Home > Sandman Slim (Sandman Slim #1)

Sandman Slim (Sandman Slim #1)
Author: Richard Kadrey

I WAKE UP on a pile of smoldering garbage and leaves in the old Hollywood Forever cemetery behind the Paramount Studio lot on Melrose, though these last details don't come to me until later. Right now all I know is that I'm back in the world and I'm on fire. My mind hasn't quite kicked in yet, but my body knows enough to roll off the burning trash and to keep rolling until I can't feel the heat anymore.

When I'm sure I'm out, I struggle to my feet and shrug off my leather jacket. I run my hands over my lower back and legs. There's no real pain and all I feel are a couple of blisters behind my right knee and calf. My jeans are a little crispy, but the heavy leather of my jacket protected my back. I'm not really burned, just singed and in shock. I probably hadn't been on the fire too long. But I'm lucky that way. Always have been. Otherwise, I might have crawled back into this world and ended up a charcoal briquette in my first five minutes home. And wouldn't those black-hearted bastards down under have laughed when I ended up right back in Hell after slipping so sweetly out the back door? Fuck 'em for now. I'm home and I'm alive, if a little torn up by the trip. No one said birth was easy, and rebirth would have to be twice as hard as that first journey into the light.

The light.

My body isn't burning anymore, but my eyes are cooking in their sockets. How long has it been since I've seen sunlight? Down in the a**hole of creation, it was a dim, perpetual crimson-and-magenta twilight. I can't even tell you the colors of the cemetery where I'm standing because my vision goes into an agonizing whiteout every time I open my eyes.

Squinting like a mole, I run to the shade of a columbarium and crouch there with my forehead on the cool marble walls and my hands over my face. I give it a good five or ten minutes then lower my hands to let my eyes get used to the bloody-red light that seeps through my lids. Little by little, over the next twenty or so minutes, I open my eyes, letting in minute amounts of glaring L.A. sun. I mentally cross my fingers and hope that no one sees me hunkered down against the wall. They'd probably think I was crazy and call a cop, and there wouldn't be a damned thing I could do about it.

The muscles in my knees and legs ache before I can open my eyes all the way and keep them open. I sit down against the cool building to take some of the strain off. Though I can sort of see now, there's no way I'm marching off into full daylight for a while. Instead, I stay in the shade and take stock of things.

My clothes are burned, but wearable, if you ignore the burning garbage smell. I have on an ancient Germs T-shirt that my girlfriend lifted from a West Hollywood vintage shop for me, worn black jeans with holes in the knees, a pair of ancient engineer boots, and a battered leather motorcycle jacket, strategic points of which are held together with black gaffer's tape. The heel of my right boot is loose from when I'd kicked the living Jesus out of some carjacking piece of shit after he dragged some screaming soccer mom to the pavement at a stoplight. I hate cops and I f**king hate goody-goody hero types, but there is some shit I will not put up with if it happens in front of me. Of course, that was back then, before my trip down under. I wasn't sure what I'd do if I saw the same scene today. I'd probably still put a boot into the car thief, but I don't know if I'd let him walk away.

Right now there's something more important on my mind-the fact that these are the exact clothes I was wearing when I got demon-snatched. When I'd hit the pavement down under I'd been na**d. That got me my first big laughs, stumbling around trying to find my footing before I puked myself in front of an audience of fallen angels. After that, the laughs were mostly about my physical abuse and humiliation at the hands of one devil dog or another. Trust me on this-Hell is a tough room.

It's been a long time since I've seen these clothes. I go through my pockets to see if there's money or anything useful. There's not much. There's nothing in my pockets but twenty-three cents and an empty pink matchbook with the name and address of a Hollywood bail bondsman printed on it. I don't even have the keys to my apartment or the old Impala my father left me.

I feel just above my right ankle and a genuine wave of happiness hits me. The black blade is still there, strapped to my leg with strips of basilisk leather. I put my hand over my heart and can feel the chain under my T-shirt and the fat gold Veritas coin that hangs there. The fact I'm on Earth at all means that I still have the key to the Room of Thirteen Doors, even though I can't touch it or see it. So, I managed to smuggle three things back with me from Hell. That's no small feat. Of course, none of it alters the fact that I have no money, no ID, no wheels, my clothes are half burned off, I don't have a place to stay and no real idea where I am, except for the fact that this tombstone trailer park looks and feels like L.A. I'm off to a damn good start. I'll be the first hitman in history who has to panhandle for bullets.

