Authors: Richard Kadrey
Candy holds up her phone.
“Welcome to the twenty-Âfirst century, Huck Finn. I recorded the whole thing.”
“Why don't you forward that to Julie? You'll make her day.”
“I'm on it,” she says, punching numbers into her phone.
I heft the knife in my hand. It has good weight and balance. With enough strength you could easily ram this through someone's ribs and pull out whatever the hell you wanted.
“I'm going to put this away upstairs. You still want that drink?”
“Hell yes, Agent Scully.”
“Wait. I thought Scully was the woman.”
“Stop being so heteronormative. You'd look good in a dress.”
“I don't know what one of those words means, but okay.”
“I really do have to drag you into this century.”
“Drag away. I'm not going anywhere.”
“Not without me.”
“I wouldn't dream of it.”
“Will you two please go the fuck away?” says Kasabian. “You're giving me diabetes over here.”
We go upstairs and don't come down for a long time. My phone rings. It's Julie. I let her go to voice mail. Who's Huck Finn now?
back an hour later. We set up a time for the next day when she'll come by and see Sleeping Beauty. She says she might already have a line on another case and will call me when she's sure. I guess this is how things are from now on. Business calls and meetings with clients. Jobs we get and jobs we lose. Time to shine my shoes and carry my lunch in a brown paper bag. Soon it will be heart-Âhealthy egg salad on vitamin-Âenriched organic free-Ârange whole-Âwheat bread.
I'm so doomed.
Here's the thing: once upon a time I ran Hell. I didn't break the place, but I didn't exactly spruce it up. I don't have a good track record with nine-Âto-Âfive responsibilities.
I wonder how long it will take for me to fuck up so badly that Julie gives my job to a guy selling oranges by the side of the freeway? Maybe I can swap gigs with him. He can do the surveillance and the paperwork and I'll stand by the off-Âramp sucking fumes and selling oranges all day. It doesn't sound like such a bad life. A little repetitive, but so was fighting in the arena. The freeway job would have less stabbing and more vitamin C, and that's a step up in the world by anyone's standards.
I'm on my way to the big leagues one Satsuma at a time.
ASABIAN HAS REOPENED
the place when I come downstairs and a few customers are browsing our very specialized movies. Before Maria and Dash, Max Overdrive was doomed. Kasabian made a deal with them to find us copies of lost movies. The uncut
. Orson Welles's cut of
The Magnificent Ambersons
London After Midnight
. Things like that. The problem was that a lot of the best of the bunch were silent movies, and in L.A. we like our gab, so those movies had a limited audience. They brought in enough money to keep the lights burning, but not enough to live on. The new, never-Âmade movie scheme makes a lot more sense. Maybe we'll be able to sleep at night without worrying that the next day we'll be running the store out of the trunk of a stolen car. It's this possibility that makes me even more pissed about the angel tagging the front windows.
Fuck waiting for paint remover tomorrow. I get the black blade, go outside, and start scraping.
I'm at it for maybe ten minutes when I see someone's reflection in the glass. A tall guy in a brown leather blazer.
Someone is watching me from the street. I managed to get
off the glass, but now it reads
, which really isn't much of an improvement.
I turn around and give the guy a “move along, pilgrim” look. He gives me an irritatingly polished smile and comes over to where I'm working.
This day just keeps getting better.
“Someone really did a number on your windows,” he says. “Any significance to the word?”
“Some to him, I guess. None to me. What do you want?”
He looks around like he's checking to see it's just us chickens.
“You're James Stark, aren't you?”
He reaches around his back. I make sure he can see the knife in my hand. For a second he looks nervous, but he recovers quickly and flashes me that shit-Âeating grin.
He holds up his wallet and shows me an ID card from the
The name on the card is David Moore. I nod and he puts it away.
“Impressive. I bet you own a dictionary
“Paper too,” Moore says. “Lots of blank printer paper.”
“And you want to print something about me. Why?”
