Few fantasy series have as strong a sense of place as Richard Kadrey's L.A.-set Sandman Slim books. And here's your exclusive first look at a video where Kadrey takes you to the real-life locations where his books take place, filmed by Brady Hall. Plus read a chapter of the next Sandman Slim Book, The Getaway God!
In The Getaway God, Stark faces what could be his biggest threat yet: the Old Gods. Even after playing Lucifer for a few months, this could turn out to be too much for Sandman Slim. Plus L.A. is descending into chaos, and the Wildfire Ripper is stalking the city.
Check out the first chapter from The Getaway God, on sale at the end of the month, below...
You'd think the end of the world would be exciting, but this apocalypse is about as much fun as dental surgery. Take the current situation. Sitting at a dead stop in traffic, as lively as a stone angel over a tomb. Not one car has moved in ten minutes. It's bumper to bumper on Sunset Boulevard, which is nothing new, but this kind of traffic is 24/7 these days, as it seems like half the city is hightailing it out of Dodge all at once. And the rain. It's been coming down nonstop for two weeks. It's like L.A. lost a bet with God and the old bastard is pissing his Happy Hour whiskey all over the city. Which, when you get down to it, isn't far from the truth. This isn't how I figured I'd ring in the apocalypse.
"Any time now, Jeff Gordon," says Candy from the passenger seat. "I thought this was supposed to be a car chase."
"By current L.A. standards, this is a car chase."
"Current L.A. seriously blows. And I think my boots are starting to grow gills."
We're in an Escalade I stole in Westwood. I hate these showboats, but it can handle the flooded streets and gets me high enough over the other cars that I can keep an eye on a cherry black '69 Charger up ahead. There's a guy inside that U.S. Marshal Wells, grand high shitbird boss of the Golden Vigil, wants to talk to.
"I should go up there, rip the fucker's door off, and stuff him in the back of the van."
"And you could take a brass band so no one misses the show. Your boss would love that."
"He wants discreet, but he knows I'm not good at discreet. I swear he did this to me on purpose."
I reach for the Maledictions in my coat pocket. Drop them and the lighter on the floor on Candy's side. She picks them up and taps out a cigarette.
"Marshal Wells is a man of God," says Candy, grinning.
"He only has your best interests at heart."
"Abraham was a man of God and he almost did a Jack the Ripper on his kid to prove it."
"See? You get off light. Your father figure just sends you out in the rain to drown."
Candy flicks the lighter and sparks a cigarette. Hands it to me and rolls down her window to let out the smoke.
I say, "Wells is a father figure like I'm one of Santa's elves."
"There you go. You're getting into the Christmas spirit. I'll have to get you a pointy hat with a bell so you feel like a real elf."
"You already gave me the Colt. I thought that was my present. And I gave you the guitar."
"That was different. Those were 'We might die tonight' presents. And it was November, so they don't count."
"This is just you angling to get another present."
"It's the end of the world, sweetheart. Crack open the piggy bank."
"We spent the piggy bank on Max Overdrive." She shrugs.
"That's your problem. I already have something picked out for you, so don't try to weasel out of this. I want a real damned present on real damned Christmas morning." I puff the Malediction. Brake lights go dark in the distance.
"Yes, ma'am. Anything else? Eight maids a-milking maybe?"
"Are they hot maids? 'Cause I never had a nine-way before, so, yeah."
Somewhere far away a car moves. More brake lights go off ahead of us. In the distance, I actually see a truck inch forward.
"It's a Christmas miracle," shouts Candy. "God bless us every one."
Like some great wheezing machine no one has fired up since D-Day, cars around us begin to creep tentatively forward. I take my foot off the brake and let the Escalade roll. At that moment the sky opens up. I hit the windshield wipers, but a second after the glass goes clear, it's drenched again. I roll down my window and stick my head out. The Malediction is instantly soggy. I spit it out. The sky has gone dark gray, dulling the colors on all the cars. In the downpour I lose sight of the Charger.
"Do you see it?"
Candy has her head out her window.
"It's about a block ahead," she says. Then, "Wait. It's got its signal on. I think it's turning. Yeah, there it goes." Traffic lurches to a stop. Horns honk. People shout at each other.
"Wait. He's gone?"
"Yeah, around the first corner."
It's a sea of brake lights again. No one is going anywhere.
"What?" says Candy.
"I'm about to call in that brass band. Get your head back inside the car."
"Now you're talking."
Traffic is ass to nose again. I put the Escalade in reverse and ram the car behind me. Put it in drive and ram the car ahead. Reverse again, then drive the van up onto the sidewalk. I hit the horn and floor it. Angelinos are used to desert heat and chocolate-colored smog skies. Rain is kryptonite to these people, so there's hardly anyone outside. The few rain birds hear me coming and jump out of the way. The only casualty of my sidewalk Le Mans is a sign outside a café and a bench outside a Chinese restaurant. No one's used the damned thing in weeks and no one will until the world ends, which means it shouldn't even be there, so fuck it.
I turn hard at the corner. The rear end of the van fishtails and hits a mailbox. Letters explode like New Year's confetti over the stalled cars.
"Jerk," says Candy. "Now people's Christmas cards are getting wet."
