“What does ‘not wandering the streets’ mean?”
“They pop up every now and then, like any dark magic. But they’re always contained, not strolling to Whisky A Go-Go.”
“When was the last time someone used Drifters to settle an argument?”
“The last I heard about was when Regina Maab and Cabal Ash were going at each other. I don’t know about what. It sounded like it was old-world stuff. That’s maybe why it escalated so far. You know how those Europeans get. Some Cossacks stole Grandma’s beets five hundred years ago and they’re still bitching about it.”
“Where’s Regina Maab now?”
“Gone. No one’s seen her in years. Whatever the argument was about, I think Cabal won.”
“Ash is into Black Sun hoodoo. You think he’s hooked up with Drifters?”
“Not directly, but chaos magic attracts a lot of freaks. He wouldn’t be above hiring an alcoholic Deadhead who can’t pay his rent. God knows there are enough of them around.”
Lucifer is examining the drugs in Ritchie’s cabinet, pretending he’s not listening to us.
“You ready to hire me to get on this?”
He doesn’t say anything for a minute.
“I’m more interested in who shot at us when we were leaving the Geistwalds’ party. Find me something on that.”
“You’re the ones with cop connections. They do hit men. I do monsters.”
“Who says they’re not connected?”
“Hire me and we’ll find out.”
He slips a bottle of pills into his pocket and puts the rest back.
“Go talk to Cabal and then call me. I’ll decide then.”
“Fine. You want to hang here or do you want me to ride back to the hotel with you?”
“I’ll stay here for a while. You’ll find the Ash clan in the Linda Vista Hospital. You’ll love it. It’s been closed for years, but they still shoot movies and television there. You get into Cabal’s place through the big freezer in the morgue.”
“I’ll come by the hotel after I talk to him.”
“Call first. And take a shower and change your clothes before you come over. Smelling Cabal every decade or so is quite enough. And one more thing.”
“Take your new partner with you. Cabal can be difficult, but he’s an important man. Maybe your friend can keep you from shooting his place up.”
“She carries a gun, too, so I wouldn’t count on it.”
Now I’M ON two missions. Three if you break them down the long way:
Weasel information out of Cabal.
Kill Drifters, zeds, Lacunas, whatever.
Get paid. That one’s mine and it gets taken care of first.
I’m in no mood to waste time on door monkeys, so I walk through a shadow and out into the Vigil’s compound. One of the gate guards sees me and starts yammering into a talkie. I give him a friendly wave and head inside. You might be fast on the button, but don’t count on a raise this year, pal.
The warm Jell-O hoodoo barrier at the warehouse door always makes my skin crawl. For the second it takes to pass through it, it’s like you’ve been body-snatched into a German oatmeal-fetish video.
People have seen me here before, so no one bats an eye when I get in. I walk like I’m heading for an appointment in one of the offices at the other end of the building. I almost make it, too.
A gaggle of Vigil hall monitors closes in on me from all sides. They have their guns on me and they mean it, but they’re too disciplined to start blasting. Marshal Julie, the newbie from the Springheel house, is part of the posse. I walk over to her. Her heartbeat goes up, but I keep enough distance between us so she doesn’t get too twitchy and open fire.
“Good to see you, Marshal. Did they let you see any dead bodies yet or are the boys still making you bring them coffee and play junior high drinking games because tough guys think vomit is hilarious and only pussies die of alcohol poisoning?”
“Why can’t you enter a building like a normal person, Stark? It would simplify everyone’s life.”
“My life is simple and getting simpler by the minute. Did you ever wonder if they haze men as hard as they haze women around here?”
“You’re trespassing on a restricted federal site. If you want to get arrested, why don’t you go and do something interesting first?”
“I’m a paid consultant to this organization who took a shortcut inside. Mea culpa. Get Wells down here and he can put a nasty note in my personnel file.”
“You don’t have a personnel file because you’re not a person.”
It’s Wells. He’s behind me.
“You’re an entity. Not the same thing as a person by a long shot.”
“Why don’t you have your crew put their guns down? I have a business proposition for you.”
“That’s funny because I have one for you, too.”
He comes around into my field of vision and stops in front of me. He looks tired. Like he’s been pulling a lot of late nights. He motions for the G-men to lower their guns.
“We’re fine here, everyone. Go back to what you were doing.”
He glances at Marshal Julie as she holsters her gun and walks away.
“Don’t talk to my people like you know them. Especially the new ones. It confuses them. It makes them think you’re on our side.”
“I am on your side when I get paid. I’ve done every job you asked me to do.”
“So does my dog when I tell her to. She does a trick and gets a biscuit, same as you.”
“Do you take taxes and Social Security out of that? How many biscuits does it cost her a month?”
Wells walks to the edge of the warehouse. I follow him. Gray plastic storage crates marked with diamond-shaped chemical warning stickers are stacked against the wall. He sits down on one and glances at his watch.
“You said you wanted to talk to me about something.”
“Yeah. High Plains Drifters and what you want me to do about them.”
“In Los Angeles? Not possible. I’d have heard about it.”
“You’d think so. It’s funny that you don’t. I thought you had some supercharged radar that tracked us magic types. Or was that another Vigil fairy tale?”
“It’s real all right. I know where you go, who you go with, and what you do.”
“Then why don’t you know about the dead men who wandered into Bamboo House of Dolls for human sushi?”
“Never. I’d have heard and we’d be on alert.”
“I guess omnipotence isn’t what it used to be. But I can fix that for you. I’ve already killed three Drifters. Give me a contract and I’ll get the rest. There’s probably a lot of them, so I ought to get time and a half on this one.”
