Time for a drink. Something to loosen up and let little Stark out of the basement, where he’s been locked up playing five-card stud with Norman Bates’s mom. She cheats, of course. The dead think they can get away with anything because you’ll feel sorry for them. If you play cards with the dead, make sure you deal and don’t let them buy you drinks. They’ll slip you a formaldehyde roofie and pry the gold fillings out of your teeth.
I pour a tumbler of JD and take a long sip. Whiskey doesn’t mix well with toothpaste, but I already filled the glass, and once whiskey’s been let loose you have to deal with it, like love or a rabid dog.
There’s a crumpled bag from Donut Universe on the floor. I drink and Kasabian likes glazed chocolate with sprinkles. We’re the trailer trash that Dorothy never met in Oz.
I tear a square from the bag and fold it over and over again, trying to remember the pattern. When I’m done, I have a lopsided origami crane. I put it on the bedside table, tear another square, and start folding. It takes a couple tries, but I end up with a kind of thalidomide bunny. Now I’m on a roll and make a fish, a dog, and an elephant whose legs are too long. Like he escaped from a Dalí painting.
I set up my inbred critters around the whiskey tumbler like carousel animals and whisper a few words to them, not in Hellion, but in quiet English, like I’m trying to coax a cat out from under the bed.
My mother once told me a story she said got left out of the Bible. It’s when Jesus was a young boy. He snuck off from the fields where His family was working and Mary finds Him on a riverbank making birds out of mud. The little sculptures are lined up next to Him, drying in the sun. Mary yells at Him and tells Him to come back to work. Jesus gets up but before He goes He waves His hands over the mud birds and they come to life and fly away. A great way to let your folks know you’re not going into the family business.
The origami animals start to move. The elephant takes a step. The crane tries its wings. I lean in close and blow on them. That does it. They march and flutter around the glass like a special-ed Disney cartoon. I pick them up, set them on the floor, and point at Kasabian. They start the long Noah’s Ark march across the room.
I take another sip of my drink and see Lucifer’s stone on the table next to the money he gave me last night. Is it a seeing stone? Chewing gum? Am I supposed to start carrying around a slingshot because he knows I’m going to run into a giant who never went to Sunday school and doesn’t know how the story ends? I stare at it and the stone lifts from my hand and hovers about six inches over it. I tap it with a finger and start it spinning. Maybe Lucifer is supposed to take the stone back from me like David Carradine in Kung Fu. Or maybe he was fucking with me and it’s just a stupid rock.
“Shit. What is this?” asks Kasabian.
The animals have made it across the floor, up the table legs, and are clambering onto Kasabian’s skateboard.
“Get ’em off me!”
“Don’t move, man.”
I crook a finger and imagine a peashooter. When I flick the finger, the bunny flies off Kasabian’s deck like it stepped on an origami land mine. The fish and the dog get the same kill shots. When I try to sniper the elephant, it seems to see it coming and the shot knocks Kasabian’s beer over onto his keyboard. He kicks the bottle off the table as the elephant legs it for the window. The crane might be lumpy and not very aerodynamic, but it’s no dummy. It flutters out the window after the elephant.
“What’s wrong with you, goddamn it?” yells Kasabian.
Luckily, the beer bottle was mostly empty. I point to it.
“Come on, I’m open. Hit me!”
He doesn’t need that much encouragement. Kasabian half turns and kicks the bottle at me with six of his legs. It goes somersaulting at my head.
When it’s a foot away, I bark some Hellion and the bottle explodes into a million pieces. Okay, it wasn’t exactly shield magic, but I didn’t get hit.
“Don’t even dream of asking me to clean that glass up.”
“I’ll get the maid to do it. Come on. Boot something else. I need to practice.”
I don’t have to tell him twice. He kicks an empty DVD case, a wire-mesh penholder, and a pile of printer cartridges at me.