"Will you shut up about Christmas and help me look for the car?"
Traffic is a little lighter on the side street, so the Charger could still be ahead. Or have pulled off into a parking lot or another side street.
"Shit. Shit. Shit."
On the next block is a row of warehouses. Distribution points. The kind of places that get goods from big warehouses and parcel them out to regular stores.
"There," says Candy. "By the open loading dock."
I look to where she's pointing and spot the Charger. It's sideways to the dock and the driver-side door is open; not parked, but abandoned. I stop the Escalade and get out. Instantly, I'm soaked. My frock coat, motorcycle pants, and boots weren't made for this Noah's ark bullshit. It feels like I've gained twenty pounds before I take a step.
Candy comes around the van. I start across the street.
"You got your gun?"
She holds up her Swiss folding pistol. Unopened, it looks kind of like a skinny lunch box. She's covered it with stickers from some of her favorite animes. FLCL. Ghost in the Shell. Blood. Appleseed. She pushes a button and the lunch box unfolds like a matte-black Transformer into an extended 9mm pistol with a shoulder stock. She grins. She always grins when she gets to use her gun because she thinks she's Modesty Blaise and who am I to tell her she's not?
"I'm going in the front. Go around the side and see if there's a back way in. If you can't get through it, make sure no one gets out."
As she starts away she says, "Be careful."
"I'm always careful."
"Right. That's how you got all those scars. From being careful."
I wait for her to disappear around the side of the building before I go in. I jump up onto the Charger's hood and from there onto the dock platform.
It's at least twenty degrees colder inside the warehouse. I spot maybe fifteen people working. Carrying boxes and driving forklifts. It's a meat-packing plant, prepping orders to take to butcher shops. I can see my breath in front of my face. Wells gave me a photo of the man I'm supposed to follow but I don't see him among the faces up front. I head into the back of the plant to the big freezer. The entrance is covered with a thick plastic curtain with slits every couple of feet so forklifts can pass in and out. I grab a clipboard off a nail on the wall and stroll past a forklift coming the other way. Inside the freezer the real cold hits me. This isn't muggy L.A. showers weather. This is penguin country. I swear my wet clothes start freezing to my body. They must be doing good business at the warehouse. The freezer stretches away in both directions, full of sides of beef on nasty-looking meat hooks. I don't want to go in unarmed, but I might as well try the discretion thing as long as I can. I take out the na'at instead of my gun. The na'at is a weapon I picked up in the arena in Hell. It collapses to no longer than a cop's riot baton, but can extend like a spear or a whip. It isn't always a quiet weapon because of all the screaming, but it's more subtle than a Colt pistol.
I snap open the na'at into a spear shape and move through the meat forest as quietly as I can. This might be a mistake. Maybe I should have checked the office first. But Wells didn't say anything about the guy working here and most people when they're scared head as far from the front door as possible. That's back here. Still, after staring at row after row of dead cow, I'm getting bored and hungry. Then I spot a different kind of light a few rows ahead. It's softer and more diffuse than in the rest of the freezer, and tinged in pink. I head for it and find Mr. Charger. He's not alone. Thirteen of them stand in a circle in an open area in the back of the freezer. By open area, I mean there aren't any sides of beef hanging back here, but there's a hell of a lot of meat. They've made a whole cathedral of the stuff. Arches made from ribs, livers, hearts, and leg bones all frozen together. A vaulted ceiling from muscle trimmed from sides of beef hanging on high hooks. Their flesh church even has nave windows made of stitched-together sheets of pig caul. The light back here is a milky crimson.
All thirteen of them, six men and seven women, smile at me. Big and toothy.
"It took you long enough to find us," says Mr. Charger.
"Sorry. I took a wrong turn at the pork chops."
"No worries. You're here. That's all that matters."
I know I should watch the crazies, but I can't take my eyes off the meat Notre-Dame.
"I love what you've done with the place. Ed Gein chic."
"Thank you. It took some time to get it just right."
"Who's your decorator? We're finishing my new place and there's all this leftover chorizo. Maybe we could use it for a rumpus room."
Mr. Charger doesn't say anything because he's watching me as I see it.
Not all the meat in the church is animal. There's a human body cut into six pieces—arms, legs, torso, and head—hanging like nightmare piñatas over the smiling circle of freaks.
Mr. Charger says, "Do you understand why you're here?"
"If you think I'm going to be the next one hanging from those hooks, you're extremely mistaken." Normally, I could probably handle a flock of unarmed fruit bats. Hell, the freezer is big enough that I could just run away if I broke a nail. But these particular fruit bats are all armed. Each holds a wicked-looking motorized meat saw, like an oversize electric knife. Outwardly they all look calm, but they're sweating, even in this cold. They smell of fear and adrenaline. The sweat steams from their bodies and collects at the ceiling like incense in their mad church.
Mr. Charger shakes his head.
"We're not here to hurt you. You're here to help us."
"How did you know I was coming?"
Mr. Charger looks around at his friends.
"God told us."
I shake my head.
"I'm kind of acquainted with God and I don't think he told you dick."
A thin redhead from the back says, "We mean the true God."
