“That family fell apart and just kept on falling. What a perfect way for the last of them to go.”
“That’s where I was going when I left you at the hotel. I met Wells at the Springheel place to help suss out what happened there.”
“Do you do a lot of magical forensics for the Vigil? Or was it a Homeland Security matter?”
“I don’t know if there’s any difference to Wells. And it was the first time.”
“And you’re sure it was eaters?”
“All the signs were there.”
“Good for you. Congratulations on your new job. I didn’t know you were such an expert on demons.”
“I’m not, but once I started looking, it seemed pretty obvious.”
“Did Wells agree?”
“I think so. It’s hard to tell with him. And his crew were everywhere. It was goddamn Woodstock at five hundred decibels in there. I could hardly think.”
“Sounds like a hard way to work.”
“It was a pain in the ass.”
“Interesting that he’d call you in just to have you working in such terrible circumstances.”
“That’s Wells. It was probably a test. Like he was hazing me.”
“Or distracting you.”
“It’s what I’d do if I didn’t want someone to find something. I’d call in someone new and then make it impossible for them to do their job. They’d be flattered I’d asked them and too embarrassed to say anything when they didn’t perform well.”
“Why would Wells do that?”
“I have no idea. I didn’t say he did it. I said it’s what I’d do.”
“You have a lot more to cover up than Wells or the Vigil.”
We come around a bend and up ahead the cavern place opens up into a huge marble room lit with hundreds of torches and candles. A dozen other canals cut through the place and there’s a golem-powered gondola in each one, steering guests under arched stone bridges.
There are two Venices I know about and one of them is a hotel in Vegas. The other is an L.A. beach where pretty girls walk their dogs while wearing as little as possible and mutant slabs of tanned, posthuman beef sip iced steroid lattes and pump iron until their pecs are the size of Volkswagens. This Venice is pretty damned far from those. This is the old fairy-tale Venice with Casanova, plague, and Saint Mark’s stolen bones, meaning it’s a high-quality hoodoo copy. Hopefully without the plague. It’s not as big as a real city and there’s a vaulted roof over our heads, so we’re probably still in part of the old L.A. River system.
Every few yards, there’s a dock with a couple of steps leading up from the water. The golem stops at one and Lucifer and I get out. There must be a couple of hundred people down here. People and other things. Big-shot Lurkers and civilians laugh and chat with heavyweight Sub Rosas. They can talk shit about each other behind the others’ backs, but when it comes right down to it, money is the one true race and everyone down here is the color of greenbacks and as tall as mountains.
Lucifer checks his tie and gives me a quick once-over like maybe I’d changed into clown shoes during the boat ride. He nods and says, “Let’s get a drink.”
I’m a little surprised that the total fucking ruler, grand vizier, and night manager of Hell can just walk into the place without us getting mobbed like he was back at the hotel. But of course, people like this don’t do that kind of thing, do they? If Jesus, Jesse James, and a herd of pink robot unicorns strolled in walking on water, this bunch wouldn’t even look up. I wonder if Lucifer had his tailor make my jacket too tight to wear a gun on purpose because I’m genuinely inspired to start shooting things just to see if anyone jumps.
A golem in a white waiter’s jacket comes by with a tray of champagne. Lucifer takes one glass and hands me one.
“No guzzling tonight. You’re on duty, so you get to sip politely.”
“Don’t worry. These golems all need a good moisturizer. I’m not drinking anything that might have dead-guy skin flakes in it.”
“Don’t worry. They’re all certified as hypoallergenic.”
“It’s coming back to me why I fucking hate the fucking Sub Rosa.”
When the costumed corpse that brought our drinks turns away, he bumps my shoulder, and his tray and the rest of the drinks crash to the ground. A few dozen heads turn in our direction. So, that’s what it takes to get their attention. Wasted booze. A tall, heavyset guy pushes through the crowd. He’s big, but not fat. Like maybe he was a cop or a boxer in some former life. He sticks out one hand to shake and the other goes to Lucifer’s shoulder.
