There are a lot of ghosts in Los Angeles. Haunts stare out from the doorways they died in, Wanderers blindly mingle with street hustlers, neither knowing of the other’s presence. Echoes stutter their way through their final moments, broken records skipping over and over and over again until they finally fade away.
There are other kinds of ghosts. Torn-down landmarks, faded histories, memories of things you’ll never get back. You can see hints of them. Tiny slivers in the faded California bungalows, the churches on Adams, the brownstones in an increasingly gentrified Skid Row. L.A.’s a ghostly city whose heyday was marked by illusions, corruption and broken dreams. They’ll all fade away eventually, too. Bulldozed over for a Metro line, a mixed- use complex of shops and condos, a parking lot.
And there are the ghosts you can’t get rid of, no matter how hard you try.
I sit in my car, the latest in a series of stolen vehicles, and look up at Vivian’s condo on Wilshire. Lights are off, as I expected. Two in the morning, after all. I haven’t been here in a few weeks. I check in on her every once in a while, though if she knew she’d probably shoot me. She made it abundantly clear that I’m at the top of her shit list about six months ago at Alex’s funeral. Rightly so.
She and I had been dating since high school when I left L.A. fifteen years ago. Hell of a way to break up with a person. I didn’t even leave a note. So of course she and my best friend were going to hook up. Hell, when I came back to town, she and Alex were about to move in with each other. They spent all that time build-ing a life together, taking on responsibilities that should have been mine. Playing siblings to my younger sister.
To be fair, I didn’t leave by choice. Got one of those ‘offers you can’t refuse’ deals. Leave L.A. Don’t come back. Or we kill you, your sister, your friends, your dog, your third grade math teacher. You get the idea.
So, you know, I left.
I glance across the street and get a flash of memory and a stabbing headache. Walking down to a movie in Westwood about five years ago, girl on my arm, slightly drunk. Only I wasn’t in L.A. five years ago. The memory isn’t mine.
A while back I consumed a ghost. Something I didn’t know I could do. Real bastard by the name of Jean Boudreau, who I thought I’d taken out fifteen years ago. Tore him to pieces, swallowed him up.
Bad enough to have chunks of his memories floating around my head. Worse is that he’d been doing the same to other ghosts. Thousands of them, decades of memories he’d consumed, pulled into himself. All those broken ghosts swallowed up to patch the holes in his own decaying soul.
I’d get these sudden flashes. Little things mostly, but vivid. Remembering something I never did. A person I’d never met, a meal I’d never eaten. Sometimes the memories would swallow everything up. I’d forget where I was, who I was. The worst lasted three days and I came to shaking and naked in a burnt-out cabin in the Mojave.
This is what happens when you eat other people’s souls. I don’t recommend it.
The headache fades along with the memory of the date I never had and I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. The episodes have gotten less frequent, less vivid. I don’t wake up in the middle of the night speaking a foreign language and wondering where I am anymore. But they still hit me from time to time, and I never know when I’m going to get a bad one.
My phone, a burner I picked up at a grocery store, buzzes in the car’s cup holder. Text message. “GRIFFITH OBSERVATORY.”
Odd choice, but okay. I’m not the one calling the shots here. I put the car in gear, pull away from the curb. Wonder if I’ll ever be able to fix things. Wonder if they’re meant to stay broken.
When you finally get a meeting with the guy who can help you unfuck your life, you say yes, no matter how weird the place he wants to meet you might be. Maybe he’s testing you, maybe he’s showing off. Don’t know, don’t care.
I pull into the empty hilltop parking lot of the Griffith Observatory, the three- domed building perched on the edge of Griffith Park overlooking the neighborhood of Los Feliz. Two in the morning. There’s no one here. The park’s closed, patrolled by rangers in SUVs who, with a little magical assistance, drive by me oblivious as I wind my way up the hill. I park the stolen Mercedes right at the edge of the lawn. At the other end of the lot sits a white Bentley.
