A magical version of modern Los Angeles, an ex-druid down on his luck. Peregrine Dunn (the protagonist of SILENCE IN THE CHAPEL, and the narrator of the story) finds himself in a foul mood and just wanting a quiet drink. But a would-be client won’t take ‘no’ for an answer and what comes next drags Dunn into deep water.
“Like Mercy, It Flows”
“I can assure you in every way possible that what you are about to receive, and what you are about to give, is held in the highest regard.”
Torchlight splashing against gray rounded walls. Sewer tunnel? No. Some sort of run-off channel. We’re deep in. Sunlight’s faded already from behind me. Head’s still fuzzy. Hell of a time to come to.
“The truth that lies behind the obfuscation of our epistles is that the Gate swings both ways, though I must admit that this is often of little comfort to the recipient.”
What’s of little comfort to me is that these lizard-robed maniacs won’t shut up. Being tied up in leather straps with a dog muzzle tacked on to keep me from screaming isn’t much help either. Points out that I might have gotten in a little deeper than I wanted, this time.
Rule 15: It can always get a bit worse.
“It comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of sacrifice. The hitobashira of Japan, its maidens entombed in eternal vigil. The heart-blood of the captives of the Aztec, sent to power the sun. The poison fed to the servants of the pharoahs; the fires to which the Celts fed the condemned. The drownings committed in the name of Dionysus of Halicarnassus. Like today… like today…”
I could hear the smile in the chief toad’s voice. Gloating little turd. If it wasn’t for the dozen or so goons ‘escorting’ me, I might show him a thing or two about sacrifice. If I could get my damned head to clear.
I already know they’re planning to kill me.
“They thought they were simply feeding the gods or locking the spirits up as immortal watchdogs. How crude; how short-sighted. What we do, we do for the good of all. For the patron deity of our city. For the good of the god Mulholland.”
I could see his bared teeth, smiling in the flickering light as he finally looked back at me.
“Here we go.”
Whole thing started about a week ago.
Can’t say life is easy being a private eye in the city of Angels. The police department has a whole division of thaumaturges and diviners on tap. The streets are full of solo operators with their own brand of hoodoo, witchcraft or low level conjuring. Don’t even get me started about the kind of stuff they use in the business sector. And then there are the angels, mostly on the Winter Solstice but sometimes showing up when you least expect it.
So, it’s no surprise I’m down to my last buck, sitting in my favorite watering hole, a classy joint called Seven Grand, where Cernunnos the Horned God watches over the patrons and I can expect a bended ear from Johnny, geased, like all the bartenders there to never spill any customer secrets. And then she walks in.
I’m whining to him about bills – yeah, I know. Not exactly my finest moment. Here I am wondering aloud how I’m going to make rent not even paying attention to the rest of the bar. First time I even notice her, she’s right next to me, resting on the bar.
The nights I’m bored, I sometimes count how many of my cases start with a woman. The answer is, usually, too many. Truth is, I think, is that women are more comfortable hiring an outsider. Men try and sort out things on their own, usually doing something stupid before they get to me. Or the men try to hire cheap. I’m not cheap.
Back to her though. She’s what folks would call a tall drink of water: long, long legs, a body that was just poured into a well cut dark moss-colored dress. Nice necklace, not too fancy but the turquoise sets off her eyes. If she was out to catch attention, she got it. Keep in mind, we’re talking city water though. Her hair, nicely set, but something about her face showed time in the streets. Touch of wise beyond her years, average looks that took a long time to make up that way, and something in the downturn of her lips that made her look very, very serious.
“You’re the detective.” She says.
I raise my glass, rattle the ice in greeting. Don’t just how I take my whiskey. It was hot that day. It’s usually always hot. “Guilty. Appointments made at the office. Not here”
Did I mention I wasn’t in the best of moods? I was really hoping she didn’t carry a piece. Some people who come for me, packing, have tried to use it. All part of the business.
“You weren’t at your office. Janitor said you’d be here.”
I turned around to face her, leaned against the bar. “Good for him. Come see me tomorrow.”
“It needs to be now.” she insisted and tries to hand me a picture. I don’t move but I do glance at it. Ambrotype, beautiful framing. Picture of an older man. Nice looking guy. Well fed.
Her lips pursed, frustrated. “It’s my father. And he’s missing.”
