LUNCHING WITH THE SPHINXES – RICHARD BOWES

1.

On the way to my lunch with the Sphinxes, I think of all those who came to New York before me and considered it their city, starting with the ones who cheated the Indians out of Manhattan.

I’m betting my life that nothing, not the fires, riots, market crashes, not even the rising waters, will come close to what the Friends of the Meld and I have planned for this Friday afternoon.

In the name of a young and exploited class, the Friends of the Meld, and I intend to seize control of the heart, soul and junk of this corrupt, ocean-threatened, seawall-encrusted town nicknamed The Big Arena.

I am the point woman. I should modestly say I don’t know how that happened. But, in fact, I made it happen.

Before evening falls I’ll be a piece of meat. Or The Big Arena will be in the hands of my students and myself.

I’m an unpretentious looking conqueror: Millicent Meade, High School Art Teacher in an anonymous suit, on foot and without visible escort. I cross Union Square and its historic park from East to West. Nothing must seem out of the ordinary, until the moment of our extraordinary coup.

My destination is the Gallery Maudite, favored restaurant of the Sphinxes. That’s what our twice-elected and double-minded mayor prefers to be called. I am an honored guest.

Like everyone on earth I glance at a palm, the left in my case. There, the Net flows with news, friendship and conflict. Like most of humanity, my thumb is ever poised to add my bit to the dialog, seek new subjects and follow my enemies.

This morning the Friends are all abuzz with amusing banter, harmless jokes about parties in the wetlands. The word “Meld” is used once or twice. But nothing more is said.

If all goes well the net will be aflame with our images and our triumphs. Meanwhile, we operate openly and in secrecy.

When I arrived in the Big Arena ten years ago, I was a tourist on vacation in an exotic place tinged with danger, the Venice of the West.

Union Square is a place where Socialists once fought cops and terrorists drove car bombs. Now, “Tour Guides,” lurk under every tree, look for visitors who want to see and maybe experience a darker side of this ocean-ravaged city.

Several try to catch my eye (a lonely tourist is a potential feast in so many ways). But I don’t look interested in fun. And my body was never meant for snatching.

With their wisdom of the street, they may catch a hint that I’m not alone. In fact, allies surround me.

A glance at my palm shows comments being made on the net by Friends; mainly young, pretending they just happen to be in the area today. A mixed sex couple crosses my path. She and he give me the slightest of nods.

In the park I spot some familiar faces – ones in their teens and early twenties, lounging on benches, doing yoga exercises on the grass, carefully ignoring my presence. At first I taught them art, unleashed their imaginations. In return they let me into the dark secret of what was done to older kids, sometimes their own siblings, and the fate they feared awaited them.

Teaching out on the New Jersey Wetlands and the Queens Flood Plains is not a path to wealth and power. In fact I’d intended to stay only for a year or two. But I loved the young people and the houses and towns their families had built on stilts or behind dikes. And that love runs deep.

2.

Crossing the street from the park onto the more prosperous West Side of The Square (the side favored by the morning light), I am startled by a humming sound. Bees! But there isn’t a live bee on the face of the planet. It’s in my head. And this is not its moment.

Donnie, First Friend of the Meld, understands and makes it disappear.

On the net, is Darlan Alexander, sleek and well fed. Many call him, “The Charlatans’ Voice”. He speaks glowingly about The Seaward Protection Act, which the Friends and I view as an impending felony barely disguised as a law. I hate him for many reasons. Alexander and I will spend the afternoon together. I intend to win.

I spot a party of Friends lounging under the artificial Christmas trees on the second floor porch of the Idle Chatter Café.

In memory of the Nativity bombing of thirty years ago, it’s always Christmas in the café, even on a near sultry spring noon. Because of bad memories, few places where people congregate are at street level.

Tourists clog the sidewalks, read directions on their palms and speak in a dozen languages. Tourists say they come to the Big Arena for the history, for the crumbling museums and shaky theaters, the downtown restaurants with blood still staining floors where celebrities were shot down.

