I flip on the television to see if there’s any more news about the subway. Seems every channel has something. The body count is thirty-two. Lots of speculation, no answers. More importantly no mention of me. I’m okay with that. Hopefully it’ll last.
So what do I have so far? One guy wearing Kettleman’s skin, a crazy Russian chick with no sense of scale. So far as I can tell they’re different people, but when you can take somebody’s body by wearing their skin, I suppose anything’s possible. Alex’s appearance may or may not be a psychotic break. In other words, I have fuck-all.
I lie back onto the bed, exhausted. I start to drift off when my other burner phone lets me know the spell in the train station didn’t fry its innards by buzzing on the nightstand. I grab it, half asleep.
“Been calling you the last hour, man. What the hell?” MacFee says when I pick up.
“Other phone got fried,” I say. Glad I grabbed the spare.
“I don’t know anybody who’s as hard on their shit as you, man,” he says. “Anyway, she’ll talk to you,”
A memory pokes through the fuzz of sleep but I’m not getting it. “Who’ll talk to me?”
“The Bruja. She’s at some place called the Edgewood Arms in Skid Row.” He rattles off an address on San Pedro Street in Downtown L.A. Messy part of town. I make him repeat it twice to make sure I have it. Lots of gentrification, but no matter how many luxury lofts they try to develop or get cops to push the riffraff out, Skid Row is still a mecca for the homeless.
“Wants to see you in an hour.”
“Good for her. I’ll get there when I get there,” I say. Considering how well things went the last time I went on somebody else’s timetable, I’m not crazy about repeating the experience.
“I’m just passing on the message,” he says. “Do with it what you like.”
“I’ll check it out. She say anything about the knife when you talked to her?”
“It’s more how she said it. She was awful excited on the phone.”
“Like, too excited?”
“Good to know. Thanks.” Something’s been nagging at the back of my head since I talked to him this morning. “Hey, you said she’s got like a vampire army, or something?”
“Fuck, I hope not. No, she just takes care of ’em. They’re worse than fuckin’ heroin addicts. She owns that hotel, gives them a place to stay. Like some kinda halfway house. I hear she’s got other stuff livin’ there, too, but I don’t know for certain.”
“You ever meet her?”
“Nope. Just her secretary. But I’ve talked to her. Old. Like fuckin’ ancient old. That or she smokes fifteen packs a day.”
“Thanks. I’ll let you know how it goes.” I drop the line and start to get dressed. Dammit. What is it about her that I can’t remember? Whatever it is I hope it’s not important. And if it is, I hope I remember before it’s too late.
The Edgewood is one
of those aging single-resident occupancy hotels that sprang up through the first half of the last century in Downtown L.A. The Cecil, Alexandria, King Edward. Icons in their heyday, but gutted husks of former glory, now.
Most have been torn down, redeveloped into office buildings, parking structures, luxury lofts. A few still work as hotels, but that’s stretching the definition. Section 8’s, drug addicts, people for whom the term “fixed income” means “crushing poverty.” They still get the occasional tourist, though some are better known for their serial killer residents. Ever heard the phrase “murder hotel”? This would be the place.
I park the Honda in one of the ubiquitous public lots dotting Downtown just as the sun is setting and take a tour of the neighborhood. The block that the Edgewood Arms is on is surprisingly free of graffiti. Usually you’d see something from the rampant gangs that use Skid Row as an open-air drug market.
But here there’s nothing. Streets and storefronts are shabby, but clean, new trees planted, no mini homeless camps of tarp-covered shopping carts shoved into alleyways. The few homeless I do see look like they’re either passing through or are actively on their way to do something, not just milling around drinking 40s out of paper bags.
The weirdest thing is the lack of Dead. Skid Row is crawling with them. Homeless who spent one night too many outside in the winter, got shanked for a blanket, or just dropped dead from tuberculosis. Some of them go on their merry way, but a lot of them stick around, little balls of ghostly trauma lingering around the edges.
But this block is empty. Just clearing a house of ghosts is a major undertaking, and to do it for an entire city block and make sure no new ghosts wander in? That’s the shit right there.
The Edgewood Arms itself fits the same theme of shabby cleanliness as the rest of the block, like some alcoholic who’s come off a bender and gotten a shower and a shave. It needs work, but it’s solid. The marble entryway is pockmarked from years of neglect, the portico columns chipped and worn. But the floor has been swept and there’s a fresh coat of paint on everything.
I circle the building a couple of times and the charms on the walls are pretty easy to pick out. Don’t-look-at-me spells inscribed on the walls tell the normals that there’s nothing to see here. Wards against a wide range of demons and monsters and a handful of curses that do god knows what tell the magic types to stay the fuck away. If you’re coming in through that front door, you better be loaded for bear.
