“Heaven for the weather and Hell for the company.”
“Who said that?”
“Mark Twain. Or Jim Morrison. Or Stalin. One of them.”
Lucifer turns to me.
“When did you start quoting Twain?”
“It was in a fortune cookie. I’ve been saving it up.”
Lucifer stops and looks at Ritchie.
“Simon, why don’t you let me show James around. We need to discuss some work details.”
“Yeah, we do.”
“Sure. Good seeing you. Stop by and say good-bye before you take off. I still want to pick your brain about life down in the hot country.”
“Before you go, let me ask both of you something. What exactly is my job right now? Am I here all day every day you’re shooting? How is this going to work?”
Ritchie shakes his head.
“We won’t need you all the time. Mr. Macheath won’t be on set every day. Unless he wants you, you don’t need to be here the whole time. I’m sure you noticed that we’ve brought in a planeload of Chinese nyu wu witches to work special security. Mean old bitches, but they know tricks and charms older than dirt. Stuff most of the local talent has never even heard of.”
“I’m well protected here,” says Lucifer. “Mostly, I want you anytime I’m in public and not at the hotel or the lot.”
“Maybe when you’re not here, you should stay at the hotel. I mean you’re pretty much royalty. People can come to you.”
“Considering the drama after the party, I have to show my face around. I don’t want people thinking I’m Howard Hughes.”
“Okay. Just be smart about when and where.”
Ritchie checks his watch and looks around with a sour expression.
“You two have fun. I need to find someone and see if these goddamn union guys can possibly unload my fucking trucks any slower.”
Lucifer heads for the soundstage and I follow him inside. The Heaven set is pretty skeletal, but it’s still impressive. The floor is fake marble inlaid with complex star patterns. There’s a gold vaulted ceiling encrusted with jewels and subtly shifting lights. In the middle of the fake room is a throne decorated with intricate celestial, animal, and plant shapes.
I ask, “So, is this what it looks like?”
“Not in the slightest. But for the purposes of the movie, it’s uncannily accurate.”
“You trust Ritchie and his imported Golden Girls with security?”
“Simon knows what he’s doing. He’s been protecting himself and his stars for a long time. And he knows that his soul is at stake.”
I follow him as we circle the interior of the stage.
“Did he ever have to protect anyone from Drifters?”
Lucifer raises his eyebrows.
“Last night. Three of them came into the Bamboo House of Dolls. What’s worse is that one of them was Spencer Church, a guy I heard about at your party and had been asking about since. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that wasn’t a coincidence. That means that not only do we have Drifters, but someone is running them.”
“A situation like that right now could be very bad publicity. With something that extraordinary happening while I’m in town, I’ll end up being blamed for it.”
“Then hire me to go after them. Take what you’ve paid me so far, tack on a bonus, and I’ll find them and get rid of them for you.”
“You killed three of them?”
“Actually, I only took out one. A friend killed the other two.”
“Maybe I should hire your friend.”
“Ritchie wouldn’t like that.”
“It was Brigitte. Turns out the aspiring actress and porn things are her playing Clark Kent. The rest of the time, she’s a trained Drifter killer.”
“I noticed that you two were getting along well at the party. When you’re not killing zombies together, you aren’t doing something reckless and stupid, are you?”
“When have I ever done that?”
“You don’t want Simon for an enemy. He has a lot of resources at his disposal and a bad temper. There are bodies buried all over this lot and he’s responsible for more than a few of them.”
“Don’t worry. No one is running to Vegas for an Elvis wedding.”
“Be smart for once. Remember, you’re still under contract to me.”
“About that. What’s really going on? Why did you hire me for the job? Is there something I should know? Or am I still your science project, like Jesus in the desert?”
“Temptations are a bore. I only played that game with the kid and a few of the more annoying saints. Read the Book of Job. One of my jobs was to test self-righteous mortals for Father, but everyone has conveniently forgotten that.”
“That’s what the movie is going to fix.”
“Among other things. I learned early on that tempting you people was unnecessary. How does the song go? ‘I’m waiting for my man, twenty-six dollars in my hand…’ What I have is better than crack, heroin, money, or love. I don’t have to sell it. People come to me to buy.”
“What exactly is it you sell?”
“Same as Father. Hope. For a better life. A brighter future.”
“Only the back ends of your deals are pretty harsh.”
“I can make your dreams come true here and now or you can hold your breath, click your heels three times, and hope that it’s all cruise ships and finger sandwiches when you die. It’s one hundred percent your choice.”
“What about the world? What about wars and famines and AIDS? Watching a million people die is probably a Marx Brothers double feature for you.”
“‘I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.’ That’s Father talking about Himself, not me. And I never started a war except the one I lost with him.”
“That’s pretty hard to believe.”
“I’m not saying I’m an innocent, but on earth I’ve never directly instigated or fired a shot in anger.”
“So, it’s just us, then.”
As we walk down a short staircase to a lower level of the set, Lucifer bumps me with his shoulder. I miss a step and almost fall.
“What the fuck was that?”
“That’s what I do. I nudge. That’s the extent of my vast power in the affairs of mankind. I nudge. I jostle. I whisper.”
“Your nudges have a little more juice behind them than when civilians do it.”
“True. But as I said, it’s always your choice. That’s one rule I’ve never broken. In your old stories, I’m always tricking or cheating you people, but that’s something I refuse to do. Cheating you would be an admission of weakness. I would never give Father the satisfaction.”
There’s a short silence.
Lucifer asks, “When did you decide to become the loyal opposition? Conventional morality isn’t your strong suit.”
