I GET UP a few minutes before nine and walk through a shadow to come out in a corner of the Grand Central Market. I haven’t seen the place since that day with Eleanor. It looks a lot nicer when it’s not on fire.
I buy a Styrofoam cooler and dry ice at the liquor store where Eleanor torched herself. I have to stop at three different butcher stalls to make sure I have enough pig guts to bribe Johnny. At a Filipino market near the Hill Street entrance, I pick up pork blood to fill out the feast.
Of course, if I’d felt this way earlier and hadn’t fucked up in just the right way so I landed exactly where I was at exactly the right time and place, I might never have met Alice. Without that, why would I be doing anything at all?
I pick up a couple of pound bags of jelly beans and step into another shadow.
And out into Allegra and Vidocq’s living room.
They’re sitting around the kitchen counter drinking coffee. Allegra is dressed, but there’s something wrong with her proportions.
“Did you gain twenty pounds since I’ve been gone?”
“Ask him,” she says, and nods at Vidocq.
“I simply want her to be well padded if your friend should try to make a snack of her.”
“I’m wearing like three shirts, a sweater, and a coat.”
I look at the Frenchman.
“You couldn’t have just sprinkled her with holy water or shark repellent or whatever it is that scares off Drifters?”
“I did that, too. But spells can be broken. Potions counteracted. I would rather she didn’t look so pretty for a while if it means she comes home.”
Allegra smiles and leans across the counter to kiss him on the cheek.
“In the bedroom for now, until I can find a safe and more permanent place for her.”
“None are necessary.”
“I’d invite you along, but it’s dicey enough bringing one more person. I don’t think this guy’s handlers would go for two.”
Vidocq waves off the comment.
“I should stay and watch your Sleeping Beauty anyway. And, as my dear has explained to me several times this morning, she needs to see and experience the kinds of things that I have experienced to become the alchemist she will someday be.”
“Good answer,” says Allegra.
“Are you ready to go?” I ask.
She stands and pats a nylon bike-messenger bag slung across her shoulder.
“Got the scope right here.”
I hand her the bags of jelly beans.
“What are these for?”
“What’s in the cooler?”
“You’ll see soon enough. Then you’ll be sorry you asked.”
She goes around the counter and gives Vidocq a real kiss. He looks at me.
“You will look after her the way you would Alice, correct?”
“I won’t let anything happen to her.”
“And you yourself. You’re feeling all right?”
“I’m fine. You were right. The Cupbearer elixir is keeping me from changing one little bit.”
Allegra takes my arm. We step through a shadow on the wall and out onto Hollywood Boulevard.
MCQUEEN AND SONS Bail Bonds is at the end of the block next to a used medical supply store. Prosthetic arms and legs are hung from a cord and propped up in the window like today’s specials in the world’s worst butcher shop.
A couple of LAPD cars blast by, lights flashing. Are they heading to grab some gangbangers or to check out the first reports of strange cannibal killings?
The bail bond office is a clone of all the dismal DMV offices and bus stations in the world. It’s a wide single room with fluorescent lights and a white tile floor. Dented metal desks piled with papers that the last people who used the desk never bothered to file. There are message boards around the room covered in flyers for classes, cheap moving, and drug counselors who just have 800 numbers and a Web site. Everything else is calendars and wanted posters. If you shot time in the gut, this is where it would crawl off to die.
It looks like the place just opened. Someone in a white button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up sits at a desk at the far end of the room talking on the phone.
“Get him to give you the money or take his car, Billy. I know it’s not legal, but so the hell what?”
I recognize the voice of the woman I talked to early this morning.
“The way to keep a parolee’s attention is to threaten to call his PO or to show him that his testicles are soccer balls and you’re David Beckham. Beckham. He’s a Brit who kicks the holy hell out of things for a billion dollars a year. Look, just get the money he owes or don’t bother coming back to the office.”
She’s wearing a white shirt, black Dickies, and a black tie she might have stolen off Joe Friday’s corpse. Her upper body and shoulders are wide, like someone taught her to box when she was pretty young. She doesn’t like us strangers in her office. She doesn’t like anyone who isn’t ready to turn over the title to their car or the deed to their house.
I use the cooler to push some papers out of the way and set it on her desk. Now she really likes me.
“You must be McQueen, but I don’t see any sons.”
She looks at me steadily.
“McQueen was my dad and he’s dead. And there aren’t any sons. Daddy was an optimist, but all he got was me.”
“I know the feeling.”
“I didn’t say you could put that there,” she says, pointing a pen at the cooler. “It’ll leave a ring.”
“Then we should get going.”
She cranes her head around to look at Allegra, who’s hanging a step behind me.
“I invited Bert. I don’t remember inviting Ernie, too.”
“She’s my technical adviser. I don’t know you and I don’t know your Drifter boyfriend. She’s here to confirm that he’s what you and Cabal say he is.”
“Cabal sent you. No wonder my ass started burning the moment you walked in. That guy is one big rectal itch and so are his friends. Why should I let you see Johnny?”
“Haven’t you heard? I’m Clark Kent and I’m here to save the world.”
“It’s not my job to take care of the world. I take care of Johnny.”
“Introduce me and maybe I can help with that.”
“We don’t need your help.”
The office is still the abandon-all-hope bunker I saw when I came in, but to my new angelic vision, it’s an X-ray of shimmering, vibrating molecules. Everything is made of the same microscopic particles and they’re almost weightless.