This isn’t a hotel, it’s a fucking fortress.
I top off my tank from the local magic pool. I pull in power hard and fast and keep it coming until I can’t hold anymore. I don’t really need to, but any mages in the area are going to notice and it’ll make their ears perk up. The Bruja has shown me hers, the least I can do is show her mine. She ought to know that I’m not someone to fuck with either.
I step through the doors into a carpeted foyer that continues the same, shabby theme. Old carpets, threadbare chairs, a massive hanging clock with a slowly ticking pendulum. The front desk is barred with an old Mexican guy reading a newspaper behind it. A half dozen Latino men, boys really, barely out of high school, sit in the chairs shooting the shit.
The one person standing out from the rest is a young Latina woman with her hair pulled back in a ponytail sitting in the corner watching me like I’m a snake. Could be that secretary of the Bruja’s MacFee mentioned. Probably a mage herself and noticed the big drink I took outside.
And then I see the door and it all clicks.
It’s a fancy door. Red leather with brass buttons like you’d see leading to a bar in a Rat Pack movie. Big brass handle, heavy hinges. Only it doesn’t go anywhere. If this door opened it should open onto the street. Except there’s no door on the street side.
That’s not the weird part.
The weird part is that along the edges there are letters in Aramaic, script so thin and faded that if you’d never seen the letters before you might not catch them. They’re written on doors scattered all over L.A. Some of those doors move. Some stick around for a while. Most don’t actually look like doors. I know of one in Catalina, one in a bathroom stall in Union Station.
There are other doors that don’t have that script. Doors that open onto places that, believe me, you don’t want to go. But these doors open onto a little pocket world stuffed inside a bottle buried somewhere in Los Angeles that’s been here ever since a Spanish explorer lost it while he was tromping through the New World. God help us if anybody digs that bottle up.
I make a beeline toward the woman, ignore the stares from the boys and the guy behind the desk. She’s young, petite, wearing Doc Martens and a Sleigh Bells t-shirt. Early twenties. Chewing bubblegum.
I’ve never met her, and I don’t know her name, but I’ve been told about her. At length. Anybody else would look at her and see a clichéd Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Cute, bubbly, maybe a little awkward.
It’s all horseshit, of course. She runs this hotel as a home for wayward supernaturals. Vampires, mostly, but who knows what else. From what I’ve heard she’s quite the asskicker. Could tear a hole through this city it could fall through.
Her face changes from wary attention to vapid smile as I get close. Disarming. Good strategy if I were just some no-nothing schlub. I stop in front of her. She looks up at me, blows a big, pink bubble of gum until it pops. The guys in the room stop talking, the testosterone stink coming off of them like they think their baby sister is being threatened.
“They don’t even know, do they?” I say so only she can hear it.
“And you’re not going to tell them,” she says back.
I nod back toward the red leather door. “Darius speaks rather highly of you.” Wouldn’t shut up about her, in fact. Darius is the Djinn who lives behind that door. When I saw him some months back he was going on about some asskicker witch that had him all hot and bothered. I could be wrong that this is her, I suppose, but I know I’m not.
“Really? He’s never mentioned you.”
Not surprising. “We’re not exactly on speaking terms at the moment,” I say. “How’s he doing?”
“As pet demons go, he’s not bad.”
I can’t help but laugh, which I’m sure isn’t winning me any points. “Is that what he told you he is? Typical.” Probably said that to make her feel more in control. Mages know how to deal with demons. We know how to bend our will around them. But I don’t know anybody who knows how to handle the Djinn.
“Look,” I say, “I don’t want to waste your time. You probably don’t give a rat’s ass about mine. So why don’t we go have a quiet chat someplace else without the entourage? Bruja.”
She looks past me at the raging testosterone glaring holes in my back and waves them down. “All good,” she says. “Gonna take him upstairs to meet the Bruja.” She glares at me.
“You sure, you’re gonna be okay?” one of them says, standing up and puffing out his chest. If he’s older than twenty I’d be shocked. Fat around the middle. Trying to show the others that he knows what it is to be a man.
“He’s not gonna try anything, Dante. You know she’s got this whole place hexed.” She stands up, heads toward a cage elevator next to a wide staircase that used to be grand. I start to follow her and the fat guy comes up and taps me on the shoulder.
“Don’t you fuck with her,
,” he says. “Or you answer to me.”
I lower my sunglasses so he can get a really good look at these pitch black eyes. Smile at him. He takes an involuntary step back, uncertainty on his face.
“Bring it. If you think you’re man enough,
“Dante,” she says. “Your dick’s too small to be swingin’ around. Cut it the fuck out.” The other boys all laugh as I join her in the elevator. She closes the gate and pushes the button for the fourth floor.