"Oh hell. You're Angra worshipers, aren't you? Is that what this is all about? I don't mean to cramp your little chautauqua, but my boss wants a word with you. How about you put down the saws and you can come and be crazy where it's warm?"
A chuckle goes around the circle.
"I'm not going with you because I'm not here for you.
You're here for us," says Mr. Charger.
"If you're selling candy bars to go to summer camp, I'm tapped out right now."
Mr. Charger raises his meat saw. I move my weight onto my back leg, ready to move when he tells them to rush me.
"We don't want anything from you except to be our witness."
Without another word or a signal, all thirteen of them raise their meat saws to their throats.
Mr. Charger is the first to shove the buzzing saw into his neck. He screams, but just for a second before the blade rips through his larynx and his throat fills with blood. He goes down twitching as the others fire up their own saws, following their leader's example. It's the same for all of them. A small scream as the blade tears into them. A gurgling as their voice box goes, the blood fills their throat and jets from their severed arteries. It only takes a few seconds and all thirteen are on the floor, their blood steaming on the cold metal. Their saws rattle and buzz where they dropped them. I've seen some cold moves in my time, I've fought and killed in Hell and on earth, but I've never seen anything quite like this before.
Over the sound of the saws I hear voices. All the screaming got someone's attention. That's all I need. A warehouse of hysterical meat packers with big knives and cell phones. Imagine explaining this to a 911 operator. It might take awhile to get a patrol car. But still, it's the principle of the thing. I'm not in the mood to deal with another crazed mob right now.
They're getting near me now and I let them. When the first few tough guys emerge from the rows of beef and see me in the meat cathedral surrounded by freezing corpses, they stop. Good. They're not going to rush me but they're still between me and the door. I pull the Colt and shoot three rounds into the floor by their feet. That alters their mood and sends them scurrying like sensible rats out of there.
Only one person is still coming in my direction. Candy shoulders her way between the beef rows, her gun up, sweeping the room. But when she sees me, even she stops. For a second I can see it in her eyes. She wonders if I did this. Then she sees the meat saws and relaxes. She lowers her gun and comes over to me.
"Oh man," she says. "I mean. Oh man."
I go from saw to saw and turn them off. The sound is giving me a headache.
"What were they . . . ?"
"It was a sacrifice to one of their idiot Angra gods."
"Couldn't they have just had a bake sale?"
I walk over and put my hand on her gun, lowering it to her side. I put my arm around her. I haven't seen her this freaked out before. She presses against me.
I say, "Wells is going to be pissed."
"He can't blame you for this insanity."
"Wells blames me for tooth decay. He can sure blame me for this. But maybe there's something I can do. Help me find a cooler and some dry ice."
There's a stack of Styrofoam coolers just outside the freezer. I grab one and Candy gets plastic packets of dry ice. We go back into the cooler. I have to work fast. Someone's called the cops by now. For all I know, one of the workers has a pistol in the back of their truck. There's a lot of that going around these days. When we get back to the suicide circle, I tell Candy to go back and guard the door.
"You just don't want me to see you do it," she says.
"You're right. But I also want you to guard the door."
She runs back to the freezer entrance. I turn on one of the meat saws and get to work. It doesn't take long. Mr. Charger did the hard part himself. All I have to do is get through some gristle and the spinal cord so I can twist his head all the way off.
When I do, I put it in the cooler and pack ice around it.
Candy shakes her head when she sees me with the container.
"I've dated some messed-up people in my time."
"Write 'Dear Abby.' Let's get out of here."
There's a nice dark shadow by a stack of boxes on the loading dock. I start to pull Candy through and stop. "What you said before. Eight maids and you. That's a nine-way.
Where am I in all this?"
"That's your present. You get to watch."
"I can see it for free on the Web."
"I'm better than the Web."
"I'll give you that. But you're still coming out ahead on this deal. Better get me that pointy hat so I won't feel cheated."
She takes my hand.
"You got it, Jingles."
We step into a shadow and come out in the Golden Vigil's new L.A. headquarters, right off the eight hole of the Wilshire Golf Club. They eminent-domained the place right out from under the blue bloods, paying ten cents on the dollar, for what it's worth. It's the first time I ever really respected the Vigil. Marshals and Vigil witch doctors still dress up in pricy sports clothes and play round after round of existential golf on the grounds. No one keeps score, but someone has to be out on the greens keeping up the appearance that the club is still just a place for rich morons to blow an afternoon. Like maybe none of the locals noticed the surplus Iraq War ASVs, enough lab gear to restart the Manhattan Project, and about a hundred blacked-out bulletproof vans sneaking into the club.
A man is waiting for me inside the clubhouse. He's wearing a black suit and skinny tie, with a flag pin on the lapel. He looks like a mortician's idea of a high school principal. U.S. Marshal Larson Wells is God's own Pinkerton on Earth. The Golden Vigil is Homeland Security's dirty little secret—an investigation and law enforcement operation for supernatural activity. Which is a nice way of saying they're dedicated to harassing people like me and pretty much everyone
I know. They're thorough and obsessive. From what I've heard, they still have Lucifer on a terrorist watch list with a price on his head.
