Authors: Stephen Blackmoore
Case in point, before she got her hooks into me Santa Muerte already had a husband, Mictlantecuhtli. King of Mictlan. Ruled by her side. According to an ex-friend of mine who’s been around long enough to know, Mictlantecuhtli killed himself after the Spanish invaded the New World, which is something I didn’t know gods could do. That’s not something you’re going to find in a textbook.
I hang up my jacket, inspect it for cuts. There are a few spots I didn’t notice before where the Not-Kettleman tagged me with that knife. The fuck is up with that thing, anyway?
I have an idea where to start looking for that, but not until daylight. I need to at least get a couple hours’ sleep before I fall over. But that doesn’t mean my brain isn’t working overtime trying to figure out the other weird thing from the evening. Alex’s voice.
I’d like to think I’m not hallucinating. For normal people, when their dead friends start talking to them it’s because they’re having a psychotic break. But when it happens to a guy who sees ghosts for a living it’s just par for the course. Unless there’s no ghost there.
And that’s the problem. Alex was dead before I put a bullet in his head. That ghost I ate, Jean Boudreau, had taken up residence in Alex’s body and chowed down on his soul.
No soul, no ghost. It’s not like I haven’t been wrong about that before, of course. I thought I had destroyed Boudreau’s soul, too, fifteen years ago, only to have it come back stronger than before.
But this doesn’t feel the same. When I finally ran into Boudreau I knew it. I could feel him as a ghost. An unusual one, sure, one who broke the rules as I knew them, but still a ghost. Around spirits I get a feeling like I’m being watched, only with Boudreau it was cranked up to eleven.
I get a thought I like even less. Could this be Alex in my head? With all of the other ghosts Boudreau had consumed, did I get him, too? I’m pretty sure that when Boudreau consumed him he destroyed him completely. Of all the bits of memory I got from Boudreau and the ghosts he built himself up with, none of them seem to have been Alex’s. I’ve never had flashes of his memories like I’ve had with the other episodes. And if I were going to start talking to any of the ghosts I’d consumed, I would expect it to be Boudreau.
So, if I break it down, my options appear to be Alex is back, but he’s not a ghost. Or I’m going crazy. Awesome.
Let’s put aside the crazy idea for a second. If Alex isn’t a ghost then what the hell is he? There aren’t a lot of options for an unmoored soul. It’s pretty much ghost or gone. I pace the room, feel the buzz of the ghosts on the other side of the door, hovering in the other rooms.
Maybe I’m looking at it wrong. Assumptions have fucked me before. Thinking something isn’t possible didn’t do me any favors the last time. So let’s assume that he’s back as . . . something. If that’s true then maybe I’m not the only one he’s tried to contact. I got the guy killed, I can’t imagine I’m at the top of his list of folks to hang out with. But I can think of a couple people who might be.
The obvious one is Vivian. They were going to move in together. Hell, they were probably going to get married one day. That would make her a hell of a lot more important to him than me. I consider tracking her down and ditch the idea. I know she won’t talk to me.
But there’s Tabitha. Waitress at Alex’s bar. Turned into an apprentice of sorts. Found out she was a talent and he started training her in how to use her magic.
Of course, talking to her has its own pitfalls. We had a bit of a thing for a while. Hardly more than a first date, really. Then the shit hit the fan and I haven’t spoken to her since. For the first couple of weeks after Alex died she called or texted me every day, but I never picked up, deleted all her messages without listening to them. Then I threw the phone away. Do I know how to burn a bridge, or what?
I doubt she’ll be happy to see me, but I don’t really know how angry she’ll be. I do have a pretty good idea of how pissed off Vivian is, though, so in this case Tabitha’s a better bet. But first I have to have a conversation with MacFee, and that’s not happening until the morning.
Every city has a Shadow Market,
those places you go to buy things Walmart’s never going to carry. Luck charms that really work, low-grade curses that’ll give your enemies warts or a bad case of the clap, protections and wards for all and sundry.