I’m not crazy about being in an enclosed space with another mage I don’t know, but considering that she’s already got more composure than the crazy train lady and more brains than the guy who didn’t think of hiding Kettleman’s body better, I figure it’s a good bet she’s not associated with either of them. Of course, I’ve been wrong before.
“What’d you show him?” she asks. “He almost pissed himself back there.”
“My sparkling personality.” I take off my sunglasses so she can see. It’s just her and me in here and I don’t have to worry about scaring the straights.
“Cosmetics by Santa Muerte, huh? I lied a little back there. Darius has told me about you.” That might not be a good thing.
“So those kids really don’t know you’re the Bruja?”
“Please. Would you trust normals to keep a secret like that? They’re muscle,” she says. “Easier to keep folks off my ass if they think she’s some scary old crone. A lot of people don’t know I’m the Bruja. So, congratulations, you’re in an exclusive club.”
“Promise I won’t tell,” I say. The elevator comes to a rickety stop at a carpeted hallway lined with numbered doors. She pulls the gate open. I step out and move to the side to give her room.
“Oh, I’ll make sure of that,” she says. I catch the menace in her voice just in time and dodge to the right. It might be the only thing that saves me.
She swings a punch at me, which from a normal would be laughable. But I’ve yet to meet a mage who doesn’t fight dirty. A green haze erupts around her fist and though she only grazes me it feels like I’ve been sideswiped by a Chevy. The force throws me across the hall and into a door on the opposite wall.
My tats take the brunt of the damage, but I hit the door with my left shoulder and it flares into screaming agony. The door splinters, but holds. Awkward side step as she comes at me. She barely misses. Fist hits the wall. Leaves a spiderweb crater in the plaster.
“The hell is your problem?” I say. Between the sucker punch and my shoulder screaming I feel like I’m slogging through mud.
“Like you don’t fucking know,” she says. She spins on me, lashes out with a backhand shot that I barely block with my right forearm. Again, my tats absorb most of the blow. Without them she’d have shattered bone.
“I really don’t.” With my left shoulder on fire and my right arm going numb from her bone-crunching punch, I opt for a forward kick that I pump with enough juice to send a normal through the wall.
It connects with her chin, a flash of blue light engulfing her as her own defenses take the blow. She staggers back, reeling. Before she can recover, I step forward, send out a right hook that misses by a mile as she ducks in time. She comes up with a fist into my armpit.
Fire explodes in my chest. I double up from the pain. But I’m close enough that she can’t get away from me. I hook my foot behind her ankle, slam the heel of my hand into her face and she hits the ground. I pull back to give her a kick.
I don’t get very far. She pushes out with her hands and a blast of hurricane-force wind grabs me and throws me clear down the hall. I hit the threadbare carpet and skid, the air knocked from my lungs.
I struggle to get to my feet, pull myself to one elbow, vision blurring. My only saving grace is that she’s doing the same thing. The corner of her mouth is bleeding. I can see a goose egg forming on her forehead where I hit her and her face is starting to swell where my foot connected. I crawl to a door, use the knob to pull myself up.
I’m trying to hide the pain, but I know I’m doing a piss-poor job. Between jumping off a train and getting hammered by magically enhanced punches, I’m not at my best. Having my ass handed to me by a woman a foot shorter and sixty pounds lighter than I am isn’t doing anything for my ego, either.
“Come here to finish the job?” she says through gritted teeth. She gets to her feet, wobbles a bit. Neither of us is in much shape to fight. “Thought I wouldn’t see through that face?”
“Jesus fuck, lady. Who the hell do you think I—” And then I have an “Aha!” moment. “You think I’m the Russian, don’t you? Running around skinning people? Or you think I’m his crazy girlfriend?”
“You think I’m gonna fall for this shit, again? You’re out of your fucking mind. Where’s the knife, you sonofabitch?”
“I’m not who you think I am. Really.” I cough, spit out some blood. Goddamn, she hits hard. “And I don’t have the knife.”
She bolts down the hall toward me, picking up inhuman speed with every step. I don’t have much time, and though we’re pretty evenly matched, one of us is going to wind up seriously fucked up if it goes on much longer. I’m more than a little worried it might be me.
I reach into my coat pocket, pull out my straight razor, flip it open. Though I probably don’t need blood for this spell I’m already bleeding, so what the hell. I wipe some from my chin, flick it into the air.
One benefit of my particular knack with the dead is being able to see their world overlaid on top of ours. Another benefit is being able to move into it.
I flip over into that purgatory the ghosts hang out in before they fade off to their respective afterlives just as the Bruja reaches me. Physically, I haven’t gone anywhere. I’m still in the same place. Fortunately, this is an old building and it’s been on the psychic landscape long enough that over here it’s just as solid as it is over on the living side. In a new building I might find myself falling through empty air.