You know, soon as the fat guy mentioned his contact in the 18th Street gang, I should’ve just walked away.
Wasn’t that I gave a shit who he knew or didn’t. It was the naked and stupid pride in his voice—you know, pulling that outlaw-by-association crap that only people who’ve spent their whole lives without association with outlaws can be bothered to pull. So he was bullshitting. BFD. Except that bullshitting is just a polite term for short-order lying, which meant that this fat sack of shit—who I’d known for all of three minutes—was already fucking lying to me.
Like I cared where he scored his drugs. Like it’s my business. Here’s how it should go: Money. Drugs. Thanks. Seeya. Have a nice life and try showing some mercy to the Cheeze-Whiz, you fat fuck. But no, he’s got to start in with the anecdotes about his gangsta compadre. Which means I’m bored and annoyed so I do something stupid. I don’t take a line. Don’t even open the bag. I just want out of there as fast as possible. I know, felony level dumb, but I got two things in mitigation: I’d been clean and sober for ninety days so I didn’t want to risk even a sample buzz; and I’d gotten this lard ass’s number from Paulie Benson and Paulie and me had never had a problem. So I cut Shamu off mid-story while he’s gearing up to tell me just how many guys his guy has killed in the course of his illustrious career down there on 18th Street, throw him the money, take the packet and fuck off.
Takes me forty minutes to get back to Silver Lake because some moron tries to make a left on Cahuenga at Franklin and gets side-swiped by the ’92 Camaro that had the light. Jimmy Fitz and Stacy are spitting at each other in come down by the time I let myself in and throw the packet at them. Stacy’s right there with the mirror, the blade, and the straw—because, you know, nothing else really matters—but Jimmy looks at me hopefully.
“Change?” he says, like it’s actually a possibility.
What fucking planet did Stacy find this guy on? I do him the kindness of not laughing out loud and head for my bedroom. Neither of them were going to be needing me for the next couple of hours.
Stacy was the sister of my best friend back in Jersey, so I was kind of obliged to like her, or at least to let her crash in my living room on this little California excursion of hers. But this Jimmy Fitz character was just some douchebag she’d let pick her up somewhere along the way and I didn’t owe him jackshit. So you can imagine how happy I was when it was his voice that woke me less than half an hour later.
“ ’the fuck?!” he was saying. “ ’the fuck?!” And he kept saying it, little louder each time, until I finally got the message that it was for my benefit. It was the retard version of a gentle knock on the door and a polite ‘terribly sorry to wake you, Ms. Donnelly, but there’s something we need to talk about’.
I got up without bothering to throw any extra clothes on so I didn’t realize I was treating J-Fitz to the classic halter-top and panties peep-show until he gave me that look. You know, that look. Seen it all my life from dipshits like him. Too bad you’re a dyke, it says, because, man, is that an ass I’d like to tap. Prick. Stacy noticed it too and didn’t seem to be much happier about it than I was, but she was much more concerned with the other little problem, the one that had gotten her boyfriend all worked up in the first place.
I’d already guessed the coke was fake—junkies rarely wake you up for any reason other than the absence of a fix—but it was a little odder than that. The package I’d brought was split open on the coffee table and the powder was scattered everywhere, which I’d normally have put down to the little tykes’ adorable eagerness to get at the goodies. This time, though, it also allowed me an unobstructed view of the packet’s surprise Cracker Jack gift.
It was a severed finger.
Guy’s finger from the look of it—hair above the knuckle and shit—and it appeared to have been removed by a knife that could have been sharper and cleaner. It was still wearing a gold ring, which meant that whoever put the finger in the package meant for the ring to be part of the message. It was a signet ring, pearl inlay on black onyx, with a simple design; a central upright, like a capital ‘I’, with a curlicue at the top shooting off to the right and another at the bottom, shooting off to the left.
“I’ve seen that before,” I said.
“The finger?” said Stacy.
“Don’t be stupid,” Jimmy Fitz said. “She means the ring.”
“Oh,” said Stacy, all offended. “Like the ring isn’t on the fucking finger?”
“Yeah, but if the finger was on a fucking hand, and the hand was on a fucking person, then it’s not quite the same as—”
“Shut up, both of you,” I said. “I don’t mean the finger or the ring. I mean what’s on the ring.”
“That sign thing?”
“The symbol, yeah.”
“Where’d you see it?”
“It was on a wall.”
“Something like that,” I said.
I’d figured it was gang graffiti. Not a tag I’d seen before but it’s not like LA was, you know, running out of gangs any time soon. It was the same symbol as on the ring, though a little less well rendered. But then blood isn’t as easy to paint with as you might think.
