Joe Sunday has been a Los Angeles lowlife for years, but his life gets a whole lot lower when he is killed by the rival of his crime boss—only to return as a zombie. His only hope is to find and steal a talisman that he learns can grant immortality. But, unfortunately for Joe, every other undead thug and crime boss in Los Angeles is looking for the same thing.
I toss my jacket on the bar, slide onto the red vinyl stool next to Julio. He’s on his sixth drink of the day, and it’s not even noon. Empty shotglasses lie scattered on the bar. Julio’s a tequila man, likes Patrón when he can get it, Cuervo when he can’t. Me, I’m a scotch drinker. I order a Johnny Walker Black, neat.
“The fuck you doin’ here, Joe?” he says, taking a sidelong glance at me through unfocused eyes. Besides the bartender, we’re the only ones here. Henry’s Bar and Grill on Magnolia isn’t the worst in town, but it’s as bad as you’ll find in North Hollywood. Everything’s done up in faux red leather and brass tacks. Looks like Hell if Satan were a lounge singer. Julio’s a regular. If he isn’t out working with me or at home with his wife, Mariel, he’s in here tossing back a few.
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” I say. “You were supposed to be at Simon’s last night. You talk to the Italian? You get the stone?”
Simon Patterson’s our boss. Crazy English fucker hired us to break legs, shove hands down garbage disposals. The rest of the body, too, if need be. We’re good at our jobs. He pays us well.
“Yeah,” he says. “I talked to him.”
“And the stone? You got it?”
He shakes his head. Great. No stone, and he’s too fucking drunk to think straight. He gets a thousand-yard stare. After a moment he looks up at me, a plea in his eyes. “I can’t do it, man.”
He shakes his head. “This,” he says, staring at his hands and arms. He grabs me by the collar, pulls me close. “This is forever, man. This is fucking forever. I can’t do forever. I can’t fucking do it.”
Okay, time to not poke the crazy bear. I ease his hands off me. I look him over. He’s a mess. Bloodshot eyes. Hands shaking. Hasn’t slept. More skittish than I’ve ever seen him. He’s freaked the fuck out, and that scares the shit out of me.
Julio’s the biggest Filipino I know. Six two. As bad-ass as they come. Benches three-fifty, dragon tattoos on his shoulders. Beats the crap out of Samoans for fun. Made the mistake of going a couple rounds with him at the gym, and he laid me out with a concussion and a missing tooth. If Julio’s scared, there’s got to be one hell of a good reason for it.
Last night Simon told him to lean on Sandro Giavetti, Italian guy from Chicago. Hit the wop at his hotel.
“Jesus, man. The fuck happened to you?” I say to Julio.
Week ago, Giavetti comes to Simon looking to buy things that don’t get bought. Has a job to hit a house and get some gemstone.
Anyway, Simon hooks him up with three boys good at B&E and gets a nice fat cut for being a middleman. Thing is, two of them have gone missing, third one’s dead. Blew his brains out night before last. Word is they found a clip’s worth of shell casings, but only one bullet, the one he used to paint his wall.
Normally Simon wouldn’t give a fuck. But then the rumors started up that Simon had something to do with whatever the hell went down. Guy like Simon, he works on reputation. Worth more than gold. He figures Giavetti spread the word around, and now Simon’s got to show him that that shit doesn’t fly.
Julio pours himself another shot, tosses it back like it’s mother’s milk. Stares at his hands. “Look what he did to me.”
I crane my head to look at his hands. I don’t see what the big deal is.
“They look fine, Julio.”
“No, man. They’re not. They’re not my hands. They’re his. They’re his fucking hands.”
I smack him on the back of his head. “Hey. Snap the fuck out of it.”
So Simon sends Julio over to Giavetti’s hotel. Take the old fucker out, walk off with the stone. Fuck knows what Simon wants with it. Principal of the thing, I suppose. Whatever. Point is that Julio was supposed to report back last night and never showed.
My phone chirps at me from my jacket pocket. It’s Simon. “Joe, me old china,” he says, Cockney coming through like he hasn’t spent fifteen years stateside. “You found him?”