He takes a step closer. He smells of adrenaline with a hint of fear sweat.
“We're doing a featureâÂmaybe a seriesâÂon the Âpeople who stayed here during the flood. The pioneers and eccentrics.”
“It sounds like you think I escaped from the Donner expedition.”
“Nothing like that,” he says.
He pulls out a pack of cigarettes. Taps out one for himself and holds the pack out to me like he's throwing a bone to a ragamuffin refugee in a World War II movie. I don't like the guy, but I take the cigarette. He lights it and then his own. It's not bad. A foreign brand that burns the back of my throat pleasantly.
I go back to scraping the window.
He doesn't say anything for a minute, then, “How about it? Can I ask you a few questions?”
“Let me ask you one. Why me? Lots of Âpeople who stayed behind, including some of my customers. Why not interview them?”
He comes around where I'm scraping, so I get a clear view of his mug. Trying to establish eye contact and intimacy. Letting me know that even though he's from the press I shouldn't hold it against him. He's one of the good guys. But he's too eager to be convincing.
“You're the only celebrity around here,” he says.
“And here I thought I was just another small businessman. Tell me, do all celebrities scrape their own goddamn windows clean?”
“We can start there. Why would someone paint âkiller' on your store?”
“Maybe they thought I was Jerry Lee Lewis. Look, I don't like talking to strangers. Next thing, you'll try to lure me into your van with promises of candy and puppies.”
He doesn't react to the dig, so I keep on scraping. He watches me for a while before he speaks again.
“Maybe it said something else before. Maybe it said âGodkiller.' ”
This time when I face him, I put the knife to his throat. There's nothing behind him, so there's plenty of room to move if he can get his brain and feet to function, but he can't. That means he's probably not one of Audsley Isshii's crew, an assassin sent to settle a score. I don't think he's Sub Rosa either. That's the first thing that would be coming out of his smug face if he was. He's just a ridiculous civilian looking for a story or an autograph.
“Why would you say âGodkiller'?”
He puffs his smoke, trying to look like he's rolling with the scene, but his hand is shaking. Not enough for most Âpeople to see, but I can.
“There are a lot of rumors about you. About your past. And what you did during the flood.”
think I did?”
“Some Âpeople say you saved the world and that it wasn't the first time. Other Âpeople say you lost your mind and killed God, which is a big surprise to some of us.”
“You're an atheist.”
“I guess you're not.”
“I wish I had the luxury.”
A Âcouple of Âpeople come out of Max Overdrive. A civilian guy and a female Lyph. Lyphs are generally a friendly bunch, but they freak out a lot of regular citizens because they look like what kids draw when they imagine the Devil. Horns and hooves. A tail. This one has rented from us for a while, but I can't think of her name.
“What's the matter, Stark?” the Lyph says. “He return a movie late?”
I take the knife from his throat, but keep it by my side.
“See? My customers are a lot more interesting than me.”
“Everyone's more interesting than Stark,” says the Lyph. “He's just a Mr. Grumpypants.”
“This guy is a reporter from the
. He's looking to interview Âpeople who stayed in town when it was underwater. Want to talk to him?”
The Lyph and her friend come over.
“It was awful,” says the guy. “Our whole place flooded, but our pet rats are good swimmers, so it turned out okay.”
I take a drag off the cigarette and look at Moore.
“See? Human interest. That's what your readers want. Real stuff. Not hocus-Âpocus rumors.”
“Hi,” says the Lyph, holding out her hand. “I'm Courtney and this is Jeremy.”
Moore shakes Courtney's hand. I'm not sure he can see her for what she is. When they're in the street, Lyphs usually use cloaking hoodoo to blend in with the civilians. I try to read the sour look on Moore's face. It's hard to tell if he doesn't want to touch the devil lady's hand or if he's pissed that we have an audience.
“Nice to meet you,” he says, and tosses his cigarette into the street. “Maybe you can give me your number and I can get back to you later for an interview.”