Well, I feel like an idiot. I turned slightly and nodded to Johnny. He pointed me at an empty table. Made sure to put in an order for some kahve before went over. Needed a clear head and the foul, sludgy black brew Johnny makes up tastes like the ass end of a devil but does the trick. Manners first, I suppose, because before I was even seated, Johnny had pulled out some of ‘The Special’ for the lady.
The Special is just what I call it. Johnny’s got another name – might be ‘yechyd da’, which is what he always says when he puts it down. It’s not alcohol. It’s some sort of herbal concoction, kind of like a smoky tea. It takes the edge off of clients – that much I know – and it seems to be real good against possessions too. Scared the hell out of me first time a client sipped it and this howling thing fled at full speed. Quickest case I ever had either. Client was so grateful to be rid of the thing he paid me in advance.
Back to the task in front of me. Looking over the ambrotype as she took a drink. Nice frame, older, well polished. Not too old, I think. Maybe, younger days? When things were better. Ambrotype is newer. Glass is unscratched, details are spot perfect. You can see the hair on a mole on his right cheek. Posed. Looks like pride in his eyes? I glance up, see just a hint of distress as I handle it.
She’s nervous about it. A gift from her, I think. A professional portrait, probably two – one for him and one for her. Nice sense of tradition; too often the younger generation uses camera obscuras, captured lesser jinn held in place by amber-charged sigils. It’s a fad but a popular one. Not much I can do with a obscura print. Too new and the scent of anguished jinn is too strong. But something like this, something older…
All used objects, especially loved ones, gather energy over time, creating their own spirit. The oldest are practically sentient. Ones like these… it’s like tasting a memory. Warm, was this one. Comforting. Sparks of sad here and there. Maybe a heartbreak or a career that never went well. Kind of like an old gnawed bone, the sparks were just thoughts, repeated over and over but never really taking over. Gut said this didn’t feel like a man who’d just up and disappear.
“Yours?” I asked. I don’t tell a client about my little gifts unless I really need to.
“It was a gift.” she responded. “I got it for him when we thought he was going to retire.”
“What happened?” I slid the picture back towards her. She wrapped it up, carefully, in a gray piece of felt.
“They stole his pension.” she said, bitterly. “I suppose that’s not entirely true.” She caught my gaze. “They stole everyone’s pension. One of the business partners even went to jail. The rest are off vacationing somewhere I guess. With the money.”
“And this money was in?” I asked.
I remembered hearing something about it. Market fell out on building things around the city. Awful lot of people out of their jobs. Awful lot of businesses closing. Some of them didn’t go quietly. You’d see the wrecks of those years out on the streets sometimes. Men with big callused hands out begging, something not quite right in them anymore. Older men in the groups looking for work at the only sites still going up. Men who should have, by all rights, been either running those other workers or retired long ago. “How long has he been gone?”
“Two days. He had…” she broke for a second. “He said he had a job lined up. He was excited. Government project. I didn’t ask for details, didn’t want to get disappointed again.” There were the tears. She was trying to keep it together. “Every fourth day of the week, we go out to dinner. Nothing big. Just an excuse for him to get out. When he didn’t show, I went by his home. Someone had been in there, not him. They had been looking for something and I guess they found it.”
“Any idea what?” Seemed the logical question. She shook her head ‘no.’ “Think he might be at the job?”
“Without calling me?” Her look told me volumes about how silly she thought that was.
“And the police?” I held my hand before she could answer. “Let me guess. ‘His house is just messy. He’s at the job. He’s a grown man. Call us at the end of the week.’?” A flash of anger before she nodded in agreement.
Didn’t even ask if she had enough to cover my day rate.
“I’ll take it.”
The lady – Lucy was her name– was right. I was over at her father’s place, in Bell. Odd little slice of the city. About a stone’s throw from the village of Yangna, it was handed over to a soldier in response to ‘pacifying’ the area. Think about that for a moment. Bunch of peaceful locals versus an army. Later, the soldier went on to become mayor of that little town that later grew into the city of angels. My bet is if there were any angels around that ass at that time, guarantee you that they were more of the fallen variety.