Many do come for those reasons as, once, I did. But I tend to notice those older tourists who stand in the streets and stare all agape as the fine young bodies with old lizard eyes walk past. The euphemism for the old mind controlling a young body is an “Addition.”

I can almost read tourists’ thoughts as they calculate the cost of having their worthless brains housed as beautifully as the ones they’ve just seen.

Transplanting old brains has become a richly profitable covert industry. The cash enables a certain class of people in the Big Arena to live in the manner they believe to be their due. Beyond all else, it’s why I’m here today.

Gallery Maudite, with its banners displaying a gold medieval huntsman on a dark blue background, lies before me.

Thus far things are going well. My Friends on the web have spotted a pair of plain clothes cops in the park and are keeping an eye on a couple of patrol cars.

But the police presence outside the restaurant is no more than befits the importance of the occupants. No one expects trouble. We hope not to disturb them until our moment is at hand.

I’m a familiar enough figure that the police wave me through. But they don’t feel that they have to nod and smile. Climbing the stairs I see figures clustered outside the restaurant door.

These are lobbyists and children of nepotism, holders of sinecures, offspring of the autocrats who make fortunes maintaining the seawalls, and landowners who squeeze money from the wetlands towns.

A satirist once called them “The Charlatans,” and the name stuck. It amuses them to use it themselves to illustrate their immunity to the law.

That satirist washed ashore dead. The word the Charlatans put out privately was that she wasn’t physically attractive enough to make any one of them desire her as an Addition.

On the stairs of Gallery Maudite, Charlatans tap their palms; send news of my arrival. It bothers them that they can’t order me killed in broad daylight.

Today, THE SEAWARD PROTECTION ACT is slated to become the law of this city. Pretending to be about making life in the marshland and stilt towns safer it’s actually designed to abet the body trade.

A badly kept secret in the Big Arena is the blindness of law enforcement to the many small, secret clinics out in the wetlands.

All the Charlatans on the stairs face my way. I know they intend to block me from entering. Schoolyard bullying is their public tactic. Privately they prefer using brute force and murder – the police.

I display them on the Net. As I hit the top step, the Friends respond. I catch the dread sound of police boat sirens on a raid, the feel of tight manacles on wrists, the smell of the knockout gas at the backdoor of a clinic, the taste of bitter tears as a child, bound and gagged, rolls in a gurney to the operating room. The image wavers but I catch a glimpse of the Fifth Avenue procession of Additions on an Easter Sunday.

This breaks down after half a minute. Then it fades into scattered thoughts and images from the minds of several hundred kids. The bad discipline chills me. I let Donnie and the Meld know.

But the effect on the Charlatans is stunning. Some stare at their palms, sure that this amazing apparition must originate on the net. Others look up at the sky; afraid it’s going to fall. Before they get over their panic, I’ve walked past them and through the door of the Café Maudite. Like I evaporated into thin air

Inside I stand beneath the twenty-foot ceiling with its mural depicting Gallery Maudite, a hunter condemned by God to travel the sky pursued by wolves because he hunted on Sundays instead of going to church.

The elegant Salman stands at the maître d’s pulpit, gives me an imperceptible nod and smile. None can weigh a guest’s exact degree of power or loss more expertly than a maître d. Salman knows better than most that the reign of the Sphinxes is ending. And that another power will rise.

At this moment I’m a very minor figure – a busybody teacher who seemingly could be snuffed out in a moment.

Showing favoritism to me could cost him his job and his life.

Towards the back of the room sit the Sphinxes: “The Two in One Mayor” as they billed themselves when they ran for office. As always, they wear the Nemes – that striped head cloth worn by pharaohs (and Sphinxes) in ancient Egypt.  Their bodyguards stand behind them.

The Sphinxes’ right eye pays attention to something two Charlatans show her. The left eye sees me but glances away.

Then all that gets blocked from my sight. Every Charlatan in the room stands up and faces me. They know some mysterious chicanery got me in the door. And nothing bothers a double dealer more than seeing another doing the same. They form a wall before me.

