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Former car thief Ray Lilly is now the expendable grunt of a sorcerer responsible for destroying extradimensional predators summoned to our world by power-hungry magicians. Luckily, Ray has some magic of his own, and so far it's kept him alive. But when a friend from his former gang calls him back to his old stomping grounds in Los Angeles, Ray may have to face a threat even he can't handle. A mysterious spell is killing Ray's former associates, and they blame him. Worse yet, the spell was cast by Wally King, the sorcerer who first dragged Ray into the brutal world of the Twenty Palace Society. Now Ray will have to choose between the ties of the past and the responsibilities of the present, as he and the Society face not only Wally King but a bizarre new predator.
It was August in Seattle, when the city enjoyed actual sunshine and temperatures in the eighties. I’d spent the day working, which made for a nice change. I’d just finished a forty-hour temp landscaping job; dirt and dried sweat made my face and arms itch. I hated the feeling, but even worse was that I didn’t have anything lined up for next week.
As I walked up the alley to home, I passed a pair of older women standing beside a scraggly vegetable garden. One kept saying she was sweltering,sweltering, but her friend didn’t seem sympathetic. Neither was I. I was used to summers in the desert; this weather didn’t bother me.
When they noticed me, they fell silent. The unsympathetic one took her friend’s hand and led her toward the back door, keeping a wary eye on me. That didn’t bother me, either.
I stumped up the stairs to my apartment above my aunt’s garage. It was too late to call the temp agency tonight. I’d have to try them early Monday morning. Not that I had much hope. It was hard for an ex-con to find work, especially an ex-con with my name.
I’m Raymond Lilly and I’ve lost track of the number of people I’ve killed.
My ancient garage-sale answering machine was blinking. I played the messages. Two were from reporters, one from a journalist-blogger, and one from a writer. They offered me the chance to tell my side of what happened in Washaway last Christmas. Except for the writer’s, I recognized all the voices--they’d called many times over the last few weeks, sometimes several times a day.
I absentmindedly rubbed the tattoos on the back of my hands. They looked like artless jail-house squiggles, but in reality they were magic spells, and I’d be behind bars without them. None of the survivors in Washaway could pick me out of a lineup, and none of the fingerprint or DNA evidence I’d left behind pointed to me any more. I was on the twisted path.
I erased the messages. There was no point in calling them back. None of them understood the meaning of the words "fuck off."
The sounds of their voices had triggered a low, buzzing anger that made me feel slightly out of control. I showered, then dropped my work clothes into the bottom of the tub, scrubbed them clean and hung them from the curtain rod. I felt much better after that.
I wiped steam from the bathroom window and looked out. My aunt had not hung a paper angel in her kitchen window. That meant I could order in a sandwich for dinner. I put on my sleeping clothes: a t-shirt and a pair of cut-off sweat pants. I could eat alone, in silence, without someone asking how I was sleeping, how I was eating, and wouldn’t things be better if I went to talk to someone?
I wouldn’t have to say,Thank you, but I can’ta half-dozen times. My aunt was right; I’d probably sleep better if I could talk about the nightmares--and what I’d done to bring them on--but I’d be bedding down in a padded room.
I opened my door to dispel the steam, even though an unlocked door felt like a gun at my back. I went to my bathroom mirror and looked carefully. Damn. I was wasting away.
A voice behind me said: "You look like shit."
I yelped and spun around. In an instant, my heart was pounding at my chest as my hand fumbled across the sink looking for something to use as a weapon.
Caramella was standing in the bathroom doorway, and I was so startled to see her that everything went still for a moment. My adrenaline eased and I could hear my harsh breath in the silence. It had been more than five years and she’d changed quite a bit. Her skin, which had once been so dark, seemed lighter, as though she spent all her time indoors, and while she still straightened her hair, now she had it up in a bun. She wore orange pants with an elastic waist band and a white halter. She’d gained some weight over the last few years and she seemed taller somehow.