So apparently, dad finds a place here fairly cheap and manages to hang on to it for most of his adult life. Can’t be the easiest thing in the world, but he managed it. Single story place, adobe, old style with thick walls, large porch. Not a lot of decorations on it. Mail’s backed up. I take the time to open them up. Looks like a lot of bills coming in. Enough that I’m thinking the old man is in deeper than the daughter knows. Looks like some services have already been cut off and a thaumaturge has been around, threatening to legally despell the house for failing to pay local fees.
The front door was unlocked. I checked around the tumbler and latch. No signs of scratches or scorch marks, like you’d get if you were using a pick or an opener’s incantation. Not a good sign. Meant either the perps were let in by Lucy’s father or they had an actual key.
The minute I stepped inside, I could see what she meant. The place had been lightly tossed. Someone was looking for something and they expected it to be obvious. They didn’t bother cleaning up after themselves. No real need. Like the cops said – ‘a bit of a mess’.
Means I would have missed the stain on the floor if I hadn’t stepped on and it screamed at me. Not literally but for a moment there, I wasn’t there. Remember that slight gift I had for picking up the spirit of an object? Well, this particular stain had it in spades.
I was dangling from one of those old west hanging posts staring down at somebody yanked a ladder out from underneath me. I got a look at my wrist watch before it hit me that the son-of-a-bitch had made the rope too long. My neck snapped as my eyes popped out. All I wanted to do was get my hand around his fat neck and squeeze but I couldn’t catch a breath. I was dying. I way dying I was…
Stumbled back against a couch, gripping it like my life depended on it. I lifted up my shoe, took it off, smelled the greasy gray stain I found on the sole. Sour, pickled smell; spicy too, like peppers. A whiff of vervain.
A Hand of Glory.
First popped up in books about half a millennium ago. Cut off the hand of the criminal who was hanged. Wrap it in funeral clothes, cook it for a while in the sun. Bake it in fern and vervain. Make some small candles out of the same guy’s fat, along with some other choice ingredients (dog crap, for example). Stick the candles on the fingers. When you’ve got the candles on the Hand of Glory burning, any house you enter, everyone except the person holding the Hand freezes. They won’t remember a thing as long as the candles burn.
They’re illegal as hell and, at least nowadays, pretty ineffective. Someone knows you’re using one and they go down to the local alchemist for a mix that will shut that right off. More than one smartass has started robbing a neighborhood only to get a face full of shot when they walk in the wrong door. The counter-spell is common prep on all government and business buildings.
Where the hell does one even get one nowadays? Last official hanging in this neck of the woods took place in the Bay Area in San Quentin and that was about thirty years ago. Something about the vision I got – the spiritual energy associated with it – much younger than that. Odds are they got some guy thinking he was doing something for the entertainment industry. All showy with mirrors and lights. ‘We’ll make you famous’ when in reality they wanted to make him dead.
I couldn’t deal with the ‘how’ right now; I knew they had one. The question is when they used it. On a hunch, I go into the kitchen and spot it immediately. Spilled kahve on the counter, kind of typical when you’ve got guests. Lucy’s dad walked in here, going to go get his guest a drink. That must have been when they lit it up. Froze where he was until they searched the house and then… what?
I take a look over the back door, leads out from the kitchen. Looks like the door was slammed open. There’s a couple of marks on the ground. Someone dragged? Damn it. Reaching for straws at this point. I don’t know what the hell was going on for certain. The back yard’s a pretty sizable one, mostly concrete. There’s a back gate too. I check it out. Unlocked. Go out and find myself on an alley.
Neighbors are nosy; that’s true anywhere. It takes me about three houses until I can find someone who will talk to me. Older man, Nick, hair white as marble and a face about as cracked. Not much of a smiler, but he shares a smoke with me. We both watch the tobacco go up as an offering.
“Knew something was wrong.” he said. “He was going to hand me back those tools he borrowed.”
I nodded. “And you saw?”
“Couple days back. Meter reader. Fat guy. Didn’t think about it at the time. Drove around back. Parked for a while. Figured he was coming to check the place out. Maybe turn off another service. Poor bastard.”
“Any reason you can think of why he didn’t tell his daughter?”
“Trying not to burden her, I suppose. Put on a good face on it. Pretty much everybody around here made sure he got fed, got water, a little bit of scratch to buy things. He was working hard to find someone to give him a break. Tough when you’re that age.”
“So I’ve heard.”
