“I wouldn’t know. I had my eyes closed.”
He laughs and pours us more wine.
“I don’t blame you. They’re ugly little buggers.”
Allegra shakes her head when he offers her some.
“How can you work for him?”
“I work for him because he pays me, same as the Vigil.”
“Taking his money doesn’t bother you?”
“Does taking mine when you get paid? Some of your salary comes from what he gives me. A salary for a job you don’t even do anymore.”
“I’m no Bible-thumper, but I don’t think it’s right.”
“A little while ago you were begging me to meet him. Now, all of a sudden, you’re Cotton Mather. What is this?”
“Wanting to see him isn’t the same as working nine-to-five for someone who’s pure evil.”
“He isn’t the one who sent me to Hell. He isn’t the one who wants to destroy the world and Heaven and everything in between. That’s Mason. Lucifer has always played pretty straight with me. It’s humans I worry about. Besides, he’s had me on retainer pretty much since I got back, so I owe him.”
“Do you really think he would worry about what he owed you? You think he wouldn’t trick you so he could take your soul?”
“I don’t care what he would do. I was raised to pay my debts. Besides, I’m Pinocchio, remember? Not exactly a real boy. No one knows if nephilim even have souls.”
“That’s right, stick up for the old man, daddy’s boy.”
“What does that mean?”
“You said Lucifer helped you when you were hunting Mason and the Circle. Up till now he’s been paying you money for doing nothing but being a drunk. Now he’s here with a job he could easily get other people to do, which means it’s really an excuse for keeping you around.”
“I pulled his ass out of the fire last night and I’ve got the holes in me to prove it.”
“How many cops do you think Lucifer owns? How many politicians, soldiers, spies, and corporate billionaires just in California? And you’re the only one who can protect him?”
“You think I can’t?”
“Think about it. Your mother was a pretty, lonely woman and your father was an angel.”
Vidocq sniffs the wine in his glass and shrugs.
“Surely the possibility that Lucifer is your father has crossed your mind before.”
“A lot of things cross my mind, but I let go of the stupid ones.”
Allegra gets closer and puts her hand on my arm. I know she’s trying to be kind, but it feels like a cop about to snap on the cuffs.
“The more you’re with him, the more he’ll suck you down into his world so that you start really acting like his son, and when you do that you’ll be like him and you won’t be Stark anymore.”
“For someone who says she’s not a Bible-thumper, you’ve got a lot of opinions on the subject of the devil.”
“I don’t care about the devil. I care about you. He’s going to manipulate you and trick you and make you into something you’ll hate.”
I move my arm away from her hand and pour myself more wine.
“You’re just jealous ’cause everyone knows my daddy’s name and no one’s ever heard of yours.”
“This isn’t a joke.”
“Everything is a joke if you come at it from the right angle and that’s the angle I’m coming at this conversation.”
I swallow the wine and set down the glass.
“I spent eleven years Downtown and you think Jake the Snake is going to twist me around in the few weeks it takes to make a movie? I don’t care if he’s my father. All that means is he fucked my mom. I grew up with another guy who fucked my mom and he wanted me dead every day of my life. Hell, in the world’s greatest dad contest, Lucifer wins just for not wanting me laid out with pennies on my eyes. Like I said before, he isn’t what keeps me up at night. It’s humans I worry about.”
Vidocq steps between us and puts a hand on both our shoulders.
“Why don’t we all sit down, have some more wine, and forget this talk of devils and fathers. Neither of those subjects ever leads to anything pleasant.”
I look at Allegra. Her heart is going like crazy and her pupils are dilated. Her breathing is steady, but she’s having to work at it.
“Thanks. But I’ve got to be somewhere.”
“Please don’t go,” she says.
She puts her hand on my arm again. I pull away and go to the door.
“Thanks again for the elixir. What do I do with it?”
“Just drink it,” says Vidocq. “But mix it with something first. It tastes a bit like turpentine.”
“I’ll pick up some margarita mix and little umbrellas. Thanks.”
“Come back soon, okay?” says Allegra.
I open the door and go out into the hall. I don’t have anything to say to her, so I don’t say anything.
Of course, it’s occurred to me that Lucifer might be my father, but how do you even begin to wrap your mind around something like that? Is he the secret to my whole sorry life? Why I had so much power when I was a kid and why I never did a damn thing with it when I got older? Is it that simple? Maybe it’s why it was so easy for Mason to send me to hell. And why I get everyone I care about killed or hurt on a regular basis. The worst thing is having to admit that maybe Aelita is right. Maybe I am an Abomination. Daddy’s boy, just a chip off the old brimstone.
TEN MINUTES LATER I’m talking to Carlos at Bamboo House of Dolls. Tak Shindo’s “Bali Hai” is on the jukebox.
“On a scale of one to ten, how evil do I come off? Let’s say one is Santa baking cookies for orphans and ten is Hitler eating babies with Freddy Krueger.”
“You’re sure not Santa. But I don’t see you dipping babies in ranch dressing. To me how evil you are depends entirely on how much blood you track on my floors.”
“You don’t think I’m trying to trick you into becoming a serial killer or working for the IRS or something else horrible?”
“No. You just need to remember to wipe your feet sometime between when you kill things and when you come in here.”
“That’s good to hear. I trust you because you’re a businessman and I know you wouldn’t want Hannibal Lecter hanging around your bar.”
“What do I care? ’Cause of the business you bring in, I’m going to be able to retire early. If you have to eat a few people to make that happen, I’ll turn my back.”
“You’re a saint. You’re Mother Teresa with a happy hour.”