It was scrawled on the bare wall just above the head of the corpse, which was lying on the stripped bed in the second bedroom of some rented house in the Valley that one of Dominic Kinsella’s crews was using for a porno shoot. Proponents of the good old American work ethic will be glad to know that the shoot was continuing uninterrupted on the other side of the wall while the body turned blue. And the icing on the are-you-fuckin-kiddin-me cake was that the door to the room with the body wasn’t even locked. I’d been delivering some high-end candy for cast and crew and had wandered in there by accident because I’d thought it was the door to the bathroom.
I had about five seconds to stare at the corpse—practically bisected by a close-range shotgun blast—before the Second Assistant Director followed me in there and closed the door carefully. He gave me an apologetic grimace, the semi-embarrassed kind, the kind that’s more suited to a Maitre D’ telling you there’s going to be a ten minute wait for your table, and raised his finger to his lips.
“The fuck is this?” I said, quietly enough.
“It was here when we came to set up,” he said. “We’re keeping the door closed so as not to upset the girls. Mister Kinsella’s been informed.”
Oh, well that was alright then. Long as Mister Kinsella had been informed. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked, somewhat rhetorically.
“Look,” he said. “It’s nothing to do with us. It’s going to be taken care of. Would you just leave, please? People are trying to work here.”
So I left.
The hell else was I going to do? No rats in the Donnelly house.
But no fools either. I’d had a fine old time in the underworld but I was done. Done using. Done dealing. I mean, it wasn’t like I was going to get, you know, a job or anything. It’s not like there weren’t plenty of other interesting ways for a girl to make an undeclared living, but from that point on I was staying in the shallow end. And I’d been there safe and happy, three months clean, until Stacy and her idiot showed up needing a favor and having no numbers of their own to call. And now this. Nice.
“What does it mean?” Stacy said.
“It’s a rune,” said James Fitzgerald, PhD.
“Whoa. Gold star, Frodo,” I said. “Been getting down with your dad’s copy of Led Zeppelin IV or something?”
“Fuck you,” he said. Guess he was over his little crush on me.
“But what does it mean?” Stacy asked again. Jimmy shrugged, shook his head. They both looked at me.
I had no idea what the stupid symbol meant, but I could unfortunately make an educated guess as to what was going on. That fat motherfucker had been so busy jerking himself off with his second-hand thug-life stories that he’d given me a packet intended for someone else, someone for whom the fake drugs and the signet ring would be a very clear message.
“Reprisal killing,” I said. “Gang war.”
Now, how stupid would Jimmy Fitz and Stacy have to be to turn around the next morning and go back for their money?
Yeah. That stupid. Which is exactly how fucking stupid they were.
Crack of dawn they were gunning their car, full of caffeine and attitude, pumped and primed to head over to Hollywood and teach my new friend Orca that they’re the sort of people around with whom one does not fuck.
I was still sleeping and knew nothing about it, of course, or I would’ve strapped them in the kiddie chairs and distracted them with cartoons and Vicodin. Figured they’d probably gone sight-seeing when I got up. The beach, maybe, or Grauman’s Chinese. They wouldn’t be the only strung-out white trash trying their Skechers out for size in John Wayne’s footprints. The packet, the powder, and the unlucky bastard’s finger were still on the coffee table. It wasn’t until later that I remembered what wasn’t still on the table—the post-it note with Roscoe Arbuckle’s address on it—and that was long after I’d driven over to see Paulie Benson to try to get a handle on just what kind of trouble we might be in the middle of.
Paulie’d moved into a movie star’s house for the summer. Least that’s how he described it to people. I mean, nice house and all, but ‘movie star’ was probably stretching it. Longtime customer of Paulie’s who was up in Toronto shooting a couple of straight-to-video action flicks back-to-back. It’d keep him busy eight or nine weeks and so Paulie got to play Lord of the Manor for a couple months in return for leaving a few Red Cross packages in strategic locations around the house for when not-even-Vin-Diesel got back.
It was still mid-morning, but Paulie’s party never stops. Pretty boys and girls in and around the pool. Customers and colleagues drinking and snorting. I managed to get Paulie alone though and run things by him and the good news was he saw it my way. Figured me and the morons were just crossfire pedestrians who wouldn’t be anybody’s problem provided we played nice, gave the man his ball back, and kept our mouths shut. He calmed me down enough that I hung out a while, had a shot or two, and thought about flirting with any of the girls who looked like they might be interested in playing for my team. Some Spanish chick was telling me about her last incarnation when I suddenly remembered the missing post-it note and sobered up real fast.