But she didn’t belong here, not in Seattle. She belonged down in L.A., hanging at the Bigfoot Room with Arne, Robbie and the rest.
I almost asked her what she was doing here, but I didn’t want her to think she wasn’t welcome. In truth, I didn’t know how I felt about her. "Welcome to my bathroom," I said.
"Thanks. I hate it."
I nodded, but didn’t respond right away. Her hands were empty, although she might have stuffed a gun into the back of her waistband. Not that I could imagine why she’d want to kill me, but that was how my mind worked now.
"I’m guessing you’re not here for old times’ sake."
"We don’t have any old times, Ray." She turned and walked into the other room. I followed her, noting that she didn’t have a weapon under her waistband. "Then why are you here?" I asked. I kept my tone as neutral as I could, although I had less self-control than I used to.
"I’m paying a debt," she said, as though it was the most bitter thing in the world. "I have to deliver a message to you. In person." She stopped beside the efficiency stove. "Okay. Here I am."
She looked away. Her lip curled and she blinked several times. Christ, she was about to cry. "You killed me, Ray."
I gaped at her, astonished. She turned and slapped me on the shoulder. Then she did it again. That still wasn’t enough, and she slapped my face and head four or five times. I didn’t try to stop her.
Finally, she stopped on her own. Hitting me wasn’t bringing her any satisfaction. "You killed me," she said again. "And you killed Arne, and Lenard, and Ty, and all the others, too. We’re all going to die because we knew you."
"Melly, what are you talking about?"
"Sorry," she said with a wet sniffle. I looked for tears on her face, but her cheeks were dry. "That’s the message. That’s all you get."
She swung at my face again. I flinched away from the blow, but it never struck. When I opened my eyes a moment later, I was alone in the room.
I had been standing between Caramella and the door; she couldn’t have gotten around me and gotten out, not in the time it took me to flinch. I walked around the little studio anyway. She was gone--vanished in the blink of an eye. Magic. She had magic. Damn.
My cheek and scalp were sticky where she’d slapped me, and the stickiness was starting to burn. I went into the bathroom and washed my face and head. I could feel a smear of acidic goop that was so thin I couldn’t even see it. Plain water washed it away completely. When it was gone, my skin was slightly tender, but the pain had eased. I checked the washrag after, but it didn’t have any unusual stains or smells. I hung it over the kitchen faucet.
Back in the living room, I took my ghost knife from its hiding place on my bookshelf. It was only a piece of scrap paper, smaller than the palm of my hand, with a layer of mailing tape over it and some laminate over that. On the paper itself was a sigil I had drawn myself with a ball-point pen. It felt alive, and it felt like a part of me, too. The other magic I had, the tattoos on my chest, arms and neck, were protections that had been cast on me by someone else. The ghost knife was my spell, the only one I had. Then I took my cell phone out of my sock drawer. After the mess in Washaway, an investigator for the Twenty Palace Society met me on the street and slipped me a phone number. They trusted me enough to give me a way to contact them, which was damned rare and I knew it.
The society was a group of sorcerers committed to one end: hunting down magic spells and the people who used them, then destroying both. They were especially determined to find summoning spells, which could call strange creatures to our world from a place referred to as, variously, the Empty Spaces or the Deeps. These creatures, called predators, could grant strange powers, if the summoner knew how to properly control them. Too often, the summoner didn’t know, and the predator got loose in the world to hunt.
I was a low-level member of that society, but except for my boss, Annalise, who had put the magical tattoos on me, I knew very little about it. How many peers were there? How many investigators? How many wooden men, besides me, did they have? Where were they based? Where did their money come from?
I had no idea and no way to find out. The Twenty Palace Society took their secrecy seriously. I hadn’t been invited to secret headquarters, hadn’t trained at a secret camp, hadn’t been given a secret handbook with an organizational flow chart at the back. When they wanted me to do something, they contacted me, and they told me as little as they could.