Several former students, my Friends, wanted to come with me. But they are young and not in full control of their anger. I trust myself and believe the effect will be much more powerful if the net shows images of me alone against a score of Charlatans.

I walk forward with my hands open. Up close the Charlatans are a collection of empty dresses and uninhabited suits. Old eyes stare from the faces of young bodies. Some of their palms display their names and accomplishments. Others display their families: fat, greedy children with bodies no one would want to steal, partners with blank faces.

The large and self-righteous Darlan Alexander tells me, “Please step back. We ask for order in the presence of the Sphinxes who watch over our city.”

Alexander’s eyes are small and predatory both by nature and because they are set in a large and handsome face. The eyes reflect Darlan Alexander’s soul. The body once belonged to a young man from the flood plains. Bobby Degollado had a brilliant, brief career exposing the clinics.

Bobby disappeared and then returned with an Addition. Darlan Alexander and company found it amusing to showcase the ease, with which they kidnapped him and tore away his mind. It is for Alexander and Bobby that I am here today.

“Let me pass,” I say, raising my voice just a little as I would with an unruly class of kids. “Let me pass,” I repeat but they do not budge.

Those words are a signal. Supporters from the furthest reaches of the net, followers in this city, watch me and hope. In Manhattan, students loitering in the streets, artists sitting in cafés are suddenly on their feet and marching in half a dozen locations. None are near this restaurant just yet.

“LET ME PASS,” they shout as they block traffic. And throughout the city the chant is taken up. On my palm I see figures dressed in bits of the school uniforms that labeled them as poor, ones disguised as historic 1960’s protestors and Parisian revolutionaries, others are in their work clothes.

Viewers on the Net who watched in wonder as a luncheon crowd prevented a person from getting to her seat now see demonstrations.

Shoving one’s way through ranks of backstabbing frauds is normal business in the Big Arena. But I trust the Sphinxes to make that unnecessary.

At that moment the Mayor’s enormous bodyguards, trundle forward. The one called Rag glances at the one called Tag who looks my way and none too gently they clear a path to the Sphinxes’ table.

Their names are more like those given to dogs than people. These are Boosters – people taken into the military very young, then physically developed and adapted for defense and offense.  Full of supplemental parts and implants, they are both human and what some think will succeed humans.

When we met secretly, the Sphinxes told them I was an ally. They obey without question. But, like guard animals, they remain alert and remote.

The Sphinxes, as this Mayor is described, are seated with the blank face they share half concealed by the Nemes that flaps over their ears and down their shoulders. Both arms rest flat on the table. The right eye studies the mayoral palm, follows the demonstrations around the city.

But the left eye shifts my way, indicates an empty seat opposite them.

The waiters bring a luncheon of beans, and lentils with leeks, cucumbers, kale and dried fish. Maybe that’s what ancient Egyptians ate. So far no one has discovered any connection between Their Honor and the Pharos.

I sit under a ceiling mosaic depicting Gallery Maudite, a person whose reckless obsession called down damnation.  Maudite is as far from the secretive Sphinxes as it is possible to be.

In the Big Arena, leaders can be anything from amusing to enigmatic. But not boring – that is fatal.

The city is infatuated with magic and glory. It started before Irving wrote “Rip Van Winkle” or the first understudy stepped on stage and became a star.

The city has had mayors for well over four hundred years. Those we remember manipulated publicity. I’d lay money that Peter Stuyvesant’s peg leg was a phony gimmick.

Once the tides began rising, it was every city in the world for itself. Times of change, a new world replacing an old one or vice-versa, can produce a fondness for the supernatural.

The legendary Angelica Siddons, found herself mayor when the waters rose. They called her The Fairy Godmother. There are clips of Puss In Boots and Reynard The Fox, sitting at her luncheon table. Probably impersonators, but who’s to say?

Each mayor since has honored the tradition of lunch. The chosen restaurant is a symbol of mayoral power.

