Authors: Richard Kadrey
Like me, Allegra leans in to watch.
Vidocq pushes us both back.
“Don't inhale the vapors,” he says.
The smoke stinks. I go to a window and open it.
“I'm guessing that hasn't happened before.”
“What did we just see?” says Allegra.
Vidocq rubs his chin with the knuckle of his thumb.
“I don't know. It's never reacted so violently before.”
I reach for the knife and Vidocq pushes my hand away.
“I wouldn't do that,” he says.
He takes a dark, ragged chamois from a drawer and wipes down the whole knife, holding it in a set of heavy pliers that look like they came from a yard sale at Hannibal Lecter's. I point at the chamois.
“What is that?”
“You don't want to know.”
“I might need one later.”
Vidocq wipes every inch of the blade, not looking at me.
“It's the skin from a Hand of Glory, purified and loosened from the bones by soaking it in holy water.”
A Hand of Glory is the left hand of a hanged man. Powerful hoodoo. Not something you find at Pier 1.
“I thought you got rid of that thing,” says Allegra.
“As you see, I need it for my work.”
Vidocq wraps the knife back in the red utility rag and hands it to me.
“Where does a person get something like that? I could use it to clean up after Kasabian.”
Allegra shakes her head.
“Bad Âpeople,” she says. “Dangerous Âpeople.”
Vidocq picks up his coffee.
“What safe life is worth living?” he says.
“What are you going to do with that knife?” says Allegra. “You can't take it home with you.”
“I'm not letting that thing out of my sight. I want to know exactly what kind of power is in there.”
“As do I,” Vidocq says. “Perhaps we should take it to a Fiddler.”
A Fiddler is a nice resource when you have a troublesome toy, like a nerve-Âgas-Âpissing knife. Their hoodoo lets them tell you about an object just by touching it. Not all Fiddlers are on the up-Âand-Âup, but I think I can tell the grifters from the real ones by now.
I put the knife in my pocket.
“You sure you want to do that?” says Allegra.
“I have other coats. Besides, I always have you if it sets me on fire.”
Allegra pushes a test tube back from the edge of Vidocq's worktable.
“I could use the distraction. I've been going a little stir-Âcrazy since the clinic closed.”
A clusterfuck of cops and vigilantes torched Allegra's clinic right before Christmas. The fire took down the whole mall, killing off a nail salon and a pizza joint too. Some Âpeople have no respect for the finer things in life.
“Have you had a chance to treat any patients?”
“I've done a few house calls. Ever since the Lurker roundup, things have gotten progressively quieter. I suppose if the clinic was open and empty I'd be even more depressed.”
“We're looking for somewhere she can open a new clinic,” says Vidocq. “But it's a slow process.”
“I don't know if it's any help or not, but I'll pay you for running the tests.”
Vidocq rubs the chamois over the burned spot on his table.
“We have no use for your money.”
“It's not mine. It's the PI agency's.”
“In that case,” says Allegra, “we're happy to accept.”
“I'll probably have more work for you as business ramps up.”
“Good. It will be nice to be working again.”
“Speaking of which, do you have any painkillers for the guest? Whatever he is, I don't think he's used to having a body, and it hurts.”
Allegra goes to a kitchen cabinet and comes back with a plastic aspirin bottle with the label scratched off. The pills inside are small black ovals.
“These should help. I've used them on both Lurkers and humans for pain.”
I put the pills in the pocket with the knife.
“Bill me for these, too. One more thing: Does either of you know where I can find some brass knuckles?”
“That's more your thing than ours,” Allegra says.
“I know. I just thought I'd ask. I'll bring these pills back to Sleeping Beauty.”
“He has a name, you know.”