Nick smirked. “You’re too damned young to understand.” He took a drag. “People old as us, all we’ve got are each other.”
“You watch the meter guy?”
“Not more than a minute. Looked like he belonged. You know what I mean.”
It meant this old guy knew the difference between someone scouting the neighborhood and actually doing a job. Or at least he thought he knew.
“Thanks.” Left him the pack. Seemed like the neighborly thing to do.
Went back into the house. Looked around for a while more. What were they after? Took me another 10 before I got it.
Lucy’s Dad said he’d got a job. There’s things that go along with it. Tax forms, new employee paperwork. Hells, even just a note on where to go.
Instead, this guy had been cleaned out. No proof that he’d ever had a new job. Not a speck. Someone, not a professional but definitely practiced, came in to clean up their traces. If it hadn’t been for that trace on the floor, I probably would have fell for it too.
Probably about the right time to call the cops. Hand of Glory would bring them in solid; having their resources on the job would probably track down the old guy faster than me and make the client happy.
Still waited until I was on the other side of the city before phoning it in.
Standing in front of the window in my office, watching the sun go down. Case should be closed soon. Cops are on it. They’ve got resources. That should be the end of it. The world seems to slow down as a splash of salmon hits the sky, slowing fading to crimson and then to the blues and velvets of night. The lights of a thousand small incantations flare up in the dark, Angel City’s own homage to the stars, trapped here on the earth.
I can’t let this go. Something is my gut isn’t satisfied. This woman’s father is missing and I might know how, but I sure as hell don’t know who or why. I’ve been nursing this drink in my hand for almost a quarter of an hour. I know what I have to do and it’s not this.
I grab my jacket and go outside.
Howard Elphonsa 11 – that’s the little creep I’m looking for. A small operator in the scheme of things, irritating as all hells and not a friend of mine. Still, he has his uses and his vices as well. This late at night, found him in a pai gow parlor in Chinatown, deep in the game, probably deep in debt. Poor guy didn’t even see me coming.
“This is it.” he sneers, fondling a domino. “This is where I take it all back.” He throws down a bet and the others match it. With a flourish, he throws the domino on the table and it lands. He gasps and backs away from the table. It’s not the piece he expected. The others back away quickly as well.
On the piece is the number four.
“Recognize this?” I say, dangling it right in from of 11’s face. It’s a concave mirror, set in an octagonal frame. There’s writing etched into it. “It’s a bagua mirror that some nasty person tried to leave in my office. Can you guess what I have trapped inside it?”
I lean down and whisper into one pale ear. “Four.”
Four. Cute word. In… I think it’s Cantonese? It sounds a lot like the word for ‘death.’ Which gamblers seem to think is an unlucky thing to have around.
“It wasn’t me. I promise it wasn’t me.” He says it all too quick, too practiced. Must have known it would come back to bite him.
“How about we settle this outside?”
The violence level in the room notches up several times. This was a man who owed them money. They didn’t want him out of their sight. I pulled the mirror away from 11’s gaze and swung it towards them. All of them looked away from it, quickly.
“Ten minutes outside. That’s all I need.” I repeat the instructions in Mandarin. I hope they understand.
I grab 11 by the collar and pull him out. A couple of the younger ones look like they are going to fight me anyway. Wiser hands stop them.
The pai gow parlor was in the back of a restaurant, the kind of dumpy place where you find some of the best food you’ve ever tasted. The wait staff isn’t happy I’m dragging some trashy white guy through their fine establishment. I get cursed at, at least a dozen times before I get him out front.
I slam him against a wall. “Seriously?” I put the mirror right up to his nose. “This?”
“Hey, you know, thought you had a sense of humor.”
“It’s diminishing fast.”
“What do you want, Dunn?” he pleaded, “You only come after me when you want something.”
“Big projects.” I say. “Word around town. Who’s hiring? Construction.”
“How am I supposed to know, Dunn? I’m just small fry. You know that.”
I glance away from him and into the window of the restaurant. “Hells. It looks like they’re coming out early.”
“Who’s coming out early?” he tries to twist his head around. I’m having none of it.
“Crap. I think that one’s got a gun.”
“Which one?” he squirms. “You’ve got to let me go!”
“Projects, Howard or I leave you to them.”