Today, the right eye of the Mayor looks up from the net and nods to me, wondering how much I can be trusted and what to do with me if I fail.

Meanwhile, the left eye displays the implanted intelligence of her trusted advisor and lover. Ricardo Marx concentrates on what is happening in the restaurant itself.

Marx, doubtless, is aware that he’s now considered a costly mistake. At the last election only four years back, brain transplants were a semi-invisible issue with the criminality only whispered about.

Her Honor, the Sphinx, seeking reelection, plucked Marx’s brain from his body as he lay dying. He was the first male in decades to have even a minor role in the mayoralty of New York.

The campaign slogan was ‘The Two-In-One Mayor.”

It turned out to be a package that appealed mightily to the Big Arena’s endless interest in the strange. The Sphinxes won in a landslide.

But in politics the safe can become dangerous fast. Anyone now looking at ‘The Two-In-One-Mayor’ is reminded of the bubbling transplants scandal. A third term isn’t remotely possible. The future will be Darlan Alexander or the Friends of the Meld.

The Charlatans are present in force because they have certain basic instincts and holding on to power is foremost among them. Any suggestion of interference with their access to the political gravy train drives them to rabid action.

They glare at me because of where I’m sitting and because they suspect (correctly) that something is up. There is a secret arrangement between the Sphinxes and myself. But it will fail if today turns out badly for my Friends.

3.

A week earlier, the Sphinxes and I met under cover of night at their compound on Roosevelt Island. A small segment of the Meld, forty or so Friends, slipped over the East River in everything from motorboats to kayaks. As I asked, they stayed a distance away from the compound.

I took only Donnie with me. She’s twenty years old and the heart of our operation. This meeting was an experiment, a test run.

Rag and Tag were uneasy. They could sense the kids out in the dark. But the Sphinxes themself had invited us and we sat over drinks on an old veranda on the highest, driest part of the island and watched the lights of Manhattan shining over the sea walls.

Ruthless ambition or a desire for vengeance is what propels a leader to power. The Sphinxes once had that but now they are weary and feel the sharp edge of desperation.

They made a half-hearted effort to recruit my Friends and myself in their reelection

Now I have that ambition and desire. So I smiled and said, “Once we might have joined you. Now we can be your successors and offer you our protection.

The Sphinxes stiffened at this.

But I kept my smile and said, “I came to the Big Arena to teach art in the wetlands towns. As the oceans rose, children’s shows were about magic islands floating on the tides, and bunches of kids defeating monsters that tried to harm happy, singing seawalls.

“This nonsense was useless to young people who awoke each day to fight a rising ocean and avoid being kidnapped.

“At first I wasn’t sure how to teach them.  Then I discovered how deeply they relied on each other and trusted nothing else – an intense rapport.

“Where I came from – a farming area turning to desert- people just stared empty eyed, stunned and helpless. Here, perhaps because it’s a multifaceted city and the enemy is in clear sight, my students talked about the world they knew, the poverty, danger, the need to cooperate. The net linked them as it does kids everywhere. But their desperation kept them focused.

  In the dozen school through which rotated I felt a movement forming. Kids give their faith and loyalty so easily and I had little to give back. I felt like a traitor. Then one day in a classroom, I witnessed the salvation they had created.

“Something nearby was buzzing. I thought it was a fly. Then I realized it was a bee. All of my classes had viewed an old documentary about the Death of the Bees. None of us had ever heard the sound of a living bee. But in the film, the old recorded humming of entire hives was the background music.

“I realized the sound wasn’t happening around me. It was in my brain, brought there by someone else’s thought and memory. I was in shock. My gaze met a student’s. And I saw what she saw: me wide-eyed with surprise, like a mirror but more intense.

Donnie, who was that student, smiled from across the table. She gave a silent command as The Sphinxes exchanged glances with the guards. Had they been entertaining a madwoman – perhaps a dangerous one? Rag and Tag knew something was stirring.