Wells is a charming piece of work. A Nevada Holy Roller marshal who hates working with me as much as I hate working for him. But we both have a vested interest in stopping the old gods, the Angra Om Ya, from returning and eating the world. Wells has a habit of calling all Sub Rosa and Lurkers "pixies," which isn't so bad on its own. It's just that he says it the way a backwoods redneck says "faggot." He used to run the Vigil with an angel named Aelita. She's dead. I didn't do it, but I would have been happy to. I've been back on the Vigil payroll for a couple of weeks and things are going swell.
"Where is he?" says Wells when he sees me and Candy.
"There was a problem," I say.
"What kind of problem?"
I hold out the ice chest. Wells's eyes narrow and he opens the lid an inch before dropping it down again.
"What in all of God's creation is wrong with you? I sent you on a simple snatch-and- grab. I wanted to question this man. Where's the rest of him?"
"In a meat locker near Sunset and Echo Park, along with a dozen other dead Angra fans. They built a Sistine Chapel out of body parts in one of the freezers. You might want to send a team over before the cops haul away all the evidence. You can get the GPS off my phone."
"Don't move," says Wells. He pulls out his BlackBerry and thumbs in a text like he wants to punch the keys in the face. When he's done he sighs and peeks in the cooler again.
"Why did you even bring that thing here? I'm not paying you by the scalp."
"He didn't do it," says Candy. "Well, not all of it. Just the last part to get his head off. The guy did the rest himself." Wells turns to Candy. It's the first time he's acknowledged her presence.
"It's truly a comfort knowing that your paramour only partly cut off the head on a key witness in our investigation."
"Just 'cause he's dead doesn't mean we can't still question him. That's why he's on ice," I say.
"There's this ritual I know. It's messy, but if I do it right, I can catch his soul before he goes into the afterlife."
"And how pray tell does the ritual work?"
"First I have to die a little."
Wells puts up his hands and claps once.
"Well, isn't that peachy? Another death today? And a suicide? Right here in Vigil headquarters? I can't see Washington minding that at all. Please go ahead."
"It isn't technically suicide because I'm only partway dead and only for a little while."
"Good, because suicide is a sin, this is consecrated ground, and I've already broken enough commandments just letting you in here."
I hand Candy the cooler and go up to Wells.
"You came to me for help, remember? You know what I do and how I work. Anytime you don't want me around I'm gone. But when I leave, the Magic 8 Ball comes with me."
"So you can lose the weapon again? How about you clean up this mess before you go causing another?"
"Fine. Get me a room where I can do the ritual. Preferably somewhere quiet and private. There's going to be some blood."
"More good news," he says. "Come with me. I wanted you to see this anyway. It's one of the old club offices. We've turned it into a kind of lab so you pixies can do magic or whatever without contaminating or scaring the bejesus out of the newer agents."
"They sound a little too sensitive to be cops."
"Don't bad-mouth my people. None of them's ever come back with a head in a box."
"Maybe you didn't ask nice enough."
Wells leads us through the place. The building is swarming with agents. Some in dark suits like Wells's. Some in lab coats.
The building doesn't resemble much of a country club anymore. They've knocked down walls and torn out floors and ceilings to bring in their special tech. I never had much use for the stuff, but I guess it suits whatever most of them do. The tech is a mix of hush-hush black budget science-fiction toys crossed with angelic hoodoo they used to get from Aelita. I don't know what they're doing for it now. Maybe they have another angel on the payroll. They sure can't ask me for help. I'm a nephilim. Half human, half angel. And I worked hard to get the angel part of me under control. The little prick is a boy scout and a bore. I'm not bringing him out again just to sup up some laptops and ray guns.
Wells leads us into what used to be one of the business offices. Now the windows have been blacked out and it's been turned into an occult space. A place where disreputable pixies like me can perform forbidden rites and magical high jinks. Candy sets the cooler down on a worktable piled high with old books and manuscripts.
"What do you think? Looks like you finally got your hoodoo man-cave."
"I've seen the Vigil do worse. At least they're admitting that they need something more than angelic halo polishers on their side."
Candy flips through the old books, looking for wood prints of medieval monsters, one of her favorite things. I look around.
There are lab coats, aprons, gloves, and eye protection by the door. Dry-erase boards mounted along one wall covered in English and angelic script. A few Angra runes too. There's what looks like an alchemy setup in the corner, with test tubes, burners, alembics, and enough herbs, elixirs, and powders to build a hedge maze. Some clever boots has installed a silver magic circle in the floor. A massive crucifix is bolted to the back of the door. A rube's talisman designed to keep our unholy magic from contaminating the rest of the Vigil's headquarters. Same as always. They need us hoodoo types, but they never let us forget that we belong in the back of the bus.
"What's that?" says Candy.
Back by the plants and lab gear is a broken-down Japanese shrine, just big enough to hold a wizened old body. The coffin-size shrine and mummy look hundreds of years old. The body sits cross-legged in a meditation pose. It's dressed in gold ceremonial robes and a conical monk's hat, so someone is looking after it. Paper-thin flesh stretches over delicate bones. It almost looks polished. Like the body isn't a mummy at all, but a statue carved from lacquered wood. There are offerings of mochi, an orange, and incense at the foot of the shrine.
I go over and touch the dried, worm-eaten word on the top of the shrine.