“The Broad, the Bloc, Holly Wood Reservoir, the Historic State Park, L.A. River, Lotus Gardens…”
“Hold on.” I cut him off. “Which one are government projects?”
“The River’s got the Army Engineers. Reservoir is… um. Department of Water and Pegomancy, I think.”
DWP. Meter reader. Think I’ve got a start.
“Run.” I say and I drop him.All eyes go to Howard as he takes off and several very angry people go after him. Takes me just a moment to take advantage of the situation and do a quick fade.
Pegomancy. It’s about as old as humanity. The ability to divine fortune through examining sacred waters. But it took a twisted genius like William Mulholland to figure out how to use that inspiration to alter the future of the La Ciudad de los Reina de los Angeles. Utilizing spiritual forces and unique incantations borrowed from the Romans, Mulholland sucked the life out of the northern part of the state so his dreams and his alone would grow.
And grow they did. A legacy of millions of people, the greatest collection of cultures on Turtle Island, with a siren’s voice that can influence the world. All it took was a lot of pain, sacrifice and a dash of attempted genocide.
Mulholland’s legacy was the Department of Water and Pegomancy. For the most part they collect water fees from the citizens, alongside making sure the common enchantments everybody uses day-to-day don’t compromise the ‘aetheric well-being of the city’. Really have no idea what they’re talking about with the last part but they’ve been pretty fierce after locating unlicensed home enchantments.
Despite the fact that a bunch of folks don’t like them, despite the fact that ‘scandals of momentous proportion’ keep getting attached to them, it’s always business as usual. They’re the mountain lion in the corner, quiet, deadly, and really having no problem devouring someone they don’t like in a heartbeat.
Having mulled over all that, I’m really hoping that they are not connected to this guy’s disappearance.
“Pegomancy?” the snide comment is coming from Mich’Elle. Cursed owner of a local occult book / supplies shop and the one currently putting henna on my arms. “Sounds obscene.” She puts her lips close to my ear and whispers “Sounds sexy.”
Mich’Elle was one of those many entertainment industry folks who tried to hang on to their youth. For her, it ended up with a botched spell that put her perenially in the body of a teen. And if that sounds like a good ride to you, you don’t remember what it was like to be a teen.
All attitude, moody as hell, all the time but she and I have been friends for probably close to a decade now. Which is why I roll my eyes at her innuendo. She knows I’m not going to take the bait. She pulls back and traces her finger down a tattooed line, one of many, going down my chest.
She frowns. “You know this is going to weaken this.” She’s referring to my ‘secret weapon’, the whole reason why I’ve got the tattoos.
I nod. “Not completely. But I don’t want somebody getting a glimpse of these and recognizing what they do.” My tattoo – which covers all of my torso and most of arms – is very distinctive. Mich’Elle dips her brush into the rich, dark-brown henna ink. It’s temporary but will do the job of a good cover up. I’ve given her full permission to do whatever she likes. So, instead of the angular ancient script and symbols, now there are dragons and demons, vines and fay, angels and kirin. Everything I’ve ever told her about, she’s put there. She’s enjoying herself.
“Checked in with the cops this morning and they’re dragging their heels. I think they know this is going to point big and they’re worried about it. But if I’m going to pull this guy out of this in one piece, it has to be now.”
“So you think going undercover is going to accomplish this?” she finishes with her tongue stuck out between her teeth. Some consider it very cute but I know it’s what she unconsciously does when she’s frustrated.
“I know where they’re working. Word is, they’re still hiring. Unless you have a better idea…”
One of these days, one of my friends is going to look back at me and say ‘yes, I have a better idea.’ This is not that day. Mich’Elle jabs me with her brush.
“Ow! You’re supposed to paint me, not tattoo me!”
She growls and curses and goes back to work. Before she moves to a spot I can’t see, I spot what seems to be the tail end of a horse being stenciled on. Great. She’s going to take out her frustration by drawing a pony on me.
“Seem fit enough. References are in order.”
The supervisor is looking me over. I’m dressed in a white t-shirt, jeans, nothing else to really identify me.
“What’s with the pony?”
I’m going to kill her.
“Girlfriend pranked me, sir.” I tuck the shirt in, covering the pony.
“Hope you really liked her. Something like that.”
I look the supervisor in the eye. “Can’t say it did the relationship much good, sir.”