“Mr. Macheath, it’s good to see you. Please forgive me for the mess. It’s so hard to get really good subnaturals now that they’re so popular.”
Lucifer shakes the guy’s hand warmly.
“It’s no problem, Simon. You should see the kind of help I have to put up with at home.”
The big man laughs. Not a big L.A. suck-up laugh, but a small relaxed one. His heartbeat isn’t even going up that much. He’s got some juice, being this relaxed around Lucifer.
“Simon, I’d like you to meet an associate of mine.” Lucifer half turns to me while keeping an eye on Simple Simon. “This is James. You probably know him as—”
“Sandman Slim,” says Simon. He puts out his hand to me. I shake it, but don’t say anything. I’m not exactly sure what kind of performance Lucifer wants from me tonight, but I’m guessing it isn’t bright and cheery.
“Be nice and say hello, James.”
“I’m really happy you could make it tonight. I’ve heard so much about you, James. Or do you prefer Sandman Slim?”
“Stark. Just Stark.”
Lucifer says, “James, this is Simon Ritchie, the head of the studio doing my little movie.”
“Have you cast him yet?”
“Cast who?” asks Ritchie.
I nod at Lucifer.
“Him. Your star. Do you have a Lucifer yet?”
“Not yet. You can probably imagine he’s a hard part to cast.”
I look at Lucifer.
“You must have a lot of actors Downtown, Mr. Macheath. How about Fatty Arbuckle? Maybe you can put him on work release for a few weeks.”
“What an interesting idea. I’m going to give it no thought whatsoever.”
Ritchie laughs and shoots me a glance, measuring me up, probably wondering if I’m really the monster he’s heard about. Ten to one he was LAPD before burrowing his way into the movie biz. He has those eyes that see everyone as guilty until proven otherwise. He wants to know if I’m for real or more Hollywood window dressing. Great. That ups the chances of something stupid happening while Lucifer is in town.
“Would you like something to eat? I can assure you that unlike the waiters, our chefs are very much alive and the best in town.”
“We’re fine, thanks,” says Lucifer. “I think we’re just going to stroll around and say hello to a few people. Care to join us?”
“I need to put out a small fire first. Our new imported starlet has gone rogue. You can’t let Czechs wander around without a minder. They’ll organize the workers and start a revolution.”
“Do you know where Jan and Koralin are?”
“In the big ballroom straight through there,” says Ritchie, pointing a couple of bridges away. “Why don’t you go in and I’ll catch up?”
“Excellent,” says Lucifer. “We’ll see you there.”
Ritchie puts his hand out to me.
“Nice meeting you, too. I’d love to pick your brain sometime about your experiences in the underworld. There might be a story in it.”
After he’s gone I say, “If he calls, I don’t really have to talk to him, do I?”
Lucifer shrugs and starts walking.
“You might as well. If you don’t, someone else will and they’ll get it all wrong. Trust me. I know about these things.”
“Think they’d make me into a toy? I’d like to be a toy.”
“Only if it talks a lot and doesn’t have an off switch.”
As we go over one of the stone bridges, I see something funny.
“Damn, I’d forgotten about that.”
“Elvis and Marilyn Monroe are talking to some drunk blonde over there. I hate that stuff.”
“Don’t be so judgmental just because it’s not your kind of fun.”
“People shouldn’t rent ghosts for their parties. Ghosts shouldn’t have better agents than live people.”
“I never pegged you for a Puritan, Jimmy.”
Errol Flynn is standing on the bridge railing, pissing into the canal. It’s just ghost piss, so it doesn’t make a sound, but he still gets a round of applause when he’s done.
“Man, these rich assholes really love dead people.”
