. Not after what it had taken to get this far. He pulled the TR3 onto a ramp with heavy weeds to either side.
The station looked like it had been huge, once. There were at least a dozen pump islands out of service, lots of cracked concrete and dead light poles, and some hollow buildings. A big brick shell still had a dark motel sign. There were ten tables in the restaurant, and room for forty more. A big red-lettered sign by the counter said if you are under 21 do not ask for beer. we punish criminals. Who's we? he thought, but no one gave him a problem with his cheeseburger and berryade. There was another sign that read we have coffee, with have on a separate card. Below that it said price negotiable.
A skeletal old man filled the Triumph's tank, then wiped the windshield and headlights. "Goin' home?" he said, with a look at the luggage in the little car's passenger seat.
"No," Danny said, without thinking about it.
"Well," the man said, "then it ain't too late to go home."
"I s'pose so." Danny didn't want to start a string of lies with the guy, and he supposed that anything he said would have about the same effect.
"If you need directions..." The old man nodded toward a cardboard box, between a rack of oil cans and the end pump. A card said the only map you need. The box was full of Gideon Bibles, black and green, probably from the motel. Danny'd seen the same box in Iowa, half a dozen different times and places. He paid the attendant and drove on.
The road was empty. Every half hour or so he slowed down for a reflector barricade marking off a patch of crumbled pavement or collapsed embankment or a mass of burnt-out vehicles too big to remove. There was a little fingernail of moon, making foggy gray shadows on the concrete, but mostly the night was black on black, with a few lone stars on the horizon, barns or one-crossroad towns. A couple of the towns had signs, the old white-on-green reflective ones. He didn't turn off. Towns like that had shot at him in the county ambulance with the lights going. The odds wouldn't be any better now.
Maybe, Danny thought, Illinois was different.
Nope. It would be different where he was going.
He flipped on the radio and started scanning with the knob. There was noise with long dead spots between, no change there. He got a ripple of piano music and an unintelligible voice, but it slipped away.
Then rhythms came up clear, and a voice Danny knew: one of the WGN night people. Danny smiled. This was the sound that had kept him sane, in his room, with the earphones stuffed in tight and muffled with gauze so that no one else would hear. He could ride the beam all the way now.
A record came on. The car hummed and Danny did too.
None of you knows what to do
You better move it 'cause I'm coming through
Everybody's sayin' that the kid's insane
I'm doin' ninety miles an hour
In the breakdown lane
As the road rose up to meet the car, Danny saw an edge of orange light on the distant horizon. It reminded him of a night fire call, last summer, when a barn and silos had gone up a county over. It had taken a couple of hours to cover twenty miles, to find a road somebody hadn't blasted or blocked for some weird local reason. When they got there, the VFD had given up trying to put the fire out and was just holding it back from the farmhouse.
One of the firemen led Danny and his partner to a covered pickup. In the back were a woman wobbling between numb silence and screaming fits, two little kids who just wanted to watch the fire, and a teenage boy with second-degree burns on his hands and arms who didn't want to be treated and really didn't want pain meds. After a while Danny understood the boy needed something to fight, and the pain was all he had. If he lost that, he might just break down.
Some of the VFD guys had burns and smoke, so the paramedics went to work on them. Danny's partner asked the fireman he was bandaging where the farmer was.
The man twisted his face around, and then said, "When we said there was nothin' we could do for his barn, he just up and walked into it. Captain tried to knock him down with the stream, but he just kept goin'. I mean, we tried, but--"
Up ahead of us walls and wire
We're gonna take 'em like a house afire
Everybody's sayin' that the kid's insane
I'm doin' ninety miles an hour
In the breakdown lane
Wolves are gettin' hungry, let 'em off the chain
Doin' ninety miles an hour
In the breakdown lane
Danny fiddled with the radio again, trying to get some news about the glow ahead. The orange light was too big to be a burning house, or even a whole town. What the heck could it be?
Headlights flashed in the rear-view. There was a big car back there, gaining on him. Danny thought about giving the guy a run for his nickel, but he was already getting enough crosswind to make the Triumph wobble, and besides, the car behind had asked permission. He dropped a gear and slipped into the right lane.
The car pulled up. Danny took a look. He saw headlights like chrome buckets, a hood like a coffin, bow-wave fenders over white-sided tires, and running boards six feet long: a car straight out of a James Cagney movie.