“Meow,” says Courtney. “I haven't been brushed off like that since fourth grade and Father Barker realized I had a tail.”
“Really, Mr. Stark. I was hoping to talk to you specially about something besides the flood,” says Moore.
“Your wild-Âblue-Âyonder contract.”
“Why do you think I have one of those?”
He pats me on the shoulder and I consider cutting off his hand.
“Because you're famous and L.A.'s famous always have a backup plan.”
“What's a wild-Âblue-Âyonder contract?” says Jeremy.
What do I tell him? Just because he dates a Lyph doesn't mean he knows how things are. How Âpeople with enough pull, fame, or infamy can get contracts that bind their souls to Earth so that when they die they don't have to go on to the afterlife. And let's face it, for Âpeople in L.A. that usually means Hell and they know it, and want to put if off for as long as possible. I really can't blame them. The contracts are handled by talent agencies specializing in ghosts. You want Jim Morrison or Marilyn Monroe to croon “Happy Birthday” at your next party? Come up with the cash and they can do a duet with James Dean or Jayne Mansfield. It's not just show-Âbiz types, though. Plenty of bankers, politicians, crooks, and cops don't want to head Downtown too soon. A wild-Âblue-Âyonder contract is Heaven for mama's boys.
Moore looks at me, waiting to see if I'm going to answer the question. I'm not sure what to tell Jeremy.
“It's a death deal for chickenshits. When you die, you stay here and the company that sold you the contract can send you anywhere they want to be a performing monkey. Mostly, the contracts go to the famous so rich assholes can mingle with them over finger sandwiches.”
“Cool,” says Jeremy. “Can I get one?”
“Anyone can get one,” says Moore.
I tuck the black blade in my waistband. I'm not going to need it with this band of cutthroats.
“Yeah, but if you're not an A-Âlist celebrity, you'll probably end up being Mickey Cohen's towel boy. Not all ghosts are born equal, are they, Moore?”
“Oh,” Jeremy says. “WaitâÂwho's Mickey Cohen?”
“A notorious ventriloquist. His dummy worked for Murder Incorporated.”
Jeremy and Courtney look at each other.
“This doesn't sound like something for us.”
Moore looks a little uncomfortable confronted by actual Âpeople who see the scam for what it is.
“Smart,” I say. “Don't let anyone talk you into one.”
“We won't,” says Courtney. Then to Moore, “What did I tell you? A big sack of grump.”
She and Jeremy take their movie and head off, leaving me alone with Moore.
“You're not really a reporter, are you?”
He looks away and back and does the grin again. I wonder what he'd look like with no lips?
“That's not entirely true. I have friends at the
. Sometimes I bring them stories and they slip me a little something.”
“But that's not what you're really about.”
“I work with a talent group. One of the biggest postlife artist agencies in the world.”
“And you want to offer me a contract.”
“Why not? A lot of Sub Rosas have them. And you're right about A-Âlisters versus everybody else. But I can guarantee you that you'd be on the A-Âlist of A-Âlists. I mean, everyone wants to meet LuciferÂ .Â .Â . even an ex-ÂLucifer.”
I move faster than he can react, dragging him around the side of the building and shoving him up against the Dumpster. I tap the black blade against the crotch of his jeans, right under his balls.
“Listen up. If you really knew anything about me, you'd know that I wouldn't sign a blue yonder if you promised me chicken and waffles with Veronica Lake. I don't know how you know all that Trivial Pursuit stuff about me, but forget it. It's ancient history and nothing you should be talking about. Understand?”
“Do you? I know threatening to kill you won't matter because you have a blue yonder and you think you're safe. But think about this: I know how to cut off your head so you won't die. Who knows how long I can keep you alive? You can be my lab rat. How's that sound?”
“I'd rather not,” says Moore.
“Then don't ever bother me, my friends, or my customers again. If you do, I'm going to use your head for kindling.”