“Hey, Speedy Gonzales. You like chasing things? Why don’t I knock your head across the street and you can chase that?”
“Get him, Nellie. Look at that scarred piece of shit. He’s too ugly to drink. Waste that faggot.”
It’s one of the boys talking. The one who got me with the chunk of wood. He has a southern accent. Somewhere deep, old, and hot. You can almost hear the kudzu wrapped around his words.
Eleanor says, “Shut up, Jed Clampett. Jethro is waiting for you to blow him in the parking lot.”
Everyone laughs but Jed.
While Eleanor does an “Evening at the Improv” thing for her dead friends, I do a Hellion chant over and over, keeping my hand in the glass and letting the blood flow. For once, Hellion’s guttural grunts work in my favor. The Lost Boys think I’m moaning.
“Why were you following me, asshole? Did Mutti send you? Mom, I mean? Does Daddy know? All she has to do is put on her knee pads and she can get him to do anything.”
The wind starts as a breeze from the back of the theater, sweeping from the balcony and ripping down the rotten curtains that flank the dead movie screen. Eleanor drops the comedy act and the others go silent as the wind picks up force. Now they’re the ones unsteady on their feet.
Even though I can’t read the dead like the living, vampires still have minds and I feel around for Eleanor’s. I can’t tell you her lottery numbers or her kitten’s name, but I can pick up images and impressions. She’s gone from pissed to nervous and is steering into the skid, heading for scared. She hasn’t been a Lurker long enough to run into anybody with real hoodoo power and she can’t figure out what’s happening.
Mommy is in her head, too, a black hole of anger and fear. Eleanor might even have gotten herself bit just to spite her. She has a secret, too. She thought it would save her in the end, but now she’s having her doubts.
A gust blasts down the aisle like an invisible fist, knocking all five of them ass over horseshoes into the air. Eleanor loses the two-by-four and lands on top of me. I can smell the fear through her burned skin. The wind keeps going, moving up from Hurricane Katrina to space shuttle exhaust.
With all her strength, Eleanor pushes herself off of me.
“It’s him! He’s doing it!” she yells. “What do we do?”
Jed Clampett hauls his ass up off the floor and pulls himself to me using seat backs like crutches. I’ve changed the chant, but he hasn’t noticed yet.
The wind shifts from a wind tunnel to a swirling twister. I haul myself to my knees and shrug off my leather jacket. The twister rips the carpet from the floor, throwing a junk-yardful of broken glass into the air. The shards circle us like a million glittering razor blades, which doesn’t do much more than annoy Eleanor and her friends. They bat the glass away like flies. Each of their hundred cuts heals before the second hundred happen. But I’m getting cut, too. In a few seconds I’m the fountain in front of the Bellagio Hotel and all that broken glass is doing a water ballet in my blood.
The swirling air turns pink as I bleed out, which Jed and his girlfriend think is goddamn hysterical. They stick out their tongues and catch drops of my blood like kids catching snowflakes. About ten seconds later they’re both screaming and tearing open their throats with their fingernails. Then the other three start to feel it. They try to run, but the wind and glass are everywhere. It’s one big Veg-O-Matic in here, spraying my tainted blood down their throats and onto their million wounds.
Eleanor already looks like a Chicken McNugget, so it’s hard to tell what’s going on with her, but the others are starting to sizzle and glow from the inside like they swallowed road flares on a bet and lost. That’s what happens to vampires dumb enough to drink angel blood.
It doesn’t take long for them to go catatonic, then flare fast and hot. Human flash paper. They sizzle for a few seconds and cook down to a fine gray ash. I growl the end of the hex and the air grows still. The vampires are all dead, except for Eleanor. She hunkered down and held on to me during the twister. My body blocked enough of the wind for her to survive, but just barely. She moves her cracked lips like she’s trying to talk. I lean my ear close to her.
“When you see Mutti, tell her I’m sorry. I only did what I did to scare her like she scares me and Daddy sometimes.”
