Incident at San Juan Bautista
By Ray Nayler
By Ray Nayler
First appeared in Asimov's November / December 2018
Eyes still closed, August laced his hands behind his head and pressed his head into the softness of the down pillow. The pillow was perfumed with the spice of his Moroccan hair oil and with her scent: a perfume of spring flowers hovering in heat.
Paid up, that’s what he was: paid up. He let the satisfaction of it flood through him. Paid up for the room. Paid up for the morning sun streaming in through the curtains, turning the inside of his eyelids into a wash of shifting sienna and tangerine. And paid up for the girl. For Madeleine. He heard a bare foot’s whisper on the floorboards, a chair’s creek. She was in the room. When he opened his eyes, she would be there.
He produced Madeleine in his mind, her image wavering against the web of sun-bright blood vessels and veins of his closed eyes. Her, last night: lacquer-black hair, cherrywood eyes. Her powdered face like the face of a statue come down off its pedestal and living a life of its own in the West.
She’d leaned there, expressionless, against the bar, watching him play Faro. The dealer’s box had been giving him luck. Luck all night long. Nothing but good luck.
The other girls had watched him as well, fanning themselves genteelly beneath the rafters of the Plaza Hotel’s Saloon. Their faces were lost to his memory, just blanks surrounded by the colors of their hair and the fans in their hands. They had not mattered. They’d smiled at him last night with mouths and winked at him with eyes he’d already forgotten.
She — Madeleine — had just leaned back against the bar, elbows on the rail, like a cowboy leaning on a fence, one boot crossed over the other. Immaculate, without expression, watching him rake in the chips. He’d met her eyes a number of times, but the expression on her face never changed.
After a while he’d understood she was waiting for him. Just waiting for him to finish.
The Italian that owned the place was tending bar. The place was full — Californio cowboys, men down on the stage from San Francisco or up from Los Angeles, gamblers from all over, a few soldiers on leave talking loud at the rail, giving the fancy ladies the eye.
The man August had come here to kill came downstairs late in the evening. He wore a neat dark suit. His glossy hair, combed straight back, was a bit dented at the temples by the Boss of the Plains hat he’d taken off upstairs in his room. The cutaway of his frock coat showed off his long-barreled Colt in its oiled holster. The man August had come here to kill drank two steins of beer at the bar, helped himself to a radish and a hard-boiled egg from the fly-specked “free lunch,” and went through to the back, where there was an invitation-only game of whist going on.
The man would be in San Juan Bautista two days. He’d come in off the San Francisco coach. He had rented a room at the corner of the building, on the second floor overlooking the Mission plaza. He did not know August. August would knock at his door later that day, call him out into the street, and kill him.
That would be that.
August opened his eyes.
The sun that came streaming into the room through the chintz curtains lighted up Madeleine’s profile. She was dressed only in her blue silk Chinese robe. He remembered the robe from the night before: she’d worn it when they had smoked a cheroot together at the window, after the first time. She’d brought the robe with her to his room in a black leather bag, like a doctor’s bag. He’d left the gambling table, gone to his room with a look to her as he left. Minutes later there had been a soft knock. She’d been standing in the hallway, in the tessellated light of the hall’s oil lamp and the laughter drifting up from the saloon, like a doctor on a call.
Madeleine had one leg up on a cane-bottom chair. She dipped a straight razor into a chipped lacquer basin on the dresser table. With a flick of her wrist, she stripped the excess water from the blade, then brought its edge to her leg and drew it slowly, against the grain, up a calf the color of winter sunlight.
Her face was indifferent, blank of expression. The same as it had been as they had smoked the cheroot at the window, his arm around her shoulders, leaning into the scent of her hair before going back to the bed. The same as it had been as she lay there beneath him, eyes glittering in the dark like a necklace dropped in a shallow stream.
He had seen that lack of expression before, on a different face. He had been on a streetcar, in New York. Before he was August. Back when he was just a nameplate over a New York door: Hiram Andersen, Dentist, up a narrow staircase in lower Manhattan.
