Home > Sandman Slim (Sandman Slim #1)(5)

Sandman Slim (Sandman Slim #1)(5)
Author: Richard Kadrey

Her breathing slows. She relaxes, just a hair. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Sure."

"What the hell is wrong with your clothes?"

"Yeah. I had a little accident coming into town," I say, giving her a sheepish grin. It's a look that girls used to like when I was young and not entirely unhandsome. Talking to a cute human girl that I might have flirted with in my former life, I forget for a second that I'm no longer young or handsome. I shift to what I hope was a more neutral expression.

"I might need to pick up some new things. What do you think?"

"Don't bother. I hear that arson is the new black." She crosses her arms, giving me her best defiant look.

"Stark."

"Stark. Just the one name then, like Madonna?"

"Or Cher."

"Okay, Mr. Stark…"

"Stark. No 'mister.' Just Stark."

"Okay, Just Stark. Here's the thing - I quit. I can run this place in my sleep, but Mr. Kasabian obviously doesn't trust me enough, so he brings in some, if you'll excuse me, thug buddy to keep an eye on me? No f**king thanks."

"The last thing I'm here to do is keep an eye on you. The truth is, I don't have any place to stay and Kasabian told me I could crash upstairs. The running-the-shop thing is purely honorary. As far as I'm concerned, you're in charge. Run the place any way you like."

"You still look like somebody I probably shouldn't know."

"Yeah, you said that." I take a step toward her, waiting to see if she'll take a step back. She doesn't. Nervous, but brave. I like her already. "Listen, a thug is someone who's out for no one but himself. Me? I take care of my friends." Alice's face flashes in my brain, a reminder of how empty a promise like that can be. Good intentions and a dime won't get you a damned thing in this world. Reluctantly, I push Alice back into the dark. "Stay here and I guarantee that you'll work in the safest video store in L.A."

"Gee, that's not at all terrifying."

"Also, whatever Kasabian has been paying you, I'll give you a fifty percent raise."

Now I have her attention.

"You can do that?"

"There's no one here to tell me I can't. I figure, as long as I'm technically in charge, I can pay people whatever I like."

"When will Mr. Kasabian be back?"

"I have no idea. You know how these family things are. It could be a while."

She nods, looks down, then up at me. "Okay. I'll stay. For now."

Hallelujah. "Thank you, Allegra."

"You're welcome, Just Stark."

I WAIT FOR an hour upstairs, until the store fills with the lunch-hour crowd. When there's enough ambient noise downstairs, I figure that I can check on Kasabian and be covered if he starts screaming again.

He's right where I left him on the shelf. When he sees me, he doesn't scream. He just moans.

"For chrissake, put a bullet in my head or change the goddamn channel!"

On the set, some daytime talk show is playing. An older guy in a suit and a bottle blonde are talking about an actress I never heard of and a pasta maker that's going to change everyone's life.

"Please, turn this shit off."

"I don't know. That sounds like one damn fine pasta maker."

"Fuck you."

"Do you have a car?"

He stares at the TV, ignoring me. I reach over and turn down the sound.

"The keys are in my right hand pocket," he says.

I tilt his comatose body to the side so I can reach into his pocket. Got 'em.


"What kind of car is it?"

"Give me back my body."

"Where's Mason?"

"I don't know."

"I don't believe you."

"Trust me, if I knew how to send you to Mason, I'd do it in a heartbeat. Then I'd ask him to let me watch as he ripped your balls off."

I turn the talk show back up and lock the closet door. Muffled profanity comes from inside.

I grab the garbage with the bloody clothes and sheets and head down the stairs to the store. Allegra and another kid are behind the counter, busy with customers. There's a rear exit to the store in a small storage room behind the p**n section. I get out the bone blade and try a trick that worked in Hell. Placing the tip of the blade into the lock, I push it inside and turn. The lock clicks open.

Behind the store is a short alley with a couple of dumpsters. I toss the garbage bag and head for the street.