Harvey Kettleman is kind of a mage’s mage. More research than practice, but he’s well known among the magic set and big in L.A. If you’re a talent of any standing in this city you’ve heard of him. I first met Kettleman about twenty years ago. My dad and he weren’t tight, exactly. Seems mages get to a certain point and they never really trust anybody. We have associations of convenience more than we have real friendships. Magic is power, and power does that to a person.
I hope he doesn’t remember I called him Gandalf when I was a kid.
So I went through a third party. Guy I know in Torrance named Jack MacFee. Two- bit hustler mostly. Purveyor of the trappings of magic, the things we need to ply our craft. Goat’s blood, graveyard dirt, ground up bone from convicted murderers, that sort of thing. Stuff you can’t grab at your local Target.
Took a while, but MacFee finally came through. Owes me from way back and I owe him. We stopped chalking up the favors years ago. Seeing him was one of the few bright spots in coming back to this shithole town.
I can see Kettleman on the roof- deck of the Observatory, silhouetted against an amber haze. Clouds have moved in and the streetlights of L.A. cast the sky a sickening, nighttime yellow. I’m not expecting trouble, but then that’s when it usually gets me. I slide my Browning Hi- Power into the holster at the small of my back. It’s an old Nazi pistol with so much hate embedded in its frame that holding it feels like cockroaches under my fingers. It’s a weird gun and an ugly gun. All its nightmare history sings to my magic, and when I pull that trigger it’ll punch through shit like a .44.
I slip my pocket watch, an Illinois Sangamo Special from 1919 with a wicked way of twisting time, into my coat pocket. I haven’t used it in months. It’s iffy at the best of times and horrifying at the worst. I have no idea where it came from, only that it’s been in my family for a couple generations. I wonder sometimes if maybe it has a mind of its own.
Neither the gun nor the watch is something I want to use, but better to have them and not need them than the other way around. I head across the grass past the parking lot and up the stairs on the side of the building that holds the observatory’s seventy- year- old telescopes.
When I’m halfway up, a disturbingly familiar voice at my ear says, “He’s going to try to kill you,” and I freeze.
Is this another episode? It doesn’t feel like one. Those are memories, not voices, and the stabbing headache that hits with them isn’t there. I look behind me, but don’t see anyone nearby. My sense of the Dead tells me the same thing. No ghosts on the stairs. I cast my net a little wider, stretch my senses. A few ghosts of dead hobos down the hill, some guy who got shot on a nearby trail. There is something weird, though. A ghost I can’t identify, flittering on the edge of my awareness, there one second, gone the next. I almost don’t catch it.
That’s strange. If there’s a ghost around I’ll know it. Whether I want to or not. This thing is bouncing in and out of my awareness like a radio signal in the desert. Like nothing I’ve run into before. But the really strange part?
It’s up on the roof with Kettleman.
“Evening, Mr. Kettleman,” I say, coming around the western telescope dome, its green copper plating gray in the hazy light. “Unusual place for a meeting, isn’t it?” He’s standing by the central dome looking up at the night sky, wearing a dark blue suit and a gray overcoat, a neatly trimmed beard and shaved head giving him a professorial look. The ghost I can feel up here is still around, closer, but just as hard to pinpoint. I can feel traces of it, but not the whole thing. Like seeing shattered glass and knowing it’s a bottle from the shards.
“Eric Carter,” he says. “Yes, I suppose, but I always like a bit of gravitas to these sorts of things. Your father used to give me such grief over it, you know.” He’s thinner than I remember. Older, his beard grayer. Stands to reason. I haven’t seen him since I was a kid.
“Yes, sir,” I say. There’s something wrong here. His voice is stilted, like he’s not used to using the words.
“It’s been a long time, young man,” he says. He cocks his head to the side like he’s trying to remember something. “Gandalf.”
I was afraid of that. “That was a long time ago, too, sir. I’ve been out of town some years. Only been back a few months.”
“I heard,” he says. “My condolences on your family. Then and now. I was at your parents’ funeral, though I’m afraid I only learned about your sister recently. I’m very sorry for your loss.”
