Authors: Richard Kadrey
There are some kids' picture puzzles in the next row and some puzzle boxes on a high shelf. There's a whole carton of those fucking games where you roll a ball bearing around and try to get it on the clown's eyes and mouth. I pile the whole damned box in the cart.
“How are you doing?” yells Candy.
“Finding junk. Nothing that screams âportal to Hell.' How about you?”
“The same. But I did find a cute pair of velvet Mary Janes. They're perfect for Chihiro. Do you think Mr. Muninn would mind if I take them?”
“He has a million pairs of shoes down here. Take them, and if he gets testy, I'll trade him something.”
“Do you think we'll see him?”
“Only if he wants to see us, so bring the shoes.”
“There's no way I'm wearing these shoes in Hell.”
“That's not the point. The fact you have something of his might get his attention.”
“Taking them is part of the mission? Awesome.”
“Did you talk to Alessa while I was gone?”
I hear her pawing through shelves from what sounds about half a mile away.
“She was confused. A little annoyed. But understanding. And had about a million more questions than I could answer.”
“Bring her a present. There must be something down here she'll like.”
“Seeing me in these shoes is all the present either of you needs.”
“Somehow I believe that.”
We dig around for another half hour. I have the cart piled high with complete garbage. Even if one of these puzzles is the doorway to Narnia, going through them all could take years. Goddammit, Sally. You're getting my car. You could have come across with a better clue.
“What's this over here?”
“I can't see around corners, dear.”
“Go back to the beginning and follow my coins, Hansel. I'll wait here.”
It takes me ten minutes to get back to the staircase and another twenty to track her down. Her coat and face are streaked with dust. She has a wheelbarrow full of the same crap I have.
“Want to see the shoes?” she says.
“We're going to Hell. Indulge me.”
She puts them on the floor and steps into them. I'm no longer annoyed.
“Admit it,” she says. “You're picturing me in nothing but these shoes.”
“Well . . .”
“I'll take that as a yes.”
She steps out of them and puts them back in her pocket.
I look at the shelves.
“Yes, I'm suddenly distracted by impure thoughts, but that's not the only reason you called me over, right?”
“Of course not.”
She points into the distance.
It looks like a broken-down, dried-up cornfield from here.
“It's a corn maze. Muninn has pretty much the entire history of L.A. down here. Corn mazes used to be a big item.”
She looks at me like I'm supposed to say something.
“Mustang Sally said that the way to Hell has been there for you since you got back.”
“What makes you think it's that fucking fire hazard?”
“She also said the most complicated is the simplest. Maybe we just walk the maze and it take us where we want to go.”
“Or maybe we'll die of thirst next to some dried-up old jack-o'-lanterns. Those corn mazes were just Halloween hijinks.”
Candy crosses her arms. In the oversize coat, she looks like an angry tween who didn't get asked to the prom. But I don't tell her that.
“Then you tell me what it means. Are we seriously going to put every kitten and teacup puzzle together? And open every puzzle box ever made? How many years do we have to spare?”
I look at the maze.
“What if we're wrong? We could get lost in there for days.”
“We won't. I know it. Call it Jade's instinct.”
I pick up a rusty picture frame. It tries to bite me, so I throw it away.
“Jade instinct? Where did that come from? You've never mentioned that before.”
“I just made it up. But it's telling me that going in there is a better idea than jacking around with Rubik's Cubes and crossword puzzles.”
“And if it's a dead end? How do we get out?”
“We do Hansel and Gretel again. Leave a coin at each turn.”
I look at the shaggy thing.
“Can't we just burn it down and find the exit that way?”
“That's that subtle Sandman Slim thinking that gets all the girls worked up,” says Candy. “If we burn it, we'll burn up the magic and probably this whole warehouse.”
I look at the hundred puzzles she must have in her wheelbarrow. I probably have even more in my cart.
“I'm worn out. You've worn me out. Just remember that if the world explodes, it's your fault.”
“Yeah, but I'm going out in great shoes.”
She takes my arm and pulls me to the maze, filled with all the confidence I haven't had since this thing began.
At the maze entrance I say, “What do we do? Just walk in?”
Candy punches me on the arm.
“Didn't you have a childhood? You turn left. Then you keep turning left. That's the best way through a maze.”
“Is that true?”
“It always worked on the napkins at IHOP.”
“I'm not risking the world on pancakes.”
She rolls her eyes.
“Yes. The rule of thumb with all mazes is to go to the left. It's mathematical or something.”
“Do you have the coins?”
She holds up the bag.
“Fuck it. Let's try.”
She takes my hand and drops the first coin. We step into the maze and take the first left turn.
lefts. A few more coins. The light changes. The floodlights filter down through the dead cornstalks, throwing tiger stripes everywhere, flattening everything until it's faded and two-dimensional. We're videos of ourselves walking through a video of a place. After too many turns, everything gets dreamlike and I have to remind myself that we're real, this place is real, and what we're doing is just as real.
Shapes form in the shadows. Faces. Animals. Whole cityscapes. Glimpses of Pandemonium. Breaks in the stalks give glimpses into adjoining rows and I swear that sometimes I see figures moving past us in the opposite direction. I wonder if this dream state is an effect of the place's magic or just boredom from looking at fucking corn for what feels like a fifteen-hour
I consider checking the time on my phone, but if we've been walking for hours it will depress me. If we've been walking for just twenty minutes it will depress me even more.
The air in the maze is musty. We brush against the stalks.
Dried leaves break apart and drift into our noses. Candy can't stop sneezing.
I didn't think that bringing down Wormwood would include being annoyed to death. It might be time to turn back.
I watch Candy wipe her nose on my old coat for the hundredth time.
