Authors: Richard Kadrey
Sometimes it makes me want to cut my throat and head down to Hell forever. At least I understand the rules down there. But I'm not the suicide type, especially knowing how it would hurt the few people I care about.
I grab my ex-con coat and head out. When I get back to the Catalina, I check under the seat for the angel's box. It's right where I left it. I look at it again. Open it, take out the vial, and shake it. Black milk. It sounds charming. What every good boy and girl needs for a growing body. I put it back and slip the box back under the seat. The cut over my eye has stopped hurting. I run a finger over it and don't find any blood. That's good news at least. I start the car and head back into Hollywood. I need a drink to wash the taste of cheap lies out of my mouth.
of home is Bamboo House of Dolls, the best punk tiki bar in L.A. Old Cramps and Germs posters on the walls. Plastic hula girls and palm trees behind the bar. An umbrella in your drink if you ask nicely. There's also a brilliant jukebox. Martin Denny. Arthur Lyman. Meiko Kaji. I don't think there's anything on there less than forty years old.
Carlos, the bartender, laughs when he sees me.
I sit at the bar and he pours me a glass of Aqua Regia, the number one booze in Hell.
He says, “What happened? The bigger kids took your lunch money?”
I touch my eye.
“It doesn't look that bad, does it?”
He steps back, cocking his head from side to side like he's trying to find the naked lady in a Picasso.
“I've seen you worse. The scab is almost gone, but you've got a nice bruise over your eye.”
“Let me guess. You ran into a tall midget with an iron hat. Or a small giant carrying a lunch box.”
“The truth is more embarrassing, so let's go with that last one.”
“Please tell me you at least won the fight.”
I sip the drink. It tastes like gasoline and burns just right going down.
“I won, all right. But I shouldn't have been there in the first place.”
He picks up and tosses a couple of drink coasters some customers left behind.
“Then why were you there? I thought your looking-for-trouble days were behind you.”
“That's the problem. They are most of the time. I want them to be, but sometimes . . . it feels like if I don't hit something my brain will go nuclear and run out my ears.”
Carlos gives the bar a quick wipe-down and pours himself a drink.
“I know your problem. Seen it a thousand times before. Before I bought this place, when I was a little
I barbacked at a cop bar over by Rampart. The ones still working, most of them had their heads wired on right enough, but the old-timers? The retired ones or the bad ones that were exiled to desk duty? They could chew their way through steel. You killers, you men of action, take you out of the game and you're always a month from eating your gun.”
I swirl the Aqua Regia around in the glass.
“Thanks for your concern. It's touching. Really.”
“Don't be so sensitive,” says Carlos. “Those guys, they didn't have your advantages.”
“The things you can do. The places you can go.”
I finish my drink.
“That's the problem. I can't go places anymore. I can still do everything I used to, but I don't have anywhere to do it.”
“And you being you, you go looking for trouble and you're going to find it.”
“Finding it's not the problem. Not looking like I found it is. Chihiro would hate it, and my boss, he wouldn't be too happy either.”
Carlos opens the cooler under the bar, puts some ice in a clean rag, and hands it to me. I hold it to my bruised eye.
“Then it's just me that's amused watching you twist yourself in knots,” he says.
“I don't like lying to people, but I'm not built to be, I don't know, a regular person. I was born to break things. Even my father said so.”
“A natural-born killer.”
“That's what the old man said.”
Carlos pours me more Aqua Regia.
“Your problem is you're all
. You remember that movie?”
I nod. “A hippie music video ninety minutes too long.”
“The whole thing is only ninety minutes.”
Carlos uses a finger to draw a shape on the bar in the moisture left from the rag. A little yin yang sign.
“Aside from its virtues as a film, the word
means âlife out of balance.' That's you, my friend. You go from crazy hit man to a pencil pusher on some board of directors or something with no steps in between. Of course it's going to make you a little crazy.”
“And I've lost the Room. It's not just that I could travel through it. I used to think that was it, but it's not. The Room was always
place. Somewhere I could hide from this world, Heaven, and Hell. No one could touch me there. It's the only place I ever felt . . .”
“Safe,” says Carlos.
I look at him.
“I don't know.”
“Of course you know. You lost your happy place and now you've given up the thing that kept you alive all these years. Your fists. That's not the recipe for a happy life.”
“So, what do I do?”
“You got yourself Koyaanisqatsied. Now you have to get yourself unkoyaanisqatsied.”
“Yeah, but how?”
“Take a pill. Get a cat. Follow the yellow brick road. I don't know. I'm not a shrink. But this isn't the first time you've come in with bruises on your face or hands and I've helped you hide them. I'll tell you, though: I don't like lying either. Chihiro is good people. Come to me to talk anytime you like, but me helping you hide your sins? Tonight is the last time. I've cut off drunks and junkies and now I'm cutting you off. No more ice after tonight.”
Someone pushes past me and orders shots of bad Scotch. I look at my hands. Some of the knuckles are swollen, but not so much you'd notice if you weren't looking for it. I hold the ice on my eye. No wonder the pit boss thinks I'm an ex-con. I am. Only I did my time in Hell and I came out with exactly the same problems all those cons have when they get
out of federal or state pens. Candy and Julie nagged me about PTSD a few weeks ago. I didn't want to listen. I still don't, but maybe they're onto something. Maybe this fighting on the sly isn't fixing anything. It's me feeding whatever is wrong with me. So, what do I do about it? I stop is what I do. No more fights. Carlos is right. I need a dog. I need a doctor. I need something else that doesn't make me a chump and a liar every time I open my mouth.
Then I remember something. I take out the box and put it on the counter.