It's nice out. Sunny, but not yet hot. I feel a lot more human and settled today, just another normal guy with a .45 tucked in the back of his jeans, out to run some errands. I counted Brad Pitt's money last night and it came to twenty-two hundred bucks, so I'm sure I can get everything I need.

I keep pressing the little unlock button on the key chain and my good mood evaporates when Kasabian's car finally chirps. A white Chevy Aveo with a dented trunk. Only rental companies buy white American cars, which means that not only is Kasabian's car a piece of shit, it's a used piece of shit. But who's more pathetic, the guy who drives a used piece of shit or the guy who steals it?

IT'S WEIRD STARTING over from zero. It changes the scale of your ambitions. Instead of fantasizing about what kind of mansion you'll buy when you win the lottery, you ask yourself, Do I own socks? Do I have a toothbrush? Do I have a shirt that's not covered in blood?

Money is strange, too, if you haven't used it for a while. Hell is mostly a barter economy. Especially among the high and mighty, having to buy something is a massive social faux pas. It means that you don't have anything good enough to trade or you aren't clever enough to swindle your way to your heart's desire. Brad Pitt's wad seemed like a fortune when I counted it, but I blow through most of it in a couple of hours.

The big money goes for a few choice items. A new pair of Caterpillar steel-toed boots, because steel is always a good idea. I also pick up a long, light overcoat. There's a reason spies and private eyes wear trench coats in all those old movies. They're big enough to hide a multitude of sins, especially the kind with bullets. I pick up a long, charcoal-gray silk overcoat at a West Hollywood rent-boy boutique. Anything heavier than silk will look ridiculous in L.A., and wearing a black overcoat is nature's way of telling you to lay off the Bauhaus.

Down on Melrose, the movie biz show-offs and trust-fund bikers meet at smart cafes for lattes and burgers that cost as much as a face-lift. Out in front of the cafes stretch long, gleaming lines of $40,000 Harleys that have never seen a speck of dust or a splash of mud. As much as these clowns set off the self-righteous parts of my white-trash ego, I know there's one good thing about them. They demand the best bike gear available.

At a bike shop that's laid out more like a museum than a store, I pick up leather race pants and an armored motocross jacket. After getting shot and almost stun-gunned, I like the idea of having a layer of Kevlar between the world and me. I also get a Kevlar jacket liner, a kind of long sleeve mesh shirt with armored panels sewn in. I'll wear the liner under the overcoat and hope it's not so bulky that I look like a robot in a bathrobe.

I put on my new boots, pants, and the motocross jacket in one of the dressing rooms, and toss my burned stuff into the trash on the way out of the store. That's just about the last of it, I think. The last physical connections to my former life. The only thing left is the Germs T-shirt, now full of blood and bullet holes, stuffed under the mattress back at Max Overdrive. Maybe I should have tossed it with the rest, but Alice gave it to me, so it stays with me until I crash and burn for good.

When I parked the Aveo earlier, I left the .45 under the driver's seat. I do a switch when I get back, putting the .45 in the bag with my new coat and leaving the Aveo's keys on the seat. Maybe some desperate-for-wheels kid will find it, or a few homeless guys can turn it into a condo. I carry my bags down Melrose to do some car shopping.

There's only one way to steal a car and not feel guilty about it, and that's to steal the most expensive car you can find. That way, you know that it carries the maximum insurance possible, so whatever happens, the owner is covered. I pick out a black Mercedes S600, go around to the driver's side, and using my body to block the view, stab the bone knife into the lock. I hold my breath. The car chirps once and the lock pops. I slide in with my bags, jam the knife in the ignition, and the engine purrs to life. I do a check of the mirrors and windows. No one is even looking at me. Stepping on the gas, I guide the Mercedes into the afternoon traffic.

THE BUILDING IS like the Sphinx-eternal and unchanging-exactly as I remember it. Same wrought-iron bars bolted over the first floor windows. The chicken-wire-embedded glass in the upper floor windows reveals dusty curtains and tattered window shades. The building manager's window is easy to spot: there are shreds of the gold-leaf letters that once spelled out the safe company's name. Instead of a curtain, the manager's window is covered in foil. I've always wondered what goes on in there that he's so desperate to keep out the light. Someday I'll have to find out.