“I'm sure he does. I'm just not sure we know it yet.”
the Rover, head back up the Hollywood Freeway, and end up getting caught in a traffic jam while trying to get onto Sunset. This is my future. Brake lights, angry lowriders, stoned jocks in a party van, frustrated soccer moms, and sweating salarymen fumbling for their heart pills slow-Ârolling on and off freeway ramps until one of us snaps and opens fire on the rest. Even dead we'll be stuck in traffic, our corpses pickled in fumes and lit by the glare of light bars on squad cars. We'll make the evening news, and be talked about at work the next day. Cars, guns, cops, and gossip. Reality-ÂTV immortality. Show biz and murder. That would be a good name for a drink. I'll have to remember to tell Carlos about it.
I ditch the Rover by Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles, where Candy and I tried to have a sort of first date. Naturally, it all went wrong. A phone call from a demon got in the way. I promised to take her back. Did I ever do it? So much has happened in the last year, a lot of it is a blur. Shuttling between Earth and Hell, cutting off heads, getting shot, playing Lucifer, dying a Âcouple of times. Even if I did take her back, it's time we went again. Just a Âcouple of monsters out for dinner, clogging our arteries with gravy and not giving a damn because this is California, where everyone lives forever.
I go down Sunset, cut up Ivar, and walk into Bamboo House of Dolls a few minutes later.
When Carlos sees me he holds up a shot glass and a coffee cup.
“You on or off the clock?”
“A little bit of both, but I'll take a drink.”
“Thank you, Jesus. I don't need you in here sober and sad. It bad-Âvibes the room.”
“Then give me a double and let's spread the Christmas cheer.”
“Ho ho ho,” Carlos says as he sets down a double Aqua Regia.
“I can't remember, are you married?”
“Happily divorced five years now.”
“Mind if I ask why?”
“It just happens sometimes, you know? You start out young and a certain kind of person, then you grow up and you're not that person anymore. Sometimes the Âpeople you become just shouldn't be together. You stick around that shit long enough, you end up hating each other. My ex and me, we stuck it out too long. By the end, our differences got damned irreconcilable, so instead of torturing each other anymore, we finally called it quits. Why are you asking?”
“I don't know exactly. I'm just trying to figure some things out.”
“Losing someone is never easy,” he says. “If it was, I'd be out of business.”
“I don't think there's much chance of that happening.”
“Drink up,” he says, pours us another round, and holds up his.
“To other Âpeople's misery.”
We clink glasses and drink.
He pours us one more.
“To Candy. A great girl.”
I look at him. He waits for me. After a few seconds of thinking, I drink and he does too. Carlos knows that Candy is Chihiro, but he's right about losing Âpeople. I didn't really lose Candy, but she's still gone.
I look around the bar for familiar faces among the twinkling Christmas lights. I find one at a nearby table: Brigitte is drinking wine with a handsome trioâÂtwo men and a womanâÂlaughing and talking loudly, having a fine old time. She spots me and I invite her to the bar by pointing to my drink. She excuses herself from the table and walks over.
She kisses me on both cheeks and I say, “At least someone's having a good time tonight.”
“Yes. They're from Prague. From the old days, when I was still a killer like you. It's good to see old friends.”
“That must be nice.”
“It is. And I so seldom get to speak Czech anymore. It makes me feel more at home here.”
“I felt the same way speaking English when I was Downtown.”
“Did it make things better?”
“A little. Sometimes during the holidays I feel very far from the things that made me happy.”
“Like hunting Drifters?”
“I came here to destroy revenants and become a real live Hollywood actress. The first is done, but no matter what I do, the second feels as if it's barely begun.”
Brigitte used to do artsy porn flicks back in Europe. I never saw any, but Kasabian worships her as a goddess. A producer brought her to L.A. with promises of big roles in big movies. He croaked and Brigitte has been trying to get a foothold in the business every since.
“All our apocalypses keep getting in the way of work.”
She slowly shakes her head.
“You'd think someone was conspiring against our happiness.”
“The universe hates happy Âpeople, that much I'm sure of. You need to cultivate a taste for colorful misery.”
“Like you and your Aqua Regia.”