I made it back from the Hills in a pretty impressive eighteen minutes and grabbed my phone. Jumbo picked up on the first ring.
“Harold,” he said.
“That your first name?” I said. Because, you know, really.
“It is,” he said. “Who wants to know?”
“Harold,” I said, “we met yesterday. Helped each other out on that retail question?”
“Uh-huh,” he said. Real non-committal real quick.
“There was an item, unsolicited and surplus to requirements, in the recent order. I’m an honest person, Harold, so I want you, and anybody else it may concern, to know that I’m going to return it. And that I’m very cognizant of what is, and what isn’t, my business. Do we understand each other?”
“Uh-huh,” he said again. Little friendlier this time.
“Would now be convenient, Harold?”
“Uh-huh,” he said, and hung up.
He hadn’t mentioned any other visitors he might have had that morning, and I’d figured that was best, too. For all I knew, they’d got lost or distracted and I could get it all dealt with before they fucked it up for everybody. Or they might be dead. Dominic Kinsella, or whoever it was that was pulling Harold’s strings, might have already had people over at the fat bastard’s place once he’d been apprised of yesterday’s little mix-up.
I thought for a brief moment about getting hold of a gun. But here’s what I know about guns: First; an exit wound is bigger than an entrance wound. Second; if you’re checking out put it in your mouth not at your temple. Third; don’t point it at someone unless you’re damn sure you’ve got the balls to pull the trigger because, if you don’t and they do, they’ll take it off you and send you straight to that corner of Hell reserved for dumb fucks who shouldn’t play with guns.
That’s it. Double it and add tax and it’s still sweet fuck-all. None of it bad information, but none of it front-end practical like, you know, loading, cocking, aiming, firing. So I was going to go on good faith, on the principle that if everybody kept their heads, we’d be fine. I blew the excess talc off the finger, put it in a baggie, shoved the baggie in my pocket, and headed over.
Harold disappointed me. I’d been polite and upfront with him and was walking into his place alone and unarmed to do the right thing. But Harold wasn’t alone. There was another guy in there with him. Young, muscular, tousled hair all Brad Pitt blonde with dark roots. I could give a shit. His muscles looked like they’d been sculpted in a high-end gym rather than earned on the street, and he’d dressed himself in a camo jacket and steel-toed boots to look tough. Yeah. Real tough. Abercrombie & Fitch go Baghdad.
“Thought we were going to have a private chat,” I said to Harold.
“Shut up, you dyke bitch,” the kid said, which spoke well for his gaydar if not for his manners. I jabbed two stiff fingers into his Adam’s apple without taking my eyes off Harold. Call me touchy. Girl’s got feelings.
Harold was kind of cool. Didn’t even look down as his Seacrest-on-steroids hit the floor gagging. Maybe this wasn’t going to go as badly as I thought.
“Stay down, Matthew,” Harold said, and treated me to the ghost of an admiring smile. “The lady apparently knows her business.”
I reached for my pocket. Harold backed off a couple of feet. “I’m just here to return this,” I said, my fingers closing around the baggie.
“Why don’t you just hang onto it?” said Harold. He moved fast for a fat guy. The taser was in his hand before I even registered the odd and eager glint in his eye, and the stinger hit my chest before I could move. The voltage slammed through me, driving my body into a spastic dance, and I blacked out.
Don’t know if you’ve ever gone any kind of distance bound and gagged in the trunk of an Oldsmobile, but I don’t recommend it.
The ride was rough enough to begin with and the last twenty minutes—which, from the feel of it, was over the kind of ground yet to be reached by civilization—was actually painful. Still, I had lots to think about and it helped to distract me.
Harold. Fucking Harold. Had to hand it to the fat prick, he was the motherfucking King of Misdirection. Not just small-scale—the asshole Malibu muscle to keep my attention off his boss getting the drop on me—but big-picture shit, too; all that crap about his 18th Street buddy the night before must’ve been just snow, a little blizzard of bullshit to encourage my contempt and stop me from reading Harold right while he handed me exactly the package he wanted me to have. Still didn’t know why, of course, but I knew that Harold wasn’t what I’d thought at all. Harold was a player. Problem was I had no idea what the game was.
The car stopped, and I heard the driver and passenger doors slam and footsteps come around to the back. The desert light was blinding after the darkness of the trunk and it took me a few seconds to bring Harold and Matthew into focus. They were both standing there and looking down at me. I’ve had better moments. Harold had a proprietary excitement in his eyes that I didn’t like at all. Matthew was excited too, but in a more immediately understandable manner. He’d unzipped his pants and his cock was right out there in full view. He was stroking it. Not enough to get it leaking but enough to keep it interested while he pled his case.
