The limo is just like the kind you see in the movies. Long, shiny, and black. The driver opens the rear passenger door for me, and then gets back in the driver’s seat. He doesn’t say a word for the whole drive, probably because his throat has been cut from ear to ear and looks like it was sewn up by a blind man with bailing wire. This is going to be an interesting night.
When we’re down the block from the hotel, I dial the number Lucifer gave me last night. Yeah, I have the devil on speed dial.
The phone rings once and a voice I don’t recognize says, “He’ll be right down. Wait for him in the lobby,” then hangs up.
I tell the limo driver to wait in the parking lot outside the lobby. The staff seems to know that someone important is on his way down because none of them tell me to move the car. None of them even look at me. Does everyone at the hotel owe Lucifer a favor?
There are thirteen well-dressed people in the lobby when I go in. I’m pretty sure I know what this means. They confirm it a few seconds later when Lucifer steps out of the elevator and all thirteen jump up like kids on the last day of school. A woman in an expensive Jackie Kennedy black dress and pillbox hat leads the pack. Her face is young and her skin is perfect, but when she takes off a glove, her hands are like buzzard claws. Old as King Tut and dry as a Death Valley rattlesnake’s eyeteeth.
“Master,” she says, breathy and excited. The million-dollar coven behind her mumbles the word in stage whispers like stuttering ghosts.
“Amanda, lovely to see you,” Lucifer says, all diabolical charm. “I have someplace to be, so I’m afraid I can’t stay and chat.”
The old woman with the Lolita face smiles like a maniac when he says her name.
“We don’t want to keep you, Master. Will you be in L.A. long?”
“I’m not sure.”
“We’d like to hold a special Mass for your arrival.”
“No need. But thank you all the same.”
Amanda is disappointed, but keeps smiling. Her heart is going like the drum solo in “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” Lucifer hasn’t touched the woman’s buzzard hand, and while he’s probably technically smiling, you’d need a microscope to be sure. His contempt for these people is so obvious, it’s even giving me the creeps. I don’t know if I’m on bodyguard duty yet, so I stay put.
Amanda pulls back her hand and reaches into the huge damned purse that all old ladies seem to carry. I take a couple of steps toward her, just to make sure she’s not taking anything too sharp or explosive out of her bag. Lucifer couldn’t look more bored. She pulls out a carved whitish-yellow box and hands it to Lucifer. As he takes it he gives her a tiny nod. The Rosemary’s Baby Mouseketeers behind her start mumbling “Master” again. Lucifer shifts his eyes toward me for a second. Now I’m on the clock.
I move in as Lucifer raises his left hand and touches the top of Amanda’s head, like he’s blessing her. She’s thrilled and, to tell the truth, I like the move, too. A priest would have blessed her with his right hand, but Lucifer put his devil horns on and went lefty. If we had some pea soup we could do a scene from The Exorcist.
I put an arm up, and when Lucifer takes his hand off Amanda’s head, I get between him and the crowd and stay there while I walk him to the front door. Amanda yells, “Praise thee, Master! Praise thee!” Lucifer ignores her. As he gets in the car, the limo driver opens and closes the passenger door behind him and gets in the front. Guess now that the big man is here, I don’t rate door opening. A good thing to remember. I’m back with the ruling class, where everyone knows their place. Except for me, but I don’t think Lucifer is going to be shy about telling me whose ass to kiss and whose to punch. I open my own door and slide in the back of the limo.
“You’re like all the Beatles rolled into one. Getting you out of there is like them trying to get out of Shea Stadium after the concert in ’65.”
“I was there that night. The sound was terrible.”
“You knew them? They didn’t make a deal with you, did they?”
He gives me a look.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Pete Best wanted to make a deal back in Hamburg, but he was already out of the band, so who cared?”
I nod at the box Amanda gave him. “What’s the deal with the pyx?”
“You know what it is. I’m impressed.”
“I’m trying to take the hoodoo thing more seriously. Been reading some of Vidocq’s books and thinking about getting my magic, I don’t know, more organized.”
“Have you had any results yet?”
“Not much. But I’ve been thinking that killing everyone is maybe counterproductive. Been playing around with some stunning hexes. I wasn’t big on stunning back in the arena, so it’s all new to me.”
“I’m impressed again. I know that thinking goes entirely against your ethos, so the fact you’re considering a new approach to things is a good sign.”
“A sign of what?”
“That you might actually live. That you’ll become a new and improved monster. Not killing everyone means that if something happens there will be survivors to question.”
“Of course, none of it means shit. Wells hires me to kill things and so do you. Thinking is like playing in a band when you’re fifty. It only happens on weekends and holidays.”
“Why don’t we agree on a new policy starting tonight? I don’t expect any problems, but if something does happen, try using magic instead of violence. I want to support the idea of a newer, better you.”
“We’re still talking about killing, right? Not potty training.”
Lucifer turns the pyx over in his hands.
“Who was that bunch back at the hotel?”
“The most important human-only coven in the city. They had a lot of power back in the day, when Los Angeles was changing from orange groves into a city, but now they’re mostly a nuisance.”
“The Sub Rosa took over.”
“The Sub Rosa have always been in charge here, but it helped to have civilians as go-betweens with politicians and business. These days everyone has moved beyond that kind of Checkpoint Charlie thinking. The Sub Rosa are powerful and there isn’t a politician or businessman alive who doesn’t like to rub shoulders with that.”
“So, what’s in the box?”
He hands me the pyx.
“Take it. Consider it your first bonus.”
I wonder how much buzzard-claw Amanda liked being blown off back at the hotel? Is she the type to throw some disrespect back at Lucifer? Slip him some bad juju or an underwear bomb? I hold the pyx at arm’s length and open the top. Nothing happens. I look inside.