The guards heard the bees before the rest of us did. Then the Sphinxes looked stunned. Their eyes grew wide. And I saw what they saw: flashes of light made by huge fireflies as imagined by the members of the Meld. Those lights revealed kids of every kind staring at them. “Sphinxes, we are your children,” said voices inside our heads. “Do not abandon us and we will not abandon you.”

Right then, I repeated my generous offer of protection in their retirement. They immediately agreed and followed my suggestion that they invite me to lunch today.

They didn’t catch or didn’t understand what happened when for a few (to me) terrifying seconds the Meld broke down into the jumbled uncoordinated thoughts of several dozen young minds. Donnie and I have talked that over many times.

4.

On the table between the Sphinxes and me, is an amazing anachronism, an actual paper draft of the Seaward Protection Act.

We have all read that most disgusting proposed law on- line. It’s gone through the City Council, a Charlatan stronghold, like the greased pork it is. All that remains now is the Mayor’s signature.

It’s to prevent this infection from happening that we launched the Meld with so little preparation.

The Charlatans suddenly whistle and cheer. On the net the street mobs are falling back, seeming to melt away as the police advance.

But not all of them escape. The net captures images of police hauling away dozens of demonstrators they’ve caught and stripped naked. This is a traditional method of humiliating demonstrators – especially the young and poor.

The kids look defiant but some show tears. The threat of their being culled and used as Additions is unspoken but present. I see a boy I recognize and almost gasp aloud. Hopi wears only handcuffs. He’s a Friend of the Meld, one who serenaded the Sphinxes a few nights ago. Now he’s a kid cut off from his companions, too shocked to use his skills to escape. I hope this image doesn’t spook others.

Both the mayoral eyes look my way. I’m sure they don’t recognize Hopi, but this setback makes them uneasy. Their glance is that of a pair of opportunists whose chances are running out. But the “Two In One Mayor” has no escape route except me.

5.

The Charlatans pay court to the Sphinxes. “Your Honors: It’s the intent of this act to prolong the life of the sea walls that protect the people of this city and to provide for the collection of duties and taxes to enable us to protect the towns in our wetlands.”

Maintaining the seawalls is something with which nobody disagrees. But today’s bill calls for commissioning twenty armed cutters. These fast, deadly boats will raid the towns on stilts and harass the people who live in them. Their purpose isn’t to combat crime; it’s to safeguard a system of bribery.

The Sphinxes habit of ruling is still with them and they speak. “We believe more strongly than ever in the preservation of our seawalls.” Their voice is like velvet, but it is velvet, worn with age and stained with blood, “We believe in the preservation of our sea walls and protection of our people outside the walls which this bill recognizes.”

Here the Sphinxes pause for breath and the Charlatans present their palms, broadcast the image of the Sphinxes and their words.

“But,” The mayor continues, “Certain events relating to the safety of young citizens need to be reconsidered in depth.”

Before the word “But” is out of the Mayor’s mouth, every Charlatan’s palms close and the Sphinxes, as far as anyone seeing this on the Web is concerned, have endorsed the bill.

Their stares at the Mayor and me are not what I would call warm. The Charlatans know there’s been a deal and they want blood. The hour of the Meld is at hand

6.

At the Gallery Maudite, I sip coffee and sit as if I had not a care in the world while my intestines twist. We are entering a confrontation that will bring the clean coup I hope for or the carnage I fear.

On the Net in this moment of reckless chance, in broad daylight with no thought of hiding, thousands of young people, unarmed, come off small boats and scale the East River Sea Walls. Over the decades, smugglers and shady tour guides have installed spike ladders.

Helicopters circle overhead, police boats are like a chain around the protestors’ craft.

At the same time, the Net shows phalanxes of police closing a trap as they push protestors back against the East River Walls.

The sight of this perks the Charlatans right up. Darlan Alexander approaches me with icy eyes and murder in his smile.

“As I’m sure their Honors would wish, you can save the lives of those confused children by telling them to

surrender. Your cooperation will be taken into consideration.”