I watch the building for the time it takes me to smoke three cigarettes. Nothing unusual or even interesting happens. Cars drive by. An old woman wanders by pulling a couple of tired-looking Jack Russells.

I'm not sure about the wisdom of walking into the place in broad daylight, but I'm not getting any demonic vibes off the place. I snap the Veritas off its chain and give it a quick flip inside the car. Should I go in or not? The coin comes down with the morning-star side up. The Hellion script around the edge reads, Go back to the store and talk to the pretty girl. Nice. My magic coin is trying to get me laid. While I appreciate the thought, the timing stinks. I get out of the car, tuck the .45 under my jacket, and jog across the street to the building.

As usual, the front door is locked, but the side door, by the loading dock, is wide open. There's a freight elevator to the right of the entrance. I pull down the upper gate, which closes the elevator's wooden jaws, and hit the third-floor button with the side of my fist. The elevator jerks and starts to climb.

I could have stayed across the street and walked in here through a shadow. I could have walked through a shadow straight into my apartment. Fuck that. This is my home. I'm going in through the door.

When the elevator hits three, I roll up the gate and sprint right down the central corridor, then cut left. My place is at the end of a hall just long enough to let me get a running start. The door is the original, solid steel and balanced perfectly on two heavy metal hinges. I wouldn't have thought about doing this before, but I'm a bit stronger now. I take a few long, running steps, swing my leg up, and slam my heel into the door. It pops open, the rusty lock mechanism spinning through the air like a metal Frisbee. I have the .45 up and in front of me, ready for anything.

"Well," says the two-hundred-year-old Frenchman from his easy chair. "It f**king took you long enough."

HE STANDS UP from a battered, green recliner. He's a little taller than I remember and a little heavier, but he still has the same salt-and-pepper beard and close-cropped hair, the same impressive Roman nose and dark eyes that, at different times, might belong to your favorite uncle on Christmas morning or to the pissed-off ex-thug who's about shove a power drill through your forehead.

I just look at him. Normally, I like hearing Vidocq shout "fuck" because he pronounces it "fock." On the other hand, of the top ten people I didn't expect to find here, he's the entire top five. I stay put, not moving to the right or left, orienting my body so that, if I have to, I can make it out the door without looking.

"Vidocq? What are you doing here?"

"That's how you greet a friend after all these years?" he asks, setting the battered book he'd been reading on the floor. "I've been waiting for you, keeping your home safe. You think I wanted to squat in this concrete shithole?"

I raise the .45 and aim it at his head. "How did we meet, old man?"

"Ah, you don't think it's me, no? You think this is some trap. I might, too, if I were you." He picks up a tumbler filled to the top with wine so red it looks black.

"You and I met at a saloon. It's closed now. Blood Meridian. This was before you met lovely Alice. We were both at the bar, each chatting up the same pretty girl, who stood between us. Neither of us had more than a few dollars then, so we'd employed a small memory charm on the bartender so that we could pay for drinks with the same money over and over again. When we realized what the other was doing, we forgot the pretty girl and talked about what and who we were, what and who we knew, paying the poor bartender with the same few dollars all night."

"No great loss, from what I remember. The girl was pretty, but kind of wasted."

"So were we, as I recall. Our sudden loss of interest offended her."

"Next lifetime, I'll buy her drinks and listen to her all night long."

"Next lifetime."

The gun suddenly feels heavy in my hand. I lower it. Vidocq, a head taller than me and half again as wide, comes over and crushes me in a long bear hug.

"It's good to see you, boy," he says.

Like the building, Vidocq hasn't changed a bit. He looks about forty-five, but is old enough that he can tell you what guillotines sounded like offing the aristocracy during the French Revolution.

I look around the room. It doesn't look right. Where's all my stuff? Where's Alice's?

"How long have you been living here? Where is everything?" I ask.

"Alice moved out a few months after you disappeared. I saved your things and the things she left in the bedroom."

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