“I’ll walk with you.”
I stop and look back at him.
“You can do that? Just walk around?”
He holds out Lucifer’s mark.
“This keeps me out of all kinds of trouble. These pig fuckers might stab each other over a nickel’s worth of beer, but they aren’t about to break the Devil’s toys.”
“Come on, then.”
“Give me a minute. I got saddled with a dim Hellion for help. Boy’d be a good thief if he ever actually took anything instead of losing it. He’s too dumb to steal and too clumsy for the legions, so they made him a barman, which, sadly, in my experience is just about right.”
I light the cigarette and watch Bill go inside. Johnny Cash singing “Ain’t No Grave” drifts out when he opens the door.
I hate not trusting him. It’s been nice being able to be human with him for a few minutes at a time. It’s one of the few things that’s kept me sane. If he leads me into another ambush, I’ll know what side he’s really on. If I’m on my own, that’s just the way it is. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Bill comes back to the side of the bar a minute later and cocks his head for me to follow him.
“Which way do you think is best?” I ask, giving him an opening to lead me down any blind alley he wants.
“Through the market, I reckon. There’s a lot of traffic and people are looking at the goods and not at faces.”
And crowds are good places to stick a knife in someone’s back and disappear.
“Sounds good. Let’s go.”
We walk in silence. I can’t hear his heart or his breathing, but I can see him fine and Bill’s movements are definitely tense.
We pass the site where the new City Hall will go up. This Convergence L.A. is solid but there are small places where the real Hell peeks through. Like these Hellion cranes. The cabs are rounded and covered in heavy wired mesh and they have six or eight big portholes instead of windshields. They look a lot more like giant bugs grabbing food with long chitinous beaks than construction equipment.
Bill says, “You’re quiet all of a sudden. Usually you’re the chatterbox and I’m the one waiting to get a word in.”
The market stalls cover the sidewalks and spill onto the roads where the original stores and businesses have burned or been abandoned. The big stalls sell anything a fine upstanding Hellion could want, most of it black market. Clean clothes. Jewelry. Health and hex potions. High-end Aqua Regia and wine.
“I was thinking about who I should flay alive for selling all of Hell’s goods to these Harry Lime pricks.”
“I see. Maybe you’ve got more of the devil in you than even I credited you with.”
“Maybe it’s time to see just how much.”
There are ghosts in the crowd. Not damned souls. Ghosts. A few of them follow us.
Bill says, “Back there at the bar, you might have noticed I didn’t want to say some things.”
“I noticed that.”
Bill looks at me.
“That’s a cold tone. You peg me for a bushwhacker now too?”
“I’m tired of being surrounded by people with secrets. If you have something to say, just say it.”
“All right. But I’ll do it my way.”
He puffs on his cigar. A red legger elbows Bill out of the way. Bill elbows him right back. The legger whirls around and grabs Bill’s arm. I reach for my knife but the raider sees the mark on Bill’s arm and backs away.
Bill turns and starts walking again like nothing happened.
“They tell me that back home I’m more notorious than John Wesley Hardin, which is a hoot, as he had more fights and killed at least twice as many men as I ever did. On the other hand, it pleases me no end that Broken Nose Charlie Utter, who so violently disrupted my final card game, is known to very few. Men with restless lives—and I’m including you in this—we don’t seem to get much say in who’s remembered and who’s forgotten and with what amount of affection or derision.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“I’m sure you have, Sandman Slim.”
Bill puffs his cigar and thinks.
“The point is, whatever you do, whether you’ll turn out to be the Antichrist, the prince of killers, or perhaps nothing at all, it’s time, not men, that will be the judge.”
He stares off at nothing for a second.
“Sometimes I think that last one might be the most preferable state. To be nothing and erased from eternity strikes me as a fine thing some days. But, of course, that wasn’t offered to me and it won’t be offered to you.
“Where are you going with this, Bill?”
“Where I’m going is that neither of us is predisposed to backing down from a fight, so you need to pick and choose yours better than I did.”
Ghosts trail us on both sides of the street. They’re not threatening, but any more and they’re going to start attracting attention.
“If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that all shed blood, yours or your enemy’s, stains Creation forever and there’s no washing it away,” says Bill. “That lesson came to me too late and I killed at least one good man, a Wichita deputy, because I was too free and easy with others’ lives. If I’m in this wretched place for anything, it’s that.”
I flash on the pictures of dead faces tacked on the walls in Mason’s hidden room. I glance at the ghosts. Dead Hellions used to go to Tartarus but I destroyed the place and released them. Now they have nothing better to do than wander Hell’s streets until the end of time. I was proud of destroying Tartarus. Now I’m not sure I did anyone a favor.
“I’m not really in a position to turn pacifist at the moment. People want to kill me or take over my mind. I’m not going to lie down and let either of those things happen.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is this. This moment right here. People are after you and you’re off to the arena looking for trouble. There’s more than a normal load of troubles on your back, son. You don’t need to go adding to them with this sort of doltish behavior.”
“Goddamn. Are you telling me to take the Middle Way, Buddha?”
“If that’s a fancy way of saying not being a slave to your baser instincts, then yes. Or were you planning on returning here when you’re dead and washing my dirty glasses until Judgment Day?”
I flick the Malediction butt into a puddle.
“If I have to choose between being the Devil and your bar back, I might choose bar back. There’s free drinks and better hours. Besides, no one ever tips the Devil.”
“I thought I just did,” drawls Bill.
I look at him as he puffs his stogie.
“Maybe you did.”
He stops and looks back the way we came.
“I should head back. That donkey of a helper will’ve given away half the liquor and probably set the bar on fire by now.”
Bill puts out his hand. I shake it.
“Take care of yourself tonight, boy. Try not to be too stupid.”
“Thanks, Bill. I’ll see you around.”