"Don't know. It looks like Norman Bates's prom date."
Wells comes in and sees me.
"Don't touch that," he barks.
"What's the deal with Skeletor here?"
With a creak, the mummy turns its head.
"Me? What's the deal with you, fatty?"
Slowly, the mummy monk unfolds its arms and legs. It's so slow and delicate, it looks like a giant stick insect waking up. I take a few steps back. Candy comes around the table and stands beside me, holding on to my arm. Not out of fright but in a "Holy shit can you believe this shit?" way.
Finally, the mummy is standing. The golden robes hang off him like a layer of extra flesh. He stands up straight, puts out his arms, and stretches.
"Nice nap," he says, then looks back at me. "You're the one I've heard so much about. You been running around shooting more people, fatso?"
Dead man or not, Candy steps up.
"Don't call him names, you bony bastard. He's skinny as a rail."
The mummy waves a dismissive hand at her.
"You need glasses."
"That's a holy man, young lady," says Wells. "You do not speak to him like that."
"Then he shouldn't call people names," she says.
"Stark, let me introduce you to Ishiro Shonin."
Before Candy can start arguing with Wells, I go over to the mummy, hoping this is all some kind of hazing ritual. "What's your story, dead man? I hear you speaking English, but your mouth is doing something else."
He shuffles to the table with the herbs and lab equipment. Drinks something green from an Erlenmeyer flask.
"Ah," he says when he's done. "You have good eyes for a fool. I speak how I like and you hear how you like. Same thing for me. I hear you, so you make sense. Not that someone like you makes much sense."
"I bet you wow them on talent night at the morgue. Do you do balloon animals too?"
"Fat, and ugly too. Not much for someone like you out in the world, is there? You have to hide and consort with the dead like me."
"Speaking of the dead, why don't you get more shut-eye? I need to talk to a dead man before he's gone completely. You have any crow feathers around here?"
Ishiro Shonin glances over at the ice chest. I don't have to tell him what's in there.
"How are you going to talk to him?"
"A messy ritual. But effective. It's the Metatron's Cube Communion."
The Shonin nods.
"That's why you want crow feathers. You lie down with the dead man and slash your wrists. Lots of blood and all that? Of course you'd choose that one."
"I've used it before. It's goddamn effective."
"Watch the blasphemy," says Wells.
"You like the Cube Communion because you're in love with death," says the Shonin. "You die a little and come back. Cheat death over and over like a bad boyfriend kissing another girl." He looks at Candy. "Is he a bad boyfriend?"
"No. He's great."
"Then you shouldn't let him be so stupid."
I say, "So what do you suggest?"
The Shonin pokes around the table of herbs with the black bony fingers. Picks up a furry twig dotted with small yellow blossoms. "Dream tea. I learned it from a moon spirit. You probably don't believe that kind of thing, but it's true."
"Me? I believe in everything. How does it work?"
"You make a tea. You meditate. You enter the spirit realm and find your man before he drifts away. That okay with you, fatty?"
"Great. Brew some up. I'll try it."
"You know how to meditate?"
"Everyone in L.A. knows how to meditate."
The Shonin looks as doubtful as a skeleton can. He puts water on a small flame to boil. Drops the twig into the pot.
"I should do it. I have more experience," says the Shonin.
"And I have trust issues. I'll do it."
"If you get lost and can't come back, don't blame me."
"If I get stuck because of your hoodoo juice, my ghost is going to come back and shit in your skull."
The Shonin shakes his head. It sounds like twigs cracking.
"No reasoning with some people."
"Amen to that," says Wells.
Candy says, "You're really going to drink that stuff?"
I take off my wet coat and throw it over the back of a chair. "If I don't have to slice and dice myself, I'm willing to try it. Wells won't let him kill me, will you, Wells? I'm the only one with experience handling the 8 Ball."
"So far," says Wells. "But there's always tomorrow."
"Maybe not too many," says Candy. "You might want to remember that."
The Shonin takes the tea off the burner and pours a brown mess into a small ceramic cup.
"The girl . . ."
"Candy," she says.
The Shonin looks at her.
"Your name is food? How about I call you Banana Split or Hot Dog?"
Candy turns Jade for a second. Her eyes go black, with pinpoints of red at the center. Her teeth are as sharp as a shark with a switchblade.
"Why don't you just do that?"
The Shonin looks at Wells.
"What the hell kind of a place do you run here? You bring me a fatty and a demon to work with? I didn't meditate in a hole in the ground for four hundred years for this crap." Candy goes back to her human face and I touch her shoulder on the way to the cooler. She doesn't take shit from anyone. It's one of the reasons we get along.
I take the dead man's head from the cooler and sit facing it in the silver circle on the floor. I take the Colt from my waistband and hand it to Candy. She snatches the tea out of the Shonin's hand and brings it to me.
"Now I have both of our guns. If anything weird happens here, I'm shooting these two first."
I look at the Shonin.
"I'd still like that crow feather."
He goes to the herb table and pulls a feather from a bundle wrapped in twine. Candy takes it from him and brings it to me. This isn't like the old days. I'm still getting used to having someone watch my back. It's an okay feeling.
I throw back the cup of tea. It tastes like hot swamp water filtered through a baboon's ass.