“Yeah,” I say. “He’s freaking out. Something happened, but he hasn’t told me what yet.”
“He look all right?”
“He looks like shit,” I say. “I don’t think he’s slept. Drinking early, too.” In fact, he looks worse than he did a minute ago. I do a double take. Yeah, like his face has started to sink in on itself or something.
Julio closes his eyes, folds his hands together. Starts muttering in Tagalog.
“Talked to Giavetti, ain’t he?”
“Yeah, he’s talked to him. Least I think so. He’s acting kinda weird.”
Simon’s voice, urgent now. “He got the stone?”
I glance over at Julio. Christ, I think he’s praying. “No,” I say. “Says he didn’t get it. Look, I think I need to get him outta here.” The bartender’s giving us the stink eye, and if Julio goes bugfuck better he do it in private.
“I need that stone, Joe. I fucking need it, mate. Find out where it is. If he saw Giavetti, he saw the stone. He knows where it is.” Simon’s voice, breathless, high-pitched.
“Jesus, calm down,” I say. “I’ll find out.” Simon can be a real asshole sometimes.
“Julio,” I say. “Simon wants to—-” I jump at the sound of shattering glass. Julio’s grabbed his bottle of Cuervo and smashed it against the bar.
My instinct is to get away, though I can’t believe he’d come at me with it. I roll out of his way anyway, torque my left knee in the process.
Turns out I’m not the guy who needs to worry.
Julio grabs the bartender by the shirt, pulls him in, takes a good, long swipe with the bottle. The guy screams, flailing to get away.
Julio drags the bartender closer, his jaws snapping. Like he wants to rip through the guy’s sternum and chow down on him.
I ignore the pain in my knee and jump at Julio. Hook him in a full nelson and pull him away. Nobody’s fool, the bartender bolts for the back room.
“The fuck are you doing, man?” I yell. Julio’s only answer is to grunt and spit and wave that goddamn busted tequila bottle around.
I try to angle him so I can get him on the floor, but before I can get any real purchase he heaves forward and throws me clear over the bar. I slam into a wall of Wild Turkey and Maker’s Mark, glass shattering around me.
I hit the floor on my torn knee, cut myself on shards of glass. On the other side of the bar Julio’s pacing like a panther on heroin, swinging the bottle. Muttering and growling. Julio’s completely fucking lost it. The hell is he on?
I grab a paring knife behind the bar. It’s only got a three-inch blade but it’s better than nothing. I limp out from behind the bar, grab a stool, keep my distance.
He whirls around, sees me. His muttering turns into a scream and he charges, waving the broken bottle around less like a weapon and more like he just can’t think of anything else to do with it.
Barstool in one hand, paring knife in the other, I feel like a retarded lion tamer.
And just as he’s about to slam into me he stops.
The look in his eyes changes to something I’ve never seen before. Pleading, praying. For a split second Julio’s back. Long enough, it seems, to say good-bye.
He shoves the splintered bottle into his throat, tears a ragged gash from Adam’s apple to jugular, angles it up, and cranks it deep through the back of his throat.
Blood erupts like oil from a derrick. I drop the knife and barstool, frantic. Try to stop the bleeding. I can hear Simon’s tinny voice from my phone on the floor saying, “What? What?” over and over again. I grab bar towels, my jacket, anything that can staunch the blood.
None of it matters. Julio’s eyes roll up into the back of his head. His life bubbles red down the front of his shirt.
Frank Tanaka is smoking at me.
He’s on his third Kool since sitting down across from me in one of the interrogation rooms at the North Hollywood police station on Burbank Boulevard. They did a crappy job with the soundproofing and I can hear the traffic on the 170 Freeway a block away.
I look over at the no smoking sign plastered on the wall. Frank catches my gaze. Blows smoke in my face.
“Suppose you want one,” he says. I do, but we both know he won’t give me one, and I wouldn’t take it anyway.
“Menthols are for pussies.”
Frank Tanaka’s one of those little Japanese guys martial arts students get warned about. He’s small and wiry and I have no doubt he can kick my ass, however much he smokes.