The near front window was down, and a face showed in it, lit by green dashboard glow. Danny saw weirdly sharp, foxlike features, long white hair.
An elf. A real, honest to...whatever elf.
The elf raised two long thin fingers and the car rolled on. Danny tapped his hands on the wheel, feeling a charge right down in his gut. Elves. Fast cars with power to burn. Next stop Chicago.
Just ahead the road made a tight right, notched through a low hill; the big car's headlights spilled across the blasted rock face. Danny dropped back a little farther; this wasn't necessarily a divided highway anymore, and--
Halfway through the curve, the Triumph's lights picked up the other car, dead ahead in Danny's lane: it was another high-wheeled box like the first car had been, it was blood red, and its lights were out.
Just as the two big cars in front of Danny were side by side, white fire spat from the side of the red one. Danny heard the guns above the wind, like saw blades going through pine. The red car spun its wheels and shot away through the darkness toward the city glow beyond. The dark car bucked and wavered, but somehow kept to the road until it was clear of the rock face; then it bumped over the left-hand shoulder and came to a stop on the roadside, tilted nose-up, headlights aimed at the treetops.
Danny braked hard, pulled off the road to the right, and stopped. He opened the door, looked around: no more traffic. His working stuff was in a red roll bag behind the seats; he slung it and sprinted across the highway.
Crazy patterns of holes were punched across the side of the car and starred the dark windows. Danny heard a groan from somewhere in the rear. He grabbed the door handle, got it open. A soft light came on inside.
The rear space was as big as a normal car's whole interior. There was a sofa-sized rear seat, and against the front wall, just below a glass divider, were folded jump seats and a wooden cabinet holding cut-glass bottles. One flask was smashed, and Danny smelled whiskey.
A woman was sprawled on the backseat. She wore a sapphire-blue gown and a short white jacket. There was blood all over them, and on her short, white-blond hair. Her head rested in the lap of a small man in a dark suit with wide peaked lapels, a silver shirt, and a shiny black tie. A broad-brimmed hat hid his face. Danny zipped the kit open.
"Cloud," the man said.
Danny felt a movement past his left ear. He jerked, got something in his hand, turned. There was a white-fleshed, thin man--the elf he had seen in the dashboard light--just beside him, in a blue leather cycle jacket and a long dark scarf. The elf was holding a short-barreled pump shotgun. Its muzzle was what had flicked past Danny's ear.
Danny had automatically grabbed a pair of angled shears, to cut access to the wounds. Its metal was warming in his hand. It looked pretty lame compared to the elf's gun. As if that weren't bad enough, the bent metal made Danny think of Robin, and he'd come up here to not do that anymore.
The suited man looked up. He was black, with a sharp chin and nose, large dark eyes. He said, "You have excellent reflexes, young man. Do you know how to use that equipment?"
"That's why I brought it," Danny said, calmly enough. He'd heard Ain't you awful young for a paramedic? often enough that it didn't sting any longer, not much.
"You'll see to the lady." He spoke without an accent, but with an odd rhythm. He put the woman's head down, very gently, and moved to the jump seat opposite. The elf hadn't moved.
Danny shoved his brain back into Trauma Mode. Airway first. The woman sucked in a breath, and the dark well of blood in her flank sucked and bubbled. Through the lung. Bad. "Excuse me," he said, stuck a penlight between his teeth and bent down to check beneath her. No exit wound. One hole to seal: less bad for the moment. An ER would have to worry about where the bullet was.
A couple of long rips with the shears got the white jacket out of the way. Danny ripped open a pressure bandage, peeled the blue satin away from the hole. There was nothing between the thin slick fabric and her skin. The pad went on and he leaned on the sucker. He tore off some tape one-handed and sealed it down. She heaved another breath, coughed, but the bad noises stopped.
Danny took inventory. The scalp wound looked minor, a bullet crease or a flying sliver; it was clotting okay, not a priority. There was a nasty clip out of her upper left arm. He could see bone.
The door by the patient's head opened. A big man in a black bush jacket leaned in. There was a Colt .45 in his hand; it looked small there. "Looks clear, sir." His voice had some Irish in it. "Ruthins. Mighty hunters. Fah." He turned his head and spat. "Norma Jean?"
