Just as I’m about to step out of the circle, it tightens. Pins me where I am. I can’t even raise my arm to shoot.
Then the mob relaxes. The magic in the center of the room is gone and they have no reason to crowd there anymore. I break free of them and head for a wall. It’s taken me longer to get out than I counted on. Plenty of time for even these rotten brains to figure out that something is going on and look around for what. I have a bad feeling that if I turn around, a hundred pairs of dead eyes will be aimed straight at me and what’s in my pocket.
“Who the fuck are you, motherfucker?”
I know it’s stupid, but I can’t help it. I turn and look.
So that’s what a Lacuna looks like. Cabal was right. I wouldn’t notice him in a crowd. He’s in a double-breasted gray suit, and if it wasn’t for all the dried blood on his jacket from the ragged bite mark in his neck, I wouldn’t look at him twice. He’s looking at me like a starving wolf. Like he’s trying to read the theater marquee through my chest. Blank-eyed shamblers behind him are turning this way.
“I said, ‘Who the fuck are you?’”
I take a step back and hold the lighter so he can see my face.
“You can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man.”
He rushes and the mob follows; a tsunami of black, broken teeth and putrid meat crashes down on me.
But chatty and bright as the Lacuna is, he’s still a dumb, dead piece of shit. When he rushes me, my back is already to the wall and I’m stepping through it. He’s not going to make it in time. He’s going to be the smartest deli slice in the slaughterhouse when those other hundred Drifters splatter him against the wall like a car crusher. Good thing he’s dead or it might hurt.
RITCHIE’S PLACE IS in Laurel Canyon. Back in the sixties, rich hippies, movie moguls, and famous bands lived up here. Between the dope, their biker friends, the Manson wannabes, and all the free love that was never really free, the place turned into The Killing Fields with a Jefferson Airplane sound track. Don’t you want somebody to love? They were Khmer Rouge in designer jeans, and when the dope and the money ran out the canyons and deserts bloomed over the bodies they buried there.
I drive up the winding road to the address Brigitte gave me. I’m in a stolen Lexus because I want to be boring tonight. And I don’t want to take Brigitte back through the Room if I can help it. Eventually she’s going to ask questions I don’t want to answer.
It’s about 2 A.M. when I stop in front of Ritchie’s gates. I can see the house at the end of a long circular drive. It looks like a claw machine in an arcade plucked an Italian villa off a hill in Rome and dropped it down in the middle of the manzanita and coyotes. The place is pretty, but looks ridiculous here. Like something you’d build to win a bar bet.
Brigitte is waiting for me in the shadow of a eucalyptus. She’s holding her leather jacket tight around her to keep out the canyon cold. She should have something heavier, but when you’re sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night like a teenybopper running off for backseat groping with your boyfriend, you can’t exactly take the time to squeeze into Lancelot’s armor.
She gives me a quick kiss when she gets in and immediately starts playing with the car heater.
“How does this work?”
“I have no idea. How is Ritchie not going to notice you’re gone?”
“I put a powder in his drink. An old family mix and not at all harmful. He’d probably approve if he knew. It’s all organic.”
I take her down the hill the way we came, then head for Springheel’s place. The heater is going and she starts to relax. She opens the glove compartment and pulls out the contents into her lap, like a kid going through her Halloween candy. I spot a pack of cigarettes.
“Take them. I quit before coming to L.A. Rich men like their girls pure inside and out.”
“Darlin’, purity has nothing to do with why Ritchie went for you.”
“You know what I mean. Trophy girlfriends have to make you look good in front of your friends. Here that means no smoking. The next place I go hunting, it will be somewhere like France or Japan. Somewhere they don’t believe they’ll live forever if they give up everything that gives them pleasure.”
“Speaking of you hunting, I still don’t know much of anything about you. You’re like Van Helsing in drag, but you have a whole public life on video. How does your life go that way?”
“What don’t you understand? The revenants or the pornography?”
“I understand the porn. Lots of Sub Rosa and Lurkers do it out here. But I’ve never met a professional Drifter exterminator before. How does that end up the family business?”
“The Hussites ate my grandmother.”
“That was going to be my second guess. What are Hussites?”
“Protestants. They were angry over corruption in the Church and the Church rewarded them by burning their leader, Jan Hus, at the stake. My village didn’t care. They were all fools to us. But the Hussites and the government went to war, and monsters, which love nothing more than chaos, came with them. One evening, a Hussite band came to our village. They took as much food as they could carry and some goats and left. We cursed them, but would have saved our curses if we had known what was to follow. More soldiers came, but these were different. They were ragged and stank of death. Some were little more than bones and none of them spoke. Grandmother was a čarodějnice. A witch. She and the other old women, with nuns from a local convent, went together to drive off the ghost soldiers. They carried Bibles and my grandmother and the old women carried potions and magical objects. None of them ever returned.”
“Two days later, a few of the women and the nuns returned, including Grandmother. But it was not really her. She was nude. The flesh from her breasts, her belly, and her legs had been eaten away. Most of her face was gone, but Grandfather recognized her and went to her. She gouged out his eyes and devoured him in the main room of our little house, under the crucifix her mother had given them at their wedding.”
“You didn’t have to kill them yourself, did you?”
“This happened six hundred years ago, so no, I didn’t, but we still remember.”
“So your people decided to go after the ghost soldiers.”
“The bravest, boldest men went after them that night. They all were eaten or turned into revenants themselves. Other men were able to capture a few of the beasts and, over time, we learned how to destroy them. After that, my family were no longer farmers. We were killers. Like you. And like you, we do whatever we have to do to live and continue our work.”
“You don’t have to justify anything to me.”
“I know. That’s why I’ll tell you this. Normal people, Simon’s sort of people, wouldn’t understand.”