What I did know was this: Peers live a very long time--centuries, in some cases--and the magic they use has left them barely human. Oh, they look human enough, but they have become something else.
And they were bastards, too--ruthless killers who took a scorched earth policy when it came to predators and enemy sorcerers. As a group, they didn’t seem to care much about collateral damage.
They had their reasons. A single predator, let loose in the world, could strip it of life. I’d visited the Empty Spaces once and seen it happen. So maybe the peers were justified in their "kill a hundred to save six billion" attitude, but it was a slim consolation if your loved one was one of the hundred.
Which was why I set the cell back on the bureau. Caramella had vanished right in front of me. It was magic, yeah, but calling the Twenty Palace Society and asking Annalise to meet me in L.A. was as good as taking a hit out on Melly and everyone else I knew. Annalise would first determine who, where and how they had been touched by magic--spells didn't strike people out of the sky like lightning. Magic powers, enchantments and hungry predators were things peopledidto each other.
After that, Annalise would kill them all just to be safe, and I would be the one who hung a bullseye on their backs.
God, I couldn’t kill more people. Not right now.
An overwhelming weariness came over me. Too little sleep and a full day’s work in the sun had left me exhausted. I smeared peanut butter on a slice of bread and ate it with all the enthusiasm you would expect. Then I stripped off my clothes and climbed into bed. I wasn’t ready for a long trip south. I didn’t have the energy for it.
I closed my eyes and fell into a dead sleep. I dreamed of fire, and mobs of people coming at me in the darkness, and brutal violence. I woke screaming at 5:00 in the morning. I grabbed my ready bag, my ghost knife and my cell phone. I wrote a note to my aunt explaining that I would be away for a few days. Then I went out into the summer darkness, climbed into my rusty Ford Escort and drove south.
It was a long trip and I had plenty of time to think. Too much time, really. It had surprised me when Melly had said we didn’t have old times. I’d met her when I was seventeen, still stealing cars for Arne and feeling a little cocky about it. She’d been a couple years older, and I’d tried to smooth talk her. It was the first time a woman had ever laughed at me without making me angry or ashamed. She took me under her wing, sort of, and we became friends.
Until then, I hadn’t thought men and women could really be friends--not that I’d become a man yet, no matter what I thought of myself. She had been kind to me when she didn’t have to, and she had yanked on my leash whenever I got too full of myself. I’d done things for her, too: fixed her car a dozen times, helped her move, and the one time an ex-boyfriend had threatened her, I’d broken his thumbs as an important lesson in good manners.
Never mind the times she’d lifted cash from my wallet. That’s how we lived back then. I always felt I’d never done enough to repay her for the things she’d done for me. And now she’d denied we’d had good times at all.
Maybe it should have stung more, but it didn’t. I’d spent three years in Chino, and the two years after that had been centered on the society and their work. I could barely remember how that old life felt. Caramella was like a ghost from another life come to haunt me--a life where we told each other we were brothers and sisters, but I had to sleep with my wallet in my pocket.
I drove straight through, taking twenty-three hours with meals and bathroom breaks. Most of the time I was in a trance, but as I approached the city, passing through dry brown hills wrinkled like unfolded laundry, I could feel my anxieties gathering their strength.
Then I was inside the city in the cool, dry pre-dawn, riding on an elevated highway with barriers along both sides. I could see treetops and the roofs of houses laid out around me; I was skimming above the city, and felt it beneath and around me. It gave me the same tingle I got standing outside a lion’s cage at the zoo.
I was exhausted. I pulled off the freeway into the parking lot of an IKEA, drove up to the top level and shut everything down. I collapsed in the seat and shut my eyes. Everything was wrong. I was back in L.A., but I felt like a pod person imitation of the man I used to be. Stealing cars, getting high, spending hours on the Playstation or hitting the bag at the gym--none of that matched who I was now. Now I had bulletproof tattoos on my chest, neck, and arms. Now I had spells that obscured evidence of crimes I’d committed, plus other spells that did who knows what. Now I was a killer of men, women and children.
