“He knows a lot about them. He said there’s someone else who knows even more and told him about the Backbone after he did something for them.”
“Do you remember what he did?”
“If I wanted to go into the Jackal’s Backbone, would you go with me? You could show me where you woke up.”
“I don’t remember it very well.”
“Maybe you will if you go back.”
“Would you go with me?”
“Hey,” says Tracy. “You can’t ask him that.”
Johnny says, “I don’t think you should go into the Backbone. It doesn’t seem right.”
“I have to. Someone is using Drifters to kill people they don’t like and now some are loose in the city. I have a feeling more are going to get loose. I need to understand why it’s happening. And there’s someone I need to look for and see if she’s in the Backbone.”
“You won’t be able to find one person. There’s about a million people there.”
“I still have to try. Will you go with me?”
Tracy says, “Johnny, don’t listen. You don’t want to go out there where people will be afraid of you.”
“No one will know I’m there if I go into the Backbone.”
“You can’t leave,” says Tracy. “That’s final.”
She whips around at me and sticks a finger in my face.
“And you, asshole. I knew I shouldn’t have let you in. Get out.”
“Johnny is one of the twenty-seven. I think if he wants something, he should get it. Including going home.”
“It’s your choice, Johnny.”
“You need to leave now.”
I turn around. It’s Fiona. She looks very determined. The .45 automatic in her hand is probably helping with that.
I turn to Tracy. “Let me guess. Your old cop gun, right?”
Tracy says, “It’s a big bad world out there. A lady needs to know how to defend herself, doesn’t she, Fi?”
“Herself and her loved ones. You two need to leave.”
Allegra is frozen in her seat. I think it’s been kind of a long day for her. I take her arm and pull her to her feet.
“Okay, we’re going. You be careful with that.”
Fiona cocks it.
“Go to hell.”
Allegra tugs on my coat.
We start for the door, Fiona behind us, an angry righteous mom defending her brood.
It’s Johnny calling.
Fiona pushes us the last few feet and throws the dead bolt to let us out.
“I think I want to go.”
“No you don’t, Johnny. It’s dangerous and you can’t trust these people.”
“I think I want to go.”
“Let’s talk about it after they’re gone.”
“I don’t think I want to talk about it. I want to go.”
Fiona keeps the gun on us. She looks back at Johnny standing in the doorway to his room.
He says, “I want to go.”
“Stark’s right. I’m one of the special ones. Sometimes I get to say what I do.”
She sighs and says, “Johnny, the twenty-seven thing is made up. It’s a way to keep you smart ones together and controlled.”
“I still want to go. We’ll go tonight. It’s too bright out now. It hurts my eyes. Come back tonight. When is it dark, Tracy?”
“It gets dark late, honey. And you want it real dark if you go out. Don’t go out before eleven.”
“Come back at eleven,” says Johnny.
“I’ll be here.”
Johnny goes back into his room and for a second I think that Fiona might shoot us on principle. Finally she puts the gun on the kitchen counter. Tracy puts her arm around her.
“Get the fuck out,” she says.
When we get outside, Allegra wants to run but I hold her back. Even with people, running makes you look like prey and we don’t want to look like prey to an angry mom with a .45.
“Now you know some of the kinds of things Eugène and I have seen. What do you think?”
Allegra holds a hand over her mouth. I can feel her trembling under all the shirts and sweaters Vidocq made her wear. Get ready for the waterworks. Get ready for her to puke. This is when it always happens. People get away from danger, start to relax, and it all comes out at once.
“What do you think?”
She lowers her hand.
“That was the most awesome thing ever.”
She grabs me and hugs me as hard as anyone ever has.
“Let’s get home. I want to blow Eugène’s mind.”
We head back to the Boulevard. I scan the backs of stores and sides of apartment buildings for a decent shadow shielded from the street. The sun is so goddamn bright at this time of day it’s bleaching the shadows to frail patches of gray. Those pale shadows are no good to get to the Room, but they’re beautiful. I can see each burning photon and trace it all the way back to where it emerged from the sun.
We could call a cab to get home, but in the morning in this part of Hollywood we could wait an hour. I could steal a car, but that might be one colorful adventure too many for Allegra. I’d rather float home through the sewer on a raft made of medical waste than take the bus.
Fuck it. I turn back and forth looking for a likely car. That draws my attention away from the rest of the street until they’re right on top of us.
I smell them from ten feet away, but am distracted enough to think it’s restaurant trash that’s gone ripe. I know what a complete fucking idiot I am when I hear Allegra give a little yelp.
There’s two Lacunas. A man and a woman, if you can call them that. They’re pretty obviously dead. Their skin looks like bruised sandpaper wrapped around fat and muscle. The male wears a camouflage baseball cap. The female wears wraparound shades. They both have knives and are holding them at Allegra’s throat.
Even with it pressed right up to her carotid, I know I could get the knife away from one of them and pry its skull open with it before it could hurt her. But I’m not sure about two. Especially two somethings that feel no pain, are kind of dumb, and aren’t afraid of ending up any more dead than they already are.
“You going to do something, tough guy? Save the day, cocksucker,” says the female.
“No. I think I’m going to stand right here and admire the view.”
“Good cocksucker. Smart cocksucker. First smart thing you’ve said in a week,” says the male.
“Is that it? Did you come by to hurt my feelings or are muggers getting paid by the word these days?”
The female is next to Allegra, pinning one of her arms to her side while pressing the tip of her knife into her throat. The male holds Allegra from behind. He has his arm wrapped around her neck with the side of his blade ready to slice her jugular. He presses the knife harder against her neck.