When you’re hired to kill someone, the last thing you want is to have to give them absolution. You want them dead fast, not lying there asking you to be their therapist. Worse, you don’t want to hear anything that might make you feel sorry for them. I don’t want Eleanor’s mommy trauma in my head. She’s a monster just like me, but I want her to be a dead monster like her friends. She lets go of my leg and gives me a Say Good Night, Gracie sigh. A couple of minutes ago, I wanted to stick her on a spit and toast marsh-mallows on her while she burned. Now I cover her eyes with my hand and get out the black knife.
I jam the blade between her ribs. One clean, surgical, pain-free thrust up into her heart. Eleanor stiffens, flares, and ashes out. The dead girl is finally dead.
I look around, making a quick mental map of the bodies and checking that we’re still alone. I can hear voices outside. Now that the wind has died down, some curious civilian is going to stick a nose in here soon. I have to work fast.
Eleanor’s clothes are pretty much gone, but I give her a quick pat-down. She’s wearing a gold locket that’s half-melted into her blackened chest. A couple of rhinestone rings have fallen off her fingers, so I grab those. No money in her pockets, but there’s a flat metal thing, about the size of a rodeo belt buckle. One side is blank. There’s a snarling demon encircled by a spooky monster alphabet on the other. Junk. Goth bling. That’s the other problem with baby Lugosis. Eleanor’s friends were brainless street kids and she wasn’t a vampire long enough for any educated bloodsuckers to clue her in to what she really was. Death in go-go boots. A V-8 devil doll who could explode like a cruise missile and bite like an armor-piercing shark. Silly, stupid kid. Maybe if she hadn’t pissed off whoever it was that got the Golden Vigil to call in the hit, she would have had enough time to figure that out.
Good night, Eleanor. I’m sure Mutti forgives you and maybe even misses you. As long as she never finds what you’ve been up to these last few weeks. She sure won’t find it out from me.
I give the ghoul belt buckle one more look. It’s heavy like metal, but the edges are chipped like an old china saucer. The dumbest fence in L.A. wouldn’t give me a dime for it. I toss it into the dark with the other trash and get to work on Eleanor’s friends, going through their pockets, bags, and backpacks. These aren’t Beverly Hills Lurkers, just a bunch of downtown scroungers, so I’m not exactly coming up with the crown jewels. Still, it’s tourist season, so there’s about three hundred in cash that didn’t burn up when they ashed out. Some joints, movie ticket stubs, car keys, condoms, and Eleanor’s play jewels. I toss everything but the jewelry and the cash. Looting the dead might seem harsh, but they don’t need the stuff anymore and the Vigil doesn’t pay overtime. Besides, killing monsters is my day job. The way I look at it, me stealing from the dead is like regular people pocketing Post-its on their way out of the office.
I go out into the sun and take a breath to clear the greasy flesh smoke and ashed bodies out of my lungs. I sit on my haunches, head down, my back against the broken theater door, just breathing. My face and chest are covered in darkening bruises and enough blood that it looks like I’ve been sumo wrestling in a barbwire kimono. My burned arm, the one Eleanor got back at the garage, is starting to flake black skin. When I look up, a dozen faces are locked on me, mostly old Mexican women holding T-shirts and pink-and-orange flip-flops.
I stand and the women take a step back like maybe they’re doing Swan Lake. There’s a knockoff Evil Dead T-shirt on a hanger at the end of the nearest rack. I take it. The woman by the market cash register is holding an unopened bottle of water. I take that, too, and give her twenty dollars from the cash I took off the shroud eaters.
“Gracias,” I say.
She nods at me nervously, a big “please get the hell out of here before my brain explodes” smile plastered on her face. I take off my bloody shirt, drop it into the trash can by her register, and slip on the new shirt. I kill the water in three big gulps before walking back into the theater.
In the dark, Mason’s lighter sparks on the first try and I hear sirens just as the cigarette begins to glow.
The woman from behind the counter leans her head in the door.
She points out at the street.
“Thanks. I heard.”
She shoos me away with her hands.
“Just go. No trouble here.”
“Plenty of trouble here,” I tell her, pointing into the theater, where I left the bodies.
“Los vampiros? No trouble. Only bother turistas and pendejos.”