After my parents died I went off the reservation and killed the mage who murdered them. That’s when his assistant, Ben Griffin, gave me the choice to get out of town or die along with my sister and all my friends. Kept me off of this coast for a long time. Until a few months ago, when my sister was murdered and all bets were off.
“Thank you. I hear the services were very tasteful.”
“No amount of ceremony can dull the bite that death comes for us all. But then no one knows that better than you, eh? How is the necromancy business these days?”
“Kinda dead,” I say, the old joke coming out before I can catch myself. “It’s actually what I’m here to talk to you about,” I say.
“Yes. I understand you have a problem with a death goddess,” he says. “Mictecacihuatl. Santa Muerte, herself. She’s a nasty one. You should have come to me sooner.”
“With all due respect, sir, I tried. You weren’t exactly picking up my calls.”
He waves away the sarcasm. “I have no time for the uncommitted. I needed to make sure you wanted to see me badly enough. Mister MacFee was very persuasive on your behalf. So you have my attention. I suppose you’re looking for a way to rid yourself of her influence?”
“That’s the hope. I know it’s a long shot, but anything that might help sever my link to her would be appreciated.”
He frowns. “You know there are others who can help you. There’s a man I know in London who—”
“I need to stay in town, sir.”
“Personal reasons.” I don’t need to tell him everything. Keeping tabs on Vivian is my business.
“I see. Well, then let’s see what we’re up against, shall we? Come here. Let me look at your eyes.” He turns to me, tugging at the corner of his own eye, like he’s trying to put something back in place. He twitches as he does it. Nervous tic?
The voice I heard on the stairs pipes up. “Watch yourself,” it says. It’s clearer this time. It takes all I have not to spin around and ask who’s there, even though I know that voice. I know who it belongs to. And I know it’s not possible. It’s not the broken ghost hiding up here on the roof, that much I’m sure of. Probably just my paranoia. A new psychosis, maybe. Wouldn’t that be fun?
At night from a distance it’s easier to pass my eyes off as normal. I step closer, but not too close. Give him a good look.
“Oh my,” he says. “No iris. No whites at all. Pitch black. Did it hurt?”
“No. Seem to have slightly better night vision, but they don’t give me trouble in bright light, either. Been wearing sunglasses a lot so I don’t scare the straights.”
“And I heard mention of a ring?”I show him my left hand, the wedding band on my finger. It changes from time to time. A simple gold band sometimes, tiny calaveras carved into its surface others. Tonight it’s solid green jade, which is new. “Came with the eyes,” I say. “Can’t seem to get rid of that, either.”
The ring and the eyes are reminders from Santa Muerte that I belong to her now. I made a deal with her, to help me kill Boudreau after he’d kidnapped Alex, but I ended up with a shotgun wedding and Alex dead instead. Pro tip: read the fine print.
“Interesting,” he says. “Married to a goddess of death. Are you sure you want me to help you break her hold on you? I imagine you must be getting some benefits from this arrangement.”
Sure. I’ve got more power. My abilities to sense the dead have skyrocketed. I can channel more magic than I’ve ever been able to before. I can cast some spells with barely a thought that used to take me days of planning. But there’s more to this than all that.
“She wants something from me and I don’t know what. Can’t be anything good.”
“But the power—”
“You don’t get it. This isn’t about power. It’s about being somebody’s puppet. Yeah, my abilities have grown, but I don’t own them. Can you help me or not?”
He looks set to argue with me about it, then catches himself. “I see. All right. Has she contacted you since this happened?”
I remember Alex’s funeral when she came to gloat. The same day Vivian told me to stay out of her life.
“Just once. Few months back. Haven’t seen her since.”
“Interesting.” He cocks his head to the side, wrinkles his brow in thought. “Here, give me your hand. I have something that might help until we can find something more permanent.” He reaches into his coat pocket.
Something’s not right. “Sure you don’t need to know a little more about this?”
