“TELL ME,” SAYS the Frenchman. “How long has it been since you last killed anything?”
He’s f**king with me. He knows the answer, but he wants to make me say it. Father Vidocq taking confession.
“I don’t know. What time is it?”
“That long, then?”
Vidocq and I are in a very dark room in a very large house full of very fashionable furniture and we’re stealing something very valuable. I have no idea what and pretty much don’t care. It’s just nice to be hanging out and doing some crimes with the old man. Crimes where no one ends up zombie meat, shot, or annoyingly decapitated.
“It’s been a while,” I say. “Six. Eight weeks. Somewhere around there.”
I slipped us into the house through a shadow. Vidocq is working on the wall safe. He’s good with safes. He’s had over a hundred years of practice.
“So, no crusades? No great wrongs that need to be righted?”
I reach into my pocket for a cigarette, then remember there might be smoke alarms.
“Nothing worth killing for. I’m no cop. The Sub Rosa has their own Mod Squad to deal with the small stuff.”
I like watching Vidocq work over a safe. He has hands like a surgeon. Nimble. Precise. He could thread a needle while being shot out of a cannon.
“Incroyable. Perhaps you’re reaching something of a rapprochement with your angelic half and it’s having a moderating effect on your disposition.”
Right. I’m part angel. Half, if you want to get picky about it. It’s great. A halo and five bucks will get you a cup of coffee in L.A.
“Maybe. The angel screams at me sometimes, mostly at night when I’m tired and he can ambush me with one of his Give-Peace-a-Chance, no-smoking, veggie-bacon sermons. But he isn’t trying to run the show single-handed anymore. We reached a kind of MAD pact the other day.”
Vidocq looks at me.
“Mutually Assured Destruction. I told him that if he ever tried to push me out of my brain and turn me into a clean-living choirboy again, I’d have to do something, you know, unreasonable.”
“I told him I’d get hammered and go through the Room of Thirteen Doors to the Pearly Gates. Then I’d find the Archangel Gabriel and thunderbolt-kick him in the cojones in front of all the other angels.”
“Whereupon the other angels would draw their swords and kill you.”
“Exactly. Mutually Assured Destruction.”
“That sounds much more like the old you.”
Technically, I’m what you call a “nephilim.” Half human, half angel. And I’m the only one. The others are all dead. Suicides mostly. Some people call my type freaks. If you’re one of heaven’s lapdogs, you’ll probably call me “Abomination.” I say, call me either of those things to my face and you’ll get to see what your lungs look like as throw pillows.
The angel half of me got shaken loose a while back when a High Plains Drifter—that’s “zombie” to you—bit a chunk out of my hand. The human half of me almost died and the angel half thought that was its chance to take over. It was for a while, but then I got my strength back and I locked the angel upstairs in the attic like Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? It still bangs on the door and shouts, but I’ve learned to ignore it most of the time. Some of the time. It depends on the day.
Vidocq goes back to work on the safe. Over his clothes, he’s wearing a tailored gray gabardine greatcoat. Looks like/fo. Looks his girlfriend Allegra’s been dressing him again. He looks like the doorman at a speakeasy in the Kremlin. The greatcoat tinkles gently when he moves, like he’s smuggling wind chimes. The sound of the hundred or so little potion bottles he has sewn into the coat’s lining. I have my guns, my knife, and na’at. Vidocq has his potions.
“What exactly are we stealing?” I ask.
“A golden brooch or device in the shape of a scarab. It’s quite ancient. There is a clockwork mechanism inside. Perhaps it’s God’s pocket watch.”
“He doesn’t need a watch. He needs a compass so he can find his own ass.”
There’s a click and the front of the safe swings open.
Vidocq moves his hands in a graceful TV-spokesmodel arc in front of the safe.
“You are the man, Van Damme.”
He squints at me.
“Jean-Claude Van Damme is Belgian, not French.”
“There’s a difference?”
I like how Vidocq pronounces “fuck”: “fock.”
He whispers, “C’est quoi, ça?”
“No. It’s very interesting. The owner of this safe is a very paranoid man. The inside is etched with spells and runes.”