Some of the markets are hidden. Some are out in the open. New York’s got five, from the one in an abandoned subway tunnel that hasn’t seen a train in a hundred years, to the group-run stoop sale spread across half a dozen brownstones in Brooklyn.
New Orleans’ sits within Metairie Cemetery in waterlogged passageways shored up by two-hundred-year-old lumber with an entrance through a Confederate soldier’s mausoleum. One in Downtown L.A. is hidden in plain sight, selling love potions and bullet-ward charms alongside the Skid Row hustlers selling knockoff Prada and Louis Vuitton. Whether it’s a collection of street vendors selling from blankets out in the open or a hidden complex in an abandoned sewer, every city’s got one.
Used to be a drive-in movie theater down in Torrance. You know, back when everything was drive-in; A&W stands, Tiny Naylors’ car-hop diner, Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank. Big lot, huge screen. Cram five kids under a blanket in the back of your van to see some Disney flick for a buck.
Then in the eighties, they fell apart. No money in drive-in movies with tinny car speakers when you’ve got a metroplex down at the local mall. So it closed down as a drive-in but opened up as a neverending swap meet.
It’s the perfect cover. So many people selling so much crap the normals never suspect some of it’s magic. If you know what you’re looking for, usually a variant on an old hobo sign for somebody who fences stolen goods, a hook on its side with a line through it, you’ll find them.
Most of the stalls are full of crap. Luggage, clothes, computers, cookware, rugs, food, bootleg DVDs, sex toys, knockoff iPods. You want it, somebody’s got it. Probably break on you inside of a week, of course. The magic gear is a lot more reliable. Has to be. You sell some kid a busted iPad that’s one thing, you sell a mage hemlock that turns out to be salad greens you might not live very long.
I thought about setting up shop here myself when I was a kid. Seemed like a good gig. Somebody’s always trying to talk to their dead grandmother or their murdered husband. When you can get them to talk, ghosts have a lot to say, though most of it’s just bitching about the life they don’t have anymore. But then the shit hit the fan and I took that show on the road instead.
I recognize a few of the vendors moving magical crap from when I used to come here as a kid. Amazing that they’re still in business. I pass a stall run by an old Vietnamese woman, face burnt brown, carved with deep wrinkles like she’s made out of wood. She’s selling thimble-sized caps of liquid magic alongside bootleg USB drives and knockoff computer parts. Wouldn’t know it to look at them, though. They’ve got some minor do-not-touch charms on them. I doubt the normals even know they’re there.
The liquid in the thimbles is something to give you a little extra oomph when you need it. Pricey stuff, but for some mages it’s the only way to go. Not everyone who can cast can generate much power on their own. That’s where the local magic well comes in. Shit’s like the Force. Surrounds everything, permeates everything. There’s no light side or dark side. That’s like calling electricity good or evil. It just is.
I pick up one of the caps, the stall’s proprietor watching me carefully. Roll it around my fingers, get a sense for it. Magic doesn’t have a taste or a smell, exactly, but that’s what it feels like. It changes from place to place, season to season. New York is heavy like hammers and brass. San Francisco is ornate and complicated. L.A. is all over the map.
The stuff in the cap’s got the sewage stink of industrial waste, the rancid tang of malt liquor.
“Wilmington?” I say, thinking of the nearby city of oil refineries and shipping companies near the L.A. Harbor. Good for curses, I’d bet, though you could use it for anything. It’s like how some wines go better with some foods, but it’ll all get you drunk.
“Beverly Hills,” she says, not happy with my assessment.
“Right,” I say, putting the cap back. I know Beverly Hills magic. Has the tang of steel, the bite of cocaine, the stink of burning money. But there’s no point in antagonizing her.
