Carlos is a big part of the reason Bamboo House of Dolls is still standing. He didn’t even blink when the crusty half of L.A.’s magic underground dropped in to get shit-faced. If Jesus was a bartender, He would still only be half as cool as Carlos. With all his newfound lucre, all the man has done to the place is get some new bar stools, a better sound system, and cleaned up the bathrooms so they’re a little less like a Calcutta bus station. It’s good to have one thing that hasn’t changed much. We need a few anchors in our lives to keep us from floating away into the void. Like Mr. Muninn said the one time he came in, “Quid salvum est si Roma perit?” What is safe if Rome perishes?
“Swamp Fire” by Martin Denny is playing on the jukebox. Carlos comes over with a cup of black coffee.
“You didn’t have to get dressed up just for me,” he says.
“Like the look? It’s from the Calvin Klein Book of Revelations line.”
“The crispy black arm is nice even if it is shedding dead skin all over my floor, but that burned-up jacket is un pedazo de basura.”
“Time to let it go?”
“One of you needs to be buried and my Dumpster has a lovely lakeside view of the alley. Give it to me and I’ll get rid of it.”
I push the charred pile of leather across the bar.
“Do me a favor and pour some salt and bleach on it when you put it out.”
“Is that a magic thing or a cop thing?”
“Both. Bleach for DNA. Salt for any leftover hoodoo someone can use in a hex.”
He nods and puts the jacket under the bar.
“I’m guessing since you haven’t even looked at that coffee that you want a drink.”
“Some of the red stuff.”
“Does the pope live in a nice house?”
“At least have some food, too. I just pulled some pork tamales out of the steamer.”
“Maybe that and some rice?”
“You got it.”
“City of Veils” by Les Baxter comes on. Crazy trumpets and drums at the beginning, then it slides into old-fashioned strings and Hollywood exotica. I half expect to see Errol Flynn dressed like a pirate in a corner booth trying to get a hand job from Lana Turner. After some of the red stuff, maybe I will.
I haven’t heard that Alice song again since the night it came blaring out of the jukebox, like nails being hammered into my ears. I had Carlos check and the song wasn’t even on the machine. He had the company bring him a new box, just so I wouldn’t sit at the bar getting twitchy, waiting for it to come up again.
Later I knew that the song had never been on the machine. It was one of Mason’s hexes. He wanted to watch me go crazy. If he’d pumped me full of LSD and locked me in a spinning mirrored room full of rats, he couldn’t have done any better.
That was six months ago. Half a year since I sent Mason to be poached in Hell and waved bye-bye to his Kissi pals as they burned up and blew away on the solar winds. A hundred and eighty days since I watched Alice’s ashes drift away like fog into the Pacific. I’m doing fine, thanks. Maybe a little bruised around the edges, but I have all the medicine I need right here in this glass.
Carlos sets down the plate of tamales and pours a double shot of the red stuff into a heavy square tumbler, the way we used to drink it in Hell. Aqua Regia is so red it’s almost black, like blood under moonlight. It goes down smooth, like gasoline and pepper spray. It probably saved my life Downtown. When I discovered I could swallow Aqua Regia and keep it down, Hellions starting looking at me differently. I think that’s when one of them got the idea of putting me in the arena instead of killing me. Just when my novelty was wearing off, I was interesting again.
“I should have killed him when I had the chance.”
Carlos shakes his head.
“You weren’t strong enough to kill him.”
“How would you know that?”
“Because you told me. We’ve had this conversation about fifty times before.”
“Maybe you should stick with coffee or maybe a beer. You don’t need the red stuff.”
He reaches for my glass and I slide it away from him.
“Yeah, I really do.”
“You couldn’t have beaten him. He was too strong. You knew it, so you did what you could.”
“Yeah, but sometimes it’s not about winning and losing. It’s about doing the right thing. I didn’t do the right thing. I shouldn’t have walked away. Lucifer was right. By leaving Mason in Hell I gave the prick exactly what he wanted.”