He presses a button on the small recorder sitting between us, tells it the date and time.
“So, Sunday, why’d you kill Julio?”
“Talk to the bartender,” I say for the fifth or sixth time. “He’ll tell you the same thing. Julio killed himself.” By the time the cops got their act together enough to talk to me, it was already four in the afternoon. I’ve managed to clean up a little, but there’s a stickiness on my hands that won’t come off no matter how many times I scrub. My shirt’s caked with Julio’s blood, and my knee’s swollen from where I twisted it at the bar. The damn thing throbs if I look at it funny, ever since I tore it wrestling in high school. These bastards could have given me some Advil.
At least they gave me Band-Aids for the glass cuts on my hands.
“Don’t bullshit me, Sunday.” Frank glares at me, the sleeves of his salmon oxford rolled up to his elbows, his Mr. Miyagi mustache twitching. “Julio Guerrera’s not the kind of guy to kill himself.”
He’s got me there. Four hours ago I would have agreed with him. Hell, I agree with him now. Julio and suicide are not two things that go together.
“I dunno. Couldn’t cover his bets, maybe?”
Frank knows I’m holding something back. He knew Julio almost as well as I did. God knows he’s arrested both of us enough times: suspicion of murder, aggravated assault. Tried to grab me on jaywalking once just to get me in the station. He’s never had enough to make anything stick though.
We go back and forth like this a couple more rounds, as if he thinks repetition’s going to get me to change my story. Then he drops a grenade into the conversation.
“So what’s the deal with Sandro Giavetti?” I almost jump when he says it, but I’ve been in rooms like this since I was selling pot down in Venice twenty years ago, and I’m not about to slip now.
“Sandra? Never heard of her,” I say. “Julio’s wife’s gonna be pissed.”
“I know Julio was with Giavetti last night.”
“Don’t know who you’re talking about.” Frank shuts up and does The Stare. Every cop’s got one. Look hard, say nothing. Most folks will spill their guts just to fill the void and get the conversation going again. I’m not that easy. He’s been using The Stare on me for years.
A minute later there’s a knock, and a uniform sticks her head around the door. “Counsel’s here to see him,” she says. Frank and her glare at each other with a look that screams bad breakup. Lucky me. She ushers one of Simon’s faceless lawyers into the room before Frank can so much as open his mouth.
The man’s got on a gray Armani suit, conspicuous Rolex. His haircut probably cost as much as my shoes. “Detective,” he says. He gives Frank a look like a nun catching a boy in the girls’ bathroom. “Good to see you again.”
“Counselor,” Frank says. He knows he’s got nothing on me. This interview’s over. He stands, pulls a business card from his pocket, scribbles a number on the back, and hands it to me.
“You see anything weird. Anything. Call me.” He walks out the door. Slams it behind him.
“You certainly know how to make friends, don’t you, Mr. Sunday?” the attorney asks. He sits down in front of me, places his calfskin briefcase on the table, pops it open. “Sorry to hear about your associate,” he says with as much emotion as if he’s ordering a sandwich.
“Yeah,” I say. “It sucked.”
Of everything that’s happened today, Frank giving me his card spins me the most. Arrest me one minute, give me his phone number the next. Reminds me of a bad date. I stick it in my jacket pocket just to get it out of my sight.
“Did you kill him?”
“Christ, not you, too.”
He holds his hands out, placating. “Just have to ask,” he says. “I take it that’s a no, then. The bartender gave the same story, after he was sedated enough to stop screaming. Seems to think Mr. Guerrero was trying to eat him or something. We should have you out in no time, considering that you haven’t been formally charged with anything.”
“How long is ‘no time’?” I ask.
He looks behind him at the door. “From here on out it’s just paperwork. But it’ll be easier if we sit here a few minutes. The detective’s pretty pissed.”
Simon’s got a house north of the Palisades overlooking the ocean and Pacific Coast Highway. The sound of the waves mix with the traffic, a low-grade static that drowns out the noises in my head.