If I die before nightfall I won’t go alone.

At the seawalls police draw Tasers, helicopters fly low over the demonstrators, patrol boats move to intercept small craft. One helicopter flying very low knocks half a dozen protesters off the top of wall.

In the restaurant The Charlatans cheer. One of them is stupid enough to say, “Mass arrests mean a fortune in bodies!”

“Order a halt to the rioters or you’ll leave in chains,” Alexander tells me.

Then I’m in a jumble of senses: Tourists gaping at young bodies with old lizard eyes, the scent of salt water in fog, the touch of a scalpel, the taste of blood. A voice says, “Young minds replaced with villainous old brains, children robbed of their live, fraudulent contracts.” It’s my voice as others heard me. The Meld is in my head and every other one here.

At first this angers the Charlatans, as if what they’re seeing, hearing, feeling is something distasteful shown on the Net.

Then on the Net itself, the helicopter that made the assault twirls around, careens over the East River and smashes into a police cutter. There is a burst of flame. Not the bloodless coup I hoped for. The Meld is angry! The kids on the wall cheer.

The world gets to see police draw their weapons and Taser each other’s feet. Cops began to scream and scream, kneel in gutters and cry in terror as the Meld runs images through each their minds of them being hauled into clinics.

Protestors disarm them. The protestors were the bait and the Law fell for it.

In the restaurant, the Sphinxes themselves are moved. Tears appear in the right eye and then in the left.

The Charlatans begin to slide towards the door. Alexander tries to grab my arm. “You’re coming with us.”

Rag and Tag grab him. Salman suddenly appears with a crew of chefs and kitchen staff carrying cleavers and knives, waiters swinging chairs. They block the exits. When the maître‘d turns against you, all is lost.

A chunk of the Meld is moving through Manhattan. I see images of young people tall as buildings, showing their shining hatred by and tearing their Additions’ eyes out of their faces. This is the anger of the Friends.

This afternoon the Meld expands like a balloon. Each moment it is intact there are more members. It’s ten thousand strong and growing.

A giant image of Degollado, as he was, runs through

the Meld. I make sure that face is shown to Alexander and

his friends.

“I will restore Bobby Degollado,” I tell him. Then

I’ll keep your brains in a test tube.”

In the Meld I catch bits of the images being displayed to the Charlatans: photos of the young people whose bodies have been stolen, doctors who performed those operations being taken into custody. Hopi and the others I saw being taken away are seen laughing, barefoot, dressed in bits of police uniforms and free.

There’s a new dexterity to The Meld. Today they’ve learned how to command the minds they’ve invaded. Charlatans strip themselves of their jewelry, their money and finery and are sent naked into the streets. People outside cheer when they see them.

  7.

In the aftermath of the Day of Meld, I am Mayor Millicent Meade. No trumped up mystery and strangeness needed. I am the spokesperson for the Meld: a legend and wonder.

I have chosen to be on display at the newly renovated Idle Chatter Cafe, on Union Square. Salman is the Maître‘d and I have insisted they be open on the ground floor. My city is safer than it was.

Doctors, some of them working off their kidnapping sentences, have found traces of Bobby Degollado. There’s a chance they can restore him. Darlan Alexander is under house arrest. I visit them regularly.

Richard Bowes has published six novels, four story  collections and over seventy short stories. He has won two  World Fantasy, a Lambda, Million Writer and International Horror Guild Awards. His recent novel Dust Devil On a Quiet Street was on the World Fantasy and Lambda short lists. His novelette Sleep Walking Now and Then was on the 2015 Nebula  short list.

Recent and forthcoming appearances include: Tor.com, F&SF, Lightspeed/Queers Destroy Fantasy, Interfictions, Farrago’s Wainscot, Uncanny, and the anthologies:  XIII, The Doll Collection, In the Shadow of the Towers, Best Gay Stories  2015, Year’s Best Horror and Dark Fantasy 2015.

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