“They brought you some goodies,” says Tracy.
Johnny touches the cooler and bags of candy with his toes.
“Glad to,” I say. “Mind if we sit down?”
“Of course not.”
Tracy gets us a couple of folding chairs from the closet.
Johnny crosses his long legs and waits for us to start. I heard that the dead are usually patient. What else do they have to do?
Allegra takes an old Polaroid camera out of her shoulder bag.
“Do you mind if I take your picture?”
Johnny smiles and sits up.
“Is this all right?” he asks.
“Perfect,” says Allegra. She presses a button and the flash goes off. The camera’s motor grinds and ejects the shot. Allegra takes the photo and rests it on her lap while it develops.
I ask, “Do you know about the other dead people in the city, Johnny?”
“Some got out into the streets last night. They’re probably going to cause a lot of trouble.”
“I’m sorry. But I don’t know anything about them. I know I’m one of the twenty-seven, but I don’t know much about other revenants.”
It was a long shot that the smart ones might have a sense about or a psychic link to the dumb ones.
“What are the twenty-seven?”
“I don’t know. It’s my understanding that no one knows.”
“Do you like being here? Do you ever want to get out of this room?”
“I like it here. Tracy and Fiona are wonderful and the people who come to visit are mostly very nice.”
“Mostly, but not always. Who hasn’t been nice? Cabal?”
“He tried to be nice, but I don’t think it’s in his nature. I think he’s a very troubled person.”
“Did Cabal want to take you out of here and away from Tracy and Fiona?”
“No. We just talked.”
“I don’t remember.”
Is this how I’m going to end up if the Stark part of me dies off? Like a psych patient drooling on Thorazine. Or will I be something else? I’m already something else, I think. Not that that helps much. The stronger this angel vision gets, the deeper I can see inside things. But I still can’t be sure if Johnny is a well-spoken Drifter or a P. T. Barnum scam.
Allegra leans over and hands me the photo. The anima-scope built into the camera can catch the life essence on film. Johnny’s isn’t there. The photo is a normal shot of a boring room except for the Johnny-shaped black hole in the middle. It’s true, then. Johnny is as dead as corn dogs.
What would that camera show if I let Allegra shoot me?
“Did you ever bite anyone, Johnny? Did you ever kill anyone and turn them into something like you?”
“That’s completely out of line,” says Tracy.
Johnny raises a hand.
“It’s all right. The truth is I don’t know. I think I was dead for a long time before I woke up and became what I am now. I suppose I might have hurt some people back when I was a zed.”
I didn’t expect him to even know that word, much less use it.
“No one’s taken you out of here recently? Even if it was just for a little while?”
“That I would remember. Why would I go? I have everything I want right here.”
“Not free-range flesh. You like Tracy and Fiona and you’d never hurt them, but what about a stranger? What if someone took you out of here and let you loose on someone you didn’t know?”
He looks at the floor. Crosses his legs and shifts in his seat like it’s suddenly uncomfortable.
“I’m not sure,” he says. “But as I said, I haven’t left the apartment in a long time.”
“Maybe it’s time to take a break,” says Tracy.
“Just one more thing. If a regular person like Tracy here got bitten by someone like you, or maybe a zed, is there some way to fix her?”
“You mean so she doesn’t die and return?”
“No. There’s nothing for that.”
Tracy comes over and stands between Johnny and us.
“That’s it for now. Let’s let Johnny have his snack, and if he feels like it, he can answer a few more questions.”
As Tracy talks, Johnny takes off the top of the cooler and looks inside. He goes to a dresser and takes a plastic sheet from the top and spreads it on the floor like a picnic blanket. He rips off the top of one of the bags of jelly beans and pours the candy into the pig guts and blood, stirring it with his fingers. He looks at us and grins.
“I have a bit of a sweet tooth.”
“Let’s go have some coffee and let Johnny eat,” says Tracy, shooing us out of the room and closing the door.
“He likes to eat by himself. He knows his food bothers living people. It’s his way of being polite.”
“He’s not what I expected. He’s like a kid.”
Fiona started the coffeemaker while we were in with Johnny. It smells good. She pours cups for all of us.
“He isn’t always like this. None of the undead sleep, but they still have bodies and bodies need rest. Every few weeks, Johnny goes into a kind of fugue state. Sleepy. Vague. Uncommunicative. Like he’s suddenly autistic. After a couple of days, he starts coming out of it. That’s what he’s doing now, so he’s a little slower than usual.”
“How’s his memory?”
“Look, if you still think someone’s been sneaking him out, you can forget it. Johnny’s tagged with one of those house-arrest ankle bracelets. If he tried to leave here or if someone tried to take him, alarms would go off all over the place.”
“Someone could disable it with tools or magic.”
“Yeah, but they’d have to know about it. The bracelet isn’t on his ankle. It’s inside him. Sewed inside his stomach cavity.”
Dammit. Cabal using Johnny as a blunt instrument was a nice neat package, but Johnny seems to be off the hook. Cabal, on the other hand, is still homecoming king to me. I just need to connect a few more dots.
Allegra pours cream and sugar into her coffee.
“How’d he get the name Johnny Thunders?”
Fiona smiles like a mother remembering her kid’s first step.
“Johnny was in one of his fugues when they brought him here. I think moving when he was zoned out was hard on him. He ignored us and didn’t talk for days. He just stared at the wall. We used to leave the TV or music on when we weren’t in the room so he’d have company. Usually one of us was in the apartment, but this one night Tracy’s car broke down and I had to go and pick her up. When we got back, Johnny was bouncing up and down singing along with the stereo. It was the Murder City Devils song ‘Johnny Thunders.’”