“Nothing. It’s just something someone said.”
“Let me guess. ‘Why are you working for Old Scratch?’”
“Something like that.”
“What did you say?”
“That I owe you money.”
“That’s what I’ve been talking about. You made a free choice to take a deal with me. But unlike some people, you’ve chosen to honor your debt. Did it occur to you that accepting responsibility for your actions is in itself a moral act? It certainly makes you a better man than fools like Ritchie who think they can deal and scheme their way out of anything.”
“About how many human women do you think you’ve fucked over the years?”
“That sounds like the old you. Subtle as always.”
Shit. I didn’t mean to blurt that out.
“Forget it. So, how about giving me the Drifter gig? Between Brigitte and me, we can clean up your zed and zot problem fast.”
“You shouldn’t see Brigitte again, even for work.”
“I know, but I’m going to. Give us something to pass the time. Maybe it’ll keep us from doing something reckless and stupid.”
“I’ll think about it.”
An alarm goes off outside. Not an alarm. It’s like fifty sets of truck brakes screaming as they all lock up at once. It takes me a few seconds to figure out that it’s human voices colliding in a terrifying animal wail. The old Chinese witches are screaming and running, converging at one point of the stage perimeter where they’d splashed oil and blood. The sun glares off raised knives and white banners scrawled with ancient spells.
Ritchie sprints onto the stage and right at us. A big man, he looks more like an ex-cop than ever. Without a word, he loops one arm around Lucifer’s shoulders and half drags, half pushes Lucifer to the back of the stage. I get on the other side and push them into a small office in back. Ritchie kicks over an armchair leaning against the far wall revealing a barely visible crease running up the seam between two sheets of paneling. He slams the heel of his hand on a point halfway up the wall and it pops open. Ritchie pulls Lucifer inside. I follow them and Ritchie slams the door closed.
Ritchie huffs his words, winded and bent over.
“You’ll be safe here.”
Lucifer turns in a slow circle. There are comfortable chairs. A stack of five-gallon water jugs. Packets of dried food. Two queen-size inflatable beds. A cabinet against the far wall is marked MEDICAL. I open it. The cabinet is divided into two tall vertical compartments. The left side is stocked with enough drugs and medical junk to open your own hospital. The right side is all guns. Mostly flashy action-movie hardware. HKs, Berettas, and Desert Eagle automatics. There’s a foot-high stack of ammo at the bottom of the cabinet.
I say, “Shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff,” but no one gets it.
Lucifer nods. Ritchie drops down into an office chair in front of a bank of video monitors.
“I never took you for the panic-room type, Simon.”
“You weren’t here for the riots in ’92. Hollywood looked like Dresden after the bombs. We kept waiting for the mob to get this far north, but they never made it. Lucky for us. Back then our security was a gate, a few off-duty cops, and a new sprinkler system. All we were safe from was shoplifters and people smoking in the bathroom. I swore that would never happen again.”
“Good for you,” says Lucifer. “I love a take-charge coward.”
Ritchie flips a switch on the console and all the video screens come on, giving a 360-degree view outside and inside the soundstage. The witches are on the center screen. They’re manhandling someone who looks almost human, but not quite. His arms and legs are too long. His skull is too flat. Uniformed security people push through the mob, cuff the Lurker, and perp-walk him away. The old women still yell and slap his shoulders as he goes by.
A couple of minutes later, a phone on the console chirps. Ritchie picks it up.
“Yeah? You’re sure? Take him to one of the special cells downstairs. No one gets in or out until I get there.”
He swings around in the chair and smiles at us.
“Looks like a false alarm. A Lurker maintenance worker, one of the water nixies we keep around to clean the pipes, decided he wanted a closer look at the set and crossed the old ladies’ protection circle. We’ll question him and probably let him go with a warning.”
“At least you know you’re getting your money’s worth out of the old dears,” says Lucifer.
I ask, “What’s to keep a magician or a few of your witches from marching up to the door and lobbing hexes in here?”
Ritchie shakes his head.
“The room is shielded from outside spells. We’re like a roach motel. Magic goes out, but it doesn’t come in.”
“That makes us the roaches,” says Lucifer.
“I guess so,” says Ritchie.
“At least they’re survivors.”
“Are we done in here or do we need to show a permission slip to the teacher?” I ask.
Ritchie nods to the gun on my hip.
“Slow down. Not all of us are packing as much heat as you.”
“That’s why I have it. So I don’t have to drag our boss into Fort Knox every time a pixie farts.”
“Holster your dicks, boys,” says Lucifer. “Everything went smoothly. Everyone did their jobs, and no one had to get shot. Unless you need to wing someone to feel useful.”
He looks at me. I look at Ritchie.
“I wonder how your room would hold up if a few Drifters came knocking. Is it soundproof?”
Ritchie’s eyes widen.
“Zombies? Not the ones at the party. You’ve seen zombies in the streets?”
“Less than a block off Hollywood Boulevard. It was just some shamblers, so don’t pop a cork. Mr. Macheath is hiring me to do a search-and-destroy on the whole glee club, right?”
Ritchie is staring at the monitors. Things are pretty much back to normal outside. The old ladies are laying down a new layer of oil and animal punch where the Lurker smudged their circle. The sweaty guys are back unloading the trucks and the office types who were standing around before snap right back to standing around. Ritchie shakes his head. I didn’t think the news would hit him so hard, but he’s not like my friends and used to this kind of shit.
“We haven’t had any walking dead since I was a kid. Not wandering the streets. It only lasted a few days. They were supposed to have crawled out of an old Pasadena gold mine after a quake.”