“Can you still get the swag?”
He flashes a small LED light around the inside of the safe.
“I don’t see anything in here that should stop us. They mostly seem to be containment spells. He must have been afraid of this shiny scarab walking away.”
He reaches into the safe and pulls out a polished ebony box the size of a cigar box and pushes up the lid. A beautiful gold scarab lies on bloodred silk. He hands me the box and begins packing his tools. I slip it into my coat pocket.
I say, “I have to admit, it doesn’t feel bad, but it feels a little weird not raising a hand in anger this long. I can pretty much just talk humans and Lurkers out of doing stupid shit to each other these days.”
“See?” he says from the floor. “By embracing your angelic half, the mere force of your personality is enough to keep the peace.”
“I think killing all zombies in the world in one night helps.”
“Yes, that could be a factor.”
“And Lucifer and the Vigil aren’t around paying me to be a hit man rent-boy bitch.”
Vidocq scrolls his gear into a leather tool roll and stands up.
I ask him, “Are we cool?”
He smiles and says, “As the North Star on Christmas Eve. But we aren’t quite done.”
He takes two potion bottles from inside his coat and pours their contents onto the floor where we were standing and on the safe door, trying to shampoo away any magic or forensic dandruff that might lead back to us. When he tosses the contents of a third bottle into the safe, I hear the scratching.
“You heard?” he asks.
“Get out of the way, Eugène.”
He doesn’t. Vidocq has a scientific mind. Instead of getting out of the way, he looks inside the safe.
It wouldn’t be my fault if the back of his stupid French skull blew out like a five-dollar retread, but I pull Vidocq out of the way just before the demon cannonballs out of the safe and hits the far wall.
The demon’s carapace gleams like blue-black gun steel. The big bug doesn’t have eyes, just two sets of jaws at an angle to each other and two huge hooked front claws. The moment it hits the wall, it starts tunneling through it. That’s what this particular type of demon does. It’s a digger. A greed demon. It’ll protect anything it thinks it owns. Like the contents of a safe. It’s why the safe had containment spells on the interior. To keep the demon inside. Smart. Your basic bad guys—us, for instance—will maybe test for eaters, but who’s going to worry about a brainless digger until it’s excavating the Panama Canal through your intestines?
Vidocq bumps against the desk when I pull him to his feet. The digger freezes and turns. It’s blind but it has great hearing. I can slow my heart and breathing, but in a few seconds the demon’s going to zero in on Vidocq. I step back from him, leaving him exposed to the digger. He turns and looks at me with wide horrified eyes.
Sorry, man. This is how it has to be.
The digger turns. It has Vidocq’s heartbeat. It hooks its two huge digging claws into the wall and uses them to slingshot forward. A metallic blur, four glittering jaws, and arm-size hooks going right for the old man’s chest. He doesn’t look at it. ty look a He never takes his eyes off me.
As the digger’s body blurs across the desk, I whip the na’at out. Twist the grip out from the body into a hair-thin serrated whipsaw.
The digger hits the na’at like a meteor with teeth. I twist the na’at’s cutting edge into its body and the bug splits in two lengthwise. The halves come apart and smash into the wall on either side of Vidocq, embedding themselves deep into the wood and plaster.
Vidocq swivels his head, checking out the giant insect shanks that flank him.
I say, “What do you know? I do remember how to kill things. Good news for our side.”
“Fuck you, boy.”
An alarm goes off when a na**d fat man kicks open the office door. I’m going to roll the dice and guess he’s the home owner. He points an exquisitely made-over and -under shotgun at us. It might even be a Tullio Fabbri. A hundred and seventy-five grand worth of etched steel with a carved walnut stock and accurate as a cruise missile. I’m almost tempted to ask him, but his pupils are dilated and I smell the excitement in his sweat because he thinks he’s finally going to get to use that Fort Knox popgun on actual human beings.
Through the angel’s senses I hear the infinitesimal scrape of metal over lubricated metal as the fat man applies pressure to the shotgun’s trigger. I grab Vidocq in a bear hug and jump through the window just as the gun goes off.