Sleep overtook me and I woke up around 10:30 feeling sore but without my usual parade of bad dreams. This level of the parking lot was still empty. Already sweating from the morning heat, I started the engine, filled the gas tank at a station on the corner and drove to the Bigfoot Room.
It wasn’t really called the Bigfoot Room. The latest name--which had changed several times over the dozen or so years I’d spent as a member of Arne’s crew--was the Dingaling Bar. I nearly laughed. I couldn’t imagine Arne in a bar called the Dingaling. I parked in the lot beside it and walked around to the front. The wall above the door was recessed slightly, and coated with dust. Years ago, Arne had brought a bar stool out front, climbed up and wrote Bigfoot Room in the dust with his finger.
"That’s our sign, just for us," he’d said. And while the bar had changed hands three times, no one had ever noticed his writing or tried to wash it away.
It was gone now. Someone had swiped a hand through the dust, erasing the words. I went inside anyway. The place had been remodeled, but there were still booths in the back corner. Arne wasn’t there, and neither were Robbie, Summer, or any of the others. A brief conversation with the bartender confirmed that he didn’t know Arne: this wasn’t the Bigfoot Room any more. I recognized the barfly sitting by the jukebox, but he didn’t recognize me. He claimed not to remember Arne, either, even though Arne had bought him drinks many times over the years. He had the flat, burned-out eyes of a mannequin.
I ordered an egg sandwich and coffee, mainly so I could use the dirty bathroom. When the bill came, I asked for a phone book. Violet Johnson’s name was in there. I paid and left.
Vi still lived in the same place in Studio City. I drove over there, feeling vaguely sick at the idea of seeing her again. Or maybe it was the egg sandwich. Melly had been like a big sister to me, but Violet was the girl I wanted for keeps. I wanted us to buy a house together, the whole deal. The three years I did in Chino were because of a punch I threw while defending her kid brother. She was also the one who dumped me just before my arraignment, and I hadn’t even heard her name since.
I had to park two blocks from her place, but I managed to find a spot. Her neighborhood was so familiar that it felt eerie. Walking down this same sidewalk felt like wearing a costume, as though I was disguising myself as a younger me. I went up her same front walk to her same row of mailbox slots. I even remembered her apartment code. I buzzed her. Her voice, when she answered, sounded thin.
"Who is it?"
"It’s Ray," I said, the way I’d said it many times before. Then I remembered there were five years between us and I added "Ray Lilly."
She didn’t answer right away. She did press the gate buzzer. I pushed it open and went inside. The courtyard and little pool looked the same, but no one was swimming. She was on the third floor, and I went up the stairs to her.
She was already standing in the open doorway, waiting for me. It took me a moment to recognize her. She looked smaller and thinner than I remembered. Her thick brown curls were pulled back into a simple ponytail, and she wore no makeup at all. Like Melly, her skin looked lighter than it had, although she’d always been lighter than Melly. She no longer wore the little stud in the left side of her nose.
I used to tease her when she looked this way; I’d always liked the hair, makeup and shoes--what Vi had called hyper-girly. Now I felt embarrassed by the memory, but I didn’t feel much else.
"Melly warned me you might show up here."
Warned her? I didn’t have any reaction to that. After a second look, I realized she had dark circles under her eyes.
"Ray, you look terrible."
"It was a long drive," I said.
"Do you want to come in? You can’t stay, but..."
"I can’t stay, no, but I would like to come in."
The first thing I noticed was how cool it was in the air-conditioned apartment. The second thing was the toys. There were several different types of dolls lying about: rag dolls, Barbies, baby dolls in diapers. A huge doll house stood in the corner. Beneath the toys, all the furniture was the same thread-bare yard sale stuff she’d had years before.