I drink the coffee straight. It feels good to have coffee for its own sake and not to cure the night before.
“Why was he staring at his hands with a magnifier when we went in?”
Tracy says, “He wasn’t staring. He was working. I said it before, Savants are obsessives. They do something really well and they do it over and over again. They’ll do it forever, I guess.”
She pours herself more coffee.
“Johnny likes words and he likes geology. He’s transcribing the entire Oxford English Dictionary onto grains of sand. The last time I asked, he was up to ‘farraginous.’”
I take my coffee, go back to Johnny’s door, and open it. He’s bent over the cooler on his knees, a fistful of pig guts in each hand. His mouth and chest are smeared with blood and half-dissolved jelly beans. Not exactly a yearbook photo, but I saw plenty worse Downtown. Hell, I did worse. When Johnny notices me he smiles.
“These are really good. Thanks.”
“Before Tracy told me to bring the candy, I didn’t even know Drifters could taste anything.”
“That’s what most people think. They bring smelly meat and old, clotted blood. That’s zed food. This is better.”
“You’re welcome. Who comes to see you?”
“A few Sub Rosas. I think they’re important, but they’re not very interesting. They always ask about what I remember. I tell them the same thing I told you. I don’t remember anything before waking up, but I think they think if they keep asking, I’ll remember and they’ll win a prize or something.”
“Even if you do remember, you don’t have to tell them anything. They’re your memories, not theirs.”
He nods and shoves more pig into his mouth.
“If you don’t mind, I’m going to finish my coffee and come back and talk a little more.”
“Okay,” he says through a full mouth.
I go back to the kitchen and Fiona pours more coffee.
Tracy stares at me.
“You must walk on goddamn water. Johnny never just talks to people like that, especially when he’s eating.”
“I get along pretty well with monsters.”
“Johnny’s not a monster,” says Fiona in a tone that tells me I’m not getting any more of her coffee.
“Yeah, he is. Look out your window. Johnny’s the worst nightmare most of those people will ever have.”
“That’s only because they don’t know him.”
“They don’t want to know him. Or you. You feed the monster and hide his leftovers in the trash under the pizza boxes. Don’t get me wrong. I like monsters. But to people who don’t like them, people who help monsters are monsters, too.”
“What are you getting at?” asks Tracy.
“How did you end up being Johnny’s stepmoms?”
“Granddad was Sub Rosa, but Dad wasn’t born with the gift and neither were any of us. After Granddad died, the family kind of went to shit. You heard about Enoch Springheel?”
“He was a distant cousin. His part of the family used to look after Johnny. When there was just Enoch left, well, he couldn’t take care of himself, much less a Savant. That’s when we got him.”
“I’m going to see if Johnny’s finished,” says Fiona, and goes to his room.
“A few of the big families kicked in and pay us to look after him,” says Tracy. “They make like they’re doing us a favor because all us Springheels are such losers. The truth is that none of them want Johnny around. For all their money and power, they’re a bunch of pussies.”
She looks over her shoulder.
“Don’t tell Fi I said it like that.”
“We’ll keep your secret,” says Allegra.
Tracy looks at my coat, then at me.
“Are you packing?”
“Can I see?”
I take out the Smith & Wesson and hand it to her butt end first. She weighs the .460 in her hand.
“What are you planning on shooting with this?”
“You never know when Hannibal is going to come back with his elephants.”
She hands me back the pistol.
“Years ago I was a cop. I’m glad I don’t have to carry anymore.”
“With Drifters loose, you might want to reconsider that. At least for the next few days.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Fiona comes back with a plastic trash bag filled with something wet.
“Johnny is finished and cleaned up. You can talk to him for a few more minutes, but then I think that’s enough for today.”
She means she wants us out of here, but she’s too polite to say it.
We go back to Johnny’s room and sit down. He looks a lot better than when we first came in. Alert and awake.
“I just want to ask you a couple more things and then we’ll leave you alone.”
“That’s okay. I like talking to you.”
“Tracy tells me that you used to live at the Springheels’ house. I’ve been there, too. Did you ever go into the basement behind the wall?”
“All the time. Enoch liked us to play down there.”
I seriously don’t want to know anything about the games an autophagia freak would play with a zombie.
“Last night a group of Drifters came out of the basement. There was a big hole in one wall. It looked new and like it might have led to a tunnel. Do you know where it goes?”
“A lot of the old family houses were built over the caves in case they needed to run away. Of course, they don’t use them anymore. Enoch didn’t have much common sense, but even he wouldn’t go down there. Live people never go into the Jackal’s Backbone.”
“Tell me about the Jackal’s Backbone, Johnny.”
“It’s where the dead people live. It’s where everybody lives.”
“What do you mean ‘everybody’?”
“Everybody who dies in Los Angeles goes into the Jackal’s Backbone and stays there. Unless they find one of the tunnels that leads out or unless someone comes and gets them, like me. I guess it’s pretty crowded down there these days.”
A sick, cold feeling rises from my stomach.
“When you say ‘everybody’ do you mean all the people in the cemeteries? What about the people before that? Before the city was here. Are they there, too?”
“Everybody. The Jackal’s Backbone has been around for a long time.”
“What if someone wasn’t buried? What if they were cremated and their ashes scattered in the ocean?”
He thinks about that for a minute.
“I don’t know. I only remember a little of the caves from when I woke up and before they took me away. The rest I learned from people who come by to talk to me.”