Who Killed Luke Mandrake (Excerpt)

River Phoenix held the acoustic guitar out to Luke like an offering. “What–what am I thinking? You take this. You play.”

“No, no,” Luke said hastily. “You sounded great. Please. Don’t let us interrupt.”

“Oh god, no. I absolutely could not–I mean, Luke! I’d be so honored.”

“Errrm. I’m actually a bit . . . tied up at the moment.” Luke lifted his right arm to show River the chain connecting him to the condor. River’s eyes widened.

“Oh, the poor bird, I mean, how unfortunate for both of you! How did–er–?”

Luke shrugged. “Beats me. We just arrived this way.”

“Don’t use me as an excuse, Luke,” Buzz croaked. “I won’t get in your way. Go ahead and play.”

“Yeah, come on, Luke. Give us a tune.” Phoenix urged the acoustic on him once again.

“Okay,” Luke murmured. He sat down cross-legged, accepted the instrument and strummed a few tentative chords. “So . . . you were putting on a show for the bunnies and the chipmunks?” he asked Phoenix.

“More like a rehearsal.”

“You mean . . . the wolf is in your band?”

“Totally. And the rabbits, the frogs. What did you think?”

“It was unusual, interesting. I liked it.”

“Hear that guys?” River cried, looking around at the creatures gathered in the moonlight, predators and prey together. “He likes it! The great Luke Mandrake likes our music!” River pumped the air with his fist. Aside from a croak from one of the frogs, the animals were silent.

“Quiet bunch,” Buzz remarked.

Phoenix gave Buzz an appraising stare. “Unlike you, Madam Condor, these creatures do not have the power of speech. But they understand me very well.”

“Ha!” Buzz grated. “How did you know I’m female?”

“I know my endangered species. Gymnops Californianus, am I right? The largest flying bird in the Americas, and the female is larger than the male.”

“I like this guy,” Buzz cackled.

Luke had been strumming away softly, finding the voice of the acoustic. It had a smoky tone he liked, and the action was high enough to do some nice bending. He’d worried that his ragged fingers wouldn’t be up to manipulating the thick steel strings. But somehow with the guitar in his hands he felt less fragile, more put together.

“Where did you get this?” he wondered. “It’s pretty nice.”

“Woody made it for me. Not bad, eh?”

“Play something already,” Buzz commanded.

“Okay . . . how ‘bout this. It’s a new one.” Luke attacked the strings with a thundering salvo and began to sing:

You ate your dirty bread
Your poverty was criminal
The demons in your head
Devoured the subliminal
Jewel made of paste
Your muddy boots were crude
Genius in the waste
We envy you for being rude
You’ll never get approval
You’re scheduled for removal
Pig in a poke, pig in a poke
Pig in po-o-o-oke!

As he played, the wolf began to howl tunefully, while the deer stamped her hooves on the stone. Soon the rabbits were thumping away with their hind legs and two bullfrogs glumped out a wild bass-line. Luke launched into verse two:

Your caustic ice inferno
Branded you with malice
The giant caterpillar
Gave the clap to Alice
You had a loaded carbine
Pointed at your spleen
You dove into the Seine
Your fluids washed the river clean
You’ll never get approval
You’re scheduled for removal
Pig in a poke, pig in a poke
Pig in po-o-o-oke!

Luke stumbled through an irascible guitar solo, then flamed out. “It’s not finished,” he said, embarrassed.

“Man, that was something else!” River enthused. “Is it about animal rights?”

“Sort of. It’s about a young French poet, a whore’s son from a little village, who goes to the big city and becomes an overnight sensation. But ultimately the intelligentsia are only looking for novelty, for someone from the lower classes to consume, co-opt and condemn.”

“Oh. So how does that relate to pigs?”

“Well, they treat him like one, I guess.”

“Man, I can totally relate. Me and my sister used to perform in the street for money when we were kids. People treated us like we were cute little organ-grinder monkeys that they could adopt as pets. Oh, you poor kids. Don’t you have parents? And we’d say, Sure we do, they’re right over there at Tiffany’s buying us diamond watches. They’ll be right back.