He’s called a meeting here, a place he uses for entertaining D-list Hollywood celebs, producers, the occasional fresh-faced ingénue. He’s behind a lot of money in L.A., though he doesn’t advertise it. You won’t see his name in Variety, and he likes it that way.
Of course, he’s late, but since he’s the boss that means I’m early. I let myself in with a spare key and an alarm code. Julio and I used this place occasionally to regroup after a job, so we always had a key.
Christ. It’s hard to think of Julio in the past tense. I’d headed home after they released me, iced my knee, rebandaged the worst of the cuts. Cleaned myself up. Spent the whole time wondering what I was going to tell Julio’s wife.
Don’t know if the cops will do it, but I know Simon won’t. She’ll be taken care of, though. Simon’s got this thing about loyalty. Once you’re in, you’re in. But no way is he going to talk to her. That’s going to be my job, like it or not.
She won’t take it well. Julio never told her what he did for a living. She thinks he’s a manager for a construction company in Hollywood. Julio met her back in Manila where she grew up thinking she couldn’t do anything by herself. Still thinks she needs a man around to make things happen. Surprised she gets out of bed when he’s not around.
Julio told me once that she made him feel necessary. Special. I told him it was fucked up.
I called her on the way over to Simon’s. Got the answering machine.
Julio’s gravelly voice told me to leave a message, so I did. Started to say that Julio killed himself, but it felt weird telling a dead man’s voice what it should already know. Told Mariel to call me later.
I’m on my fourth Marlboro and third Tecate when the front door opens. Simon I’m expecting, but Danny’s a surprise.
Danny Harrison is Simon’s—hell I don’t know what to call him. Administrative assistant? Foreman? Operational manager?
Bald guy, slick talker. Lots of tattoos. Always wears this goddamn porkpie hat makes him look like an extra in Swingers.
Simon owns a club in Hollywood where he does most of his business. Shakes up the theme of the place every couple nights. Fetish crowd one night, swing dancers another, headbangers when he can squeeze them in. Simon likes to diversify.
Danny runs the club and handles some of the less-than-legal business dealings. A real up-and-comer that Danny. I hear Simon lets him run some prostitution out of there as a sideline.
The times I usually deal with him directly are when I’m picking up a clean gun or Julio and I pull bodyguard duty for Simon at the club.
“Joseph,” Simon says, coming out onto the deck with Danny in tow. “Wasn’t sure if you were going to make it. Danny, get the man a drink.” I raise my beer, and he nods. “Then get me a drink.”
Simon’s built like a fireplug, squat and solid, but a good twenty years older than he looks. Thinning hair. Likes boiled British food a little too much for his doctor’s comfort, but he doesn’t care. Man’s got so much money he’s immortal. He can afford to live large.
He claps a thick hand on my shoulder. “You all right, lad?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Just been a long day.”
He hangs his head, nods. “It has been at that,” he says, peers up at me. “Going to be longer still. This isn’t over yet, Joe.”
“What’s not over, Simon?” Something in me threatens to snap. I don’t get angry. It’s unprofessional, gives the other guy an advantage. I force myself to relax as best I can, but it leaks out the edges, anyway.
“Do you know why he did this?” I step in closer, show him my hands. Julio’s blood still under my fingernails. “He tore his own fucking throat out.”
Simon steps back slowly, and it’s then I realize he’s got a blade millimeters from spilling my intestines to the floor. It’s easy to forget how fast he is with a knife.
“Calm yourself, Joseph. That’s what we’re here to discuss, innit?” He looks around, peering into the hazy shade of blue that passes for a dark night in Los Angeles. “But not out here.” He heads back into the living room. I hang back a moment to pull myself together, then follow him in.
He slides the door closed. Locks it. Draws the curtains. “I don’t know if that’ll help,” he says, more to himself than to us. Danny hands him a scotch and soda. He tosses it back like water, throws himself into one of the leather Manhattan chairs.
“Give us a rundown on what happened,” Simon says.
I give them the details. But when I get to the part about Julio going to retrieve the stone Simon gives me a shut-the-fuck-up look, and I bounce past that detail.
Danny doesn’t seem to notice the omission. I wonder if Simon’s told him about it. And wonder why he wouldn’t.