So, they knew about the pod. L.A. is a get-along kind of town. The ladies work the day shift and los vampiros work the night. As long as they don’t shoplift flip-flops, the undead are probably pretty decent neighbors. The muggers and dealers will learn to stay away. Hell, as long as you wear a muffler 24/7, this might be one of the safer streets in L.A.
The woman standing in the door turns to someone outside. I can hear them talking, but I don’t really listen. The cop’s voice is loud and clear and I know what he’s asking. I take my phone out of my pocket, go to Eleanor’s body, and snap a proof-of-death shot. When I get back to the lobby the cop is coming in, his hand on his Glock. He goes for it when he sees me. He’s pretty smooth, but his body is all wrong for this game. He’s been exercising for bulk at the gym, all showy slow twitch muscles, going for a Terminator look. He can probably throw a mean choke hold, but I bet even the old ladies outside could outdraw him. I flick my cigarette and it bounces off his chest before he has the gun belly-button-high.
He screams “Freeze!”, but I’m already slipping into a shadow.
GETTING IN TO see Wells is always a merry little dance. At the gate, the guys in suits go through an elaborate security and ID check. They scan my photo and fingerprints. Scrape cells off the back of my hand for quickie DNA profiling and species confirmation. Then they have to call inside for verification because maybe there’s another guy who shows up at their gate from out of a shadow.
There are two agents on the gate today. One is the usual fresh-faced new guy that always pulls door duty and the other is a Shut Eye. A salaryman psychic. This one is young, almost as young as the guard. He’s ambitious, too. I can feel him sizing me up. Most people don’t like having their minds read. It doesn’t bother me.
When I was a kid, I once took a sharp piece of wood from the backyard and smacked one of our neighbors’ Dobermans with it. The dog chased me all the way to the end of the block, and when he was done, I had bruises and bloody teeth marks all down my left calf. My father was in the driveway, working on my mom’s old Impala, and saw the whole thing. When I asked why he didn’t stop the dog from biting me, he said, “’Cause you deserved it.”
“What’s that line from The Maltese Falcon?”
“Excuse me?” asks the guard. His name tag reads Huston.
“Bogart says it. ‘The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.’ You ever think about that when you’re patting people down?”
“We’re just doing our jobs, sir.”
“Trust me, I know. I’ve been coming here about every week for six months. You’re doing a really thorough job of looking at my fingerprints for the four-hundredth time and talking to the same guy inside you always talk to, the one who always gives you the same answer. I mean, I always get invited in, right?”
“We have to establish your identity, sir. It’s procedure.”
“You know who I am. Or do a lot people show up here covered in blood and goofer dust?”
That last bit sets off the Shut Eye. An unsubstantiated claim of identity. Catnip to psychic snoops. I can feel it when they’re slipping their ghost fingers into my skull. It tickles behind my eyes.
There are two basic ways to deal with a peeper. You can back off and go blank. Name all the presidents or run through multiplication tables.
The other way to deal with psychics is to welcome them in. Throw open all the doors and windows and invite them deep inside your mind. Then grab them by the throat and drag them straight down to Hell. Well, that’s what I do. It’s not mandatory. The point is that once you’ve led them deep enough into your psyche, you’re the one behind the wheel and they’re strapped in the kiddy seat in back.
I give them the grand tour of Downtown, starting out with a quick jolt of the early days in Hell when it was all nausea and panic. Give them a quick taste of psychic rape. Experiments and Elephant Man exhibitions. Being the fox in a mounted hunt through forests of flayed, burning souls. Then some highlights from the arena. Killing, eleven years of killing. I let them see exactly what being Sandman Slim is all about. Most of them don’t get that far.
This Shut Eye doesn’t make it past my first week Downtown, when a drunk Hellion guard slit me open and tried to pull out my intestines because he’d heard that’s where humans hid their souls. But I don’t let the Shut Eye off that easy. I hold him inside long enough to feel me running away from the neighbor’s dog and getting my leg chewed up.
When I let go, Criswell flies out of my head like a goose through a jet engine. He gasps and is on the verge of tears when the connection finally breaks.
Huston grabs him by the shoulder.