It had been just past dawn, the streetcar half-empty, Fourth Avenue quiet enough to hear the clopping of the streetcar horses’ hooves. Sitting across from him in a black day dress with a high lace collar, the girl had stared out the window with that same look. Uncomposed, he’d thought. Without the fakery he saw on faces all around him, every day. Without the way people were always playing a theme of themselves for the strangers around them, like a single violin, scraping away, never allowing the music to fade. Not her. No. She’d just sat there, face empty, hands at her sides. Her skin had been so white it shone like silver in the rain-grey morning light.
The other passengers had not noticed her. But then, why would they? Most people did not notice anything, ever. They wouldn’t notice if a green-eyed tiger rode the streetcar. Here among them was something beautiful and strange, but they just nodded off, locked in the worlds of their newspapers, digesting their breakfasts in a haze.
Her eyes had been a jeweled tint he could not make out: a dark blue, a deep green? He’d tried to catch her gaze as the streetcar’s horses lurched forward from each intersection, but though he’d leaned a bit, encroaching into her view, she had never glanced at him. He had to get off the streetcar eventually, missing his own stop, walking back up the avenue in a dirty rain with the day’s newspaper protecting his bowler cap from the wet, rushing to make his first appointment.
She’d lodged in his memory like a seam of quartz. He’d looked for her each day on the streetcar, and thought of her while his fingers were in some Brooklyn clerk’s mouth, probing a rotted tooth. Without the color of her eyes, or how she might move if she were standing, she was like the limbless torso of a statue in a museum. Beauty incomplete. He went back to her image again and again.
That had been his last year in New York. Had seeing her on the streetcar done it? Nudged him out of his life? He could not say. In the summer he’d sold his practice to an Italian and his family — ten dark-haired children in immaculate suits and dresses fingering the equipment and taking turns spinning in the chair. He’d bought a few sturdy traveling suits. Before boarding the Union Pacific’s Platte Valley Route in Omaha he purchased a Colt Single Action Army Peacemaker.
He had missed the California gold by decades, but he found his true self in the West when he killed a drunk horse thief in Los Angeles.
The killing had been almost an accident: he’d bumped into the staggering thief, then kept walking, mumbling an apology. But the drunk man shouted at him, then drew on him. And the man would have killed him, but his gun butt had tangled in a tassel of his fancy jacket. With one swift, unthinking action, Hiram Andersen had drawn his Peacemaker and blown the man’s brains out of the back of his head. Immediately, the man’s eyes had emptied. He’d dropped in the dust like laundry fallen from a cart.
Hiram Andersen changed his name to August Sutherland two minutes later. He changed it just by telling the new name to the men around him at the bar clapping him on the back. Afterwards he kept on telling it, to the sweat-stained men of California and the ladies in the saloons they all shared in common. It was a name he’d read out of a book. Not the name of a gunfighter, but of a man in one of those balloon stories where they fight pygmies or something in Africa after their contraption crashes in the jungle.
The Los Angeles Sherriff paid him five hundred bucks for the horse thief.
Madeleine dipped the blade again into the basin, cleared it of water with that immaculate flick of the wrist.
He’d told her the lie at first: he was up from Los Angeles where he owned a harness shop, headed to San Francisco to judge the market. Looking to expand. His brother would take over the shop in Los Angeles. His brother had consumption, the dry Los Angeles air was good for him, but August — this version of August he spun out for people, this particular, innocent thread — loved the climate further north. Too hot in Los Angeles, too dusty for him. And San Francisco had a better class of people.
“And now the truth,” she’d said in the dark.
And he’d told her the truth, as they lay there in bed. The dentist’s practice, the train, the change of names. Then further back: the packet ship out of Hamburg — how the first thing he had seen coming in to New York had been a seagull that had seemed to hover just a few feet off the rail of the ship. The canary and crimson of its beak. Its noiseless wing. The sun reflected in the glossy void of its eye.
Everyone else had been at the other rail, looking at Manhattan’s glaucous roofline under a fog of chimney smoke.