“How many coins do you have left?”
“I haven't had any coins for an hour.”
“Thanks for keeping me up-to-date.”
“I didn't tell you because you're a big crybaby and you'd have wanted to turn around.”
“I have my lighter. I can still burn the place down. Just say the word.”
“What's that up ahead?”
Something flat hangs from the stalks a few yards ahead of us. It's a sign. It says
and under that is an arrow pointing back the way we came.
Candy and I look at each other.
“Someone is fucking with us,” she says.
“Or it's the maze itself. It's screwing with us. Testing us. Sort a temptation of Saint Anthony situation.”
“What was his story?”
“He was a monk who went to play hermit in the desert. Lucifer wasn't impressed and tried to kick Anthony's ass with visions. Animals. Bugs. The seven deadly sins. He probably threw in a few Daleks.”
“The seven deadly sins sound good,” she says. “Wake me when we get to Gluttony. I could use a ham sandwich.”
I look at the sign.
“A pretty lame temptation.”
Candy pulls it down and tosses it on the ground.
“I suppose we're going to have to question everything we see, huh?”
“Everything but us.”
We continue walking. Left turn. Then another.
Candy says, “How do you know everything but us? How do I even know you're you anymore?”
“We can play twenty questions.”
“Okay. What's your favorite movie?”
“The uncut version of
. Before they took out all the nudity.”
“What's your favorite food?”
“Definitely deviled eggs.”
“Your favorite sport?”
“Who's prettier, me or Brigitte?”
“What do you like best about me?”
“Your velvet Mary Janes.”
“Did your father really try to shoot you or is that another tall tale?”
Another left turn.
A man and woman are waiting for us. The man is in his late thirties, but looks fifty. When she was young, the woman looked like Ann-Margret, but the chemo has left her nothing but bare bones and gray skin in a crooked wig.
“Jimmy,” she says.
The man raises a hunting rifle.
I pull Candy back around the corner.
A shot goes off, ripping through the brittle cornstalks.
I get out the Colt. Pull the trigger as I round the corner. But there's no one there.
Candy comes up beside me.
“Was that . . . ?”
“Yeah. Mom and Dad. The human dad who raised me. He wasn't a happy person.”
I put the Colt back in my waistband.
“I'm so sorry,” Candy says.
“Just be careful what you say in here.”
We take the next turn. And the next.
There's a pile of bodies. The stink is mind-numbing. Corpses rise high above the stalks. I can't count them all. Burgess and Charlie are fresh on the ground. I see Jan and Korlin Geistwald. Their daughter Eleanor. Azazel. Piles of Hellions and revolting hellbeasts. Nameless vampires. Mason Faim and his enforcer, Parker. Josef. Teddy Osterberg. Cherry Moon. Doc Kinski. Bodies of everyone and everything I ever killed or allowed to be killed.
I just stare.
Candy pulls my arm.
“Come on. Let's go.”
“You know what that is?”
“Yeah. Let's go.”
It goes on like that. Awful visions and fake salvation. Exit signs. Rest stops with rotten food and pitchers of putrid water.
Around a corner is Heaven. Armored angels throw human souls over the battlements, a nine-day fall to Hell below.
Pandemonium empty, the streets full of bones and sewage.
I'm lying dead in the arena. Starving Hellions eat my raw flesh.
I pull Candy away from that one.
Candy and Alessa are asleep in our bedroom at Max Overdrive. All traces that I'd ever been there are gone.
Candy pulls me away from that one.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery. A year ago when I escaped Hell. Only I can't dig my way out of the grave. I claw at the dirt, but it's hard as concrete. I'm trapped there forever, a foot from freedom, in my own idiot tomb.
Candy closes her eyes at that one and I have to lead her away.
And turn another corner.
It's a few minutes until the next sideshow.
The smell of sulfur and filth is stronger as we near the vision.
The corn row opens on another bleak vision of Pandemonium. The empty street market. Off to the left and not too far away is Wild Bill's bar. A pale light flickers through the window and under the door.
I start to turn left, but it feels wrong.
Leaving Candy in the corn, I take a step into the empty street. The abandoned market stalls stretch in one direction. The short street to Wild Bill's in the other. Nearby is a car repair place where I once hid the Hellion hog.
“I think it's real.”
“We made it?” says Candy.
“Looks like it.”
I put out my hand.
She takes it and steps into the street. I look back, making a mental note of where the entrance to the maze is. It's through the entrance of a sushi bar that used to sell slices of animals that look less like fish and more like the
And yes, they have sushi bars, street markets, and car repair places Downtown. The place is a bit distorted and full of murderous shitcreeps, but you can still navigate it pretty well with a Maps to the Stars' Homes.
“I wonder if the maze goes anywhere besides Hell?” says Candy.
“You looking to catch some rays in Maui?”
“I was thinking more like Disney World in Florida.”
“You can take a plane to Florida.”
She grabs my arm and jumps a little.
“Then we can go?”
“I suppose. If we live.”
I look back at the sushi bar.
“You're probably right, though. I bet that maze will take you anywhere you want to go. If you can deal with its complete and utter bullshit.”
“Where to now, Dr. Quest?” she says.
“Fancy a drink?”
We head up the hill to Wild Bill's bar.
Back when I did a stint as Lucifer down here, I had the engineers build me a watering hole that looked as close as possible to Bamboo House of Dolls. I gave the place to my great-great-great-great- (I'm not really sure how many greats
is appropriate) grandfather, James Butler Hickok, better known as Wild Bill, the greatest shootist in the west.
It's been a while, though. And because I'm not sure what we'll find behind the door, I get out my Colt and Candy levels her Benelli, ready to fill any crabby Hellions inside with double-O buckshot.