“You definitely win the deep-dark-secrets competition. I never hid anything that good.”
“What about your magic? You must have kept that secret.”
“I didn’t know any better when I was a kid, and by the time I figured it out, it was too late.”
“Poor Jimmy. Full of magic and happy to use it. Doomed to beat the boys at all their games and do tricks for the girls to make them kiss you.”
“I didn’t have a car. I had to do something.”
“I’ll light a candle for you.”
“Don’t waste the wax. They don’t take my calls anymore.”
I get Brigitte to hold the wheel while I tap out a cigarette, light up, and take a big puff. Instantly, I’m Doc Holliday trying to cough up a lung.
“God. They’re menthols.”
I toss the rest of the pack, including the one I’m smoking, out the window. I’m doing the Lexus owner a favor ditching those nerve-gas sticks. He’ll whine when he realizes they’re gone, but sometimes tough love is the only answer.
The street across from the vacant lot on East Sixth is empty. I kill the engine and the lights and we sit for a minute watching the place. In the moonlight the Springheels’ hovel looks like a cardboard cutout left out in the rain. I don’t see anyone standing guard.
Brigitte leans across me and looks out the window.
“That’s the house of an important family?”
“The most important once upon a time.”
“I think you Sub Rosa have a different sense of beauty than other people.”
“You get used to it. Like herpes or a missing leg.”
“I want to see inside.”
“Not yet. I need to do something first.”
I grab a bag from the backseat, get out of the Lexus, and go around to the passenger side. Brigitte watches as I dump a pile of powders, plants, and the piece of lead I use for certain kinds of circles.
“Lovely. I get to see magic?”
“You get to see magic. I hope these ingredients are still good. They’re Kasabian’s. My roomie’s. He hasn’t done this kind of hoodoo in a long time.”
“What kind does he do?”
“He shits out of his neck.”
“I’ll explain later.”
There’s a mortar and pestle in the bag. I pass them to Brigitte along with a bag of ingredients.
“Take these leaves and seeds and grind them up into a powder. I need to go be da Vinci.”
I take the lead and draw a circle in the car’s shadow so it will be hard to see if someone wanders by. The image isn’t complicated. A pentagram facing north inside a double circle. Outside the circle I scribble words in Latin, Hebrew, and Hellion. Not a spell. More a friendly “hi and thanks for stopping by” kind of stuff. It’s pretty random, but better hoodoo than it sounds. If you think it’s easy saying anything in Hellion that doesn’t come off as a veiled threat, you’d be wrong. I suck at milk-and-cookies magic, but I need to attract as much wildlife as possible without blowing it up.
“Your powder is ready. What kind of magic are we doing?”
“The Vigil will have left an alarm on the house. Probably angelic, and those detect conscious life. That’s animals, insects, and us. Anything can go inside or be magically controlled to go inside. We can’t turn the alarm off, but we can give it a migraine.”
The powder goes into the center of the circle and I lean over it to whisper some bits of greeting magic I sort of halfway remember. Brigitte is smiling, trying not to laugh. I look like I’m whispering sweet nothings to a pile of dirt, not exactly the two-fisted hoodoo she was counting on.
When I get tired of cooing to the pavement, I dump powdered sulfur onto the pile and mix it all together with my hands. Get out Mason’s lighter, spark it, and throw the mess up into the air as hard as I can. I touch the flame to the tail end of the cloud and the sulfur catches, igniting a twenty-foot pillar of fire.
The fire is gone as quickly as it came, but by the time the last powder embers hit the ground, I can already hear what I was hoping for.
Around us and above us there’s a rustling sound. The birds arrive first, settling into the vacant lot by the house, chirping, cawing, and pecking at the ground. Rats and mice swarm out of the sewers and warehouses, followed by insects. The crawlers cover the ground like a massive undulating carpet and the fliers drop from the sky like a black, glittering fist. Cats and dogs, the smartest animals of the bunch, so the hardest to convince, get there last. They head right for the house, circle it, mark the boards, and climb onto the roof. The birds and insects finally get the idea and head in that direction. As soon as they’re moving, I grab Brigitte’s hand and we start to run. The animals know we’re coming. Yeah, they’re dumb, but this is hoodoo and it would be a pretty shit spell if you ended up crushing all the wildlife you’d just called.
The bugs and mice and rats part like the Red Sea and Brigitte and I run through the field to the house. By the time we’re there, the walls and roof are a solid mass of feathers, fur, and shiny carapaces. There’s no way the alarm can read and separate this much life at once. I pull out the na’at as we go up the steps and slash the lock. The door swings open on its own. It’s dark inside. Brigitte gets out her flashlight. I take her back to the kitchen and out through the missing porch. She gasps when she finds herself in the Springheels’ sprawling California ranch house.
“This is beautiful.”
“If you’re Ronald Reagan, I guess.”
“The idea of it, I mean. The beauty hidden within the rot.”
“Sure. That’s what I meant, too.”
I find the lights as Brigitte wanders around the living room touching the furniture, then going to the big windows that open out over the desert.
“I’d like to see the desert.”
“It’s not hard to get to from L.A. Maybe I’ll show you sometime.”
There’s a big side table against the wall across from the windows. I go through all the drawers. I’m not looking for clues. I’m looking for the half pack of stale Marlboro Lights I find in the middle drawer. I take a long sniff and I’m in love.
“Junkie,” says Brigitte.
“I’m not addicted. I just want to be able to inject these directly into my brain.”
“We didn’t come to the house so you can loot it, did we?”
“No. I did a demon reading where Springheel died. I just want to make sure I was right.”
“Why wouldn’t you be?”
“It was crowded and noisy. Good distractions if you want to keep someone from finding something.”
“Why would you be invited and asked to examine something if you weren’t supposed to find the truth?”