"Okay," the Shonin says. "Now you meditate. You need a zafu to sit on? What kind of meditation do you do?"
I pull a flask from my back pocket.
"The liquid kind," I say, unscrewing the top and downing a long drink of Aqua Regia, the number one booze in Hell. It goes down like gasoline and hot pepper and washes the taste of baboon out of my mouth.
The Shonin says, "Drink all you want, dummy. You won't find God in a bottle."
"I already found God," I say. "That's why I drink."
I hand Candy the flask and she takes a quick gulp before putting it in her pocket. I'm used to Aqua Regia's kick, but down enough at once and it's going to turn anyone's cerebral cortex into chocolate pudding. I let it and the tea do their work. They fight it out in my stomach. The Hellion hoodoo wrestling whatever kind of magic Mr. Bones uses. My stomach cramps and for a few seconds I want to throw up. But I hold on and the feeling passes. The room gets thin, like it's made of black gauze. I put the crow feather between my teeth just as I fall out of myself. I'm standing on an alkali plain stretching out flat and cracked in all directions. In the far distance is a shaft of light, but it never moves. The sky is dim, like just before sunrise or after sunset. Flip a coin to decide. The air is thick and hard to breathe. I wouldn't want to have to run a marathon here. The dead man wanders around shivering. Probably from being on ice for so long. I'm glad it worked and I didn't have to come halfway to Hell for nothing. The dead man stumbles back a couple of steps when he sees me. A second later he recognizes me and starts over, a little cautious.
I say, "Joseph Hobaica."
"How do you know my name?"
"We're standing in fuckall limbo and that's your first question? It's just a little trick I can do."
He looks around, hands across his chest, holding on to his shoulders, shaking.
"Where are we?"
"I just told you. Limbo. Halfway between Hell and Heaven. You're dead. Remember?"
His face changes. Things start coming back to him. Death can be a real kick in the ass, especially a death like Hobaica's. Sometimes it takes awhile for spirits to come back to themselves.
"This isn't right," he says. "This isn't where I should be. Where's the Flayed Heart?"
Now we're getting somewhere.
"I know that name. It's a nickname for one of the Angra Om Ya. A big goddamn carnivorous flower. Her real name is Zhuyigdanatha, right?"
He drops his hands to his sides. Narrows his eyes at me.
"You know nothing about the Flayed Heart."
"I know it's easier to say than Zhuyig-fucking- danatha."
"Don't blaspheme her name."
"You can knock that off right now. I've already got one schoolmarm worrying about my language. I don't need two." Hobaica turns in a dazed circle.
"I don't understand. Where's the fire? Why is my body still intact?"
"Maybe you blew your ritual. Remember that? It's where we met."
"You were the witness to our sacrifice. An ordinary, mortal man shattered by such a holy rite was our way to paradise."
"And yet here you are. Downtown Nowheresville. Like the view?"
Hobaica comes at me.
"You did this."
He tries to grab me. I sidestep, give him a little shove to throw him off balance, and stomp on the back of his knee. He goes down on his face, hurt but in one piece.
"You got that out of your system and now you're going to be smart, right? Good. First off, who told you I was following you?"
Hobaica nurses his hurt knee, but manages a smile.
"A little birdie. Der Zorn Götter has friends in many places."
I've heard of them. An upper-crust Angra sect. They have connections in money and politics all over the Sub Rosa and civilian world. Could they have connections to the Vigil? "You made a mistake asking me to be your witness, genius. First, I'm not exactly mortal, and second, I spent eleven years in Hell. You think a bunch of nitwits sawing their own heads off is going to shatter me? In Hell we called that 'Wednesday.' " I go over and pull Hobaica to his feet.
"This is a trick," he says.
"Show me what's in your head. I want to see what you expected when you died. Show me the Flayed Heart."
"Listen, man. I know you don't mind a little pain, but you're dead now. You don't need to have to do that anymore. Show me what I want or it's going to hurt."
He stands up straight. A moron with scruples.
"I won't tell you a thing."
"No matter what the old mummy said, I knew I wasn't getting through this without losing some blood."
"Hold still," I say, and pull my knife.
Hobaica tries to run, but his gimpy leg collapses and he goes down on his face. I kneel on his chest, pinning his arms to the ground.
"I should probably feel worse about this, but you hack up people to decorate your playpen, so I don't."
I grab his chin with my free hand and cut a sigil into his forehead. The mark of Nybbas, the Seer. He stops thrashing for a second when the blood flows into the eyes. I take that moment to run the knife over my own forehead, making a deep gash. Grabbing Hobaica's face, I push my forehead to his until our wounds touch. As our blood flows together, I get a dirty, low-res image of his mind.
This is what Hobaica expected. What he wanted. An endless sea of fire and bones, and floating there, as big as the sky, is a lotus made of rotting human teeth. Bodies pour into the flower's fanged maw and are ripped apart. Zhuyigdanatha swallows some of the bodies, but there's so much falling into its stinking gob that limbs, heads, torsos, and feet cascade down the side. They crawl together in the fire, forming new, weird creatures. A couple of arms merge at the shoulder with an eye attached under each armpit. Torsos with six, eight, ten legs bob along on the flames, swimming in one direction and then another as the legs compete with each other. A few piles of limbs have pulled together enough pieces to form a complete body. These climb up the sides of the tooth lotus, pushing back bodies that miss the Flayed Heart's mouth and try to get away. Others swim through the fire into caverns at the base of the lotus.