I glanced at the couch, remembering all the things we’d done there. Then a little girl came out of the kitchen, a half-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich in her hand. Her skin was much lighter than Vi’s--nearly golden, and her hair was just a little too dark to be called blonde.
"Mommy, can I have a hot dog?"
Vi bent down to her. "You already have your lunch, sweetie. Right in your hand." "So?"
"Don’t answer me that way," Vi said, a note of warning in her voice.
The girl stepped around her mom. "Hi, I’m Jasmin. Who are you?"
"My name is Ray. You’re a very big girl, aren’t you?" My voice sounded hollow and strange.
"Yes, I’m five."
Vi bent down to steer her toward the kitchen. "Jazzy, eat at the table, okay? If you’re still hungry after your sandwich, you can have some raisins. If you behave." Raisins were the only incentive she needed. She turned and ran into the kitchen.
Vi looked me in the eye. "She’s not yours."
I didn’t know what to say to that. "No?"
"No. And I know you can do the math, Ray, but it was a long time ago."
If I added nine months onto five years, it was pretty clear that shecouldhave been mine. Vi had always been careful with me, saying she wanted to wait for kids, but apparently she had someone else on the side. Someone she was not so careful with.
"That’s it?Okay?Two years we were together, and you’re not going to shout at me? Call me a whore with my little girl in the next room to hear? You’re not going to take a swing at me? You’re not angry or hurt or nothing?"
"When did I ever take a swing at you?" But I knew that wasn’t what she meant, exactly. Maybe I should have been angry or hurt--she was the woman I’d planned to spend the rest of my life with--but I was secretly relieved. If Vi had stuck with me, she might have been caught up in the society, too. She’d dodged a bullet when she dumped me. "It’s been a long time for me, too."
She crossed her arms over her chest, a sure sign that I was pissing her off. "Fair enough. What did you come here for?"
"Melly came to me and told me she and Arne and everyone was in trouble, and that it’s my fault." I almost saidI want to save them."I need to find out what’s going on."
"Well I don’t know anything about it. I’m not a part of that any more."
"Fair enough. Where can I find Arne?"
She scowled and looked around the little apartment. For a moment I thought she would throw me out without an answer. Instead, she said: "You could have called me, you know. You could have written me a letter."
"I thought you didn’t want me to call," was the only answer I had. I didn’t mention the three years I’d spent in jail without hearing a word from her, or that she’d specifically told me to go away.
"You could have tried anyway." When I didn’t respond, she shrugged her bony shoulders and dismissed all of it. "He has a new Bigfoot Room. I don’t know where it is, though. I have a straight job now, and I’m a goddamn citizen. You should ask Tyalee. I think he’s still in touch with all of them."
"Ty has a straight job, too. He’s working at a gym now as a trainer."
"Do you know the name of the place?"
"Nope. But it’s across the street from that jungle restaurant. Remember that place you took me to, where everything came with sweet potatoes and mangoes?"
"His gym is in the shopping mall across the street. Don’t ask me about the others. I have nothing to do with those people now."
"Thank you." There should have been more for me to say, but I wasn’t sure how to come at it. "How’s Mouse? I mean, How’s Tommy?" Mouse was Violet’s younger brother, and I’d forgotten that we weren’t supposed to use his nickname any more. "Gone," she said. "He skipped town."
I knew her well enough to know she was holding something back, but if she didn’t want to talk I couldn’t force her. I supposed I didn’t have the right anymore, not after five years, but I was still concerned about her. "Are you doing okay?"
"I’m fine," she said. "You’re the one who looks like a hungry ghost."
As I went to the door, Jasmin came out of the kitchen. She watched me leave with a careful expression and, just before the door shut behind me, I heard her say very clearly: "That man scared me."
It was nearly noon, and L.A. felt like a blast furnace. I walked slowly to my car. There was no way I could avoid a ring of sweat under my arms and back, but I could make it smaller by going slow.
Unfortunately, my Escort was a Seattle car. The wiper blades were brand new but it didn’t have air conditioning.