The supervisor smiled, thinking he’s had some private moment with me. “Service?” He’s noted the repeated ‘sirs’ and my stance.
“One tour, sir. Did some work on the docks in Long Beach after that.” On a whole government supervisors like military men. Figure they’ve already got the discipline knocked into them so it’s a shoe-in for certain types of employment.
“This is straight up construction, shoring up some refits for the area around the Mulholland Dam. Keep your head up, shoulder in to the work, listen to the boss and you’ll be fine.”
He shuffled off the paperwork to a very nervous looking assistant. “Here you go.” the assistant said. I took the clipboard from him. Looked busy trying to figure it out. “Word of advice.” the assistant said, making sure first that the supervisor was out of earshot. “Keep your head low. Don’t make waves and don’t let anybody notice you. The ones who do don’t last long.”
I nodded. I really wanted to find out more details but it wouldn’t have fit in with what I was trying to pretend to be. Questions would have to wait until I got on the job.
All told, it had been almost a week since Lucy’s dad had disappeared. The cops were pretending that it might be a robbery and had already rounded up a couple of the usual suspects. I had to find a way to push it along. So I did what every undercover since time began does. I bribed people.
The workers on the site, I was around with smokes for who needed them, a little bit of scratch for those who were low, a drink for those that needed it. Suspicious as all hell but it got me information fast. A few of the guys – the married ones – I even let in on it. Nobody wants to think of a loved one crying for them if they went missing.
Lucy’s dad had been there. He had been the kind of guy to make waves, to organize. He wasn’t doing anything wrong though and that confused the people on the ground. In fact, Lucy’s dad was known to be pretty damned good for morale. When he upped and left, people thought it was management being stupid. After all, he hadn’t been the first to go…
In fact, this disappearing thing had been going on for a few years, people missing every month or so, sometimes even faster. Always the loud ones, often the troublemakers. Folks figured they went off to other sites. Some – very few – knew them and grew concerned when they couldn’t seem to locate their friends anymore. Common wisdom was those troublemakers were blacklisted and moved out of state.
Either way, this was beginning to look bigger than I wanted it to be. I’d attracted enough attention as it was and needed an out. On break, I said I needed to go to the bathroom and took off after that. What’s the old saying? Safety is the better part of valor.
Just water for me at the moment, back at the office, trying to work out what went next. The disappearances were organized and I didn’t like the idea of that. The cops were skirting the issue and the likelihood was that a major city department was in some way involved. Who do you go tell, with that? Back to the cops? The city council? The press? There had to be an answer somewhere.
Someone got into my office. Hells, I hadn’t even heard the door open. Had I locked it?
I start to turn, going for my heater, even without thinking. There’s a fat guy, mustache. Recognize him from the site. One the supervisors. He’s holding something hand shaped and he’s grinning as he takes a light to it. Five small flames burst into an obscene blue light.
The sacrificial pool lays out in front of me. A tunnel hollowed out in the base of the Mulholland Dam, leading to a leak that glistened and shone with the frustrated power of a river wanting desperately to flow. Stopped up, slammed shut, even this leak contained purposefully in a concrete basin about the size of a small pond. Energy raging about, unseeable by most (yeah, that includes me) but you could feel it. Feel the oppression. Feel that need. Hells, I thought for a moment I saw fish swimming around in there. One of them looked up at me, fixed me with a mad stare. Not fish. Definitely not fish.
The goons backed up, only two holding me now, as everyone took their ritual places. Saw glimpses of scribblings on the wall. Chalk – couldn’t last long down here, so they must use it pretty often. Thought I recognized some antediluvian scratchings, something reminiscent of the coastal people of Sumeria and Assyria. Well, that’s cute. Someone put up a few artworks from popular fiction, too. Tentacled gods, odd angled angels. Must have been the fat man. Getting a better look at him as he takes his position. Comes out looking more like brains than the muscle of this operation.
“The gate swings both ways.” he intones. “Your spirit, entering the otherworldly abode of the Master, for It to judge as It sees fit. And for that brief moment, It too can enter our earthly abode and shower us with Its gifts.”
‘And that would be what… fish?’ – it’s what I wanted to say, but under the mask it sounded more like “Am-phat-ud-e-ut… Ithsh?” That didn’t get a response.