“You’re alive and you’re walking around. Long as you can say that, doing the right thing remains an option. Just keep your head down until you figure out the right time and place.”
“Thanks, Carlos. You’re the best dad a boy could ask for. Will you adopt me?”
“I thought I already did.”
Carlos looks past my shoulder and shakes his head. I don’t have to look. I can feel them. Behind me are college girls with pens and paper. They want to stand too close and ask for my autograph in breathy voices. If I’m dumb enough to sign, as dumb as I used to be, I’ll be able to buy my autograph off eBay in an hour. I sip my drink and dig into the tamales with my fork. Pretend I don’t notice as Carlos waves them off.
The real problem with college girls is that they usually have college boys with them.
A second later someone is leaning on the bar to my right.
“You’re the superhero who can do the portaling trick, aren’t you? Let’s see it.”
He looks like Ziggy Stardust on a GQ cover. NASA engineers built his three-piece pinstripe suit. It’s a work of art.
“Are you talking to me?”
“They say you can shadow-walk. I want to see.”
He looks at me with a combination of arrogance and boredom. You never know what a guy like this is going to do. He has one hand in his pocket. What he’s holding could be anything from a joint to a water pistol to a box cutter.
“Sorry. I don’t speak French. Or is it Chinese? I can’t understand a word you’re saying.”
“You think you’re hot shit because you have a cartoon nickname and the Golden Vigil watching your back? Do you even know who I am? Do you know who my father is?”
“Maybe what you need is an asshole-to-English phrase book. I hear they have some fine bookstores in Kansas. You should start walking.”
“My family owns this place. This city. L.A. to the Valley and out to the desert.”
Carlos gives me a look and I give him one right back. He stays put, but starts cutting up limes so he has an excuse to hold a knife.
“People listen to me when I talk.”
“I guess the rich really are different. Most of us come from monkeys, but you’re giving off a whiff of rattlesnake.”
Ziggy has a friend with him. Not quite as handsome. His suit isn’t quite as nice. He’s trying to maintain his cool in front of the girls, but he’s about sixty seconds from running.
The friend says, “Please just do the trick, man, and we’ll get out of your hair.”
“I just killed five people. I’ll show you that trick if you like.”
I go back to my drink and the tamales. Ziggy is about to make another strafing run, not knowing that when he opens his mouth, I’m going to stick my fork into his eye and make him dance like a marionette. But the girls get on either side of him and pull him to the door.
As they go out, I hear one of the girls say, “Daddy would say that man looks like a sheep-killing dog.”
When they’re gone, Carlos curses quietly, so fast I can’t tell if it’s English, Spanish, or Urdu.
“I hate that shit.”
He wipes off the spot where Ziggy was leaning.
“No, you don’t. You encourage it. Look at you. You walk in here with that burned-up arm and dried blood all over a monster movie T-shirt and you don’t want to be noticed? Normal people bet on football or collect stamps to pass the time. Your hobby is telling people to fuck off, but you can’t do that unless they notice you in the first place.”
“You understand how being a bartender works, right? I complain and you bring me drinks and sympathy. Don’t start trying to get reasonable with me.”
“You like these little fights because you don’t have any real ones right now, is all I’m saying.”
“I’ll keep my fingers crossed for Armageddon.”
“Don’t sweat it. I think your star is beginning to fade. New people keep coming in, but a lot of old ones have disappeared.”
“If I take up knitting, think the rest will go away?”
“Louie Toadvine is one of them, which is funny because I owe him money.”
Carlos pours himself a glass of seltzer and drops in some of the lime wedges he was cutting.
“Your friend Candy was in here last night.”
I dig into the tamales.
“Good for her.”
I haven’t seen or spoken to Candy more than three times since we saved a bunch of about-to-be-sacrificed angels on New Year’s. We killed a lot of people that night, but none who didn’t deserve it.
“She’s a pretty girl.”
“Is she? I don’t entirely remember.”