Davy Crockett here isn’t Sub Rosa, but he must know some because he has an antimagic cloak over his house and the grounds outside. What that means is no one’s supposed to be able to throw any hoodoo or hexes around here. Whoever built the cloak probably pegged him for a mark right off. I figure they got him to pay a bonus to build it big enough to cover the whole estate, the perfect way to turn a cloak into something as reliable as a marshmallow condom. Antimagic shields are powerful things when you do them right, and part of that’s knowing they can only be so big. Blow them up too much and the skin stretches thin. Keep blowing and they can pop right out of existence. That’s what Davy the Rube paid for: a one-hundred-thousand-dollar soap bubble.
The cloak is stretched so thin I can throw all kinds of hoodoo in here. Like when we climbed the fence onto the grounds, I could take us into the house through the Room of Thirteen Doors. But I can’t get us off the grounds that way. Of course, I could have used some hoodoo to wrap Davy Crockett’s shotgun around his neck like a mink stole and swung him around like a carousel pony while I shot the shit out of his office, but I didn’t do any of that. Someone else might think that would earn them karma points down the line, but I know better. Karma is just loaded dice on a crooked table. Celestial pricks with wings and halos make the rules and the house always wins. Always.
SO VIDOCQ AND I are falling. Tinkling glass falls with us like razor-blade snowflakes.
When you’re jumping two floors with a civilian whose broken bones won’t heal overnight like your own, you need to remember a couple of things. One, cushion the fall as much as you can, and two, be prepared to use your body as an air bag. That means controlling the fall enough so the other, usually extremely startled, person lands on top of you. Does it hurt? Go outside, get a friend to drop a garbage-can-ful of bacon fat on your chest, and see.
Trying to control a fall is no tea party when you’re holding on to someone who’s thrashing around like a Tasered octopus. But it’s not impossible. The trick is to grab them just under the ribs and squeeze so they can’t breathe. Then you let go just as you hit the ground so they breathe out hard when they hit. It helps absorb the shock, though it still hurts. Especially if you’re the one on the bottom.
There’s a tree below Davy’s window. I aim for it, rolling us into the branches, hoping it’ll slow our fall a little. It does. Coming down into the hedges helps, too. We still have some momentum to burn off, so I keep rolling and we end up on the lawn that Davy was kind enough to lay out with fresh soft sod in the last few days. Thanks, man. I’ll send you a honey-baked ham for Christmas.
I pull Vidocq to his feet and we run for the wall like a couple of spooked raccoons. I look back over my shoulder and Davy is standing in the broken window with the shotgun at his shoulder. Wishful thinking. We’re too far away for him to hit anything but the air.
Don’t sweat it, Davy. Vidocq and I aren’t going to touch your safe or wreck your office again. But I might have to come back some night for that Tullio Fabbri and you can try to shoot me with something else. I am in severe need of something like that. It’s so quiet and peaceful out here I’m getting bored with breathing. Maybe we’ll get lucky and the world will go to Hell again. Fingers crossed.
I PARKED THE stolen Lexus half a block away. Vidocq is limping. He stops and opens his coat like a flasher. There are dozens of pockets sewn into the lining. Each holds a different potion. Batman has his utility belt. Vidocq has his coat. I have guns and a knife. None of us will be on the cover of GQ.
Satisfied that Vidocq’s little glass vials aren’t broken and leaking about a hundred hexes into his underwear, we head for the car. The old man is limping, but when I put a hand on his arm to help him, he shrugs it off. Another grateful customer. I have a knack for pissing people off, especially my friends.
He still won’t talk to me, but at least when we get to the Lexus he lets me help him into the car. I start to close the door, but he blocks it with his hand.
“Who is that?” he asks.
I turn and see a man a few yards away. He’s standing in the shadow of a big shade tree on someone’s lawn. He doesn’t move when I look at him. I reach behind my back and pull a Smith & Wesson .460, making sure he sees it. He doesn’t flinch. I put the gun back and stackeback anrt toward him. Now he moves. He comes right at me.