Wells scowls. He looks around like he’s expecting someone.
“If you killed three, then where are the bodies?”
“A friend got rid of them for me.”
“And where did this friend put them?”
“I didn’t ask. She has people who know how to dispose of people eaters.”
“It was just one other person you worked with a minute ago and now it’s people. How many people exactly?”
“I couldn’t say.”
He takes a tired breath and rubs his eyes.
“So, you let someone I don’t know call people you don’t know to haul away the remains of some of the most dangerous creatures walking the earth. And you want me to hire you to kill a whole pod. How many do you think are left? One? A dozen? Fifty? What are you going to do with those bodies? Maybe your friend’s friends can take them down to the Farmers’ Market and sell the bones to tourists. You can start a co-op. Make friendship bracelets and wind chimes and share the profits.”
“Let me ask you something, Deputy Dawg. If the Vigil isn’t onto the Drifters, what’s keeping you up nights?”
His frown goes to a smile and back to a frown.
“Things are going to change. In this town and beyond. Far beyond.”
“What? You going to raid all the Valley hipsters having ghost swinger parties? Let me know if you need to use condoms with things made of ectoplasm. I’ve always wondered about that.”
“How’s the movie business treating you? Have you gotten to hobnob with the stars? Maybe your new best friend can get you an agent and a part in his movie, then you can leave all this behind.”
“What’s the matter? Getting jealous of Lucifer? Don’t be mad, baby. You knew this wasn’t an exclusive thing. We agreed we could see other people.”
“I tried to give you the benefit of the doubt. I thought your foul mouth and your shitty attitude were part of a post-traumatic stress reaction to being back on earth. Now I have to ask myself whose side are you truly on? The light or the dark?”
“Why is it you can say ‘shit’ when you’re mad, but I get yelled at for it?”
Two of Wells’s men in black wheel in a crystal ball the size of a Volkswagen Bug on a metal dolly. The blurry outline of a demon is just visible inside the ball as it beats itself against the walls.
“Why would you work for an animal like Lucifer?”
I shake my head.
“I’ve already had this talk once today and I’m not doing it again with you.”
“I’m going to tell you something and then I’m going to ask you something. I want to listen to both things carefully, as if your future depends on them, because it does.”
“Say it, then.”
“Under the provisions of the U.S. Patriot Act, the Department of Homeland Security has declared Lucifer an unlawful foreign combatant as well as a suspect in a number of terrorist activities around the world. I have a federal warrant for his arrest. You’re going to help me serve the warrant.”
“I understand that this is a high-risk situation and I don’t expect you to do it for free. Work with me. Serve the warrant and help me arrest Lucifer. With your unique experience and abilities, I can offer you a full-time position at the highest government pay grade.”
“Does that come with dental and a company car?”
“This is a onetime offer. You can be my friend or you can be my enemy. It’s your choice.”
“Is this Aelita’s idea? If she’s that bored, hire me to find what’s left of the Kissi and bring them back. She can have fun fighting them.”
“Were you even listening? This isn’t Vigil business. It’s DHS.”
“Bullshit. In L.A. they’re the same thing.”
“Let’s say you’re right. It doesn’t alter your situation. New DHS policy says that we can no longer work with questionable outside vendors.”
“I was right. This is all Aelita.”
“Lucifer’s name is on the national terrorist watch. The classified one. You’re not yet, but you’ll be happy to know that your friend Kinski is on there, too.”
“We can’t let fallen angels run around the countryside any more than we can allow terrorists to drive around with vans full of kerosene and fertilizer.”
“When do I go on the list?”
“That all depends on whether you’re my friend or my enemy.”
“It was you who ambushed us after the party the other night, wasn’t it?”
“It wasn’t the Little Rascals.”
“For a while I thought it might be you, but then I remembered what Aelita said. That you don’t care about Lucifer. He’s past his prime.”
“Don’t try to think. It doesn’t look good on you.”
“Ever since then I’ve been trying to figure out who would be a better candidate. I was starting to think it was Ritchie, the guy who runs the studio. He hires off-duty cops to work security and has the money to throw his own Apocalypse Now ambush. But it was the simple answer all along. Serves me right for trying to be creative.”
“You still haven’t answered my question.”
“I thought you people were all about keeping the universe in balance, not handing the whole thing over to one side. This is definitely Aelita’s idea. You haven’t got the guts to think this big. So, what’s she getting out of this? A shinier halo? A transfer off this rock?”
“Answer the question.”
“I gave Aelita my answer six months ago. None of you own me. Go ahead and put me on your list.”
His lips tug up in a little smile.
“I’ve already drafted the memo. I knew you couldn’t respond reasonably to a reasonable offer. You’re just like my dog. Entirely predictable.”
“What happens now? Do you have snipers on me already? Or do the two of us go outside and have a Tombstone showdown? If you’d told me we were going to party, I’d have brought Wild Bill’s gun.”
“Nothing like that. You just walk on out of here and don’t ever walk in again. You and I will settle this in time, but right now the grown-ups have bigger fish than you to fry.”
He gets up and nods to someone, then heads back to his office. When I turn around, six of his people are spread out in a semicircle around me. No one is pointing a gun at me, but together they look like little Grim Reapers reincarnated as bouncers at a Beverly Hills yuppie bar.
“Admit it. You used canned olives in your martinis.”
Nothing. Tough room.
Maybe Wells is right and it’s time to pick a side. If I’d said yes to him, do you think any of these dour cocksuckers would have cracked even a polite smile? I’m not holding my breath. Lucifer wouldn’t have laughed either, but at least he wouldn’t be morally superior about it.