The rabbits lopped away to nibble at the orange poppies growing from the cracks in the rocks, and the chipmunks frisked and scattered.

“Okay, rehearsal’s over,” River announced. “See you guys at the next full moon!–That’s the only way they can remember when to come,” he added, turning back to Luke.

“Well I guess I’ll be going–” Luke began.

The wolf whined, and River petted him vigorously. “That’s a good boy, Lars!” Lars barked three times in sharp warning.

A low rumbling seemed to emerge from the earth itself, and the rock they were sitting on vibrated. A thunderous noise was echoing through the canyon. River leaped up and shouted, “Flash flood! RUN!”

“What the fuck?” Buzz croaked.

“Go on, Lars! Git!” Phoenix shooed the wolf forward, and it bounded down from the stone stage and took off. “Get to high ground!” he yelled back at Luke and Buzz. “Hurry!”

“Hop on, Bozo!” Buzz squawked. Luke hastily shifted the guitar around so that it hung on his back, threw one leg over the vulture’s bony middle, and she rose into the air in great, labored strokes.

They had gained altitude none to soon. Below them tossed a sea of horns, hooves and fur. A vast herd of buffalo stampeded down the canyon, grunting and snuffling, clattering over the stones and splashing through the shallows. Beyond the pounding and lowing of the beasts, a deeper thunder echoed from the canyon walls.

As they rose higher, Luke could see the foaming flood approaching, huge and white, smashing its way down the canyon, from one wall to the other, destroying everything in its path. And looming above and behind it, there appeared an enormous dark cloud in the shape of a man.

But where was River? Luke searched the cliffs with his eyes. He spied a figure clinging to a column of reddish stone.

“There he is!”

“And?”

“We have to help him!”

“We have to help us, Bozo!” Buzz retorted. But she flapped over to where Phoenix was struggling to clamber up the smooth sides of the rock formation. Buzz lighted on the top of the pinnacle as Luke jumped down.

“I’ll be all right here,” he shouted over the roar of the mountain of water that was swiftly bearing down upon them.

Buzz squawked something that sounded like it could have been “Probably, not!” as she dropped down toward Phoenix.

There wasn’t much to hold on to, but Luke was able to sit, sort of, on a spot where the formation narrowed a bit. Still, if the flood reached this high he would be swept away. He had no idea what would happen to him then. Can zombies drown? he wondered. The biggest danger, no doubt, was being dashed to bits.

Luke wrapped his legs around the stone pillar and extended his manacled right arm down as far as possible. Phoenix had grabbed hold of Buzz’s feet and she was straining to pull him along as he scrabbled his boots up the side of the formation. Luke grabbed River’s sleeve, hauling on it with all his might. Then the younger man was up beside him, clinging to the summit of the rock as best he could. Buzz perched once more on the tip of the pinnacle.

“Luke, hurry! It’s almost on us!” she screeched.

Less than fifty yards distant now, approaching faster than an express train, an airborne lake pounded the canyon walls well above the height of their tiny spit of rock.

Luuuuuke!” Luke thought he heard Buzz skrawking up there, before the thunder of the deluge overwhelmed his ears. He wrapped both arms and legs around both the rock and River Phoenix, who gripped him tightly. Then the flood slammed into them like a raging mammoth, and Luke felt his grasp torn free. He was blinded, deafened, water filled his mouth and nose. River had surely been swept away, and he had no idea whether Buzz was beside him or if they’d been ripped apart. The deluge battered him, he spun and snapped, slammed into stone, felt his bones shatter.

Why the hell was I trying to be a hero?

Luke had lost any sense of up or down. Pain seared him where jutting splinters of bone speared through his flesh. The broken bones ground together excruciatingly as he was flung to and fro in the waves. Then he collided violently with an obstacle, and the fragment of his brain still able to think was eradicated in a blast of agony. Everything went dark.

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