Since he's dead, I can't gauge Hobaica's mood by the smell of his sweat or the sound of his heartbeat, but being in his head, I can feel his excitement. This is what Hobaica hoped for when he cut his head off. To be one of those bodies falling into Zhuyigdanatha's mouth, feeding his master.
The old Angra moves as it chews its lunch, twisting this way and that to catch the choicest bodies. If you see it from different angles, Zhuyigdanatha changes. It becomes a slimy lizard, snaring falling bodies with a prehensile tongue a thousand miles long. A baobab tree, with razor foliage and a trunk made of rheumy eyes. A crawling fungal mass plucking bloating corpses from a sea of sewage. At least I know this really is an Angra I'm seeing. Zhuyigdanatha isn't really changing. It's a transdimensional being. We ordinary slobs can only see one dimensional aspect of the God at once, so it seems to change as it moves and dreams.
From inside Hobaica's head, I can feel the man wilt as it finally comes to him that he'll never be saved by his God. His sacrifice was a joke. The Angras are in another dimension. The other God, the God of this dimension, isn't wild about people deity shopping. It starts to dawn on Hobaica that he's not only lost his personal Jesus, but killing himself as a sacrifice to the Flayed Heart means he's pissed off the other God. With his frequent asshole miles he's earned himself a window seat on the big coal cart to Hell. He's not even scared. He's beyond fear or even despair. He knows he's lost. That he lost the first day he drew his or anyone else's blood for Zhuyigdanatha.
There's a mountain range off to the side of where we lie. I climb off Hobaica and he struggles to his feet.
"Where did those mountains come from? I swear they weren't here before."
An opening appears in the side of one mountain. Pale light shines out onto the dim plain.
"That's for me, isn't it? I'm going to Hell."
"Don't feel so bad. It beats Fresno."
Hobaica drags his arm over his forehead, wiping away the blood.
"I'm a fool."
"You bet on the wrong horse, yeah. But you're not the first one, so don't beat yourself up."
I sort of feel bad for the sucker. I mean, his life has been a joke from day one. But Hobaica's current attitude isn't a bad way to enter Hell. There's not much the Hellions can do to him that he isn't already doing.
He says, "What do I do now?"
"You can stay where you are for the rest of eternity, which, the way things are going, might not be that long. Or you can go inside."
"So, I can be somewhere awful or nowhere at all."
"It's a lousy choice, I know."
He looks at me. His clothes are speckled with his blood. He looks a little like what he looked like back in the meat locker. It's pathetic.
"Which would you choose?" he says.
"I didn't get to make a choice when I went. But if I were you, I'd choose to be someplace. All they can do in Hell is hurt you. Out here with nothing but yourself to talk to, you're going to destroy your mind. Being alone is worse than being somewhere bad."
He nods. Even manages the faintest smile in human history.
"Thank you," he says, and starts for the mountains.
"Vaya con Dios."
"Is that a joke?"
"Yeah. Not one of my best."
"A bad joke isn't much of a send-off before an eternity in Hell."
"I could tell you the one about the one-eyed priest and the bowlegged nun."
"I'll be going now."
He walks to the mountain and goes into the tunnel without looking back. It closes behind him. Alone on the alkali plain, I sit down with my legs crossed. I wipe the blood off my face with my hand and the alkali burns the cut in my forehead. The drunken feeling comes over me again. My shoulders sag. My head falls forward and my mouth opens. Something light drifts out and settles on my leg.
I wake up in the circle across from the severed head.
There's a puddle underneath it where it's starting to defrost. Candy takes my arm and helps me up. I run my fingers over my forehead. No blood. Score one for the bag of bones. I didn't have to bleed in real life after all.
I put Hobaica's head back in the cooler and hand it to Wells.
"I'm done with this. It's your problem now."
He sets it on the floor. Goes to a sink and washes his hands.
"Did it work? Did you see anything?"
"Some bad dental work. And fire. And bodies being ripped apart. The meat locker where I found ice-chest man was feng-shuied with body parts."
"You think the man cut up the bodies?" says the Shonin.
"Him and his friends, yeah. My guess is those meat piñatas were volunteers. More Angra zealots."
"They wanted to be cut up like meat?" says Candy.
"Yeah, but they didn't see it that way. The feeling I got from Hobaica—that's your dead man—is that he and his pals wanted to be hacked up like those bodies. They thought if they sacrificed themselves right they'd be reborn as bouncing baby Angras."
The Shonin laughs at that.
"They're even dumber than you."
"Did he actually tell you he cut up those bodies?" says Wells.
"I wasn't taking a deposition. These are all just impressions I got from a shell-shocked dead man on his way to Hell."
"Is that all?"
"Some of the body parts clumped together and made new bodies. There were caves they might have drifted into. Everything was on fire."
"It sounds like the realm of the Flayed Heart," says Shonin.
"Zhuyigdanatha likes underground places," says Shonin to Wells. "If there's a larger Angra group, you might find them there."