“Are those fingernails?”
“Yes. A few toenails, too, probably. No, you don’t want to know where they came from.”
“I was just telling Kasabian I hoped I’d get to see a pile of ripped-out fingernails tonight. I guess dreams really do come true.”
Lucifer lights a Malediction.
“The box is Grecian ivory and very old. Take it to a good auction house. You’ll be able to open a dozen video stores.”
“How much do you think I can get for the nails?”
THE DRIVER TAKES US south on the Hollywood Freeway, gets off at Silver Lake, and steers us up the hills to the old reservoir. There’s a concrete path all around and a steep descent down to the water. The driver stops on the street bordering the reservoir, gets out, and opens Lucifer’s door. Neither of them says anything as the driver closes his door, gets back in the front, and drives away.
Lucifer says, “He’ll be back when we need him,” and leads us through a typical L.A. excuse for a park—parched grass and a line of half-dead trees—to a walkway sticking out over the water.
At the end of the walkway is a burned-out three-story concrete utility building. Technically, it’s only two stories now. It looks like the top one collapsed and caved into the second during the fire. The city bolted wire shutters over all the ground-floor windows to keep kiddies from playing in the death trap. Naturally, most of them are torn down or bent back enough for someone skinny to squeeze inside. The double metal doors in front are shut with a padlock and chain heavy enough to hitch the Loch Ness monster to a parking meter.
Why am I not surprised when Lucifer pulls a key from his pocket, pops the lock, and throws open the doors? A blast of cold, wet air hits us from inside. The place smells like Neptune’s outhouse. There’s a set of stone steps inside, winding down to the waterline. A few high school kids are hunkered on the stairs below the first turn, drinking forties and passing around a joint. They lurch to their feet, a little shaky in that panicked stoner kind of way where cops and pigeons are equally terrifying. I guess they don’t see a lot of tuxedos down here. Lucifer nods to them and one of the boys nods back.
“You cops?” he asks
As we pass the group, Lucifer turns to the boy.
“Sometimes. But not tonight.”
I don’t know if it’s the dark, the narrows walls, or just being in a strange place for the first time, but the stairs seem to go down a long damn way. Feels like well below the waterline. When we hit the bottom, there’s another door. Instead of rusted metal, this one is covered in red leather and has brass hinges. There’s a doorman next to it in a gold silk coat and short breeches dripping with enough gold filigree to make Little Lord Fauntleroy look like he shops from the discount bin at Walmart. He opens the door when he hears us. I guess standing in the dark doesn’t bother him. His eyes look black and blind and his lips are sewn shut.
I start to say something, but Lucifer cuts me off with a dismissive wave.
“Golem. Salvage from some Parisian potter’s field. French revenants are all the rage among the Sub Rosa gentry this year. I wouldn’t waste my money. Golems aren’t much more than windup toys. You could train a dog to open that door and it could still fetch and bark on cue. This dead thing will open the door from now until doomsday, but that’s all it’ll ever do. Ridiculous.”
“At least you don’t have to tip him. Are they all sewn up like that?”
“Of course. Golems are lobotomized so they don’t bite, but they’re not so easy to recall if something goes wrong.”
Past the door is another golem, this one with stapled lips, but that’s not the hilarious part. There’s a gondola floating in an underwater canal lit by phosphorescent globes hovering near the walls. The golem is dressed in a gondolier’s striped shirt, black pants, and flat-brimmed hat like the ticket taker at a Disneyland ride, if the ride was hidden under an L.A. reservoir and full of animated corpses. It’s a small dead world, after all.
Lucifer steps down into the gondola and I follow him. The golem poles us along the narrow canal until we hit a T-intersection where he steers us right into a wider channel.
“The limo driver, he was cut and stitched up, too. Is he a golem?”
“No, he’s alive. He’s just annoying.”
“You cut his throat?”
“Of course not. When he apologized for what he did, he cut his own throat to prove his sincerity.”
“I guess it’s better than ending up in a box of fingernails.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Where the hell are we? How far are we under the reservoir?”
“We’re not under the reservoir anymore. Our brain-dead friend has taken us out into an old tributary of the L.A. River.”
“Huh. It never crossed my mind that the L.A. River was ever anything more than scummy concrete runoff.”
“Everyone here thinks that way. It’s only the ones who remember when the river was wild who appreciate it.”
“Muninn would remember.”
“I’m sure he does. If I remember right, his cavern isn’t far from another of the underground channels.”
“Will he be here tonight?”
“I doubt it. He’s worse than you when it comes to socializing with the Sub Rosa.”
“Where are we going? Who’s going to be there?”
“The party is being thrown by the head of the studio, Simon Ritchie. I think I mentioned that he’s a civilian, so the party is being thrown in the home of one of the truly outstanding Sub Rosa families, Jan and Koralin Geistwald. Lovely people. They came here all the way from the northernmost part of Germany when this river roared along the surface.”
“So, that makes them a couple of hundred years old?”
“I’m sure they’re considerably older than that, but they came to America two-hundred-ish years ago.”
“They were ambitious and they had the guts to do something about it. Europe was lousy with ancient Sub Rosa families who’d consolidated power centuries before. If you wanted to advance, the only way to do it was create your own dynasty and the only way to do that was to go very far away and start from nothing.”
“Like the Springheels.”
“Exactly. They were the first. They came a very long way and gave up virtually everything to get here.”
“I guess we won’t be seeing any of them tonight.”
“Damn. I know something you don’t. Do I get a prize?”
“Be happy with your box.”
“The reason why you won’t see any Springheels is that the last of them, little Enoch, died a couple of days back.”
“There was a severe chewing accident. The guy was playing around with eaters.”
Lucifer shakes his head and tosses his Malediction into the water.