AFTER I DROP Allegra back home, I wander the streets for a few hours. I can’t go back to Max Overload. Kasabian’s fear will leak through the door and give me a headache. Too bad. I’d like to see him. I’m definitely seeing beyond the normal spectrum. I might be able to see in the dark. The streets are made of light. People are the most interesting thing to watch. Their glow is different. Their light doesn’t come from the particles of their physical form, but from silver-colored balls of plasma inside each of them. I think it’s their souls. I’d like to see if Kasabian has one of those balls bouncing around behind his eyes. I’m careful to avoid mirrors and windows as I walk. I don’t want to see my reflection and what might or might not be there.
I walk down to Wilshire and follow it all the way out to Sunset, where it skirts the hills leading up to the canyons and the strongholds of the old super rich.
I hit Lucifer’s number on the cell. After a few rings it goes to voice mail.
“The Vigil is using Drifters. I just got braced by two of them. Stay inside and don’t let anyone in. If you have to let someone in, make sure it’s someone you know a hundred percent. I’ll check in later.”
If the city falls apart, will the elites be better or worse off in their hilltop mansions than the rest of us down here in the flats? The Drifters will clear us out first, but at least there are possible escape routes on the freeways and even the ocean. When the dead are through with us, they’ll wander into the hills and the canyons will fill up with nouveaux Drifters. The civilians up there won’t have anyplace to go. The mansions won’t hold and the woods will be death traps. Once again the future has screwed us because we never got the jetpacks we were promised as kids.
I dial Kasabian. He won’t answer when he sees it’s me, but I leave a message about the Vigil and tell him to keep calling Lucifer until he gets through.
I circle back into Hollywood. Bamboo House of Dolls is closed, so I go to Donut Universe.
Someone is smoking in the parking lot. The part of me that isn’t Stark smells the industrial processes that created the cigarette, the injected nicotine, the fog of carcinogens. The Stark part of me smells whiskey, music, and pretty girls. He’ll be gone soon enough.
“What’s fresh?” I ask the counter girl. Everyone on staff at Donut Universe wears springy antennae. Hers bob charmingly as she answers.
“The apple fritters and the bear claws just came out.”
“I’ll take a fritter and a black coffee.”
As she gets my food I wonder if I should tell her what’s coming. That she should turn off the lights and close early, but I know what she’d think. The concept of zombie hordes is something regular people have to experience to believe. Maybe she’ll be one of the lucky ones who gets to see it from a distance and makes it home in one piece. Maybe I’ll be ripping out her spine tomorrow. I hope she makes it home first. It would suck to be killed and reanimated while wearing corporate antennae. Though, it wouldn’t be as bad as reanimating dressed like a crab or a taco because you were pimping a new restaurant when you died. There’s a difference between a bad death and the universe stopping by to take a great big shit on you.
I pay her and sit in a booth by a window at the far end of the place where it’s quiet. I sip my coffee and dial Lucifer again. No answer.
There are sirens in the distance. Cops and fire trucks. Three, then four plumes of black smoke curl into the sky south across the city. The aether twitches and twists, giving off a metallic smell of panic. If I hold my breath and sit very still, I can hear the Drifters moving underground. They sound like ants scratching at the packed dirt walls of their caves, digging out new tunnels, undermining the soil until they pull the whole city down into the Jackal’s Backbone.
“Are you okay?”
I look around.
Antenna Girl is standing by the booth.
“Are you okay? Do you know you’ve been sitting here for two hours and you haven’t moved? I mean totally haven’t moved.”
I glance up at the clock over the counter. She’s right. Two hours have passed. My coffee and fritter have long since gone cold.
“I got lost. I have a lot on my mind.”
“I guess so. I’ve never seen anybody sit that still that long before. I couldn’t decide if you were high or meditating.”
“Both. Neither. If I told you something unbelievable, would you listen without running away?”
“You hear those sirens? See that smoke? Something is going to happen. Maybe tonight. Maybe sooner. But something is going to happen and it’s going to be bad. Go home. Lock the door and turn on the TV. Call your friends and tell them to do the same. Most of them won’t listen, but some will and later you’ll know you saved them.”
“Are you a cop?”
She curls her lips in a smile.
“Maybe you’re my guardian angel.”
“Could be. Of course, not all angels are created equal.”
“What does that mean?”
“There’s those kinds of angels.”
I point up.
“And those kinds of angels.”
I point down.
She leans her hip against the table.
“Which kind are you?”
“I haven’t decided yet. Probably neither. But please don’t tell Dad I said that.”
“Angels have daddy issues, too?”
You have no idea, Antenna Girl. The silver light inside her glows brightly.
I say, “You think I’m crazy. What else can you think? But being crazy doesn’t automatically mean I’m wrong. Stay in tonight and be safe. What have you got to lose? It’s one night. By tomorrow night, it’ll be done one way or another.”
“Are all angels as serious as you?”
“I’m sober and I think I just quit smoking. That’ll depress anyone, even an angel.”
“Please don’t tell me you’re vegan, too.”
“Even God isn’t vegan.”
“That’s a relief.”
She looks at me. The wheels are turning in her head. I can almost hear her thoughts, but not quite.
“Okay, Johnny Angel. Maybe I’ll order in Chinese tonight. How’s that?”
“Or you could pick some up on the way home. Don’t want to put the delivery guy in danger, right?”
“Fine. Go and tell Freddy I said to refill your coffee. The stuff you have is turning to paint varnish.”
“Take care of yourself, Janet.”
“How did you know my name is Janet?”
“You’re still wearing your name tag.”
She looks at her blouse. Unclips the tag.