“Giavetti killed Julio,” he says. Holds up a hand when I open my mouth. “Let me finish. Please. I don’t know how, but I know he did it. Me and him, we go back quite a ways. When he came in to see me I nearly shat myself. I’m sixty-four now. Met Giavetti when I was eighteen. He looked just as old then as he does now. You following me?” He pauses to let it sink in. It doesn’t.
“I saw the guy when he first came to see you,” Danny says. “He’s got to be in his eighties.”
“I said the same thing back in 1959,” says Simon.
“You sure it’s the same guy?” I ask.
He laughs. “Oh, yes,” he says. “Man like Giavetti, you never forget. Did odd jobs for him. Had his hands in a couple of brothels in London, horse racing, poker clubs.”
He pauses, takes a deep breath. “Bloody queer thing. Spent a lot of time at libraries.
“One night,” he says, “pal of mine gets the bright idea to bump him off. We’d been drinking, and we both knew Giavetti was loaded. So we figure we’ll hide in a closet, strangle him in his sleep. My job was to get him in the house. I’ve got keys, I know when the ol’ bugger goes to bed.”
“You tried to kill him?” Danny asks.
“Not tried. Tied him up good, beat him to death with a cricket bat. Let him bleed out on his Persian rugs and laughed the whole time. Stuffed our pockets with as much as we could carry. Set the place alight. He was dead, all right. I watched him burn.”
I look over at Danny to see if he’s buying any of this.
“Bullshit,” he says.
“I’m with Danny on this one,” I say. “You’re saying Giavetti’s ghost is back, and he somehow got Julio to kill himself? Come on, Simon. Don’t lose it now. You killed Giavetti, what, almost fifty years ago? It’s somebody else. What about your partner?”
“Lost his nerve,” he says. “Talked about going to the police.” Knowing Simon that means he’s at the bottom of the Thames. Scratch that lead.
“Who else knew?”
“Besides you two, I’ve never told a soul. Back then Giavetti had connections. Word got out we’d done the deed, we were good as dead. No one else knew.”
“Somebody’s screwing with you. The guys you hooked him up with were in on it. Have to be. The dead one lost his nerve, the others took him out.”
“The missing bullets?”
“Vests,” Danny says, getting into it. “The bullets are stuck in their Kevlar.” Starting to make sense, pieces all lining up. Simon’s nodding slowly at the scenario.
“Then why’d Julio kill himself after meeting him?” he says.
“Okay, enough,” Danny says. “This is a nice chat around the campfire telling ghost stories and all. Maybe later we can roast s’mores and sing ‘Kumbaya.’ But right now you’ve got some fucker impersonating a guy you killed fifty years ago. It’s that or you’re going senile, and I’m betting that ain’t your problem.”
“So you think this is just a trick, then?”
“I’ll admit it’s a weird angle to play,” I say. “But yeah. He’s got a point.”
When Simon grabs onto an idea he doesn’t let go of it. Most stubborn man I’ve ever met. He’s got that tone that says we’re in for a long night of arguing.
He thinks for a long moment. “You’re right,” he says finally.
“I said, you’re right. Has to be an impersonator. The man’s dead. Years now.”
Something’s wrong. Simon never gives up a point this easily. What the hell is he playing at?
“Danny’s got a point. It doesn’t matter,” Simon says. He nods at Danny, who gets up to fix him another scotch and soda. “Somebody’s fucking with me. I want him gone.”
“Hallelujah,” Danny says. “He sees the light.”
Simon gives Danny a cold smile. I don’t think Simon’s going to quickly forget that senile crack.
“When?” I ask.
“Tonight,” Simon says. He raises his empty glass. “Danny, would you get me another?” Deflated at being his serving boy, Danny goes to freshen his drink.
Simon opens a drawer in the table next to his chair, pulls out a Glock 30 with a threaded barrel and a silencer.
“Use this,” he says, handing them to me. “They’re clean.”