We both drink. I finish mine, but don't ask for a refill this time.
“Maybe things will settle down awhile, end-Âof-Âthe-Âworld-Âwise. Once the movie moguls slink back into town, you'll be rolling in work.”
She pushes a stray strand of hair out of her face.
“You haven't said anything about my voice. I've been taking lessons, trying to lose my accent. How do I sound?”
“Like the queen of the county fair. What do you think?” I say to Carlos.
“You sound like Angelina Jolie. Kind of husky. Kind of silky.”
“You'd think I was American?”
“I think you're both being kind. Nevertheless, I'll take the compliment.”
I take her arm to pull her in closer so we can talk quietly.
“You haven't heard any talk about High Plains Drifters, have you?”
“No. Nothing. Is this about the man Chihiro talks about? Do you think he's a revenant?”
“To tell the truth, no. I just don't want him to be who he says he is.”
“You're afraid of another apocalypse.”
“No. Just a lot of goddamn trouble. If this guy is Death, the Âpeople who killed him aren't going to be hard to find, and I guarantee they're going to be unsympathetic.”
“How do you know it's more than one person?” says Carlos.
“I don't, but I also don't see someone pulling off this kind of hoodoo all on his lonesome. You're talking about capturing an angel in a human bodyÂ .Â .Â . and that's after you find the right body. Then you need to know the hexes and magicians who can pull them off. Then you need a weapon that can kill him. On top of that, you need a motive.
kill Death? There are potions that will keep you going for a hundred years. Yeah, they're expensive, but it's easier to rob a bank than shanghai an angel.”
“How does one kill an angel?” says Brigitte.
I take the knife from my coat and unwrap it on the bar.
“It looks quite ordinary,” she says.
“It's not. It was thinking seriously of burning down Vidocq's place.”
“It looks Roman,” says Carlos. “Like an antique Roman dagger. See the silver eagle? Legions used to have those on their standards.”
“How the hell do you know all that?”
He clears away some glasses and pours Brigitte more wine.
“My brother-Âin-Âlaw. Ex-Âbrother-Âin-Âlaw. He's crazy for old weapons. He has something like that. I can send him a picture if you want and see what he knows.”
“This brother-Âin-Âlaw of yours, is he the person who's been slipping you potions?”
Carlos tries to suppress a smile, shrugs.
“He dabbles in a lot of things.”
“He's a magician, isn't he? You married into a Sub Rosa family.”
“She kept it from me most of the time we were together. Her family thought I wasn't worthy and I think maybe she did a little too. You were the first person I met who did real magic right out in the open. After seeing that, I knew I'd been right to leave.”
“If she hid it, was she into baleful magic?”
“Black magic,” says Brigitte.
Carlos carefully arranges a Santa hat on a small plastic hula girl.
“I don't know if her magic was black, but her soul turned dark. That's what I meant about Âpeople changing. First figuring out that she was a real
. Then finding out she wasn't the only one. Then seeing her go to darker places. I didn't know what she was looking for, but I knew I didn't want any part of it.”
I say, “You knew about our funny little world, but played innocent this whole time.”
He shakes his head.
“This? Lurkers and zombies and shit? I didn't know any of that. And it's cool at the bar. But home I like boring. The only magic I want there is in games and bad movies.”
“It was cruel of your wife not to tell you who she really was,” Brigitte says.
Carlos cocks his head.
“We had some good times. And anyway, my brother-Âin-Âlaw and me get along fine. Want me to send him a picture?”
Carlos takes out his phone, clicks a picture, and thumbs in a message.
“I'll let you know what he says.”
Carlos moves on to other customers.
Brigitte looks at me.
“Chihiro needs to come home.”
“It's not the right time.”
“She said you said that, but I'm here to tell you that caution be damned. You'll lose her if you keep pushing her away.”
“I told her we can do something around the end of the month.”
“She's a dead woman. She lost her identity. She needs to be around the things that matter most to her.”