“Just let me put it in,” he was saying, trying hard to make it sound like a reasonable request. He was, by the way, talking to Harold not to me. “Just straight in and up. Just enough to let her know. Remind her who’s in charge here.”
Harold didn’t answer him, though he did throw an apparently casual glance at his muscle’s love-muscle that was enough to tell me more about Harold than I really needed to know.
Matthew grinned down at me. “Middle of the Mojave,” he said. “Miles from anywhere. Go ahead and scream.” He reached down and pulled the duct tape off my mouth. I neither screamed nor said a word, just kept my eyes fixed coldly on his.
“Think you’re tough, don’t you?” he said. “How about I shove this in your mouth?” He gave a demonstrative tug on his dick. I opened my mouth, wide, and then slammed my teeth together hard and fast in a little preview of what he could expect if he tried it. He flinched instinctively and raised his fist, ready to smash it into my face.
“No,” said Harold. “We don’t mark the meat.” He turned and headed away from the car, speaking to Matthew over his shoulder. “Zip it up. Behave yourself. And bring her.”
The only structure anywhere in sight was a shack, which I guess is where Harold had changed into his black robe, but the event was scheduled to take place behind it, out in the open, in a small and shallow basin-like depression in the sandy soil. That’s where Matthew had brought me and where, after first pressing the taser hard against my throat to discourage any funny business, he’d surprisingly slashed the duct tape off my wrists and ankles with a serious looking knife and then, keeping the taser in plain sight, backed off to the perimeter of the basin, leaving me standing in the center.
Harold was on the perimeter, too, but he and Matthew were a good twenty feet apart, triangulating me.
“As you can see,” Harold said, already sweating like the fat pig he was in his heavy black robe under the low desert sun, “the ground has been prepared.”
Yeah, well that was one way of describing the various bloody pieces of Jimmy Fitz that decorated the four corners of the area as if marking the bases on a ballpark diamond in Hell. Poor Jimmy’s idiot head stared at me from home plate, dead eyes still holding an echo of astonishment, jaw held open by a swizzle stick and the cave of its open mouth filled with small rose petals of a delicate and almost translucent yellow. The petals would have struck me as, you know, an unusual grace-note but forgive me if I was a little low on appreciation of aesthetic fucking incongruity right at that moment.
“Where’s Stacy?” I asked.
Harold glanced at his watch. “Oh, I’m sure she’s back with Paulie by now,” he said, and smiled.
I didn’t say anything, and I hope to Christ I didn’t let him see anything, but he knew I was feeling it all right, and he took a moment or two to let it take a good firm hold.
“If it’s any consolation,” he said eventually, “you don’t have long to worry about being played for such a fool. The sun is soon to dip below the earth and the betrayal of friends will be far from your mind.”
I might have laughed at the strange formality that had crept into Harold’s speech if I wasn’t busy realizing that I might be quite seriously screwed here. I still didn’t know exactly what Harold had in mind but I was pretty fucking sure I wasn’t going to enjoy it. Still, Stacy and Paulie were on my list now. They’d served me to this insane bastard like a party favor and I found a little comfort, or at least distraction, in thinking about how slowly I was going to kill them if I managed to get out of here alive.
The back door of the shack opened and an old woman came out.
At first glance, she could have been some ancient relative of mine from the old country. Big black-Irish bitch turning brick-house solid in her final years. She walked, poorly, with the aid of a stick, the ornamental handle of which was the dry skull of a dead hawk. One of her eyes was sea-green. The other was dead. And the skin of her face was white. I don’t mean pale. I mean white. White as the paper you’re reading this on. White as the roof of the world.
She reached the perimeter and stopped, keeping the same kind of semi-formal distance from Harold and Matthew as they did from each other. Her head swiveled on her neck to face Harold with a leathery creaking so brittle-sounding that you’d swear there was nothing liquid inside her.
“I have come as contracted,” she cawed at Harold, “to bear witness to the keeping of your covenant.”
Harold inclined his elephantine head as elegantly as he could. “The offering has been brought,” he said, “unmarked and unbound, and bearing the sigil.”
Christ on crack, what was this? A fucking Masonic lodge? The desiccate old crone turned to look at me.
“Welcome, child,” she said. “I am The Planet Trilethium.”
Believe me, I’d love to have laughed. But her voice had no humor in it, nor any trace of self-consciousness. She was speaking her true name and, as she did, it seemed that her dead eye glistened for a second as if there were a light far behind its surface, as if it was watching from a very long way away.
And I swear to God the sand beneath my feet shifted in response.