The seagull had become his first symbol of America. He was seventeen. Later there would be other symbols — his Union slouch hat, a man draped dead over a split rail fence, the taste of chicory from a tin cup. Dental tools and bloody teeth in a tin tray. The steam train like a hissing metal spider. The Colt.
He’d told it all to her — from his village childhood to his mother’s death among dust-motes floating in a lacy room, from the boat to America to the war and how he had just walked away from the war, leaving his birth name — Hugo Karlsson — behind him along with the rifle he leaned against a pine trunk, and emerging from a forger’s basement in Brooklyn as Hiram Andersen.
And what of it? Everyone in America moved from one identity to another, putting new selves on like a new suit of clothes: first choosing the cloth, the texture and the weight, the grain and pattern. Then tailoring it to the body. Soon enough you see yourself in a mirror and know the reflection in the new suit as you. Later, depending on your fortunes, you might sell the suit to a second hand store or to the ragman. You might pawn it to keep from going into hock, or trade it in for something better. America herself was doing that: changing the constellation of symbols that made her up with each new President — hell, with each new season’s fashionable hat or dime novel.
Before, his life had seemed like a series of almost unconnected events. But spinning his story for her, he began to see a pattern. He began to feel sorry for himself. This country! This country had made a gunman of an innocent boy. He looked back at that seventeen year old boy at the rail of the packet ship, watching the seagull hover in the bright air, and did not know him. This country had torn something from him.
“You are awake,” Madeleine said, not raising her head. Her body was, like her face, a unity of construction. A harmony of beauty and strength.
“Why do you shave your legs?”
She paused a moment, then cleaned the razor off again in the basin, closed it, and placed it on the dresser table, next to the Colt August had set there the night before.
“To meet the expectations of men.”
“I just never saw a woman do it before.”
Now she met his eyes. “You have never lived with a woman,” It was not a question. “Or had congress with a woman whose company you did not pay for. Behind the pretty compositions they create for you is an artist’s labor.”
“I suppose,” August said. “I never had thought of it before. All that make-up and powder and perfume — it’s a sight harder to maintain than just brushing off a suit or having it mended at the tailor’s.”
“In Japan, right now, there is a woman painting her lips with green, iridescent lipstick. It is of a kind you will never see here, in your country. In the wavering shadow of a lantern, in the darkened brothel where she works, her face is a pale moon. She has blackened her teeth, as all the women in Japan do, in this time. When she smiles, they shine in the dark, a lacquered black through lips like elfin fire.”
“I don’t understand what . . .”
From across the square, the Mission San Juan Bautista bell rang in its high adobe bell tower, so close August heard the dull “whunk” of the clapper striking the bell before the brass tone cascaded across his eardrums.
Madeleine went to the window and pulled the chintz slightly to one side.
“The man you came here to kill is standing in the square.”
August sat up in bed, a cold wash of fear over him. “How . . . how did you . . .” His eyes went to the Colt on the dresser table.
Madeleine turned from the window languidly and sat herself down in the cane chair, pulling it up close to the bed.
“How do you imagine it, August? Us being together?” She picked up the Colt from the dresser table, weighed it in her hand a moment. He tensed. She raised it, sighting down the barrel at a stain the wall. “Will we travel together? Will I ride a horse? Will you buy me my own gun? Or will you hide me away in a dusty little hotel room in each town while you go have all the fun?”
She’s more than strange, he thought: she’s mad. That sudden talk about Japan . . . and for a moment, it had been like he was somewhere else. He’d seen that face, the awful gleam of lantern light on lacquered teeth, lips like dew glittering on forest moss. He blinked it away.
“I hadn’t thought . . .” August was sitting up now. “I . . . hadn’t thought about it. Hadn’t thought you would want to go with me . . .”
“Oh, I didn’t say I wanted to go with you. I haven’t agreed yet. We’re just talking. But you were going to ask me. And before you ask me, and before I say yes, I’d like to know how you think it would be. Will I dress up like a man? Have all the fun you’ve been having?” She turned to face him.