“No, no,” he says, a hungry look creeping into his eyes. “I know enough. Now, come here.” I’m not buying it.
“He’s got a knife,” the voice in my ear says, as if confirming my suspicions.
Sure enough, Kettleman whips out a wicked- looking blade made of knapped obsidian, its handle just a wrapping of old leather strands covering the stone. He slashes it out at me in a wide arc, faster than I expected. It bites through my suit coat, nicks my tie.
I call my magic around me, shove a burst of lightning out through my hand. Two months ago, channeling this much power would have made me pull from the local pool and probably left me exhausted, but now the magic flows through me fast and smooth. The arcs of electricity dance around Kettleman, but he’s no slouch. They bounce off a shield he’s put up around himself, and the force of my blast only manages to shove him back a couple feet. He grunts against the onslaught and then lets out his own.
A wave of force smashes into me. Knocks me down and I skid ten feet to slam against the concrete wall of the western telescope dome. Wasn’t ready for that.
“The power of a goddess,” Kettleman says, advancing on me like a madman, the obsidian blade flashing in his hand. “You don’t want it, you don’t deserve to keep it.”
“Jesus, man, it’s not like I can give it to ya. Hell, if that’s all it took I’d hand it over right now.” I roll to my feet, draw the Browning from its holster at the small of my back. “Look, I don’t want to kill you. Really. Getting this far was a pain in the ass and I’m not in the mood to start over.”
His eyes narrow into slits, his hand tightens on the obsidian blade. “You’re not worthy of the gift,” he says. “You don’t know what to do with it. It belongs with someone who does. I’ll skin you alive and wear you like a suit.”
There’s an image I didn’t need. “Don’t think it really works that way.”
The floor shudders, a sound of twisting metal behind me. I’ve been so focused on him I hadn’t realized he was setting something up behind me. A long strip of the copper sheeting covering the telescope’s dome tears off and whips down at me. I roll out of the way as it strikes where I was standing. Sparks fly.
Kettleman is on me in a flash. I block his swing with my forearm, drive my palm into his face. I give the strike some magical oomph and hear a loud crack as his nose crunches. He wails in pain, stumbles back, blood streaming from his nose. I could probably end this here. Keep hammering him in the face until he goes down and stays down. But that could kill him. Psycho or not, I need him.
Instead I bolt for the other side of the building. There’s another staircase I can take down. If I can get away from the crazy I can regroup. I’ve spent too much time trying to get a lead on how to get out from under Santa Muerte’s thumb. There’s got to be some way to reason with him. But to do that I need to get him to quit trying to turn me into a pair of pants. I round the curve of the other telescope and skid to a stop.
I’ve found that ghost. The one that kept flitting in and out like a bad radio station. It’s definitely not the one who warned me of the attack. This one’s in no shape to communicate at all. It flickers in and out worse than any ghost I’ve ever seen. Disjointed, scattered. It stands there, its face a sick imitation of Munch’s scream, its body a parody of cohesion. It looks sliced crosswise like a man trapped in a mix- and- match puzzle book for kids where the top and bottom pieces don’t quite line up. I’ve never seen a ghost this incoherent. Even if it were old and faded it wouldn’t be like this. This thing is broken.
But it’s worse than that. The ghost is Kettleman’s. Unless the old mage has a twin who just happened to die on this rooftop, this is him. Every last detail is there. Same face, same suit, same salt- and- pepper goatee. But if this is Kettleman’s ghost, who’s the maniac with the knife?
Before I get a chance to really put any thought into it I hear that warning voice in my ear say, “Duck.” I don’t argue, just drop down and let Not- Kettleman’s knife sail over my head. I lash back with my leg, catching him above the knee. He screams as the joint pops and he stumbles. The knife falls from his hand. I kick it out of the way.
If this isn’t the real Kettleman then there’s no reason to hold back. I bring the Browning to bear but I underestimate his speed. His good leg sweeps up in a vicious kick with a healthy dose of magic behind it and slams into my forearm. My entire arm goes numb as the gun flies out of my hand and skitters away from me.