“Do the math. Most celebrities are more valuable dead than they ever were when they were alive. Why shouldn’t they get a cut? Almost everyone important has a wild-blue-yonder contract these days. They get to keep working and it puts off the damnation that most know is waiting for them.”
I want a smoke, but I’m tired of bumming Maledictions off Lucifer. I check my pocket and find the electronic cigarette. I take a tentative puff. It isn’t nearly as horrible as I thought it would be.
“That’s the first time I ever heard you crack a joke about Hell.”
“Hell is hilarious if you’re the one in charge.”
The ballroom is like Rat Pack Las Vegas in a Hellraiser theme park. The Sub Rosas, civilians, and Lurkers are all sporting tuxes and evening gowns, but even here there are a few holdouts. Cabal Ash looks like he slept under a leaking Dumpster and he smells worse. Being repulsive is an Ash family tradition. A sign of their big-league status. And they’re not the worst clan. At least they wear clothes.
There’s a band onstage, but no one’s dancing. Dead people are okay, but I guess metal bands are too harsh for this crowd. It takes me a minute to recognize them over the noise.
“That’s Skull Valley Sheep Kill.”
Lucifer sets his empty glass on a wandering golem’s tray.
“Not the kind of band I’d expect at a party like this.”
“That’s because they were my daughter’s favorite music, not mine.”
It’s a woman’s voice, deep, melodious, and with an aristocratic German accent. Her skin is as white as a full moon and the irises of her eyes are gold.
Lucifer says, “Koralin, so lovely to see you.”
He takes her hand and she kisses both of his cheeks.
“It’s been too long, my dear,” she says.
“You’re one of the things that make coming to this silly world worthwhile.”
She laughs and means it.
“How interesting that your daughter chose tonight’s band. I think James here knew her.”
“Is this true? You knew Eleanor?”
“I don’t believe that she was using the family name at the time. What was she calling herself? Eleanor Vance?”
“Yes. It was some foolish thing from an old book.”
She looks at me.
“Did you know Eleanor?”
“No, ma’am. Mr. Macheath made a mistake. I didn’t.”
It’s true enough. I didn’t know her at all. I just put her down. Sorry, Eleanor. I’m ignoring your last request. No way I’m telling your mommy you stole whatever it was ’cause you wanted to make her mad. Not this woman. Not here.
“Is Jan around?”
“He’s helping Simon find his Prague whore.”
“They make some awfully good ones,” Lucifer says.
“Better than the French make their damned golems, I hope.”
Koralin accepts the cigarette Lucifer hands her.
“You must be the little monster I’ve heard so much about. The one who tried to burn Beverly Hills to the ground.”
“Just Rodeo Drive. And it wasn’t my fault. The other guy shot first. Sorry if I messed up any of your friends’ thousand-dollar jeans.”
“Fuck those hausfraus and their witless rent boys. I’m sorry I missed the fun. The next time you’re feeling genocidal, you must call me before acting on it.”
“It’s a date.”
I look at her gold eyes, but I can’t read them. Can’t hear her heart or get a feel for her thoughts either. Some Sub Rosa keep a kind of antihoodoo cloak over their homes. It keeps hexes and general magic mishaps to a minimum. I bet the Geistwalds have it cranked to eleven tonight. The most excitement we can hope for is Cabal getting drunk enough to pick a fight with Bruce Lee’s ghost.
“Here come the boys,” says Koralin. “And they found the little slut. I wonder how many dicks she’s sucked tonight?”
I look at Lucifer, but he’s ignoring me and the remark.
Jan Geistwald is as dark as Koralin is light. He has a dark olive complexion and a deeply lined face like someone who’s spent too much time in the desert squinting at the sun.
Ritchie has his arm around a woman’s shoulder and he’s smiling like he just won the lottery.
The woman is brunette and her dark pupils, within the bright whites of her eyes, look like bullet holes in the snow. She has the perfect bird-bone cheeks you see on French girls, but her non-plastic-surgery nose and full lips look more Italian or Greek.