Alex had a side business selling liquid magic out of his bar. His setup makes these guys look like the amateurs they are. They’ve only managed to siphon bits from a pool, but he had a thing called an Ebony Cage under the floorboards. Woven basket of living demons’ bones, their souls trapped by the magic. Ugly thing, but if you know how to work it you can milk all the power you want off the fucking thing and bottle it up. I don’t know what happened to it after he died.
Eventually I come to the stall I’m looking for. Jack MacFee. Wide, straw cowboy hat with a feathered hatband. Skin sunburnt and perpetually red, straggly ginger beard like a lazy shrub that spreads out from under his nose to the top of his prodigious gut. Not fat so much as big boned, surrounded by big meat.
His table is covered with candles for luck and wealth, dogeared Tarot decks on clearance, Chinese coins strung on leather cords, surrounded by the detritus of occult paraphernalia, cheap leavings he sells to the rubes who come by his table for a bit of good luck. He keeps the real stuff in the back.
He looks up at me from his folding chair, mouth a grim line. “Was wondering when you were gonna show up,” he says. He’s got a voice like a rockslide. “Got a call from the cops this morning. Had to do some tap-dancing. Used up a couple charms I was hanging onto for bigger emergencies.”
“You’re welcome,” I say.
He grunts, pulls himself up from his chair. “Around back,” he says, pulling aside a flap in the plastic tarp that makes up his booth. “Don’t need to go scaring the straights.” I follow him into a room put together with more tarp, red glyphs for privacy and silence crudely spray-painted on each wall, the ceiling, the black pavement floor. If anyone’s eavesdropping on him they should just hear static.
He pulls a folding chair from behind a stack of cardboard boxes sagging under their own weight. Falls noisily into it. Grabs a can of Michelob from a Coleman cooler, pops it open, chugs it fast. Doesn’t offer me one.
“I assume you pulled that stunt so I’d know?” he says, wiping his beard with the back of his sleeve. “Spread the word?”
“Between that and giving his name to the cops I figured people would hear about Kettleman faster than if I’d tried doing it on my own.”
He nods. “Yeah. Well, word’s spread. But there’s some wondering if maybe you did it.”
“If I had, you think I’d be here?”
He shrugs. “Probably not. But if you did, I’d like to know. Bad for business.”
“I didn’t kill him. He was dead when I got there.” I tell him the story, leaving out hearing Alex’s voice. To his credit he just listens. His eyebrows go up a couple of times, but he doesn’t interrupt. He pulls another beer when I’m finished, drinks it more slowly than the last.
“Huh,” he says.
“That it? Some guy does a
Silence of the Lambs
routine and wears Kettleman like a skin suit and you just say ‘huh’?”
“The hell am I supposed to say? ‘Gosh, that’s a fuckin’ tragedy’? Fine. It’s a fuckin’ tragedy. I’ll let people know that if they see him it’s not really him. But what—” He stops. Cocks his head. Eyes go narrow like he’s focusing laser beams at me. Now he’s starting to get it.
“You’re wonderin’ if I set you up,” he says.
“And people say you’re slow.”
“Oh, fuck you. And fuck you for thinkin’ that. That meeting took me weeks to arrange.”
“And that would have made an awfully good excuse to get him out in the open for somebody else to take him out.”
“Please. I ain’t that goddamn smart.”
“Horseshit. You’re plenty smart. No I didn’t think it was you. But I had to ask.”
He waves it away. “Yeah, whatever. So, what are you gonna do now? Way you tell it, seems whoever killed Kettleman wanted a piece of you, too.”
“Maybe. I’m on the fence there. I’m more wondering about that knife. Seems too specific to just have lying around. And there was more than just the skin. He had Kettleman’s memories. Knew shit only Kettleman would know.”
“Obsidian skinnin’ knife. Steals a person’s form, memories. But leaves a ghost?”
“If you can call it that. Never seen one like it.”
He laughs. “I doubt that little detail’s gonna help much. You know how many people I’ve met can do what you do? Three. Two of ’em are already dead. I’ll ask around. It’s not like obsidian knives are just sitting there on the shelves.”