I turn and hand Allegra the cooler, turn back to McQueen and Sons, hook two fingers under the rim of the desk, and flip it into the air. It goes high enough to graze the ceiling tiles and lands upside down with a deep hollow metal thunk. A snow of bail forms follows it to the ground.
McQueen and Sons looks at me from her desk chair.
“I guess you really are the guy they said would be coming.”
“The rectal itch.”
I nod and take the cooler back from Allegra.
McQueen says, “Sorry about the attitude, but you’re not the first person to walk in here claiming he was Saint George, the angel Gabriel, or the devil himself and start asking questions.”
“I thought Johnny was a secret.”
“He’s supposed to be. Hence, the attitude.”
“I understand. If you want I’ll put your desk back.”
She shakes her head.
“Let Billy do it. It’ll be his penance for the mortal sin of lameness.”
“Hi. I’m Allegra.”
We both turn.
I say, “McQueen and Sons, this is Allegra. She’s an alchemist and my medical specialist.”
Allegra frowns at me and turns to McQueen.
“If you don’t tell him your regular name soon, I guarantee he’s going to call you McQueen and Sons for the rest of all our lives.”
“Hi, Tracy,” says Allegra.
Tracy focuses back on me.
“So, you’re really that Sandman guy people talk about.”
“I don’t know. I don’t talk to that many people.”
“Did you really come all the way back from Hell for a woman?”
“Shit, man. I do it every day.”
TRACY LOCKS THE office and walks us around the corner to an apartment building a couple of blocks away. It’s one of those peculiar L.A. complexes supported on a series of metal legs, with an open parking area underneath and the apartments above. It’s like Hannibal Lecter hired an architect to design something guaranteed to turn into a human trash compactor in any quake higher than a 3.0.
She has a corner place on the top floor. It was probably the old owner or manager’s place because it looks like someone knocked down a wall and made two small apartments into one decent-size one.
A small blond woman lets us in.
“That’s him? I thought it was just going to be one person coming.”
“It’s okay, baby. The chick’s a doctor and she brought the candy.”
Tracy ushers us in and closes the door behind us.
“This is Fiona,” she says, going over to the blonde. “Fiona, this is Stark and Allegra.”
“Thanks for letting us in on such short notice,” says Allegra.
Fiona gives her a nervous smile.
“It’s just that Johnny doesn’t get a lot of visitors and we know most of the people who come to see him.”
“So, why are you here to see Johnny?” asks Tracy.
I say, “Because Johnny may be top of his class, but his friends cut school and they’re hungry.”
“There’s going to be an outbreak?” asks Tracy.
“There already is, but it’s early. Maybe Johnny can help us stop it from getting out of control.”
“We haven’t heard anything about rogue zeds and we know some important Sub Rosas,” says Fiona.
“People have been disappearing for weeks, but just one or two at a time. Last night was the first breakout of Drifters into the streets. If the Sub Rosa isn’t being chatty about it, it’s probably because someone in the Sub Rosa is behind it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Cabal is my guess. He’s got the background, the family chip on his shoulder, and his public drunken crazy act has most of the other families scared. And they should be. Just because Cabal pretends like he might be crazy doesn’t mean he’s not.”
Tracy gets a bottle of blue Mexican soda from the refrigerator, twists off the cap, and tosses it into the sink.
“If no one is talking about escaped zeds, how do you know about it?”
“Because I let them out. They bit a friend of mine and they escaped while I was getting her away.”
“You let them out? So this is all your fault.”
“They got out when I was trying to save a friend. Someone who came halfway around the world to stop exactly what’s happening and save all your asses. You want to start working on whose fault it is those Drifters got out last night, how about finding out who put them there in the first place?”
“I suppose,” says Tracy. “Where were they?”
“At the Springheels’ place.”
Tracy and Fiona exchange a look, but neither says anything.
I hold up the cooler.
“This is getting heavy. Think we could meet Johnny?”
Tracy sets the soda on the counter and gestures for us to follow her to a closed door at the far end of the apartment.
“Don’t come in until I tell you to and don’t say anything until I tell him who you are. Savants are kind of obsessive-compulsives. Don’t take it personally if he ignores you for a while.”
She opens the door and says, “Johnny?” like she’s talking to a nervous six-year-old. “There are some friends here to see you. Can I let them in?”
I don’t hear anything, but Tracy waves us in.
“Johnny, this is Allegra and Stark. They brought you some presents.”
She nods at us to put the cooler and jelly beans on the floor near Johnny.
Johnny Thunders is hunched over a metal folding table wearing a magnifying visor on his smooth white head. He’s studying something microscopic in his left hand while his right hovers above it with a delicate paintbrush. He’s wearing black sweatpants and nothing else. He looks like an albino mantis about to strike. Johnny is beyond skinny. He’s Auschwitz thin. You can count each of his ribs. Practically strike a match on them. But he doesn’t look sick or weak, more like he’s a separate breed of minimalist humans designed to take up as little physical space in the world as possible.
“Can you say hello, Johnny?”
“Just a minute,” he mumbles.
His right hand moves almost imperceptibly. I’m not sure Allegra or Tracy saw it. I barely caught it and I can see down to the quarks in his fingernails.
Johnny holds his microscopic object at arm’s length, studies it for a second, blows on it, and sets it down in a small upturned box lid. There are dozens of other flea-size objects in the lid. Apparently satisfied, Johnny turns and looks at us. He smiles and for a minute looks sort of human.
“Hi. I’m Johnny.”
He stands and puts out his hand. It’s reflexive. Something he’s learned or remembers from another life. Allegra shakes and I follow. He holds on to my hand and looks at me, cocks his head like a dog listening for a strange sound.