I make my way slowly, still half blind, to the front gates of the cemetery. Near them, I cup my hands in the water flowing from the top of a contemplation fountain. I take a drink and splash water onto my face. It feels as cool and perfect as a first kiss. Right then it hits me. This isn't some devil's illusion, a glamour or some game designed to crush my spirit. I'm really home.

So, where the hell is everybody? Outside, I catch sight of the one thing I've been hoping to see. North from where I'm standing, in the distance, are the big white letters of the Hollywood sign. Perched high on the dirty brown scrub hills, it's never looked so beautiful. In the other direction, toward Melrose, a car hisses by every now and then, but there are way too few. And there are no people on the street at all. There are some small houses off at an angle from the cemetery gate. The green lawns are decorated with lights, plastic reindeer, and an inflatable snowman. Wreaths on a few doors across the street. Holy shit, it's Christmas. For some reason, this strikes me as the funniest thing in the universe and I stand there laughing like an idiot.

Someone slams into me hard from behind. The hilarity ends abruptly. I spin around and I'm face-to-face with a young executive type. Brad Pitt's stunt double handsome, with a haircut and black double-breasted jacket that together cost more than my car. Where the hell did he come from? I've got to shape up. Downtown, no one would have been able to creep up on me like that.

Brad Pitt takes a couple of stiff steps back. "What the f**k?" he yells, like it's my fault he walked into me. It's not that hot out, but he's sweating like a racehorse and his movements are quick and jerky, like a broken windup toy. He looks at me like I just killed his dog.

"Calm down, Donald Trump," I say. "You ran into me." He wipes his upper lip with the back of his hand. There's something tucked in his palm, and he's so twitchy he drops it. Brad starts to lunge for it, but takes a step back instead. Lying on the sidewalk between us is a plastic bag with about a hundred little ice-white coc**ne rocks inside. I smile. Welcome to Christmas in L.A. Say hi to Saint Nick loading up for a party I'll definitely be skipping.

I look back at the guy, and before I can say anything, he reaches into his jacket. I latch onto his arm just as the stun gun comes out. I snap his wrist back and twist outward, taking him off balance and slamming him hard onto the pavement. I didn't even think about it. My body just went on autopilot. Guess some part of my brain must still be working right.

Brad Pitt isn't moving. He went down on the stun gun and it's still jammed into his ribs. I kick the thing away and touch the side of his neck. Even out cold, his pulse is fast. Who says crack isn't good for you? He's wearing a small Christmas tree pin on his lapel. This makes me think about Christmas more, about being somewhere without friends and how I could use a Secret Santa of my own right now. I figure that my new friend is about as close to a Good Samaritan as I'm likely to find outside a cemetery off Melrose. I quick check to see that the street is still clear, pocket the stun gun, and then drag him into the cemetery, behind some hedges.

Turns out, the guy is Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny all rolled into one. His eel skin wallet is fat with hundreds, at least a few grand worth. Even though the twitchy son of a bitch was so ripped on coke and para-noia that he tried to electrocute me for nothing more than standing on the street, I feel a small twinge of guilt as I rifle through his pockets. I've done a lot of questionable things in my time, but I never actually mugged anybody. Not that this was technically a mugging. Brad Pitt here attacked me. In another time, helping myself to this guy's gear would just fall under the heading of "Spoils of War." Besides, I need this stuff. I'm back with nothing. No friends that I know of and no real plan.

I help myself to his cash, his Porsche sunglasses, an unopened pack of Black Black gum, and his jacket, which is a little tight across the shoulders but not too bad a fit at all. I leave him my half-burned leather jacket, his credit cards, car keys, and the big bag of Christmas crack. FU just add this incident to the list of sins I'll have to atone for later. Ten minutes back on Earth and I'm already adding to the bill.

I crack open the pack of caffeinated gum and chew a piece as I walk. I can't seem to get the taste of burning garbage out of my mouth.