“Carlos, you're a man of spirits and exotic liquids. Have you ever heard of something called black milk?”
He hands the guy his lousy Scotch and thinks for a few seconds.
“Never. What is it?”
I open the box and take out the vial.
“This. Only I don't know what this is.”
He takes the little glass bottle and holds it up to the light. Shakes it a little.
“Where did you get it?”
“It was a gift. Of sorts.”
“More secrets? Who gave it to you?”
“No one I can talk about this close to such shitty Scotch. You should be ashamed of yourself for selling it.”
The guy who ordered them turns to me.
“Hey, I like this stuff. Who made you king high shithead of Scotch?”
I start to say something, but he backs up a step and his mouth opens like a roast pig waiting for an apple. The guy is
slumming it tonight. He tried to dress down because he knew he was coming here, but the manicure and the million-dollar college ring give him away.
“Oh shit,” he says. “You're him. I heard you hang out here. Can I buy you a drink?”
Carlos waves the guy off.
“Not tonight, man. Come back at Christmas. He'll be a chipper fucker by then. Won't you, Stark?”
I look at Carlos, not at the groupie.
“Thanks, but I have a drink.”
“Then, can I get a picture with you?” he says. “I swear it will only take a second.”
“What did I just tell you,
?” says Carlos. “Not tonight.”
Out of the corner of my eye I can see the guy turn from Carlos to me and back to Carlos. He holds up his hands.
“Fine. Be an asshole. You're not that special, you know. I've met lots more cool people here and what do you call them . . . ?”
“Lurkers,” I say.
“Yeah. Lots more interesting ones than you.”
I look at him.
“There's lots here that love guys like you. Just be sure to check your wallet before you go home.”
He takes the cash for the drink out of his front pocket. He slaps himself on his back pocket, hoping to hit imported hand-tooled leather. By the look on his face I'd say he came up empty.
“Shit,” he says, and checks another pocket, coming up
with his iPhone. He looks relieved. At least he can still text his buddies about his night with the wild people on the bad side of town.
He thumbs the phone on and says, “Please. So the night isn't a total loss. Just one picture.”
“Get out,” says Carlos. “You don't listen, so you can't stay. Move. Now.”
I look at Richie Rich.
“Better do what he says or he'll hit you with a coconut carved like a monkey.”
The guy gives up. Puts his phone in his breast pocket, sadder but wiser.
“I get it. Sorry to have bothered you. I'm going. Besides,” he says, “you look like hell.”
“Now,” says Carlos.
Richie starts for the door.
Carlos shakes his head.
“Some people couldn't buy a clue with all the gold in Fort Knox.”
I hold up my glass, toast Carlos, and down my drink.
“Thank you, Doctor. I'm feeling much better now. How's my eye?”
He looks and nods.
“It's getting there.”
Then he looks up past me.
Someone throws his arm around me and clicks a picture. It's Trump and his iPhone. I turn just in time to see him scrambling out the front door with my bruised face in his hand.
So, to sum up the evening. A Sherman tank with the brain of an angry hamster gave me a black eye, and now some college boy snuck up behind me and got my picture without me even knowing he was there. I think this is what's known as a wake-up call. Something has to change. Starting with me.
“You have any food left back there tonight?”
“Some tamales with some beans and rice. You want some to go?”
“Could I get three?”
He disappears into the back and reappears with a packed paper bag.
I sniff the food and smile.
“What do I owe you?”
“You know you always eat and drink for free around here,” he says.
“Not for the food. The advice.”
“All you owe me is not fucking yourself up anymore. Do that and we're square.”
I set down the rag I've been holding to my eye and pick up the food.
“I'll work on it.”
“You do that. And tell Chihiro hi for me.”
“You got it.”
I got out to the car and set the food on the passenger seat. Donald Trump is halfway down the block showing his phone to anyone who'll look. Showing my face to strangers.
I start the car and gun the engine a couple of times. If he moves just a little to his right, I could pick him off without hitting anyone else. The front of this Catalina is solid steel.
He won't even make a dent. I can just hose him off when I get home.
But I don't do it. It would be too easy. Too
. Something has got to change and it will start with me not killing a rich kid who'll go on drinking shit Scotch and stealing photos with people because he'll never know how close he came to frat-boy Heaven tonight.
I pull away from the curb and head home.
you,” says Kasabian when I come in. “If you just
the Girl Scouts' cookies, they'll leave you alone.”
“That gets funnier every time you say it.”
“It'll be even funnier next time.”
Kasabian runs things day to day at Maximum Overdrive, the video store where I live with him and Candy. Him downstairs in the back and me and Candy in the small apartment upstairs. This arrangement is best for everyone if for no other reason than Kasabian doesn't really have a body. I mean, he has one, but it's not his. It's a retrofit from a mechanical hellhound body I stole when I could still shadow-walk Downtown.
“Keep going. You're going to talk yourself out of tamales.”
Kasabian holds up a mechanical hound paw.
“Witness me shutting up.”
The paw creaks a little as he says it. Sometimes he clanks when he walks. That's the other reason he spends most of his time down here and not upstairs in our palatial penthouse. I set the tamales on the counter.
“Smart man. How's business?”
“We're doing all right. Still making bank off the special
stash. But we haven't had anything new in for a while. The requests are piling up.”
The special stash are videos a little witch named Maria gets for us through her ghost connections. Movies that don't really exist, at least in this time and space. James Cameron's
. Sergio Leone's
. Orson Welles's
Heart of Darkness
“Do you explain that our movies come from another fucking plane of reality? It's not like we're rifling the bins at the Salvation Army.”
Kasabian lifts the edge of the tamales bag and looks inside. I close it and move the bag to the other end of the counter. He gives me a look.