It was a short two miles to the restaurant, and the gym was exactly where she said it’d be. The name was Everything Athletic, and a sign in the glass door announced that it was the home of the founder of the original "cardio-eira" classes. There were no windows, so I just pushed my way inside.
A sign at the front desk said that all of Justin Gage’s Cardio-eira classes had been cancelled until the end of the month. As I was reading it, a pale young women with dyed-black hair at the front desk asked if she could help me. Her eyes were rimmed with red and her face was puffy. She had been crying.
"What’s wrong?" I asked, more out of surprise than concern.
"Oh, I’m sorry," she said. "I just... Are you a member?"
"I’m not. I’ve never been here before."
"Okay. You should know that the cardio-eira classes have been cancelled, and we don’t know when they’ll be starting again. If ever."
"What happened?" I asked, because she seemed to expect me to.
"Justin was assaulted last night. Right out in the parking lot. He’s in the hospital and we don’t know... He’s in bad shape."
"I’m very sorry," I said. "Did they catch the guy who did it?"
"No," she said. "They have no idea who did it."
A heavily-muscled black woman stepped in to join the conversation. "We do have other trainers here." I noticed that her nametag read manager along the bottom. "And while they may not have the same infomercial cache that Justin has, they’re really quite excellent."
"What about Tyalee Murphy? Is he here?"
The manager was carefully neutral. "He’s finishing up with a member at the moment. Are you a friend of his?"
"I’d like to talk to him, if I could."
"Why don’t you have a seat?"
She gestured toward an overstuffed little couch beside a rack of swim goggles. I sat. The manager typed something into a handheld device without looking at me. The weepy employee handed out keys and towels to people who entered, and collected them from people who left. I heard the sad tale of Justin Gage several more times over the course of five minutes. He was apparently a much-loved figure, and no one had any idea what had happened to him and wasn’t this city just awful? Eventually, a tall black man rushed into the lobby and said: "You paged me?"
The manager pointed toward me, but I was already standing out of the chair. Ty turned toward me and looked me up and down. He didn’t recognize me.
He looked different, too. He’d shaved his head and his chin and, while he’d always been addicted to his time at the gym, now he was almost a parody of fitness. His uniform--a black polyester shirt with the gym logo over the heart, was tight enough to show off all the curves of his muscles.
"Ty, it’s me. Ray Lilly."
"Ray!" He almost shouted. He stepped toward me, and for a moment I thought he’d hug me. Instead, he wrapped his gloved hand around mine and pumped, smiling broadly. "Good to see you again, man. Good to see you. What brings you back to town?"
I was almost sorry to answer him. "A little trouble, unfortunately." Melly had said I'd killed him, but he didn't look unhappy. I needed to find out what he knew, especially where the magic had come from, but I couldn't do it in a crowded gym.
"Hey, if there’s anything I can do, name it." He glanced back through the door to the workout area beyond, as though he hadn’t meant to promise so much. "I mean, things are a little busyright now..."
I wasn’t sure what to make of him. We’d always gotten along, but I didn’t think we were close enough for him to be so glad to see me again. "Ty, I’m looking for the new Bigfoot Room."
"No problem! It’s at a place called the Roasting Seal over on Kalibel Ave. Remember that Baja Fresh where Mouse puked in the toilet? Right there. I’m not part of that scene anymore, you understand. I stillknowthe guys, but I don’t do stuff with them anymore. Not much, anyway."
Everyone had grown up and turned into citizens. Except me. "Thanks."
"Listen, um..." he glanced back into the workout area. "I’m a little busy right now. We’re short-handed today and I’m covering another dude’s clients. Plus, Ireallyneed the money." He laughed a little at himself, and at the slightly desperate way he’d said that. "But I’ll catch up with you soon, okay? You’re okay, aren’t you? You look a little worn thin. Take care of yourself in this heat. And thank you, man. Thank you." He checked his watch and rushed back inside. I went back out to my car.