What he said did make sense though. All the sacrifices, all the appeals to the gods; it was to attract a specific kind of attention while catapulting spirits towards a specific kind of reward. A win-win for the devout, both dead and living. Not so good for those who were outside of whatever branch of faith you were following, but hells, plenty of religions proved they weren’t concerned with what happened to the infidels.
It hit me in a moment of insight. For the high priests of the DWP, it would have to be the water. The amount of rain, where it dropped, where it went and when. Given that, they could manipulate prices, the populace, whole elections. Suddenly the three years of drought with rising prices for their services made sense. The unofficial religion of the City of Angels reaching for a stranglehold on the city it birthed.
The priest had swapped over from exposition to intonation. Didn’t recognize the language but did recognize one name in there – Tiamat. Chaos, mother of creation and Second-slain by the ruling gods of Assyria. Wouldn’t be surprised if her boyfriend’s name was in that chant in there somewhere. Story is that Tiamat’s lover was a god over or represented or literally was all the fresh water in the world. He got bugged by some pesky folks who were very loud and obnoxious, so he killed them. After being talked down by Tiamat, he apologized and promised not to do it again. The relatives of the deceased still took it kind of personal and so killed him right back.
This did not make Tiamat happy.
Hell of a long story short, gods won; Tiamat died. The first civilization was born and humans were enslaved to work under it. Didn’t say it was a very nice story. Ended up in a curse that lasted ten thousand years.
Now these schmucks praying in her name. Maybe they’re talking to the ghost of her dead boyfriend. Maybe they’re using the freshwater as a reminder to her on how much she hated the gods. Either way, what it boils down to is a lot of raw power that they want to tap. And a deity on the other side of the Gate.
I’m being dangled over the damn pool. They slam my head in fast and hard and hold it there. I learn a couple of things. First, on the other end of the pond right across from me is the cornerstone to the whole dam. It’s got William Mulholland’s mark on it. It’s a dedicated sacred spot.
Second of all, the pond is deeper than I thought. A hell of a lot deeper. And there’s bones down there. A lot of them. I’m not the first they’ve done this with. Not even in the top ten.
They yank my head back out. It’s like a baptism except they’re trying to let my fear grow. They want that. They want me to know that end is coming and they want that to consume me.
Down the head goes again. Deep down. Back up. Down again. Longer this time. Then up. Last time’s the charm, I guess. All of them are chanting and it’s like a cross between a frat boy’s party and a really raucous church choir. It’s not like they’ve got anything to lose. No cavalry to come down and rescue folks down here. No one to hear them.
I’m under and I know this is the last time. This time I’m under until I’m dead.
There’s a couple of things I should probably have told you about myself.
Here’s the first. Me, I’ve got this weird relationship with Spirit. In the world of vodoun, they would call me ‘le cheval’, a ‘horse.’ I’m the guy most likely to get possessed and I wear it well. Don’t know why. Don’t entirely know how. But it’s served me pretty well in the past. I can let little spirits in; talk to them. I can do the same with ghosts. I knew Lucy’s dad was down there the first time my head hit the water.
I know. I was wishing for a happier end on this one, too, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be. I might be able to do something else for him though, even though he’s dead. Might be able to whistle up a little revenge.
Because I’m le cheval, my spirit’s also a bit loose. It’s been able to wiggle free from time to time and come back.
With that in mind, I take a deep breath. Water comes flooding into my lungs and try as I do to choke it down, gagging cuts in. The pain is… it’s hard to give it full credit. It’s like a hot iron being pressed on your lungs, like things are cut away and crushed at the same time. My eyes want to bug out. I remember hearing about some guy who went into the emergency room with an eyeball popped out of its socket. I hope I don’t end up like that. My brain is screaming at my stupidity and desperately searching for air. There’s a weird and unpleasant-as-hell warmth starting to appear in my extremities.
Somewhere, at the edge of my senses, I feel the ghosts below me edge away from me. They feel the gate opening. That’s when I let go.
There’s a tug on my soul, a current and it’s electric and blue and savage and invigorating. I race through into a place that defies boundaries. It’s warm, blood warm, but not frightening. Not comforting either but not evil. Just vast. And there’s something there, swimming beside me, examining me. It’s not that interested in me. I’m too small. That’s why the other ghosts are back on my side of the gate. It doesn’t need us except as a ticket to passage through the Gate. That’s what it expects my purpose to be.