It’s surprising to hear him volunteer. MacFee’s a money-driven man. The surprise must show on my face, because he gets all sour looking.
“Fuck you, this ain’t charity. It’s in my best interest this guy gets caught,” he says. “People gonna start thinking the way you just did. That I set him up and then where the hell am I gonna be? Selling iPods and shit?”
“Thanks. Appreciate it.”
“Yeah, whatever. You got a new phone?” I show him a couple burners I picked up at a nearby stall. Give him the numbers. The way I lose shit it’s better to have more than one.
“And that other thing?” I say. He reaches down behind the cooler of beer, hands me a crumpled plastic bag. I open it to find a small bottle of ink sealed with wax and a rolled-up piece of paper tied with a black ribbon.
“Don’t open the paper until you’re ready to ink it,” he says. “There’s enough in that bottle for that and whatever you want to touch up.”
“Thanks.” I pull a thick envelope from my coat pocket and hand it to him. “You sure this is what you want? I can get you cash just as easily.” He opens it and pulls out one of the stacks of prepaid phone card bound together with rubber bands. They’re stolen, of course.
“Nah, this is perfect. I sell ’em to dealers trying to clean their money, mark ’em up twenty percent. They launder their cash, I make a profit. Win-win.” He frowns. “This is more than we agreed on. A lot more.”
“Think of it as an apology for the cops calling you this morning.”
“That’ll do. You need anything else? Ayahuasca? Lamb’s blood? I got a
in Van Nuys who grows her own chickens if you need a black rooster for anything.”
“You running a special on sacrificial animals?”
“That or fried chicken. Your choice.”
“Don’t have a lot of call for that at the moment, but I’ll keep it in mind,” I say. MacFee’s got a handle on quality ingredients. You need a hand of glory, a dog’s head, or iron nails soaked in a murderer’s blood, he’s a good source.
“You do that. Not much call for grave dust since you left town. Nobody here knows what the fuck to do with the stuff.”
He cracks open his third beer. I wonder if anybody’s tried to walk off with any of his merchandise out front then remember who I’m talking to. If anybody tried to rob him they’d probably find themselves cursed with a sudden case of explosive diarrhea.
“I think I might know somebody who can help you with this knife thing. You ever hear of the Bruja?” I can hear the capital letter.
“I’ve known some brujas,” I say, “but something tells me this is more of a title.”
“Sort of. She’s new. New-ish. Been making a stink the last couple years up in Skid Row. Keeps to herself. Doing some community outreach shit or something. Works with normals and everything.”
“How’s that different from every other hedge witch out there?”
He grins. “Aside from the fact she’s making the local Sureños piss their pants? She’s got firepower. And a hotel full of vampires and shit, man. Keeps them off the streets, or something. Real do-gooder. I don’t really know what her deal is, but she’s not somebody to fuck around with.”
Something pings in my memory, but I don’t quite have it. Have I heard of her? Or am I thinking of someone else? It’s right there but I can’t quite grab it.
“Sounds like a real Mother Teresa type. Why do you think she might know anything?”
“Rumor is she skinned a Mexican Mafia guy a while back. Left his body on the hood of some shot-caller’s car. It’s not like skinning is something you see a lot of out here.”
Point. “Okay. Watch yourself, though. If it’s her—”
“It ain’t her,” he says. “She’s all pragmatic and shit. I know her secretary. Girl’s got a head on her. Crazy don’t hire talent like that.”
“Bit of a stretch, but okay. Still, watch yourself.”
“Always do. How about you?”
I pull out my pocket watch. With traffic at this time of day it should take me about an hour or so to get back up to L.A. proper. For an artifact that can twist time, it’d be nice if it could speed up a commute.
I hold up the bottle of ink I bought. “Got an appointment. And then I have to track down a friend.”
“You have friends?”
He laughs when I flip him off. I just wish I knew the actual answer to that.