So I change tactics and kick him in the nuts. His scream goes up an octave and he starts to make retching noises. I’ve been dealing with this Santa Muerte bullshit for too long and Kettleman was the closest thing to a lead I had. God fucking dammit.
“Why’d you have to go and kill him, you sonofabitch? And who the hell are you?” I slam the heel of my foot into his crotch a couple more times, letting adrenaline, anger and frustration fuel every blow.
When I get done with this bastard there’s not going to be anything left beyond a smear. I step up to curb stomp his skull, bring my leg up and—
He’s not Kettleman anymore. There’s a tearing noise as the guy he’s turned into rips through his clothes. They’re way too small for him. He’s a foot taller at least, and packing more muscle than half a dozen juiced up linebackers. Crew- cut blond hair, clean-shaven, thick cords of muscle, Cyrillic tattoos across his chest. There’s blood still on his face but there’s no sign of the broken nose I just gave him, or the busted knee. That can’t be a good sign.
He reaches up with both hands, grabs my foot mid-stomp and yanks me onto my ass. I land on the hard concrete and the air punches out of me, my vision blurs. I reach into my coat pocket, struggle for a breath. Not- Kettleman, now a good fit for an extra in a Russian prison movie, pulls himself up off the floor. He reaches down, yanks me up, cocks back his sledgehammer fist.
That’s when I get hold of the pocket watch, twist the crown with my thumb and push the button. I don’t have a lot of control over the watch. I can aim its time-twisting effect, but that’s about it. Like most magic it’s more like a negotiation than an actual command. I want this fucker over and done with. Tacking forty or fifty decades onto him ought to do it.
As usual, the watch has its own ideas. Not- Kettleman screams, drops me and stumbles back, but I don’t see any noticeable difference. No wrinkles, liver spots, anything like that. What did it hit him with? A day? A week? I can’t tell, but even a few minutes ought to hurt like a sonofabitch.
I get the watch all the way out of my pocket, air slowly coming back into my lungs. He’s backing away now, real fear on his face. I spin the crown a couple more times with my thumb. Let’s see how he likes another hit from the watch.
I half expect him to rush me, but instead he runs to the fallen knife, grabs it and shifts back to his Kettleman form. There’s no flash, no pop, no downsizing of Hulk rage. He’s just a skinny academic beat to shit with a flattened nose and a busted knee. No help there, it seems. But I guess he doesn’t need much. He jumps off the roof.
I hit the watch button again, but I have to see him for it to do much. Instead the concrete of the wall he’s jumped over blisters, a hundred years of wear pitting its surface. I look at the watch. Now you work? I crawl to the wall and look over the side. Not- Kettleman has gone back into Russian mobster mode, barely a scratch on him. Nice strategy. Use the Kettleman form to take the brunt of the fall and then saunter away.
I bring up the watch for another shot, but he’s too far away. Dry firing it isn’t recommended. If it can’t hit the target I want it’ll hit something else and there’s no telling what kind of mess that’ll cause. I watch him get behind the wheel of the Bentley, gun the engine and tear out of the parking lot.
With the fight over my hands start shaking from the dump of adrenaline. What the fuck just happened?
“Told you he’d try to kill you,” says the voice in my ear, cutting through the sound of the revving engine, the screeching tires.
“Yeah,” I say. “You want to tell me what this is about? You real? Or am I just going insane?”
If it has an answer, the voice keeps it to itself. Just as well. I don’t think I could handle hearing the truth. I know that voice, know its inflections, I know the sort of thing it might say. It’s a voice I’m very familiar with. I just haven’t heard in a while.
It’s the voice of Alex, the friend I couldn’t save, the one whose soul was chewed up by a ghost I couldn’t destroy fast enough. I’m not stupid enough to think he couldn’t come back from that. I’ve seen it happen before. But if he’s a ghost I should feel it. Not just get this disembodied voice in my head. And if he is back, I’m not sure if I should be glad or worried.
After all, I’m the one who put a bullet in his head.