Marzi leaned on the counter and watched, with dread twisting in her belly like a knot of rattlesnakes, as Beej trudged up the stairs. The worst of the morning rush was over and Hendrix was in the back watching his thirteen-inch portable TV, so Marzi would have to wait on Beej herself. He was talking to himself in a dreamily pleasant tone, which was somehow worse than mere ranting, and Marzi heard her own name several times in his otherwise incomprehensible monologue. Beej had always been a slob, but his hygiene and dress sense had deteriorated completely over the past few weeks. His carrot orange hair hung in greasy clumps around his face, and his ever-present black leather jacket—which must have been stifling in this heat—was smeared with mud and bits of grass. Marzi wondered if he’d lost his apartment or something; if he was sleeping outside.
Beej still came into the café every day, and Lindsay said he was still attending art classes, but clearly something had come catastrophically loose in his life. Marzi had seen heroin addiction in action, and it looked something like this, but she didn’t think drugs were Beej’s problem. Something in his eyes, the way they seemed to roll around loose lately, made her think he was having problems inside his head.
Beej clumped up to the counter, grinning at her, showing teeth that had gone too long without cleaning. He dropped a handful of coins, a few bottle caps, a beer can pull tab, and several pieces of a shredded photograph onto the counter.
“Lemon tea, Beej?” she said lightly.
“No. A mocha.” He gripped the edge of the counter, his hands visibly shaking. “I found the shrine of the earthquake,” he said. “I followed the path that leads to waste and hardpan. The god of the earthquake has accepted my devotions.”
“Uh-huh,” Marzi said, turning to the espresso machine to start his drink. “How have you been sleeping? You don’t look so good.” He didn’t smell good, either; like mud, and ashes, and old carpets.
“I don’t need to sleep anymore,” he said. “My god gives me strength. But Marzi . . .” He frowned, then shook his head.
“What?” she asked, wondering why he’d been saying her name on the steps, if she should be worried. He often flirted with her, awkwardly, and she had a fondness for him despite his social deficiencies—he was always polite, and a talented collage artist and photographer—but she questioned if he was becoming obsessed.
“Nothing,” he said, not meeting her eyes, taking his drink and heading for the Cloud Room. Beej liked that room the best. He said the castles in the mist—certainly the most soothing of the several room-spanning murals in the café—made him feel peaceful.
Marzi was about to drop his coins into the register when she noticed there was an Indian head penny and a buffalo nickel in the mix, in addition to a Sacagawea dollar coin. She pocketed those, making up the difference with cash from her own pockets. She didn’t collect coins, but that mix of change had a distinctly Old West feel. She’d never thought much before about the way icons of the West appeared on currency. Maybe there was a story in that—something about counterfeiting, or magically transforming natural resources into cold cash. It seemed like more of an Aaron Burr story than an Outlaw one, but that could be good—she hadn’t done much with Burr in the past few issues of her comic.
A scream, raw with shock and pain, erupted from the Cloud Room. Marzi came around the counter fast, holding a knife she didn’t even remember picking up, and ran toward the sound, her heart pounding. She raced through the front room, bumping a little table with her hip and almost toppling it, and reached the Cloud Room just in time to see some- one dash into the Teatime Room. She only caught a glimpse of him, but he was a striking figure: eagle feathers woven into his black hair, flesh the color of pale sand, the skin on his shirtless back oddly tattooed to resemble cracked earth. She didn’t go after him—there was no other door out of the Teatime Room anyway, and Beej was lying on the floor beside an overturned chair, in need of more immediate at- tention.
Marzi knelt by Beej, keeping one eye on the empty doorway to the Teatime Room. “Are you okay?” she asked. “Did that guy hurt you?”
Beej opened his eyes and looked up at her dreamily. Then he giggled. Marzi flinched. If he’d wept, or whimpered, that would have been all right, something she could deal with, but the giggle was strange and terrible. “He wanted to see my brain,” Beej said. “To compare the wrinkles in my head to a map of the canyons and gullies, to see if my mental terrain matches the texture of his territories. To touch me more deeply, to write his name with a knife in the folds of my mind . . .” He trailed off, then sat up, rubbing his fingers across his hairline, frowning. “Something . . .” He mumbled words she couldn’t understand.