Since then I’d only seen her a couple of times with Vidocq and once when I got Doc Kinski to drain the venom from my arm after a Naga purse snatcher went king cobra on me. Kinski is the medical man for a lot of Sub Rosa and Lurkers. Most people think being a doctor is a big deal, but Kinski used to be an archangel, so for him, being a doctor is sort of like flipping burgers at McDonald’s after you were president.
“Candy’s nice. Asked about business. How is it dealing with the Sub Rosa? When am I ever going to get some new tunes on the jukebox?”
“What do I care about any of this?”
“I thought you two were friends. More than friends maybe.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
Carlos holds up his hands.
“Sorry, man. I didn’t mean nothing. It’s just something I heard. Anyway, she said she and Kinski had been moving around a lot. That’s why she hasn’t been around. She’s heading back out to wherever he is.”
“Did she mention where?”
“She was sick for a while after Avila. It isn’t good for her to be around all that blood. It affects her funny.”
Candy’s a Jade, which is kind of like a vampire only worse. She’s trying to lay off the people eating, but dragging her up to a massacre pushed her over the edge and she fell off the wagon for a while.
“I didn’t get the feeling she was in here to talk to me. She asked when you usually came in. I had to tell her you come and go and don’t keep regular hours.”
Was Candy looking for me? It’s funny she’d come to Bamboo House. I’d thought about waiting out in the strip mall by Kinski’s clinic, but that felt more stalkerish than friendly.
“I’m glad she’s feeling better.”
“Is she why you’re hitting the red stuff?”
“I’m drinking it because you have it. Do you know how rare Aqua Regia is? Rare isn’t even the word. It doesn’t exist anywhere outside of Hell. I’m going to have to thank Muninn the next time I see him.”
“I don’t know that it comes from Muninn.”
“Who sends it?”
“I don’t know. A bottle just shows up every now and then. First time I found one by the door, I tasted it. It’s disgusting and you’re one sick little pinche for drinking it. And you drink too much of it.”
“Sometimes it’s nice to know I’m not crazy. You know when you wake up and for a minute you don’t know where you are and aren’t sure if you’re awake or still dreaming? This reminds me what’s real. Who I am. Where I’ve been. How I got these scars. Living up here, sometimes I need that.”
“It also gets you hammered fast.”
“And it reminds me of … Never mind.”
Carlos stabs a finger at me.
“Say it. I’ve been waiting to hear you say something like that. Go ahead. Say it out loud so everyone can hear you. This poison that comes from Hell reminds you of home. That’s what was about to come out of your mouth, wasn’t it? Think about that for a minute. How fucked up that is.”
“Excuse me. I’m sorry to interrupt. One of those men over there said that you were the gentleman they call Sandman Slim.”
Carlos doesn’t miss a beat.
“Now, why would a nice lady like you be looking for a bad man like that?”
It’s so obvious even Carlos, the most unmagic über-civilian of all time, can see it. The woman isn’t Sub Rosa. She’s around fifty-five, but picked up a beauty allurement potion so she can tell people she’s thirty. She dressed up to come here. She’s wearing an expensive Hillary Clinton pantsuit, but it’s a little off. The symmetry isn’t quite right, but not in a way most civilians could see. It’s probably from an outlet mall and it’s brand-new.
“He’s not Sandman Slim?”
“I didn’t say that.”
Carlos points to one of the bar stools. The woman sits.
“Would you like some coffee?”
She has dark, pretty gray eyes. Her pupils are pinpoints. This bar isn’t where she wants to be.
I push the tamales and rice away. After Ziggy’s anger, being jolted by her fear has ruined my appetite. I half turn and do a quick scan of the faces in the room. It’s ninety-nine percent Sub Rosa, with a few civilian hangers-on and groupies. If she found me here, she must have asked questions in places she wouldn’t normally go. And when she finally heard about Bamboo House of Dolls, people would have told her what happens to strangers who come here to bug me. But she did it anyway.