That’s exactly when I grab it and let my soul snap back into my body, pulling it with me.
Remember that second thing I forgot to talk about? I’ve known for a long time about my little issue with possession, so quite some time ago, I went to a man for help. Good man. Raoul. Runs a botanica in the sketchier lowlands near the Hollywood Hills. Pretends to be a devout Catholic man but let’s just say his faithful streak doesn’t actually run in that direction.
We bonded over menudo and blood sausage and he offered me a way out of the life I was in and into a new one. He inked some old, some very old symbols onto me. Ones that probably dated from the earliest days of humanity way pre-history. Ones I’ve hand covered with henna to hide them so my kidnappers have no idea what’s coming.
When I want, my tattoos can be a very effective lure.
Or a very effective prison.
All right – straight up; between you and me there’s no chance I could cage an old god. Not happening no matter what kind of interesting tattoos I’ve got. But what I had done was come invited onto its turf and then tried to catch an old god.
Kind of like tweaking someone’s nose. Or counting coup.
You can imagine how well that went over.
Water, by its nature, wants to be free.
There was a roar so loud it shook the chamber and certainly shut up the would-be priests. I came flying out from the pond, every tattoo I had bleeding or dangling on torn flesh. And I hit the back wall so hard the water I’d inhaled came vomiting out, even as I slid down.
For a minute there was silence. Well, mostly silence from them, gasping from me. One of them had the sense to move towards me to check me out but he was stopped when someone spotted something moving in the pool.
“Wait!” he said. One of the nobodies, not the main guy. He was looking pale and sick. The pool started to glow and roil and, idiots that they were, they started to move towards it. Nobody was holding me any more. The leather felt like hell and I hoped I could get it off before it dried out and shrank.
Mr. High-and-Mighty Fat Boy let out a gurgle and I could see seaweed pushing its way out of his mouth before they did. My torso hurt but it was a stinging hurt and I didn’t care that I was moving at a snail’s pace. I was getting the hell out of there.
Something exploded behind me – from the pool I assume – and there was the sound of wet slapping, like tendrils or tentacles, and there was a ripping sound, and screaming.
All of that motivated me to move faster.
I really don’t know how far I got before I heard a roar behind me again. A different sound, not throaty but more rushing. Water. Coming up fast. I was screwed. Couldn’t exactly outrun it in my condition and I really didn’t want to go drowning again.
It hit me hard on the back, smacked my face around on the rocky floor, then battered my back against the ceiling as it pushed me forward. I tucked in as best I could and prayed those idiots had left the tunnel entrance open. Otherwise I’d be slammed against iron bars at speed and that would be that.
Then, just as I felt my breath giving out. It happened. Pushed out into bright, rolling around and then just blindly flopping around finding a purchase. There in the L.A. river. Still alive. Don’t know how but still alive.
I was laughing. I know. Stupid thing to do, especially with a god involved, but I felt so damned relieved. I staid there for a moment, the hot sun pressing down on me, then wriggled out of my bonds before they dried. Ripped off that stupid muzzle. Free again. Well, that’s something the god and I had in common.
As I struggled to sit up, the glint of something gold caught my eye. A timepiece, off to the side. Picked it up. Inscribed
On the occasion of your retirement
I love you, Dad.
I got it then. I understand who was watching out for me and who put in a kind word with the gods. Who saved my life.
“Thanks.” I said quietly as I pocketed the watch. “I’ll get it to her.”
Not all of the stories in the City of Angels end happily, or neatly. She cried, for a good long while. The police, after doing a song and dance about how I shouldn’t have gotten involved, got involved themselves and sent any cult survivors running for the hills. The press did a bit on water safety and how we need to respect the local waterways. No mention of ancient cultists or human sacrifices. Fancy that.
I healed. And I’d like to think Lucy healed as well. One day she sent me a check and a poem, by Emerson. Set it up above the water cooler. Figured it’s best not to forget:
The water understands
It wets my foot, but prettily,
It chills my life, but wittily,
It is not disconcerted,
It is not broken-hearted:
Well used, it decketh joy,
Adorneth, doubleth joy:
Ill used, it will destroy,
In perfect time and measure
With a face of golden pleasure