Wells shifts his weight from one foot to the other.
"What caves are we talking about? Carlsbad Caverns? A salt mine in Louisiana? Lascaux?"
The Shonin pours out the muck he gave me. Puts water and green tea into the pot and places it back on the burner.
"These were California boys, so it will be a California cave that connects, at least on a spirit level, with the Flayed Heart's dwelling place."
I start to say something, but don't. I know some caves nearby, but if the Vigil doesn't know about them I'm not going to tell them yet. I need to check with someone first. Candy is slumped on a metal stool on the other of the room, away from everyone. She's pale and fidgety. I go over to her.
"You all right?"
"I'm fine," she says. "Just let me sit here."
"I can take you home if you want."
"I'm fine. Okay?"
"Stark," says Wells. "You know lowlifes. Any of your pixie friends like to spend their time underground?"
"What makes you think the Sub Rosa or Lurkers have anything to do with this? Angra worshipers are mostly lily-white civilians."
"You didn't answer my question."
I look at the Shonin.
"You want to know about underground dwellers? Why don't you ask the jabber over there?"
Jabbers are ghosts so scared of the afterlife that they won't even leave their dead bodies. They claw their way through the soil under the city, dried-out bones living in dirt.
"Don't you dare talk about Ishiro Shonin that way. This is a holy man. Jabbers are cowards. What this man did took years of dedicated training and preparation. Successful self-mummification is incredibly rare."
I fish around in my coat pocket for a pack of Maledictions.
I find them but they're soggy with rainwater. I crumple up the pack and throw it in a wastebasket.
I look at the Shonin.
"You're what successful looks like? I've met Buddhist monks before. None of them looked like Johann Schmidt's foreskin."
"It took a thousand days to purify my body and mind before I could inter myself, preparing to come back when the world needed me. Of course," he says, looking around, "I didn't think I was coming back to a world of gaijin, urban yôkai, and whatever it is you are."
"Angels call me Abomination, but looking at you, I don't feel so bad about it."
"What's 'urban yôkai'?" says Candy. Her voice is shaky.
"He means Lurkers. Don't you, muertita?"
The Shonin says, "I knew, for instance, respectable tengu back home. You Los Angeles people— humans, and monsters—you are lost beings."
"Speaking for all the yôkai in L.A., go fuck yourself," says Candy.
"Watch the profanity," says Wells.
I go over to him.
"Exactly what is Mr. Bones doing here?"
"He was a yamabushi back in Japan. A lone mountain monk in Sennizawa. They called them Swamp Wizards. He has a deep background in the mystical arts. He's going to figure out how to make the Qomrama Om Ya work."
"I'm supposed to be lab partners with this guy?"
The Vigil has the 8 Ball locked up in a secure clean room all by itself, suspended in a magnetic field. It floats in the air and changes shape as you walk around it.
"Not supposed to," says Wells. "You are. It's done and settled. He'll figure out the Qomrama and you'll use it." "Why don't you clue me in on these things from time to time so I know what to expect?"
Wells pushes the cooler against the wall with the toe of his highly polished shoe.
"Fine. Here's your clue for today. I want you to write down everything that happened before the man you brought in died and everything you saw and heard when you went inside his head. Make sure Ishiro Shonin gets a copy and so do I."
"Now I'm your secretary."
"For the kind of money we're paying you, you're whatever I need. Today you weren't much of anything at all."
"Speaking of money, I still don't have my first check." Wells squares his shoulders.
"I wanted a man to question and you bring me back a horror show. This isn't a good time to complain to management about your salary."
I look over at Candy. She's leaning her elbows on the table.
"I'll write your report, but I'm doing it at home."
"I want it by nine a.m."
"Noon, it is."
Wells is tense. His heart rate is up a little. His pupils are narrow. I head over to Candy.
"Is there something else you have to say? Something you're not telling me?"
"Yes. Up your game, Stark. These might be the End Times. I don't want you half-assing your way through them." It's a good party-line statement, but it's not what he's thinking about. There's something else.
"Sure," I say. Then to the Shonin, "See you around the watercooler, King Tut."
"Don't eat too much tonight, fatty. Salads are your friend." I grab my coat and Candy and I follow Wells outside. The Shonin stays behind and pours himself some tea.
"What an asshole," she says.
"He's just trying to get under my skin. Sounds like he's getting under yours."
She shakes her head.
"Maybe. I don't feel well. I'm going to see Allegra."
I touch her cheek. It's cold, but Jades always run a little cool.
"You feel a little colder than usual. Want me to come along?"
"I'll be fine. I'll see you at home."
"At least let me take you through a shadow. It'll take you forever on the street."
"I'm fine," she says. For a second she flashes her Jade face. It's almost subliminal, like she wasn't in control. "Stop getting all over me."
I say, "I'll see you at home."
Candy doesn't say anything. Just walks away.
I remember that she still has my gun and I almost go after her. But I don't. Maybe some space is what she needs right now. Anyway, whatever's wrong, Allegra's clinic will fix her up.
I find a good shadow by the lab door and go through, coming out at home. Maximum Overdrive. The video store I run with a not-quite- dead man named Kasabian.