“Watch your tone, cocksucker. One of us might twitch.”
“It’s nothing personal. I’m just trying to get the conversation rolling and find out what it is you walking garbage heaps want.”
“We want you to go to Disney World,” says the female.
“It’s called Disneyland, you stupid cunt,” says the male.
“No. There’s another one. In Florida, I think.”
“If you two want to go get a map, we can come back later,” I say.
“Shut up,” says the male. “You need to take a vacation. Stop everything you’re doing and go away. Right now. This goddamn minute.”
“I’m kind of booked up. How about Labor Day? We can all go to Hawaii together. Get a cabin on the beach and burn you two for firewood.”
The female is jumpy. She really doesn’t like not stabbing anyone. When I have to move, she’ll go first.
“That’s the wrong attitude. For you and her, but especially her. You don’t want her to end up in pieces like the Fiddler, do you?”
“I don’t know any fiddlers, but I’ve never been into blue-grass. Either of you ever listen to Skull Valley Sheep Kill? Now, that’s music.”
“He’s too stupid to get it. Cut her,” says the female.
I say, “No. Don’t. Don’t move at all. Stay exactly where you are.”
I’m a little surprised and extremely relieved when they do it.
“Put down your knives. Let go of her and move away.”
The Lacunas do that, too. I grab Allegra, pull her away, and push behind me.
“Throw your knives into the street.”
They toss them.
I turn to Allegra.
“Are you okay?”
She steps up beside me.
“Fine. Who are they? And why are they just standing there?”
“Take a deep breath. Smell that? They’re Lacunas, pitbull Drifters. And I think they’re standing there for the same reason that Johnny said he’d come with me tonight. Because of this.”
I take Eleanor’s belt buckle out of my pocket and show it to her.
“What is that?”
“I have no idea, but it’s honey to Drifters. They can’t get enough of it and it seems to have some control over them.”
“So, you didn’t know they’d listen to you when you started calling them names?”
“After Johnny said yes so fast, I had a hunch.”
“I’m pretty sure I hate you right now.”
“But you’re not positive. I can live with that.”
Allegra goes to the gutter and retrieves the Lacunas’ knives. She pockets the male’s, but holds the female’s, a black KA-BAR. She points the tip at the male.
“What did they mean I don’t want to end up like the Fiddler?”
“It’s a kind of hoodoo. Titus Eshu is a Fiddler and this maggot pile just told me that he’s dead. Titus was looking for some lady’s kid and he’s been murdered for it. That’s one more person fucked up by whatever this is.”
“How did they know where we’d be?”
“Good question. You, Dark Phoenix, how did you know where we were?”
The female takes something the size of a matchbox from her pocket and hands it to me.
“What is it?” asks Allegra.
“It’s a tracker. This is Vigil tech. It has to be.”
I hold up my arms.
“Pat me down. See if there’s anything on me.”
Allegra stands behind me and runs her hands down my arms and sides and around my boots. She starts one leg, but stops.
“There’s something on the bottom hem of your coat.”
“Let me see it.”
I feel a tug and she hands it to me.
It’s the size of my thumbnail. A matte black beetle with six pincer legs. I check the screen on the matchbox the Lacuna gave me. The GPS map shows our exact location. Great. The Vigil is dealing in Drifters now. Are they running this show or just piggybacking on someone else’s apocalypse, taking the opportunity to knock off people they don’t like and make it look like someone else’s fault?
“What are we going to do with them?” Allegra asks.
A garbage truck is moving our way. It looks like it’s picking up commercial loads from stores and apartment buildings.
I tell the Drifters, “Come over here,” then lead them to the parking lot attached to a self-storage place. There’s a double-size commercial Dumpster hidden from the street by a low wood-slat fence.
“Open your mouth,” I tell the male Lacuna.
He does. I toss the tracker down his throat.
“Shut your mouth and both of you get into the garbage.”
I look at Allegra.
“Go back to the street. Let me know when the truck is close.”
She knows I just want her away from here and she’s happy to oblige. When she’s out of sight I take out the na’at, twist it to expose its sharpest edge, raise it, and bring it down hard, splitting the male Lacuna from head to crotch, making sure to slice his spine in half. The two halves crumple onto the trash bags. Its blood has long since turned to dark sludge, so there’s almost no spray from the cut.
I do the same thing to the female, and when both of their bodies are laid out in the garbage, I slice them in half at the waist. Smaller parts are easier to hide and harder to recognize if some citizen happens by. The barbs on the na’at are good for hooking trash bags. I stamp the Lacuna giblets down into the can and camouflage them by piling garbage on top.
Just in case they aren’t dead, I lean over the Dumpster and say, “If you don’t get crushed and make it to the dump site, you’re going to stay wherever you fall. You’re not going to bite or scratch anyone. Just lie there and wait for the crows to pick your bones clean.”
Allegra and I go across the street to a real estate office. We check our phones. Look around. Check the wrist-watches neither of us owns and generally try to look like we’re waiting for someone.
The truck rumbles to a stop across the street. Two bored, sunburned men hop off the back and wheel the Dumpster into place so that the truck’s hydraulic lifts can upend it. When it’s twenty feet up, the garbage slides into the big compactor. I think I catch a flash of the female Lacuna’s legs, but no one else seems to notice. One of the men hits the button that activates the compactor. It grinds through its cycle, stops, and resets. The driver guns the engine and the truck moves on to the next pickup.
I’m sick of regular people who can’t see what light is made of. I don’t care what they think or what might give them bad dreams. I take Allegra’s hand and pull her into a shadow in the real estate office doorway. An agent inside sees us coming and opens the door just as we disappear.