“For a second I thought you were psychic.”
“No. I just like donuts.”
A helicopter shoots by overhead heading south toward the smoke.
Janet puts on the coat hanging over her arm, gives me a little wave, and leaves.
I KNOCK ON the apartment door at exactly eleven.
Tracy opens it and lets me in without a word. Fiona is by the kitchen counter, standing conspicuously close to the gun she held on Allegra and me that morning. I walk over to her.
“I’m not staying long, so if you’re going to use that, you might want to get started.”
She shakes her head.
“Go to Hell.”
She wants to stop me from taking Johnny. The Stark part of me understands her wanting to protect someone she cares about. The not-Stark knows how easy it would be to kill her and Tracy and how simple it would be to justify. What are their silly lives worth versus a whole city? But it won’t come to that. They won’t try to stop me. The resignation is in their eyes and body postures. Their breathing. It’s hard for them. They’re both brave and they want to be heroic, but they know they’ve already lost. Johnny said he wants to go and they know I can take him. The gun is just a gesture. More for their benefit than mine. It’s something Stark would do. Use a prop and bluster to cover up for what he knows he can’t do.
“I’m ready to go.”
Johnny is standing by his door in clean sweats and sneakers. He has a wool skullcap pulled down almost to his eyebrows. He looks like an emo kid who went off his meds.
“You look good, Johnny. I’m glad you’re coming.”
“Me, too. I haven’t seen the Backbone since they took me out.”
“You remember the way?”
“I remember where Beverly Hills is. Do you have a car?”
“I can get us one.”
He turns to Fiona and Tracy.
“How do I look? Will I pass?”
“You look good, Johnny,” Fiona says. “Stick close to Stark, especially if there are people around. And don’t talk to anyone. If anything happens, you come right back here. Okay?”
Tracy looks at me.
“He hasn’t been outside without us since he’s been here. I don’t know if he’s ever been outside without one of his minders. You’ll take care of him, right?”
“We’re going to his territory, so he’ll be fine. In between here and there I’ll look after him.”
Tracy gets close and whispers.
“As far as I know, Johnny’s never seen one of his kind get put down. If you gut a zed in front of him, I don’t know how he’ll react.”
“I don’t think it’ll come to that. I’m getting better at talking to Drifters.”
“I hope so.”
I try to ignore them as they say their sappy good-byes. I look out the window and listen to corpses digging L.A. out from under our feet. Maybe we’ve been lied to all these years. The San Andreas Fault doesn’t exist. Maybe earthquakes are just the dead turning over in their sleep.
Johnny is next to me.
“Should we go?”
He follows me outside. A moment later the door closes and someone throws the dead bolt. I take Johnny downstairs and boost a Hummer parked in the lot by McQueen and Sons. Normally, I hate these suburban G.I. Joe land barges, but tonight seems like a good night to be surrounded by three tons of metal.
He gives me an address on West Pico at the edge of Beverly Hills. I pull out into traffic and head for the Jackal’s Backbone.
THE FIRES AREN’T just to the south anymore. They’re spreading all over the city. LAPD chopper searchlights rip up the sky. I turn on the radio. It’s exactly what you’d expect at the end of the world. Panicky chatter about mass murder. Something new and bad running wild in the streets. Is it a CIA experiment gone wrong—super crack seeded into “undesirable” neighborhoods—or a new strain of Book of Revelation rabies? The freeways are bumper-to-bumper. Nothing’s moving. Just one big box-lunch buffet for flesh eaters. Cop cars and ambulances tear through the city like speed-freak banshees. I turn off the radio. People sprint through the traffic in ones and twos. Sometimes small groups. They aren’t going anywhere. They’re just running.
My cell rings. I know it’s Kasabian or Lucifer, so I don’t bother checking the ID.
“Where are you? Why aren’t you home?” comes a harsh voice.
“No. It’s Jim Morrison’s ghost,” says Kinski. “Tell me you aren’t running around in that goddamn madness out there.”
“I’m not running around in the madness. I’m driving. Tell me you aren’t in L.A.”
“I could, but I’d be lying. Did you know there’s a head living in your closet? And it’s pretty pissed off.”
“That’s Kasabian. Be nice to him. He has a hard enough time just existing.”
“He’s doing fine. We were chatting about finding him a body so he doesn’t have to crawl around this room forever.”
“She’s having a beer with the head. He’s telling stories about you. He’s a real cutup.”
“Why are you in town, doc? I told you to stay away.”
“Candy and I came back to drag your ass out of here. You can’t stop what’s coming. This isn’t about zombies or the Vigil or Lucifer. It’s about the city eating itself. This train’s been coming for a long time and you don’t want to be here when it crashes into the station.”
“Thanks, doc, but a dead buddy and me are on our way to the Jackal’s Backbone for drinks and a lap dance.”
“Dammit. If you go in there you’re never coming out. Do you understand that? You’ve been bit. You’re already halfway to becoming one of them. Come back and we’ll see what we can do for you.”
“You’re wrong and you’re wrong. I’ll come out of the Backbone and I’m going to stop whatever’s going on because whoever’s doing it has really pissed me off. You’re wrong about the other thing, too. I’m not turning zed. I’m turning into you. Stark’s going bye-bye. In another day or so, the angel part is all that’s going to be left.”
That shuts him up.
“Listen to me. You’ve got to stop whatever it is you think you’re doing and come back here right now. We can fix this and put you back like you were.”
“Why would I want that? Get Allegra and Vidocq out of town. If you can’t take Brigitte or Kasabian, then hide them someplace safe.”
He doesn’t say anything.