This time I hold back and throw a big mental marshmal-low around me. The DVD case bounces and ricochets off the ceiling. The penholder bounces and flips into the bathroom. I block two of the printer cartridges.
“My wings are like a shield of steel!”
I’m so pleased with myself that I miss the third cartridge and it hits me over the eye.
“Touchdown!” yells Kasabian.
“Damn. That hurt.”
I take another sip from my tumbler. The pains in my stomach and side aren’t getting any better, but they’re getting farther away. Like I’m looking down at them from the third floor. My cell phone rings. It rings again. Kasabian is back working on the computer. After the third ring, the phone stops. A second later, the phone at Kasabian’s desk rings. He picks it up and gives me a look.
“Yeah, he’s here. Sure it rang. He’s just being a little bitch today.”
I have a pretty good idea who’s on the other end of the call. Kasabian mostly listens and grunts every now and then.
He has Black Sunday playing on the monitor with the sound down. Some very bad men are nailing a devilish witch mask to Barbara Steele’s pretty face. I’ve seen that done for real. I’m glad this version is in black-and-white.
A couple of “okays” followed by a “yeah” and Kasabian hangs up.
“Guess who that was,” he says.
“Unless it was about me winning the lottery, I don’t care.”
“Lucifer says for you to answer your damned phone.”
“What did he want?”
“He doesn’t need you today and maybe tomorrow, too. Ritchie and some bigwigs are coming to the Chateau for a meeting.”
“Does he know them all? Does he trust them?”
“He said you’d ask that and says not to worry. He owns all their souls. They wouldn’t dare cross him.”
“Those are exactly the people who are going to cross him.”
“He says he’s got it under control.”
“I hope he has fun and only agrees to tasteful nudity.”
“You know, you’ve been drinking a lot lately, even by your standards.”
“‘There was moonshine, moonshine to quench the devil’s thirst. The law they swore they’d get him, but the devil got him first.’ Robert Mitchum wrote that for Thunder Road, the year of our Lord, 1958.”
“You’re not Robert Mitchum, this isn’t Cape Fear, and the devil is pissed at you. You might think about spacing out the Jack with, I don’t know, anything that’s not Jack.”
“You heard anything new about Mason?”
“Ever hear of a guy named Spencer Church?”
“Probably not. He’s a rich junkie who’s turned up missing.”
“There’s a first.”
“What about the Sub Rosa. The families. Are they in the Codex?”
“Everything is in the Codex.”
“Except what I want.”
“Try asking the right questions.”
“It’s my fault, then. You’re not holding out on me.”
Kasabian ignores me and watches his movie.
“What does it say about the families?”
“It’s boring. It’s mostly histories. Family trees. Who begat who. There’s one fun fact to know and tell. Whenever a lot of families are in the same geographic area, each family specializes in a different kind of magic. It’s like a franchise. Supposed to keep down the hillbilly feuds.”
“The Springheels were blue bloods, so I suppose they’d have first dibs. What kind did they do?”
“Past-tense blue bloods. They didn’t have much by the end. I don’t know what magic they started out with, but even at the end they were pretty respected charm makers. Amulets. Talismans. Protective runes.”
“What about the Geistwalds?”
“Scryers. Fortune-tellers. If you ask me, the whole so-called art is a joke. I’ve met maybe two or three scryers with enough nickels in their pockets to make a quarter. The others I’d second deal at poker and take all their money. They couldn’t even see me cheating. What kind of seer is that? The whole so-called art is for rubes.”
“The Geistwalds look like they’re doing all right. Their house is about the size of the San Fernando Valley. Someone said they advise studios on what movies to make.”
“Still sounds like a gaff.”
“What does it say about the Ashes? Cabal and his sister.”
“Another old family. They pulled something shady back in the old country, took off, and ended up here. No one’s sure if Cosima, the chick, is Cabal’s sister or his wife. Hell, they probably don’t even remember anymore, which makes it even worse if you’ve ever seen them.”