The small man said, "The young man seems to be doing well by her."
"The young man could use a hand," Danny said, feeling the sweat on his hands and face. "Can one of you guys hold her shoulder? Really firm, and don't let go if she screams."
The big man leaned into the car. "Reducin' the fracture?"
"That's the idea."
The man nodded and put his hands on the woman's upper arm. Danny pulled, clenching his teeth against the sound of grating bone, but the woman didn't yell, just grunted. He got the dressing and splint in place. "That's it. Thanks."
"Think nothin' of it."
"Her name's Norma Jean?"
"Around here," the small man said, "names are something one keeps to oneself. We call people things." He indicated the big man and the elf in turn. "This is Lincoln McCain. And Cloudhunter Who Keeps His Sisters' Counsel, though Cloudhunter will do. I am called Mr. Patrise." He spelled it.
"You're a...medical student?"
"I'm a paramedic."
"That means you have a license."
"Yeah. Can I show it to you some other time, please? She needs a hospital."
"Yes. And yes."
The big man, McCain, said, "Cook County's closest."
"Not secure," Cloudhunter the elf said. His voice sounded like the wind in high grass.
"I'm afraid that's right," Patrise said. "It's always at awkward times that one is reminded of one's weaknesses."
McCain said, "Michael Reese, then."
"Fine." Patrise said to Danny, "I assume you're used to working in a vehicle? The car rides smoothly, and it'll get better as we get closer to the city."
"City?" Danny said. "No, wait, my car's out there, and my stuff."
Mr. Patrise said, "Nothing you absolutely need in the next few hours." He did not seem to be asking.
"I can't leave my car here!"
"Yes, you can. I personally guarantee its safety, and that of all your belongings. They will be brought to you by morning. Anything you need before then will be provided, and by that I mean anything. You will find me a properly grateful man." Patrise looked past Cloudhunter, out the car door. "Besides...you haven't been to the Levee before."
"You're from the Levee?" Danny said, too quick. It was a stupid question, with an elf in the car. "Uh--no, never."
McCain said, "Your car may not work once it hits the redline, then."
"What about yours?"
"Ah, we're dual-fuel," McCain said. "Don't worry. She looks like a nice machine. She'll be cared for."
Mr. Patrise said, "Cloud, I'll ride in front. You stay here." Cloudhunter nodded, pulled down the jump seat, and shut the door.
McCain moved aside to let Patrise get out, then leaned in again. He pointed to some buttons on the backseat bar. "This one keeps the light on. Lighter here if you smoke. Help yourself to what's left of the stock; there's cold beer below." He picked up the broken decanter, flung it away into the dark. He shut the door.
The car started. It bumped a few times, then found the road; the ride was very, very smooth. Danny wiped some of the blood from Norma Jean's scalp wound; it really wasn't too bad. He put a small dressing on, deciding to leave cutting her hair to the hospital team. In the dim light he could hardly tell Betadine from blood.
He looked up. Cloudhunter Who Keeps His Sisters' Counsel was sitting absolutely still, the shotgun across his knees. Only his silvery eyes moved, shifting like mercury. Danny couldn't see a thing through the tinted windows, not even into the front seat; he had heard that elves had night vision, or some kind of special vision.
"No titles," the elf said. "Cloudhunter is fine. Cloud if we get
to be friends."
"Cloudhunter, could you put that thing away?"
"The Ruthins might try again." The elf's voice was softer now, more like human. "Not much use put away."
"Yeah, I guess."
The eyes shifted again. "The Urthas like to plot," he said, still more softly. "Urthagwaed's clever and likes to be seen so. Long Lankin, or Iceberg Jack, Glassisle, Rhiannon--any could find a nice human lad, good with the kingsfoil...have him finish whatever needed finishing."
Danny didn't say anything. Assuming he understood what the elf was saying, there was no point in arguing with it.
Norma Jean groaned, stirred. She gurgled out a half scream. "Easy, now, easy, Norma Jean," Danny said, and put a hand on her shoulder, pressed just slightly. She sighed as the pain defocused. The blue dress had covered her breasts maybe halfway, before Danny had started cutting.
"Is she in pain?" It was Patrise's voice through an intercom grille.
"I don't think she's really conscious. But--is there a blanket back here?"
"Drawer under the seat."
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