I sat behind the wheel and closed my eyes. I’d taken Vi to the Baja Fresh many times and I could picture the intersection clearly, but I needed a moment to remember where that intersection was in relation to this one.
Then I remembered and I opened my eyes. Out of perverse curiosity, I angled the rear view mirror so I could see myself. Jasmin and Ty were right; I looked bad. I needed a week’s worth of sleep, but I wasn’t going to get it.
Ten minutes later, I was parking outside a church. The Baja Fresh was gone, but the other businesses--a sushi place, a dry cleaners, a shoe store--were the same. The Roasted Seal was just down the street. The front was made entirely of glass, but the view inside was blocked by an amateurish painting of a sad-faced seal perched on jagged of rocks. The seal looked at me as if I’d ruined its day with hair spray and car exhaust. In the dust above the door, someone had traced Bigfoot Room. I pushed the door open and went inside.
It wasn’t as dark as I expected. In fact, the place was almost nice. There were circular black tables seeded around the main floor with a surprising amount of space between them. Each table had a little light shining down on it. Ambiance.
There were a row of booths at the far end of the room, and a bar against the wall behind me. Everything was polished black stone and hexagonal floor tiles. There was also sawdust on the floor, which didn’t seem to fit.
I glanced at the bartender and realized he was watching me with a tight expression. Maybe I didn’t look like the trustworthy type. He only had one other customer: a rumpled-looking guy who must have run out of shampoo a month before. He was also watching me, but at least he tried to be subtle about it. I walked farther into the room and saw him.
Arne sat in a back booth just beside the fire exit. He had a cup of coffee and a smart phone in front of him. He wore a black button down shirt and chinos, and his curly blond hair was cropped short. Near as I could tell, he was alone and he wasn’t surprised to see me.
I started toward him. Lenard suddenly stepped out of a wait station that had been built like an alcove. Before I could react, he had his hands on me, shaking me roughly as he patted me down. I tensed up but held myself rigidly still. I wasn’t here to fight. Time had not been kind to Lenard. He had smoker’s wrinkles around his eyes and mouth, and his whole body had gone-pear shaped. "Well, well,Raymundo," he said. "Imagine seeing you here." I looked down at the shaved stubble over his scalp; he was going bald in little patches near his forehead.
He finished by checking for an ankle holster. Of course he didn’t find anything. He stood and shrugged to Arne. I was cleared to go.
"Good to see you, Lenard," I said.
He looked at me sidelong as he backed into his alcove. "You look like shit, baby."
"I know it."
I walked by him. Arne was sitting in his booth with his arms folded across his chest. He wasn’t even going to shake my hand.
"Arne," I said. "You don’t look surprised to see me."
He smiled without a trace of good feeling. "You always had a pretty good sense of direction, Ray. How’d it take you two years to get from the gates of Chino to me?"
"I got on the wrong bus."
"The bus to Seattle. I heard. I’ve been following your name in the news. It’s very interesting, all the scrapes you’ve gotten into. What happened in Washaway? You can tell me, buddy."
"Caramella said you were in trouble."
He didn’t like that I’d changed the subject. "Do I have to remind you? You used to be smarter than that. I spent two hundred and fifty a month on you while you were inside. Every month, I sent a check to a sweet little lady in Boyle Heights so her son and his pals would babysit you."
And now he was challenging me. The funny thing was that I didn’t feel like playing that game anymore. I’d seen too much to be afraid of Arne, and he knew it. "Arne--"
I let him have his say. After he finished, we stared at each other for a second. Then I said: "Caramella said it was my fault."
Arne laughed. There was something desperate and helpless in it. "Jesus. Ray.Ray."
He looked at the phone on the table, then slipped it into his pocket. "Okay. It’s time. Come on, Ray. You’re going to do a job for me."
"Because I knew prison wouldbreakyou." He was letting his anger show openly now. "I knew you couldn’t handle the misery. You were never tough enough up here for that."