I felt it all almost drain out of me then, felt the way you have to figure the prey feels when the predator’s jaw closes on it. You’ve seen it, right? In those nature films? They just go limp at the last, accepting it, letting it happen. There’s probably a comfort there.
But as my sainted mother used to say; Fuck That Shit.
Considering Matthew was the only one with actual weapons in his hand—the taser and the knife—I must have looked like a moron running at him instead of one of the others. But I figured him as the nearest to an amateur and, besides, what the fuck did I have to lose? I belted toward him, fast, straight, and furious. And sure enough, the dick wad instinctively fired the taser immediately instead of waiting for me to get close enough. I hardly even had to sidestep. The look on his face when the stinger went wide was so fucking sweet that I almost paused to savor it. But I didn’t. Because that would have meant less momentum when I drove my boot into the kneecap of the leg he was putting his weight on. He screamed like a girl and, starting to go down, swung wildly with his knife, which was just what I wanted. I got a clean grip, snapped his wrist in two, grabbed the knife from his useless fingers and took a whole luxurious second to let him have a good look at it and see what was coming.
I didn’t get a clean swipe at the fucker’s eyes, because Harold’s three hundred pounds suddenly slammed into me from behind, but even so the blade ended up hilt-deep through Matthew’s upper cheek and it must have been angled upward enough to sever something important in what passed for his brain because he suddenly stopped moving altogether.
Harold grabbed at me before I could either steady myself or get the knife back and I only managed a half turn before he had me in a bear hug. We did some half-hearted wrestling, my forearms flapping around pretty uselessly, grabbing at his robe and his jacket beneath, and I tried to get my knee up to find wherever his minuscule balls hid beneath his mountainous gut, but it was no use. After a few seconds of letting me struggle, he slammed the flat of his arm against the side of my head and I went limp long enough to let him carry me back to the center of the basin and drop me there, still semi-dazed.
Harold was back at the perimeter before I could get to my feet. I saw him give an apologetic look to The Planet Trilethium, but she seemed, if anything, mildly amused.
Despite my ringing head, my blood was up now and I’d have been perfectly happy to take another run at the fat sack of shit, maybe try and sink my teeth into the meat of his throat and rip his fucking windpipe out, but the desert had other ideas.
The sand was rippling.
Slowly. Not like an earthquake. Like an ocean. Like an ocean with its depths disturbed, as if something far below was waking and moving and would soon break surface.
The Planet Trilethium sighed in anticipation, the breath rattling in her ancient open mouth like a reptile hiss.
Behind me, the sun was flattening as it reached the horizon.
“You have come to the appointed place,” Harold called out. “You have come to the appointed hour.”
It was actually hard to keep my footing now, the desert beneath me bucking and dipping and the speed of its impossible movements increasing. Harold had one last thing to say.
“And you bear the sign of the appointed one.”
I planted my feet apart enough to let me keep my balance and stay upright as I found his eyes in the vanishing light and locked on them.
“Check your pocket, bitch,” I said.
What, you think I wrestled the fat fuck to cop a feel?
Harold’s hand flew beneath his robe to ferret in the pocket of his jacket and I could tell the precise moment that his hand closed around the baggie with the severed finger by the way his face crumpled past anger and disbelief into something much more satisfying.
I began running out of the center of the basin, hurdling the raging earth, and Harold—screaming like a baby, I’m delighted to say—ran to intercept me, holding the baggie out like he was going to force the ring on me again. But the Sun was gone. And rules is rules, right? Appointed hour, and all that shit.
The Planet Trilethium opened her mouth. Real wide. And a tongue the color of bruises and the length of a garden hose flew at Harold, wrapped around his throat, lifted his massive bulk effortlessly, and slammed him, back first, onto the bucking desert floor in the center of the basin.
I’m a girl who watches her manners, so I’d like to have stopped to thank her but, you know. Busy running. And I really don’t think she did it for me anyway. I was utterly irrelevant now, thank fuck, both to her and to whatever was rising from beneath the desert floor. They didn’t need me. They had Harold.
I didn’t stop running till I reached the Olds on the far side of the shack. I didn’t look back even then. You couldn’t have paid me to look back. Because, God knows, the sounds were bad enough.
I was ready to hotwire the car if I needed to—because, you know, I’ve got mad skills—but the key was right there in the ignition. I had no idea which way the freeway was but as long as The Planet Trilethium was behind me then I was going in the right direction.
I drove for a long time. Let midnight come and go. It was after I’d stopped for a burger somewhere off the I-10 that I discovered there was a cell-phone in the glove compartment.
I seriously thought about giving Paulie a call.
But, you know, why spoil the surprise?