Danny comes back with a new glass. Simon slams it back. “I’m heading out of town,” he says. “Going to San Diego for a couple of days. Bit of a holiday. Maybe do some fishing.” The calm Simon shows the world is cracking. He doesn’t drink this much, doesn’t sweat this much.
“You’re all I’ve got left, Joseph. I’m depending on you to escort our false Mr. Giavetti out of town before I get back. It’s vital you do this. Probably the most important thing I’ve ever asked you to do.”
He doesn’t have to tell me to get the stone. That much is implied. An old man in a hotel room. Doesn’t get any easier than that.
But why is it so goddamn important?
It’s just Danny and me standing in the gravel driveway, smoking. We watch as Simon drives off in his black Jag.
“What was that you two were talking about?” Danny asks.
“Giavetti. You were there. You going deaf or just senile?”
Danny laughs. “Speaking of which, he’s gone round the bend, hasn’t he?”
I shrug. “Maybe.” I’ve been thinking since the phone call at the bar that Simon isn’t acting quite right. Not quite Simon. Nothing gets to him, normally. He’s fucking unflappable. His insistence on getting the rock just doesn’t make sense. And now, with this story of Giavetti—“
“What, you believe him?”
“Does it matter?” Sure, I got doubts, but I work for the man. Worked for him damn near twenty years. If he’s going off the reservation, I’m going right there with him.
Danny thinks about what I’ve just said. “Guess not.” The rear lights of the Jag disappear down a turn.
“Besides,” I say, “if he really believed this was the same guy do you think he’d be sending me to kill him? Come on. Listen to him tell it, this guy’s immortal.”
“You want to look at it that way, sure. I still think he’s off his nut.” Danny takes a drag on his cig, blows out a lungful of smoke.
“My dad went senile,” he says. “We had to stick him in a home. He couldn’t remember who anybody was, shit himself every day. You ever have to deal with that kind of thing?”
“Never met my dad.”
“That’s gotta suck.”
“Is this going somewhere?”
“Simon’s not gonna live forever. Eventually, he’ll do something stupid, and the whole thing’s gonna come crashing round his ears. What then?”
“This a hypothetical?”
“What? Oh, calm down. I’m not trying to fuck him over. He’s as much my meal ticket as he is yours. I’m just wondering what happens when he finally screws up. Or gets old and kicks. The man’s sixty-five, for chrissake.”
I toss my cigarette, grind it out with a heel. He’s right. Simon is getting old. He’s got no kids, no family I’ve ever heard of. What happens when he finally goes? It’s not like I’m getting a pension off him.
“Simon’s not senile.”
“No, he was just telling us some dead mob boss from the fifties has come back from the grave to drive Julio crazy enough to commit suicide. I mean, I’m not saying Julio was exactly stable, but—What? Don’t look at me like that. You’re crazy, too.”
“I just do what I’m told.”
“Yeah,” he says. “You just do what you’re told. You’re just a useful tool, right? See, that’s the difference between you and me. You like taking orders. It frees you up from the heavy thinking.”
I light a fresh Marlboro, blow smoke into the chill air. From where I’m standing I can just barely see a sliver of the ocean down across the lights of PCH.
“I ever tell you I don’t like you much?” I ask.
“Good thing we’re both professionals, then, huh?”
I’ve got a good fifty pounds on Danny. I could make him eat the sidewalk without breaking a sweat. But that’d just piss off Simon. Might be worth it, though.
Danny gets this worried look on his face when I don’t say anything. Like he knows what I’m thinking. I don’t want to be around this sonofabitch any more than I need to, so I drop the half finished cigarette, grind it out with my heel, head to my car.
“Hey,” he says as I get in. “That senile crack? I was just joking. Don’t need to tell Simon that. Right?”
I smile at him, say nothing, and pull out of the driveway. Let him chew on that for a while.
I don’t give a fuck about what he says about Simon. He’s probably right. The thing that’s bothering me is what he said about Julio. About me.
Of course Julio was a little bit crazy. You can’t stick a guy in a trunk and run him through a junkyard compactor if you’re not a little bit off.
But Julio wasn’t the kind of crazy that kills himself. Suicide’s something you do to other people.