How could you tell if someone had just had a seizure? Maybe Beej was just having a fit of some kind, and the tattooed guy didn’t have anything to do with it. “Beej—” she began.
The room shook—more, the world shook, and Marzi fell against a table. Earthquake, she thought, and almost as soon as she thought it, the quake was over. It was a fairly strong quake, nothing like the Loma Prieta disaster of 1989, but no tiny trembler, either. Marzi’s stomach kept lurching even after the quake stopped, some part of her backbrain still insisting the ground beneath her was unsafe. Beej tried to stand up, and Marzi turned her attention to him, grateful to have something to set her attention on after the chaos of the last few moments. “Hold on,” she said. “There might be aftershocks.”
“No aftershocks,” he said, rising. “That was a foreshock. Just a hint of things to come. I knew the earthquake was coming. The god gives me wisdom.”
Marzi frowned and, after a moment, rose to her feet. Beej seemed fine—physically, anyway—so she stepped toward the Teatime Room, still holding her knife. She ducked her head inside, and there was no one there, just empty tables watched over by the painted gods on the walls. The man must have slipped out while she was distracted by the quake. “That man, with the tattoos—”
“No tattoos,” Beej said. “His flesh is broken stone.”
“What—” she began, but then the day manager, Hendrix, called her from the other room.
“Marzi! Get in here! That quake knocked three bottles of syrup off the shelf! It’s going to smell like Irish Cream in here for years!”
“You’re sure you’re okay?” she asked.
“Never better,” Beej said, picking up his overturned chair. “I’m going now. Things to do, people to be. See you later.” He waved cheerfully before leaving.
He should get some help, Marzi thought, but that was as far as it went. Beej wasn’t her responsibility, after all, but cleaning up the mess in the other room was.
Later, when the quake clutter was cleared away and things had slowed to the usual late-afternoon lull, Marzi sat staring for a while out the big bay window onto Ash Street, watching bicycles and cars pass by. In Santa Cruz there were only two seasons—rainy winter and sunny summer—and winter was a long way off. The café was nearly deserted, and it looked a little shabby with so few inhabitants: a thread- bare couch, scrounged chairs, mismatched tables, worn and scratched wooden floors. Only Garamond Ray’s enormous murals set Genius Loci apart from all the other cafés in town, and up here in front the only painting was a space-scape, all cold white stars and shadow-occulted planets, not the loveliest of the murals. Still, the air smelled of coffee, there was a good Two Dollar Pistols disc on the stereo, and the morning madness was behind her.
She spotted Denis, the most regular of the café’s regulars, looking dour as always on the couch, leafing through a book about modern art. His muddy boots were propped on the battle-scarred coffee table, making a mess, but Marzi didn’t have the energy to tell him to put his feet down. An older woman Marzi didn’t know sat drinking orange spice tea in the Ocean Room, tapping her pen rhythmically against the table, looking down at a spiral-bound notebook. A few tourists were talking loudly out on the deck, the usual background noise to Marzi’s workdays. Hendrix, pale and improbably dreadlocked, sat on a stool in the kitchen, watching his tiny black-and-white television. He was the only person who’d been working at Genius Loci longer than Marzi had, and the only employee who’d been personally hired by the mysterious owners.
Marzi was on the verge of striking up a conversation with Denis, in the vague hope that his condescension and af- fected world-weariness would annoy her enough to keep her awake, when Lindsay came through the door like a glittering whirlwind. “Marzipan!” she said. “To what do we owe this honor? Shouldn’t you be sleeping, or hunched over the drawing board?”
Marzi grinned. “Tina called in sick, so Hendrix asked me to cover her shift. I’ve got to work during the day tomorrow, too, but then I’ll be back to my usual nocturnal ways.” Marzi was normally the night manager—which was good, since that way she almost never had to see Hendrix, who managed during the day.
Excerpted from The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl by Tim Pratt. Copyright © 2005 by Tim Pratt. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.