“My condolences. The Ashes are into the Black Sun. Chaos magic. Technically, it’s about controlling elementals to bring you luck and your enemies bad luck. It’s power yoga for the ruling class. Tycoons and politicos love it. It’s sketchy, but no one’s getting attacked, so it’s all legal. Everyone knows the Ashes keep the big-money stuff off the books. Revenge. Banishments. Maybe even vaporware.”
“They’re soul merchants?”
“Soul trading is bigger than hookers and drugs combined in L.A. So many people have lost theirs or the one they have is so rotten they need a transfusion.”
“Think they’d murder someone for a particular soul?”
“Working with elementals means they’d probably have hotshot demons on their Christmas-card list.”
“Along with their T-shirt size and favorite Beatle.”
“They ever been caught playing rough, demonwise?”
“The Inquisition has made some moves, but never found enough to do more than fine them. The Ashes are one of the oldest families in the world. They know how to cover their tracks.”
“Unless they don’t want to cover their tracks. Unless they want to make an example of someone.”
“What do you mean?”
I mentally walk through the Springheel house, from where Marshal Julie was pulling doorman duty to Santa Muerte standing guard over bones and gristle, to the broken magic circle that was really a hexagon drawn to call dark forces. One dark force. The eater. Did Cabal and Cosima know that Enoch Springheel was a Bone Daddy and sent him something special delivery? But why bother? From what everyone is saying, the Springheels were about as low as you could get and still have indoor plumbing. If you wanted to off somebody to make a point, why not go for the Geistwalds? But the Ashes are too smart for that. And if they just wanted to have fun, they’d go for civilian rubes, not another Sub Rosa. Still, there is a dead guy and the demon that ate him.
I don’t even know why I care. I didn’t know the guy. I don’t know any of these people. But I don’t like being lied to, especially if being lied to gets me shot. Springheel gets eaten. Lucifer gets bushwhacked. Another Sub Rosa named Spencer Church is missing. Carlos lost his pal, Toadvine, and that woman at Bamboo House is missing a kid. Probably none of this has anything to do with me, but as long as Lucifer means to drag me along into the Sub Rosa’s billion-dollar outhouse, I know there’s a gun pointed at the back of my head.
“Give me the Walter Cronkite on Hell. What’s the weather like down there?”
Kasabian turns from the movie and looks at me. He sighs.
“There’s nothing to tell. It’s the usual mess. Guys stabbing guys. Women stabbing guys who just stabbed guys. It’s rerun season down there. Nothing new.”
“The other night I was walking around East L.A. and for a second I thought I saw Mason.”
“You didn’t. That’s impossible.”
“Then he’s down there. You’ve seen it.”
“I don’t have to see it. I know.”
“I just know.”
“That’s not good enough. I need to know what’s happening. Lucifer is here for a reason and it’s not to make a damned movie.”
“Can’t help you. Speaking of movies, shut up. The two traveling doctors are about to open Barbara Steele’s coffin and bring her back to life.”
When you make a threat, make it big. When you make it big, make sure you’re prepared to go all in if someone calls you on it.
I go to the table and hit the power switch on Kasabian’s monitor.
“Hey, I’m watching that.”
I grab Kasabian and his deck under one arm, pull open the door, and carry him downstairs.
He stage-whispers, “Put me down! Take me back!”
I carry Kasabian straight out the back door to the alley. If any customers caught a glimpse of a head on a deck, they would just think I was throwing away a mannequin or an old movie promotion.
Kasabian is pretty discreet considering his situation. He doesn’t start screaming until I close the back door.
“What the fuck are you doing, man? Take me back inside.”
“It’s time for you to leave the nest, Tweety Bird. The world is your oyster. I saw a ‘Help Wanted’ sign at Donut Universe. With your managerial skills, you’ll be running the place by the end of the week. Vaya con Dios, Alfredo Garcia.”