And what the fuck was that about being a useful tool? Fuck him. I’m not the one fetching Simon’s drinks. The fuck does Danny think he is? I’ve never liked the guy, now I know why.
Sure, what I do is easier. Follow orders. Do what you’re told. But I’m not a goddamn robot. I do this because I’m good at it. I like the work. I can handle anything that gets thrown at me.
But then, so could Julio.
I push the thought aside, head up PCH with the windows down. Cold air blows in the smell of the ocean. My knee aches past the Advil, so I chew up a couple more and swallow them dry. My stomach will pay for it later.
I call Giavetti’s hotel on my cell, confirm he’s still checked in. I’ll have this sewn up before morning. Head over the hill to Du-par’s for pancakes after.
I hang a right on Topanga, begin the long, curvy wind through the canyon to the 101. My cell phone chirps. I fumble it out of my jacket. It’s Mariel, Julio’s wife. Like I need this right now.
“I just got home,” Mariel says. “You called.”
“Have the police called you yet?”
“Police?” she asks, wariness creeping into her voice. “Is Julio with you?”
“No,” I say, not sure how to proceed. “He . . . look, Mariel, are you gonna be up for a while? I think I should come over.”
A considering silence. “What’s happened to Julio?”
How do you tell someone that her husband ripped through his own throat with a broken bottle?
There’s a noise on the other end. “Hang on,” she says, puts the phone down. A few seconds go by. “God, Joe, you had me scared there.”
“Sorry?” I say.
“Julio,” she says. “He just walked in. You want to talk to him?” Her voice fades in and out as I drive through a dead patch around Fernwood and start to lose the signal. “Honey,” she says away from the mouthpiece, “Joe’s on the phone.”
“Mariel,” I say. “Listen to me. Julio’s not there. He’s not coming home.”
“No,” she says. “He’s right here. He’s—” A pause.
And then she starts screaming.
“Mariel? What’s happening?” If she answers me it’s lost in a burst of digital static. The signal cuts out completely. I throw the phone into the passenger seat, stomp on the gas, and tear through the canyon as fast as my car will take me.
I cut the lights half a block from the house, park behind a pickup across the street. Did Mariel just snap? I never got she was all that stable to begin with. Or is there somebody actually in there? And if so, who is it?
One way to find out. I pull the pistol from under my seat and fit the suppressor over the barrel. Check the chamber, load a clip, rack the slide.
Front door’s cracked open. I can see Mariel sitting on the floor at the foot of the sofa. I ease the door open, step inside.
And there’s Julio sitting on the couch, Mariel’s hand in his, head moving from side to side. He’s got wide eyes, like he can’t remember how to blink, a ragged flap of snake belly white skin and muscle where his throat used to be.
His mouth is working like a grouper, trying to make a sound, but nothing’s coming out, not even a wheeze. Takes me a second to realize it’s because he’s not breathing.
Mariel turns to me when I come in, tears streaming down her face, mascara painting dark lines down to her chin. “Help him,” she says to me. “Oh, God, please help him.”
“Holy fuck,” I say, my voice barely a whisper. I stand stock still, gun tight in my fist. I have no idea what to do. Seems a little late for the paramedics. I step slowly toward them, Julio barely acknowledging me, and touch him. His skin is clammy. I check his pulse. Nothing.
I remember Frank Tanaka’s weirdly intense interest in Giavetti, the detective telling me to call him if I see anything weird. This is definitely fucking weird. But I bring him into this and Simon’s fucked. Maybe me, too.
Julio turns to me, head lolling to one side. Yellow pus oozes out the gash in his throat.
To hell with Simon. All bets are off. This is the weirdest goddamn thing I’ve ever seen.
I dig around in my jacket for Frank’s card. My phone is still in the car, so I grab Mariel’s.
She’s obsessively patting Julio’s hand, rocking back and forth, saying, “It’s okay, baby. It’s all gonna be okay.” Trying to hold things together, but she doesn’t know how. I’m not sure I’m doing any better.
“I heard him come in,” she says, her eyes glued to her husband. “And then I saw him like this. What happened to him, Joe?” Her body heaves with fresh sobs. “I don’t know what to do.”