“How did you know I came here to kill that man?” Now he felt the lack of sleep, the drink, the sourness in his stomach, tiding against the contentment he’d felt just before, breaking it up, washing it away.
But she did not answer him.
“You told me all about yourself, August. More, perhaps, than you have told anyone. Is that right?”
“That’s . . .” August watched the Colt in her hand. Smart, that’s all. She was strange, and smart, and he had talked too much. That’s all. “That’s right.”
“And now,” Madeleine said in her perfectly modulated, emotionless voice, “I will tell you about myself. Do you think you would like that?”
Her eyes met his. A unity. Beauty and strength. The most perfect thing he had ever seen, in a loose silk Chinese robe, with her legs uncrossed, like a man. Indifferent to nakedness or custom.
“I don’t think you will like it, what I have to say — but I will tell you anyway. After all, I know everything about you — whether I wanted to or not. You poured yourself out to me, and so I will do the same to you.” The Colt dangled loosely in her hand, as if she’d forgotten she was holding it. He watched it like the head of a listless snake, judging it for danger. “And once I have finished, we can kill the man you came here to kill. And leave together. How’s that? Will you listen?” She glanced at the Colt, set it down on the nightstand absently.
“Sure,” said August. And how would they go? There might be an inquest, but it would be perfunctory. He’d kill the man right — call him out, let him draw first, then do for him. After some bother with the local law, they could take the stagecoach to San Francisco. See the fog roll in, the oil lamps in the windows floating like fireflies. Or they could go back down to Los Angeles, its warm adobe and dust. “I’ll listen. I’d like to know you.” He leaned in, the cane chair creaking a bit.
“You know, August — I think this world is the best of the bad worlds. The very best. And that’s why I come here often. Very often.”
“I don’t know what you . . .”
Madeleine put a finger to her lips. “No talking. Just lay back. You’re paid up for the whole day. Nowhere to go this minute. The man you came here to kill will stand there idling in the square another hour, then maybe come in for lunch, then idle in the square some more. There’s nothing to do here in this nowhere town for a man. You could become a monk in the Mission, perhaps, or take up farming. Run a restaurant and bar — or move on. It’s just a waypoint.”
Madeleine continued: “the first time I came, I was drawn down by accident. I stumbled across this place. And I tried to live here. Tried it for a season, but it ended — poorly. I couldn’t operate well, was clumsy with what I said. So clumsy, they nearly figured it out. No,” Madeleine raised finger, “don’t talk. Light me a cheroot. Sit there. Listen. . .” Of course I don’t mean here — to this town. The first time I came down was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In the autumn. They were raking the leaves and burning them. I remember the smell. I was hit by a car, moments after becoming conscious . . .”
“Do they have streetcars in Pittsburg as well?”
Madeleine cocked her head. “Do you need to have a gun held on you to actually listen to a woman speak? Because I can oblige that need.”
He was lighting the cheroot between his lips. The match quivered an inch from the cheroot’s blunt tip. “No. No, Sorry. Go on.”
“I was hit by a car, and woke up in the hospital. Thank you,” she took the cheroot. “With the parents of the girl looking down on me, with a skull fracture and a broken leg. Winter, by the time they had me home. I opened my Christmas presents with them, late. They thought my muteness was due to the accident. But by the spring, they began to suspect I wasn’t really their daughter. In the morning, the father would leave for work before the sun was up. He would scrape the frost from the windshield while the car’s motor warmed up in the driveway . . .”
“Oh, do shut up, August. . . Her father would look toward my window, from where I was watching him. Eventually, they brought a doctor in. A psychologist . . .” She paused. “Sorry. An alienist, in your terms. Three times a week. Young, trying to look older in a tweed coat with patches and horn-rimmed glasses. We would talk for hours. He was smart. I think he would have known, if he could have let himself know. . .”
August shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
Through an undulating column of smoke Madeleine said, “You aren’t meant to.” She tapped the cheroot, let its ash fall on the rag rug. “I kissed that doctor once. Just to do it. Just to see what he would do. And do you know — this will surprise you, I think — he pushed that pretty girl away. Took her hands, moved her back to the couch, and said, ‘This isn’t what you want.’ I had done it just to see what he would do. He smiled sweetly, shook his head, picked up his pen and went on as if nothing had happened. There are good people in the world.
“I left her in the spring. She was all right, I suppose — she woke up in her bed, an entire winter gone. She would have the charming shadow of a limp her whole life. But her world . . . her world was so dull . . . yours is much better.”
“And of course in that world, they had already begun to speculate about such things. About the possibility. Visitations . . . invasions. They had a vocabulary for it already, could conceptualize it. And so they could suspect. Here, you’ve barely begun.” She tapped more ash on the rug, looked him over. “You’re sweating, August. Wipe your face. Do you know, that girl you saw on the streetcar in New York — I think she was one of us as well.”
“One . . . of you?”
“You’re panicking, August. Your heart is racing. Take a deep breath. There. Relax. Nothing is going to happen to you . . . you will walk out of here, having done what you came for.
“As I was saying — I think she was one of us. It happens, sometimes. The interface is botched. We can’t express with the face and voice. There’s this strange, dead look to us. Something just doesn’t take. It’s an error. Usually it repulses people. But not you — something called to you when you saw her. I saw it again when you looked at me. Strange. And maybe that’s why I chose you . . .
“When I first came here, to this time and this place, I knew I would return often. I told you before — it is the best of the bad worlds. You are at a turning point — about to put the modern world, with all its dull routine, together. And yet you haven’t quite done it. Not yet. There’s a mystery to everything, still. You know almost nothing of your own minds, but you are starting to find out. You know nothing much at all, but you are grasping for it. And of course,” she turned her blank face to his. “There is this wonderful . . . violence . . . to everything. Men gunned down with a shrug, an adjustment of the hat. Men collecting scalps, heads, ears. Sudden death for a careless word, or for nothing at all. Almost nowhere else do you find violence elevated to such art.”
“If you aren’t . . . from here . . .” He tried to word it carefully . . . “Where are you from?”
She leaned back in the chair for a moment, blew smoke at the ceiling, shrugged. “Yes, I suppose that matters to you. To you, that makes a difference. Not knowing frightens you. Yet, you have no idea what you are yourself. You have no idea what any other human being is. You know as much about where I am from as you do about anyone — or about yourself. But you think you need to know who I am . . . as if you could understand.” She tossed the cheroot into the basin, where it hissed out and drowned.
“I started to come back so often that there was overlap — and then, I began to get interested in the overlap. To play with that. Coming back to the same place and time, seeing myself in another self. Nodding to myself in passing. Coming back and being this man coming into town on the stagecoach, that woman hanging her wash on a balcony, waving to him, and the driver of the coach as well. All these little, overlapping worlds. And this little town, for some reason, has drawn me most. This town and this autumn day. I have invested in this town. I return and return. . . But none of this, really, is sinking in for you. It’s beyond your understanding, of course. Well, you’ll have a demonstration.”
The bell rang again in the tower of the mission. It began a steady toll.
“Stand up, August. Pick up the gun, and come over here to the window. I want to show you something.”
August had heard of mesmerists and magnetizers who used their powers to control other human beings. He’d even see one in New York — an elaborately mustached French man who caused a woman to fall into a somnambulist state and then had moved her around like a puppet, even made her begin to undo her collar, before someone in the audience had yelled “stop!” in horror. He felt that was what was being done to him now: he rose from the bed, as if powerless over his own muscles, and took up the Colt. He came to the window. Madeleine had pushed the curtains aside and opened the window.
“I’ve dealt myself cards in this town, served myself a drink, and even made love to myself.”