“I just call ’em like I see ’em. You might be crazy, but you’re just not that evil, bro.”
“Thanks. I just wanted a second opinion.”
“Want something to eat?”
“Maybe just some black beans and rice. And I’m going to need a burrito to go. Spicy enough to melt an engine block. It’s for a friend, not me, so I’ll give you cash for that.”
Carlos shakes his head.
“Don’t be stupid. You want some of the red stuff?”
“A double. I’m drinking for two today. My scars and me.”
Carlos brings the bottle and a glass and pours me two healthy shots. I take out the apothecary bottle and look through the amber glass.
“What’s that stuff?”
“Not for long.”
I upend the bottle and pour the whole thing into the Aqua Regia.
“L’Chaim,” says Carlos.
I knock it back in one gulp. My mouth, throat, and stomach are very unhappy about that. I squeeze my lips together to make sure I keep it all down.
“Worse. It’s like a dog with cancer ate a rat with leprosy and shit it down my throat.”
“I had one of those in El Paso once. You’re supposed to chase it with goat piss, but I’m fresh out.”
“That old lady is back.”
“Which old lady?”
“The one with the missing kid.”
“Yeah, that’s him. She’s over with Titus. I hope he’s not stealing all of that lady’s money.”
“He always leaves them enough to cover his drinks.”
“Seriously, I don’t like people messing with old ladies. Mi madre had cancer and gave all her Social Security money to a faith healer.”
“He gave her a homeopathic cure and she felt better. Of course, the homeopathic cure was just sweet wine with ginger and some low-grade morphine. When she ran out of money, the cure stopped coming. She went back to the regular doctor, but by then the cancer was everywhere. Let me tell you, having cancer sucks, but being broke and having cancer is the shittiest fate that can land on a human being.”
“I’m sorry, man. You want me to go over and have a word with Titus?”
“Don’t sweat it. I’m just talking out loud. I’ve got my eye on him.”
“Titus might string things out a little, but he’s good at what he does. If the ring is real and the kid’s here, he’ll find him.”
“He better get his bloodhounds barking if he wants to keep drinking here.”
Carlos goes off to serve other customers. I can see a few of them staring at me in the mirror behind the bar. It’s a good crowd tonight. No one tries to talk to me.
I drain the dregs of the dog shit cocktail and set down the glass, feeling queasy. The things we do to stay ugly. I check my hands hoping that maybe I’ll be able to see the scars grow back in front of my eyes like Lon Chaney Jr.’s hair in The Wolf Man. Nothing. I can’t live without scars. I bet if I asked nicely, someone around here would tie me to their back bumper and drag me a few blocks. I’m like a marathoner coming off an injury. Only I need to get my wind back by peeling off a few layers of skin. Is that too much to ask? Where are Mason and Aelita when you need them? They’d drag me to Alamogordo and back.
Enemies kill you with a knife in the back. Friends kill you with kindness. Either way you’re dead.
I didn’t need to stomp out on Allegra like that, but I couldn’t just stand there after she opened her mouth. There are things you think and things you say out loud and they’re very different things. You’d think someone like her, six months into hoodoo lessons, would know that. You don’t ever say “The devil is your daddy” out loud. It doesn’t matter if you and everyone else in the room are thinking it. You don’t say the words. Words are weapons. They blast big bloody holes in the world. And words are bricks. Say something out loud and it starts turning solid. Say it out loud enough and it becomes a wall you can’t get through. The last thing I need is a big brick Lucifer in my way.
What kind of kid would want Lucifer for a father? He’d give you the shittiest Christmas presents ever. On the other hand, he’d throw great Halloween parties.
Carlos comes back with the bottle.
“You want another one to wash the taste out of your mouth?”
“Just a half. Thanks.”
A woman says something to the guy on the stool next to mine.
“That pretty redhead in the Gucci blouse? She’s been looking at you the whole time I’ve been here. Why don’t you go and say hello?”
This guy looks around and gets up. The woman slides into his seat.
I know that accent. I turn and look at her.
“I wanted to tell you that you’re not an easy man to find. That I had to scour the back streets of Los Angeles to track you down. The truth is that you’re ridiculously easy to find. All of Simon’s friends know where you drink.”
“But do they know where I get my donuts?”
“I’m not sure I know exactly what those are.”
“Frosting and grease with a little cake in between. Sometimes chocolate on top. Sometimes they put in industrial waste that tastes like cherries or apples. They’re like eating sugar land mines.”
“Ah. You mean koblihy. Yes, I’m fond of them.”
“No. What you ate back home probably resembled food. You’re not in America until you’ve eaten an American donut.”
“Then I’ll have to try one. You’ll take me?”
“If you promise not to tell Ritchie’s friends. I don’t mind if they know about Carlos’s place. It’s more money for him. But a man should be able to enjoy a fritter in peace.”
“It will be our secret. Is that red wine? I’m famished. Do you mind?”
“It’s not wine.”
She sputters and spits it out. Curses in Czech.
“What awful thing is that?”
“Aqua Regia. It’s an acquired taste.”
Carlos appears with a glass of water.
“Drink this or you’re not going to have any taste buds by morning.”
“Brigitte, this is Carlos. Carlos, Brigitte.”
“Nice to meet you, Brigitte. Have we met somewhere?”
“She’s in the movies. Maybe you saw one of them. She goes by the name of Brigitte Bardo.”
He nods. Half smiles, apparently not sure what to do with his face.
Another customer flags him down for a drink.
“I think you made him blush,” I say.
“That’s sweet. I didn’t think California people could blush.”