The phone rings once, twice, then clicks as Frank comes on the line. “Hello?” he says, voice groggy with sleep.
“Frank,” I say. “Joe Sunday. Look. Julio. . . .” I’m not sure what to say. I’ve got a dead man on the sofa, and I need some help. I think Giavetti might have something to do with it, and oh, by the way, my boss thinks he murdered him in London fifty years ago. And did I mention that the dead guy on the couch is still moving around?
What the hell am I doing, calling a goddamn cop?
“What?” he asks.
I take a deep breath. I need somebody who can think straight. Right now he’s the only one who comes to mind. “It’s Julio,” I say. “He’s—” There’s a loud click. I think he’s hung up on me, until I realize I’m not getting a dial tone.
“You can put the phone down,” says a grainy voice, accent like Chicago. Chicago and something else I can’t place. “It doesn’t work, anyway.”
Guy steps out from the kitchen. Tall. Wrinkled and balding. Liver spots on his hands and face.
“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.” The man’s old enough to be my great grandfather, but his hands and neck are all wiry muscle, and he’s standing straight as a marine. Just like the security camera pic Simon showed me. I almost laugh but stop myself.
He may be old, but that Beretta in his hand isn’t. I do what he says, put the phone back in its cradle.
“And the gun, too, if you don’t mind.”
“I think I’d rather not, thanks.” God, but don’t I just love a Mexican standoff.
“Joe, who is this?” Mariel asks. Giavetti smiles at her.
“Sandro Giavetti,” he says. He grins at some inside joke. “You could say your husband and I are close.”
She stands up. Steps into my line of fire before I can stop her. “Can you help him? He came home like this. I don’t know what to do.”
Giavetti moves to the side, each of us keeping our guns on the other. He shakes his head. “No. I was hoping this time would be different.” Mariel looks even more lost than before.
“You did this to him,” I say, more statement than question. It dawns on me that maybe Julio isn’t the only one. “Who else? The two guys who stole for you? You tried to get the other one, but he killed himself before you got to him, didn’t he?”
“I’m not having this conversation. I only want my property.”
I look back at the mess on the couch that used to be Julio, gasping for air that never comes. His property?
“No. You’re not taking him anywhere,” I say.
Giavetti heaves a theatrical sigh. “Is this where you say something like ‘over my dead body’?” he says. “Because we can do that.”
“And what, we kill each other? You shoot me, I shoot you?”
He thinks about this. “You’re right,” he says. “Julio, kill him.”
Julio lurches off the couch with inhuman speed. I spin around. I double tap two bloodless holes in his chest that you could run a train through. The suppressor drops the sound to something like a loud slap. He doesn’t even slow down.
Mariel screams. Runs to him. He backhands her with the force of a bulldozer. She hits the wall like a sack of garbage, bones cracking like glass.
Takes me a second to realize I’ve got my priorities screwed up. I turn to take out Giavetti, but he’s already on me. Old man moves like a goddamn ninja. Sweeps the gun from me with one hand. I take a jab with my left, and he ducks under it like he’s twenty years old.
He delivers a side kick to my bad knee. Tendons shred, the kneecap pops over to the side. I drop in a wave of agony, punching out and clocking him on the side of the face, but by then Julio’s got me by the throat.
He lifts me off the floor. Shakes me, a dog with a gopher. I’ve got no air. Punches are useless. I snag the skin flap at his throat and tear a meaty chunk off, but it doesn’t faze him. He’s crushing my windpipe, and I can’t make him let go.
My lungs are screaming. I can feel my eyes bugging out, blood so tight in my head my face is burning. My entire chest is on fire. I get tunnel vision, shades of gray fading in from the edges. Nothing left but empty gasping as my body tries to get some oxygen.
A thousand miles away, I can hear Giavetti’s laughter.
Stephen Blackmoore is a writer of pulp, crime and urban fantasy with a fondness for cheap drink. As a writer he strives to be a hack. Hacks get paid. He’s not sure if hacks talk about themselves in the third person, though. That might just be a side effect of his meds.