It seemed the whole town was down in the square. The Italian owner of the hotel, in a nightgown but with his boots on. The other fancy ladies from the bar, some of them fully dressed and corseted, but one in just a camisole. The Faro dealer in shirtsleeves with his suspenders down around his knees. The other card players — one of them with his coat on inside-out, as if he’d rushed out of the building to escape a fire. The shaved pates of the Mission’s monks stood out among the crowd, and the priest frocked in white and gold as if he’d just come from a baptism. The bell tolled from the Mission tower without rhythm. As August watched, feeling paralyzed, they paired off — men with women, women with women, men with men, the priest with a gambler, a monk with the woman in the camisole. They began to dance a slow waltz to no music, their feet scraping on the packed earth of the square in perfect time with one another.
And in front of the dancing, turning crowd, looking up at the window, his Boss of the Plains hat square on his head, thumbs hooked in his belt, was the man August had come here to kill.
“In fact,” said Madeleine, “I have played — am playing, I suppose, depending on how you look at it — every part there is to play here in this town, on this day. Except for your part.” She moved behind him. Taking his hand, she raised the gun and aimed it squarely at the man August had come here to kill. The man smiled, waved up at them casually.
“Because without you, there would be no-one left to witness what I have built here. I know you so well — I’ve studied you from every angle, August. I’ve chosen you. Now do what you came here to do, and we can go.”
Without knowing whether it was her will or his own that caused it, August pulled the trigger. The Boss of the Plains hat lifted an inch. The man he’d come here to kill buckled at the knees, toppled sideways, dropped in the dirt. And in that same moment, the dancers began to fall, two by two. The tolling of the bell stopped. And Madeleine, as well, began to fall. He caught her and laid her gently on the floor. She was breathing deeply, as if asleep.
There was a knock at the door. Still in some kind of shock, emptied of his own volition, August opened it.
The man in the hallway was middle aged, with a black spade beard, dressed in a neatly tailored suit and a tall beaver fur top hat. August had glimpsed him in the bar the night before, taken little notice of him. Some dandy from out east. His watch chain glittered in the half-dark of the hall.
“As I was saying:” The man said, “without you, there would be no-one left to witness what I have built here: paradox on paradox — a tower of paradoxes, so unstable that . . . go on, get your clothes on and pick up that travel bag, August. They’ll be waking up soon, and there will be much chaos here, before everyone decides it is just better to pretend nothing at all happened, or that it was a dream, or a miracle, or mass hysteria — have you invented mass hysteria yet? I forget.
“No matter what they decide to call it, they will find some sort of explanation.” He walked into the room and stood over Madeleine, looking down at her. “I wish the interface had taken better with that one. There was something different about being in her mind. A special quality.” He tapped her gently with one well-polished shoe. “Ah, well.” He raised his head. “Quick now, August. Follow me.”
They went down the hall, through the empty saloon, and out the gate. From here, August could see the square, where the man he had come here to kill lay dead, and the other townsfolk lay motionless around him. August thought of the war, and the way men had lain scattered like this after a battle. There were sometimes terrible wounds and gore, but most of the time, from a little ways off, they looked like they were sleeping — as if they were so overcome with fatigue, they had simply lain down on the spot for a nap.
The San Francisco stagecoach was waiting at the gate, the driver with the reins in his hand, a straw hat shading his face.
“Doing this to them . . . Doesn’t it change things?” August asked the bearded man. “Doesn’t it change the future?”
The man held the coach door open for August. Inside was a young woman in a green riding habit and gloves, her dark hair in a braid coiled at the nape of her neck.
The woman in the coach sighed. “The future, August? You mean, the future of all of this? Don’t you think shooting a man dead in the street changes the future? Yet you do that. And I do what I want to do. And what could the future of this world possibly mean to me, anyway? Now get in: we’ve got a long way to go before we reach San Francisco.”
August climbed into the stage. Again, he could not be sure who moved him: his own will, or some outside force. The bearded man closed the coach door and turned away. As August watched, the man took two steps, then slumped to his knees, fell limp against the fence and slid unconscious to the dirt. The top hat, falling from his head, traced a crescent in the dust.
The coach lurched forward. “Now. . .” the young woman said, sliding her arm under August’s and leaning in to him with a scent of spring flowers hovering in heat: “. . . on to bigger and better things.”