He turns and heads back to the bar, the ghosts trailing along behind him. After seeing a damned soul shove a Hellion and get away with it, I think he’s their new hero.
Everything Bill said makes sense but I’m still in the mood to hightail it to the arena and draw blood. So that’s what I don’t do. I breathe. Count to ten and back down again. Over and over. I read about it in one of the Greek books. It’s a kind of meditation to focus the mind, only mine is already focused. What I need is a good, strong unfocuser.
The Devil doesn’t carry cash, so I make a deal to trade my practically new overcoat to one of the hawkers for a beat-up surplus trench coat and a bottle of good Aqua Regia. He looks a little suspicious when I agree to such an obvious rip-off but what do I care? I can have tailors run up a dozen more coats by lunch tomorrow.
It takes a few contortionist twists to get the overcoat off and the trench on without giving the market a full frontal of my prosthetic arm. Scaring monsters with scarier monster parts isn’t the best way to keep a low profile.
When I’m done do-si-doing with myself, I toss the hawker my coat and take the Aqua Regia before he can change his mind. I open the bottle and take a couple of long swigs. I’m being good and I deserve a drink.
I kind of like what Bill said about picking and choosing fights but my fights always seem to have a habit of choosing me. Or is that just an excuse? I’ve been getting and giving scars for so long I don’t know anymore. I need my own surveillance satellite to follow me around for a few months. Hire statisticians to count the punches, bullets, and blades and who blinked first. I don’t want to be a cosmic shit magnet drawing trouble to me, but maybe that’s how it is with nephilim.
In my new old coat and my fake face, I stroll down the long line of stalls checking out the goods. Is the market growing or is it that I never get out to see what’s happening at street level? I take a couple of long pulls on the bottle.
If the market is growing, I know why. I try to count all bottles of black-market potions, ammo, and boxes of food. After a block, I give up and take another pull from the bottle.
Bill is right about one thing. I have plenty to deal with right now. I know his advice makes sense because it’s what Alice would have said. She was always the smart one. Pick and choose the skulls you crack and when you do it. No skulls for me tonight, thank you very kindly. I’m as cool as a cat napping on a pint of Rocky Road. At the corner I’ll head back for the bike.
I keep seeing red leggers in the crowd. That’s new. No way raiders could be strolling around Pandemonium right out in the open without someone getting paid off. I should come down here more often. It’s like a parade of the city’s sins. Kind of like every boutique on Rodeo Drive.
I take another pull from the bottle. I’ve already killed half of it.
This bottle and no more. Cross my heart.
If Semyazah has turned into Scarface, that’s bad news. I need him to keep a lid on things. And to help keep me alive. I have to find out who’s trying to off me or I have to find a way out of here, and I have a bad feeling I’m going to have to do the first before I do the second. If Saint James was here, he’d know what was going on by now. He handles the Mike Hammer stuff and he’s not bad at it. Me, I need crib notes and blueprints to make ice.
I go around the corner and head back for where I left the bike. All of a sudden I feel wobbly on my feet. That Aqua Regia was stronger than I thought. I’ll have to order some for the palace.
I bounce off a hawker’s table. Stepping back, I hold up my hands in apology as the guy calls me an asshole fifty different ways. Hellion might be a simple language, but it can be colorful.
The last thing I want tonight is trouble, so I toss the rest of the Aqua Regia at an oil drum full of trash. And miss. The next thing I hear is someone shouting.
I know that tone. I look over at him. If I stay, there’s going to be boots and fists. If I run, I’m going to have six red leggers after me. Not exactly low profile. He and his buddies are headed this way. Basically, I have two options that add up to no options.
Sorry, Bill, but I wasn’t the one who let you down. It was the Aqua Regia.
The offended legger is a head taller than me, built long and brawny. His friends are behind him. Dirty faces. Filthy clothes. Country boys who just rolled into town and are seeing the sights when a big-city drunk practically pees on their legs. No way they’re going to be at all cool about this.
Still. I say, “Sorry. My fault. I can probably find someone to clean them for you.”
If looks could kill, I’d be one grave over from Gabby Hayes right now.
The legger looks at his liquored boots and then at me.
He says, “Keep your money. Come over here and clean them yourself. With your tongue.”
His friends laugh. I don’t like leggers at the best of times, and this is not one of those.
Behind him is a squat legger with a soft fish face and eye patch.
“I would, but it would just make your girlfriend over there jealous.”
Damn. Did I say that out loud? Maybe some of these fights are my fault after all.
The expression on Dirty Boots’ face lets me know he’s exactly dumb enough to get bent out of shape by such an obvious bait line. I know what’s going to happen next but now I know that these are just infantry blockheads and not ninjas in disguise.
The trick in this kind of situation is to move first and keep moving no matter what. They’ll think you’re crazy and hold back maybe long enough for you to get away. But they’re still six trained killers. Even in Lucifer’s armor, they can kill me, but not before I take out a few of them first.
I sprint straight at them. Five of them peel off out of the way. The sixth, a bearded Hellion who’s gone hungry long enough that his uniform is too big for him, pulls a KA-BAR from his boot and lunges at me.
Even drunk, I’m twice as fast as this backwoods benchwarmer. When he misses with the knife, he leaves himself wide open. I put my boot into his balls, and when he doubles over in pain, I bring my knee up to break his nose. He goes down spewing black blood, and right on cue, his five friends wake up and bum-rush me.
There’s not much to do when you’re on the bad end of this kind of pile-on except to keep punching and wait for an opening.
I duck, get my hands up in front of my face. Bob and weave. Throw the occasional jab just to remind them that I’m in here somewhere. Half the time they’re smacking the armor, so the beating could be a lot worse. What I don’t want is for them to get me on the ground, where they can take turns doing Olympic high dives onto my face.