It feels like I'm walking on someone else's legs, wobbly and disconnected. I trip over a couple of curbs and almost jump out of my skin when I step on a squeak toy some kid left in the street. Chuck Norris, I'm not. But the blood starts flowing and my legs start feeling like part of my body again. Other than that, I'm not walking with any purpose or direction. I want to go home, but what if Azazel has sent up some of his pet spiders - the bloodsuckers as big as rottweilers? I'm not ready to face that just yet. I pull the chain out from under my shirt and unclip the Veritas coin.

The Veritas is about two inches wide, silver and heavy. Around the edge in Hellion script it says home sweet home. Good. It's awake and snotty as ever.

One side of the coin is stamped with the image of the morning star-Lucifer-and on the other side is a round, many-petaled flower sort of like a chrysanthemum. It's an asphodel, a Hellion word that translates as "evensong." The flowers sing hymns that the fallen angels used to sing in Heaven. After belting out off-key hosannas all day, getting all the words wrong, they strangle themselves with their roots every evening and die. The next day, they resurrect and start all over again. This has been going on down there for probably a million years and most Hellions still think it's a knee-slapper. Hellion humor doesn't travel well. Plus, except for Lucifer and his generals, most of Hell's troops make the Beverly Hillbillies look like the Algonquin Roundtable.

Holding the big coin on my thumb and forefinger, I flip it thinking, Hollywood or home? The Veritas comes down asphodel side up. That's it, then. The Veritas never lies and gives better advice than most people I know. I put it back on its chain and turn north for Hollywood.

It's over a mile to the Boulevard. I'm exhausted by the time I get there, and the payoff isn't exactly what I was hoping for. Sometime while I was gone, Hollywood Boulevard had a nervous breakdown. Vacant storefronts. Trash dissolving in the street. Nothing but ghosts here - shadows of runaways and dealers huddled in padlocked doorways. I remember the Boulevard full of wild kids, drag queens, manic Dylan wannabes, and tourists looking for more than their next fix. Now the place looks like a whipped dog.

I'm beat from walking on these stranger's legs and I'm sweating in Brad Pitt's jacket. I should have taken the idiot's car. I could have left it on the Boulevard, safe and sound. Though, more likely, I'd have tossed to keys to one of the street kids slouched against the buildings, just to see if there was any life left inside some of those dead eyes.

Walking deeper into Hollywood, I pass Ivar Avenue and see a funny sign flanked by burning tiki torches, bamboo house of dolls, it says. I remember the name. It's an old-school kung fu movie with a women-in-prison twist. I saw it when I was Downtown. The devil steals cable. Who knew?

The Bamboo House of Dolls is cool and dim inside, and I can take off Brad Pitt's sunglasses without wanting to faint. There are old Iggy and Circle Jerks posters on the black-painted walls, but behind the bar it's all palm fronds, plastic hula girls, and coconut bowls for the peanuts. There's no one in the place except for the bartender and me. I grab the stool at the end of the bar, farthest from the door.

The bartender is slicing up limes. He pauses for a second to give me a nod, the knife loose and comfortable in his right hand. That other part of my brain kicks in, sizing him up. He has close-cropped black hair and a graying goatee. He looks big under his Hawaiian shirt. An ex-football player. Maybe a boxer. He realizes I'm looking at him.

"Nice jacket," he says.

"Thanks."

"Too bad the rest of you looks like you just dropped out of the devil's a**hole."

Suddenly I'm wondering if this is some Hellion setup, and if I can reach Brad Pitt's stun gun or my knife in time. He must see it on my face because he gives me this big deer-in-the-headlights grin and I know that he was kidding.

"Relax, man," he says. "Bad joke. Looks like you had a shitty day. What are you drinking?"

I'm not sure how to answer that. Yesterday, I'd been hunting for water that sometimes dripped through the ceilings of limestone caves under Pandemonium. Mostly I drank a Hellion homebrew called Aqua Regia, a kind of high-octane red wine mixed with a dash of angel's blood and herbs that made coc**ne seem like Pop Rocks. Aqua Regia tasted like cayenne pepper and gasoline, but it was there and I could hold it down.

"Jack Daniel's."

"On the house," says the bartender, and pours a double.

There's strange music playing. Something odd and tropical, with fake bird chirps every now and then. There's a CD case on the bar. A Hawaiian sunset on the cover and the name "martin denny." I put the chewed Black Black in a cocktail napkin and sip the JD. It tastes strange, like something a human might actually drink. It washes the last of the garbage taste away.

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